Shelly Berry quizzes Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy on her recent campaigns – and controversies
On the night I was due to meet Stella Creasy, transport was not on my side. As I pulled out my notepad, late, weather-beaten and more than a little bit flustered, I felt pretty intimidated.
Last year not only did Stella come a close second in her bid for the Labour Party’s deputy leadership, she also saw her proportion of Walthamstow’s vote rise by 17 percent to 68.9 percent – pretty impressive when you consider Labour’s overall defeat. But as I apologised for my tardiness, she just laughed and shrugged her shoulders.
As we talked, it became apparent the 38-year-old shared many concerns expressed by her constituents. Local controversies about Mini Holland, for example, were met with empathy for what these worries stood for; pressure on housing and other resources as new people move into the area and others feel pushed out.
“Change is happening so quickly,” she agrees. “Whether you are looking to buy in the area, rent in privately or in social housing, the pressure is on. A lot of people feel powerless.
“I do a lot of campaigning around debt and poverty issues but housing is at the heart of so much of it – not just whether someone has a roof over their head, but what kind of life they’ve got, are they in debt, are their kids able to go to a good school.”
One of Stella’s biggest concerns about public services is the borrowing of money from private companies at extortionate interest rates.
“I’m really concerned about the future of Whipps Cross, because there is a massive PFI [Private Finance Initiative] debt on it. We are paying out about £145million a year in debt repayments. PFI deals are the equivalent of the legal loan shark deals for the public sector, and what I want is a credit union.”
One of Stella’s biggest achievements to date was her campaign to cap interest rates imposed on loans given by companies such as Wonga. However, it’s her feminist stance that first caught my attention. In the past she had supported campaigns including No More Page Three against topless models appearing in The Sun, challenged peers in Parliament who described tampons as “luxury items” and stood up for feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
Today, Stella is fighting to shut down Yarl’s Wood, the immigration removal centre for woman and families which has attracted controversy because of reportedly poor conditions. “I do a lot of work around women’s and refugees rights and I am ashamed that Yarl’s Wood is still open in Britain in the 21st Century,” she passionately tells me.
But Stella has also attracted controversy herself recently, when she voted in favour of bombing Syria. It is a decision she stands by.
“I completely respect and understand those people who took a different position on it but I’m confident that I made the right choice.
“I had hundreds of people write to me who were opposed to same-sex marriage and I said the same thing to them as I said to people about [not bombing] Syria; I take a different position to you on this. It wasn’t that I didn’t listen to them, it was that I disagreed with them. But I do not believe that because we disagree on one issue, we cannot work together on another.”
Debating difficult issues is something I believe Stella embraces, whether it be with local residents about Syria, or within the conflicted Labour Party – a description she is quick to challenge when put to her. “You want different ideas and opinions, but you want a spirit of curiosity and intrigue into why people disagree with you.
“You don’t come up with good ideas only listening to one side of the debate, you come up with good ideas because people have been part of a debate.”
One thing Stella clearly isn’t keen on is what she describes as the “Hogwarts gone wrong” approach to politics. “I am very determined that heathy debate and discussion will not be lost in people shouting and getting angry with each other. That isn’t want drew me into politics.”
It was the teenage Stella’s sense of injustice that led her to a career in politics. “I grew up under Thatcher and watched friends and families’ lives being decimated by what was happening. I was lucky… but I didn’t want to live in a country where people had to be lucky.”
Stella’s battles for justice pepper our conversation, as do her assertions that she cannot win these fights on her own.
“We won the legal loan shark campaign because lots of people got involved. If we want to change the world each of us has a role to play in it.
“Change is possible, and the worst thing in the world would be if we gave up. Ask someone who’s had to deal with the ‘bedroom tax’ if a different choice could have been made. Ask those people who are now having marriages under the Same Sex Act whether it makes a difference.
“Of course it makes a difference.”
Stella speaks humbly about the support she has received from her constituents, before telling me about the “stick” she gets after a session down the gym – and her age. “At the election, one of the kids told me I was too old for Instagram.”
She laughs, before telling me about her disbelief at her assistant’s lack of interest in David Bowie. But it isn’t Stella’s taste in music that I like most about her, it’s her ethos; use your anger constructively.
“I see the government making some very bad choices, where some of the most poor and vulnerable in our society are being hit time and again, and it’s horrific.
“But I feel a very strong responsibility that anger isn’t enough. You’ve got to do everything you can to try and resolve these issues.”
While I don’t agree with everything she says, I can’t help but admire Stella. That, along with her promise of tea and cake, might even get me along to her next campaign meeting.
“That is my Walthamstow pledge. There will always be a nice drop of tea and cake.”
This article is the first in a series of interviews with Waltham Forest’s three local Members of Parliament for 2016.