Local MP Lilian Greenwood: “Brexit is having a chilling effect on our universities”.

Having resigned from being Shadow Secretary of State for Transport after the EU referendum result, Lilian Greenwood is under no illusions of the problems facing not only Labour, but the UK as a whole. For her the Brexit vote has “allowed people to act in ways they have not done so previously”, something that she insists we need to stop as we approach our post-EU era.

Lilian Greenwood has been in pretty fine form. Having done well fending off some tricky questions from the audience at her talk, she would be perfectly entitled to sit down and sip her coffee while we scramble around the lecture hall rearranging chairs so we have somewhere to sit and look mildly professional. She immediately, however, offers to help and I can’t help feeling that this bodes well for our interview in which there are a myriad of topics that will be difficult for her to discuss.

“Brexit has “allowed people to act in ways they have not done so previously””

Labour Party woes aside, it is clear from answering my first question on how will students be affected by Brexit, that Lilian Greenwood is worried about the situation. Her concerns are numerous, citing for example that UK universities must “still be able to access the global talent in terms of academic staff and research staff because that is part of what enables students to have a great experience”.

When I press her on whether she has heard anything from the Government in terms of plans, she hopes that they will act to protect universities’ interests but is worried that “there are others in the Tory party that seem to take a different view”. Lambasting the Government’s record and mismatched rhetoric on immigration, the MP suggests that as international student numbers are relatively easy to cut, the Tories might target that group, a move which she says would be “completely the wrong thing to do for the interests of the country”.

It is clear from the way she holds her gaze that these problems are weighing heavily on her mind. She tells me about an incident where a member of academic staff came to see her last week to talk about a hate crime which she reported and during the course of the chat found out that many other members of staff who are EU nationals have suffered the same abuse. The MP feels the Government has a case to answer for this and states that they “need to understand the implications of the language they use” and how it might foster more abuse.

“UK universities must “still be able to access the global talent in terms of academic staff””

Asked about the Government refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals already living in the UK, she readily joins the calls of politicians from all parties who condemn this use of a so called bargaining chip and condemns Brexit minister David Davis for being too passive on the issue of abuse.

When I suggest to Lilian Greenwood that it doesn’t help the national situation that the Labour Party has been engaged in horrible infighting, she readily agrees in what is a very honest admission from the MP. What I ultimately cannot appreciate is that for the woman sat in front of me, many of her friends and colleagues have been on the end of some very nasty behaviour, not to mention Lilian Greenwood herself, and this situation is clearly an emotional one for the MP to talk about.

“I notice her subtle refusal to name Corbyn”

She is insistent that “the leadership has to do more to tackle this” and gives the example of Jeremy Corbyn refusing to stop the booing of Owen Smith at the recent leadership hustings. I notice her subtle refusal to name Corbyn and her only referral to him as “the leader” conveys a steely sense of indignation of how her party is acting.

Now comes the awkward part. Although Labour is united, for once, over its opposition to grammar schools, I highlight the fact that two of its well know Shadow cabinet members, Shadow Attorney-General Shami Chakrabarti, who published the party’s anti-semitism report, and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott both send their children to private school. Asked how this hypocrisy sits with her, Lilian Greenwood focuses on me grimly and simply says “frustrated”. Choosing the education for your child is an extremely personal decision but ultimately, as Lillian says, it cannot be a case of ‘Do as I say but not as I do’.

She stays well on party message and mounts a robust defence of the current education system and stresses the need for an “important social mix”, capping it all off with a confirmation that her own children have benefitted from comprehensive education.

“The Labour Party is in “no position to fight an election””

On to the future of the Labour Party and Lilian is keen to stress that the party needs to come together and resolve the differences it has had in the past. When I ask her whether she then would rejoin the Shadow Cabinet, her short answer of no has me momentarily stunned. How can one preach unity and then reject the hand of cooperation, I ask? But Lilian insists that it is not a question of unity, rather what she thinks she is best served to be doing and clearly she feels that serving in the Shadow Cabinet would not be the best use of her talents.

She brings the conversation back round to Brexit, saying, “It’s about bringing a deal that also caters for the 48%”, comparing this to the 40% of members who did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn. On the current disastrous polling situation, the MP muses that “if I were Theresa May, who doesn’t have a particularly good majority in the Commons, and knowing that she has some opposition on her backbenches, when she is this far ahead in the polls you could see why she might be thinking of calling an early election”, and adds that the Labour Party is in “no position to fight an election” and that they should rightly fear it.

In her view the only way Labour can win back power is to win the support of “people facing poverty and those who care about poverty”. By no means an easy objective, but one that Lilian Greenwood is determined to achieve.

Nick Scott

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