10 Jul 2024

Ex-Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire: Party’s ‘lack of a strong narrative’ on Gaza ‘had consequences’


As the Green Party quadrupled its quota of MPs in last week’s general election, Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire was one of the casualties.

She was turfed out from the Bristol constituency she’d held for nearly decade.

In her first interview since her defeat, she has spoken exclusively to Cathy Newman about how she thinks Keir Starmer’s position on the Gaza conflict led to her losing.

And she comes clean on whether the new Prime Minister has reached out to her since last Thursday’s vote.

Thangam Debbonaire: He’s got to get on with the business of governing, and I think that’s a pretty full-on job. He sent me a text on Friday morning and that’s nice.

Cathy Newman: What does it say?

Thangam Debbonaire: I will say this, after quite a lot of years, Keir still hasn’t learnt to spell my name right. But it was a nice message and saying that he was gutted for me and for them, and that’s okay.

Cathy Newman: I don’t want to labour the point, but you might have thought that he’d have learnt how to spell your name, given you were in his shadow cabinet for all those years.

Thangam Debbonaire: Well, you know, some would say it’s a tricky name.

Cathy Newman: It’s often said that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. But did Keir Starmer campaign in prose and now he’s got to govern in poetry?

Thangam Debbonaire: I totally agree with that. I think campaigning in prose is fine, and it got us a big majority, it got us over the line. That’s absolutely fine. The whole Ming vase strategy, clearly it worked.

Cathy Newman: What do you think it was that cost you your seat? Was it that the leadership was too prosaic, was it the ditching of the green investment pledge, because obviously you lost to the Greens, or was it the failure to come up with a more robust stance towards Israel?

Thangam Debbonaire: It was all of those, and it was the fact that the Green Party knew how to capitalise on them. I think the party does need to look at the playbook, not just of the Greens, but of Reform and the independents, because they all use the same playbook. They didn’t always use the same script, although sometimes it was overlapping. But it’s a danger if you get in the habit, as a campaigning political party, of saying things that are actually not true, but sound good. I actually did vote for a ceasefire. Not once, but twice. And our motion, our amendment to the motion in February, that got through unanimously for all sorts of reasons, but it did. One of them being we knew how to handle parliaments. Now, that wasn’t what the Green Party sent out, and it was difficult because I kind of knew from November that I was going to lose the seat. Because I thought, this is what they’ll use, and if my party doesn’t communicate what we’ve done, what we’re saying, then obviously voters don’t know it. They don’t follow every tiny twist and turn in politics. They’re not all on Twitter, and by the time people have got a belief in their heads and you’re on the doorstep saying, ‘No, I voted for it twice’, they don’t believe you anymore.

Cathy Newman: So to be blunt, your opponents lied and your party failed to tackle the lies. Is that the playbook you were talking about?

Thangam Debbonaire: It’s more subtle. On the leaflets that they put out, they didn’t say that I’d voted against the ceasefire, but people interpreted that from them saying she failed to vote for a ceasefire motion. True. I failed to vote for one, because it didn’t mention the hostages. It’s easy to craft a narrative that goes ‘Your MP didn’t vote for a ceasefire’, if your own party hasn’t said we’ve voted twice for a ceasefire, and publicly, and other colleagues suffered terribly worse than me.

Cathy Newman: Well, Jess Phillips, Wes Streeting. They kept their seats, but only just.

Thangam Debbonaire: Also, what they went through in the campaign was horrific. Absolutely horrific. Now, some of what I had to put up with was bad. There was a billboard, a huge one ten metres away from my house at two days to poll. [It said] ‘Your MP didn’t vote for a ceasefire, still want to vote Labour?’ Or something like that, with blood dripping off it, which was horrible. When we were driving past, and I have my mum in the car, I had to go ‘Look, a squirrel’, and bless her she did actually look. So she never saw the billboard. But feeling protective of my staff, my volunteers and my parents, my family. That was very hard..

Cathy Newman: So the party failed to protect you and other MPs, they put you at risk, really?

Thangam Debbonaire: The people who put you at risk are the people who threaten you. The lack of a strong narrative had consequences. I actually felt in many ways the party gave me good support, but there’s a certain level of collateral damage which I felt was inevitable from November, and then again in February when the green prosperity plan got cancelled. That was very hard.

Cathy Newman: So does this come back to what we were talking about in the beginning, which is poetry. That your opponents have as part of their playbook…

Thangam Debbonaire: They have poetry. They have poetry because they could say, ‘Labour Party U-turns’. Okay, it’s not great poetry, but it is an easy phrase.

Cathy Newman: But Nigel Farage?

Thangam Debbonaire: Nigel Farage did similar things, didn’t he? ‘They’ve ruined Brexit’ is what he said about the Tories, and for us, They’re going to let the migrants in’.

Cathy Newman: It has been described as a loveless landslide, Labour’s win. Do you think the honeymoon will be short?

Thangam Debbonaire: Well it depends how well the wooing is done. It’s kind of weird to do the wooing after the marriage, but we do that in my home country where we have arranged marriages, where very often my family members have said, ‘We fell in love after the marriage, but we had to choose for very prosaic reasons’.

Cathy Newman: Has [Keir Starmer] also got to come up with a sort of more inclusive team around him, because there has been criticism of the kind of boys’ club of advisers?

Thangam Debbonaire: I think the government is well served if it has a very diverse team of people. Diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of identity. All of those are important.

Cathy Newman: Does that not exist at the moment, in the immediate circle?

Thangam Debbonaire: It’s been very easy for people to say, ‘That’s just a group of boys up at HQ’. And the sad thing about that is when you are of that group of boys, you don’t notice who’s not in the room. The whole debate about Gaza, for instance. Women of colour, in particular, in HQ as well as in the PLP, were saying, ‘We need a good narrative, we need to tell this story better.’

Cathy Newman: The boys around him didn’t see that or didn’t hear that?

Thangam Debbonaire: I don’t know if they did hear it because I’m not in that room and I never was, but the output was the output.

Cathy Newman: And just finally, you said you were going into parliament today to hand in your pass. What’s that going to be like?

 Thangam Debbonaire: It’s going to be horrible.

Cathy Newman: Why? What does that place mean to you?

Thangam Debbonaire: Well, I said, you can’t half love democracy. And being part of democracy was… It was a real honour to serve.

Cathy Newman: And you’ll miss your team.

Thangam Debbonaire: I’ll miss my team so much.