Why are Maria and Angela Eagle almost unknown to the wider public? Angela yesterday sat next to Jeremy Corbyn at his first Prime Minister’s Questions as Leader of the Opposition. A few days ago she was spoken of as a strong, indeed admirable candidate to become shadow Chancellor, and in the event she was made shadow Business Secretary.
Maria, her twin sister, has become shadow Defence Secretary: a position Corbyn found exceptionally difficult to fill, for its holder will need somehow to cope with the irreconcilable divisions within Labour about Trident, NATO and the use of military force.
The press ought to be fascinated by the Eagle sisters. They are two women of formidable ability, who have played chess at a high level, and have been in Parliament for a combined total of about 40 years: Angela won Wallasey in 1992, when she defeated the sitting Conservative MP, Lynda Chalker, while Maria entered the Commons in 1997 for another Merseyside seat, Garston and Halewood.
Born in 1961, they rose from humble beginnings and decided at the age of about eight that they would go into politics. Their father was a printer; their mother a seamstress, who passed the 11-plus exam, but could not afford to go to grammar school, so left school at the age of 15. The Eagle parents were determined their twins would get a better education, which did indeed happen: both twins won places at Oxford to read PPE, though at different colleges, for they did not wish to compete against each other.
In 1997, Angela did something which was almost unprecedented for a woman MP: she came out as gay, after which her sister, Maria, would introduce herself with the words, “I’m the straight one”. For although the twins are not identical, they are easily mistaken by unobservant people for each other: a fact which led to much confusion after Maria arrived at Westminster and was thought to be Angela, who had got there five years earlier.
As Decca Aitkenhead put it in a piece about the Eagle sisters for the Guardian, “you’d have thought they would scarcely have been able to help becoming political celebrities”. But it took Aitkenhead only a few minutes to realise that “both are clearly more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of policy than the theatre of personality politics”, and to establish that both are “quiet, self-effacing and serious-minded to the point of stodgy”.
In a sense, these are admirable qualities. Good wine needs no bush. Or as Angela put it in an interview with Total Politics, “Sometimes you think if you do a good job, it would get noticed.” One of the magnificently unglamorous points she made in her own favour during her recent unsuccessful bid to become deputy leader of the Labour Party was that “I can chair meetings”.
This kind of competence is indispensable. If a political party is going to get somewhere, it needs people who can chair meetings. And it helps if some of those people are not publicity-mad prima donnas, but self-effacing chess players ready and willing to put in the hard work needed to work out the moves which will eventually win the game.
And yet the Eagles’ distrust of (in Aitkenhead’s phrase) “the theatre of personality politics” seems to me to rest on a fundamentally false assumption: the belief that the theatrical side of politics is of no value, and amounts to meretricious spin.
An essential task of the politician is to dramatise events: to show what is happening, and inspire people to do the right thing. Great leaders know how to do this. Abraham Lincoln was able to explain in a few words at Gettysburg what the American Civil War was about: it was being fought, he said, so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Lincoln had also worked out the right timing to introduce the emancipation of slaves as a war aim, without destroying the disparate coalition which made up the North.
No one in Labour’s recent leadership election was able to explain what the party was for. There were plenty of Eagles – competent back-room types – but few if any people who could communicate with, or were even known to, the wider public. A whole generation has spurned that necessary art. There was a kind of void, into which stepped the anti-theatrical figure of Corbyn. Yesterday he gave us an anti-theatrical PMQs.
That sort of thing is fine once or twice: is even a relief from the crudities of the Punch and Judy show which went before. But the answer to bad political theatre is good political theatre, not no theatre at all.
Corbyn seems to have fallen many years ago for the Bennite fallacy that issues matter more than the people who espouse them. This illusion appeals especially to politicians of an earnest but unimaginative disposition, who suppose they can make up for their own deficiencies by espousing correct policies. George Canning (echoing Edmund Burke) tried to explode that error in a speech in the Commons in 1801:
Away with the cant of ‘Measures not men’! – the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along. If the comparison must be made, if the distinction must be taken, men are everything, measures comparatively nothing.