When I arrive to interview Stella Creasy in one of the cafés in parliament, she’s sitting in a meeting with two earnest, wonkish types, the coffee mugs having been cleared from the table. As time ticks by, her body language becomes urgent, but she’s too polite to wrap it up. I begin to see why her rather protective assistant insisted that this interview should be no more than 30 minutes. Creasy, though, has a lot to say and we speak for an hour before she goes off to write a speech on this summer’s riots. She’s a politician in demand.
MPs enjoy few things more than posing as talent scouts. Within hours of a new intake arriving in parliament, the old hands start picking out the ones who they think will go far. Creasy instantly caught the eye of the Tory benches. Her media-friendly manner and pitch-perfect attacks on the rates charged by pay-day loans companies were an example of how to do opposition politics. She had identified an issue people cared about, but that was almost impossible for the government to fix.
But Creasy, who won the campaigner of the year prize at the Threadneedle/Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards last week, is motivated not by the approval of her peers but what she sees in her constituency. ‘In a very visceral sense I see it in Walthamstow. We now have eight of these companies in quite a small high street. I have been conscious about people getting into debt since I was a councillor and involved in various community groups. You couldn’t not be aware of people who were struggling financially, and that has exploded over the course of the last 18 months. This is not just Walthamstow any more. This is everywhere.’
‘I have become massively geeky about it,’ she concedes, discussing possible regulations in eye-watering detail. ‘I genuinely believe this should be one of the top economic challenges for the government. We have a perfect storm where you have job losses and stagnation in wages, rising inflation and cost of living and a lack of regulation.’
But some in the government have proved less than interested in this issue. She complains that Ed Davey, a business minister, wrote to her saying that he was too busy to discuss it. She remarks, in a slightly schoolmarmish way, that she hopes that Nick Clegg — who presented her with the award — ‘has gone and had a stiff word with Ed Davey’.
What marks her out is the extent to which she draws on her constituency experience. Despite a degree from Magdalene College, Cambridge, a PhD in social psychology from the London School of Economics and stints working for various Labour bigwigs and a left-wing think tank, the travails of her Walthamstow constituents still seem to be the biggest influence on her.
This outer London borough is a place with more than its fair share of problems. When the conversation turns to this summer’s riots, she has personal experience. ‘I have lived in Walthamstow for 13 years and have never felt worried and the first night of the riots I was scared, I was scared 50 yards from where I live. But I was also with a bunch of kids who wanted to go and fight the rioters and I was scared that I would lose one of them. That motivates you.’
Perhaps sensing that I’m rather taken aback by this, she says, ‘People in politics don’t like emotion and they don’t like passion. I think that’s a shame because that’s what makes you human.’
Creasy’s politics are all about relationships. ‘I want people to be able to get stuff done and I look at the things to me that are the big progressive challenges. If you want to tackle poverty, if you want to tackle social mobility, if you want to tackle underachievement, you have got to have people involved in that and that’s from the student to the parent upwards. You need a way of working and a philosophy that isn’t about parliament first making a decision and then feeding it down. It is about a more collaborative approach.’
But she bemoans that in her patch, ‘50 per cent of people have passed through in four years. So it’s much harder to get people to put down roots and get relationships going to work together.’
For a new MP, Creasy has an impressive ability to coin a phrase. She says that ‘Labour has to be the party for good-value government’. She also has a cute argument against the cuts. ‘The duty of government is to be tougher on itself about what it is trying to do. That’s why the cuts are wrong. It’s because the government has said the most important thing is to cut, not the outcome.’ She even claims that there are ‘places where we could actually save a lot more money if we were to give various agencies more time to plan for the cuts’ — unpersuaded by the argument that the government had to move quickly after the election to reassure the bond markets.
Creasy also has the vital knack of a successful politician: the ability to make her views sounds reasonable. She lacks the defensiveness of many MPs. Her only hesitation is when I ask for her favourite opera. ‘If I’m honest it’s Tosca, but my dad sang for a while with the D’Oyly Carte so I have a lot of time for The Mikado as well.’
She does a nice line in self-deprecation. ‘During the campaign,’ she recalls, ‘one of the kids I work with downloaded my picture off the internet, airbrushed it and sent it back saying “use this on your leaflets, it will be better”. Only a 15-year-old boy would think that was a helpful thing to do.’
But Creasy doesn’t lack confidence. She describes the House of Commons as ‘Hogwarts gone wrong’. But having been to Magdalene, Cambridge — the last Oxbridge college to admit women — surely she can’t be totally unused to stuffy institutions? ‘I always choose to go to places where I know I’m going to have a fight.’
Before Cambridge, Creasy attended the selective Colchester High School. But she is opposed to a return to the 11-plus. ‘I failed the 11-plus the first time I took it so if there was ever a lesson to me that selection doesn’t work, it’s that I got a second chance, because we moved from the north to the south… I have always been passionate about the idea that one day is not a good enough representation of what people can do, because I learnt it myself.’
As she rises to leave, I point out that the Threadneedle/Spectator awards have rather a good record of spotting future prime ministers. Creasy isn’t rattled, replying crisply: ‘You do politics because you want to change the world, so you are looking at the most effective way of doing that.’ Bookmakers have her at 21/1 to be the next Labour leader. I, for one, wouldn’t take out any kind of loan to bet against her.