Wes Streeting has, at the age of 40, written his memoir. His relatively youthful age is not even the most remarkable thing about it.
The shadow health secretary did not have your average politician’s background, and One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up is not your average politician’s book. The two bills of the title are his very different East End grandfathers, one being a regularly incarcerated armed robber (his grandmother also did jail time, sharing a cell with Christine Keeler). The fry-up is the breakfast his mother ate on the day she had been due to have an abortion. She was pregnant with Wes at the time – the decision to eat instead meant she did not go through with the procedure. The young Wes had a peripatetic life growing up, though not one without familial love.
It also uniquely among political memoirs details his grandfather’s friend’s party trick involving five half-pint glasses and his, ahem, appendage. John Major’s memoir didn’t have that. “I tell you what – the one thing that I didn’t think about when I put those words down on to the page was that I’d had to read them out loud myself on my audiobook,” says Streeting when we meet in his office in Parliament. “I did not imagine having to talk about, you know…”
Streeting was approached about writing his story after giving an interview about his background. The interview itself followed a traumatic time in his life when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer at just 38. He is happily now fine, albeit with one kidney fewer. His initial instinct was to say no to the book.
“I had a number of anxieties,” he says. “Political memoirs tend to be written at the end of careers and I really hope this is not a career-ending memoir. Time, and I had this golden rule that this book should not in any way interfere with my work, and I would have to write it in my own time, which I did – but it took real discipline, because I don’t have a great deal of spare time.
“And the final thing, which is the reason I’ve been absolutely bricking it ahead of publication – it’s such a personal story, and not just mine to tell. It’s the story of my family, my parents, my grandparents, my extended family. So this is their story and they have trusted me to tell it, and with that trust comes enormous pressure to make sure that I’ve done them justice. It’s probably the most terrifying thing that I’ve done in my life.”
It is a deeply personal memoir but also a powerful book about class which is, I venture, an issue which has lost a lot of salience in British politics in recent years. The fashion among publishers has been to explore gender, race, the identity politics which both the left and right have become embroiled in. Class seems almost quaint (although, days after we speak, Keir Starmer gives his most explicit speech yet on tackling class inequality).
“I do think we have an enormous class divide in this country,” says Streeting. “I fear it’s a class divide that’s worsening. If I look back to my childhood and I compare my experience to the kids growing up in poverty in my constituency [Ilford North] today, the irony is, the tragic irony is, that the council flat that I wanted to escape is now the kind of council flat that kids aspire to, ‘cause they do not have a council flat. They’re in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation, being shoved from pillar to post. Their parents don’t have the support of an extended family across the East End like my mum did, because they are being moved from place to place, not being able to settle. And what hope is there for those children to get the support of the sort of teachers that I name with affection in my book? ‘Cause no sooner does the kid settle in the class than they’re gone.
“Fundamentally my politics is about class, that’s why I’m a member of the Labour Party. I want to break open the establishment, I want to make sure that working-class people have the same security and opportunities as people from wealthier backgrounds. That’s at the core of what my politics and my political mission is about.
“We mustn’t lose sight of class and its relationship to other sorts of discrimination. So, you know, there are women, black people, gay people, who are from much wealthier backgrounds but experience discrimination and prejudice. When you think of some of the debate we’ve had in recent years about racism, for example, and the term ‘white privilege’, there are lots of white working-class people who don’t feel remotely privileged.
“I think it’s important that we acknowledge that, you know, as white people in Britain, we are fortunate in that we have never had to live with and experience racism. But similarly we’ve got to make sure when we’re debating kind of equalities issues that we do recognise that being working-class, and being white working-class, does come with enormous challenges, obstacles and hurdles, and to be white is to be born privileged in this country without the baggage of racism, but to be born working-class does bring with it real discrimination.”
He points out that much of the shadow cabinet which hopes to run the country next year are from working- or lower-middle-class backgrounds: Keir Starmer himself, Angela Rayner (“I mean, she makes me look posh by comparison with the hardship she experienced growing up”), Bridget Phillipson, Jonathan Ashworth.
Streeting is seen as on the Labour right and it seems unlikely that declining to sing the national anthem would have played well in the East End of the 1980s. “I tell you what – I would have been slung out of my grandad’s house if I hadn’t sung the national anthem,” he says.
“It is absolutely the case that growing up in a family where on my mum’s side of the family they are overwhelmingly Labour, and in the case of my mum’s politics and my late nan’s politics, very much on the left of the Labour Party, and on my dad’s side of the family a family that’s largely made up of working-class Tories – that’s absolutely influenced and informed my politics. It’s given me an insight and understanding as to how and why a lot of working-class people have voted Tory for decades, and why an even greater number of working-class Labour voters switched to Conservatives at the recent election.
“Frankly, my experience of growing up in poverty and hardship at a time when Labour was complacently flailing around in opposition, when families like mine desperately needed a Labour government, means that I place a higher premium on Labour getting elected than, sadly, you know, too many of our leading figures in recent general elections have.”
It’s for these statements, and others, that Streeting is a particular hate figure for Corbynistas and members of hard left, even more so than Starmer himself. I made the error of searching his name on Twitter the day before we meet and, I wonder, why has he bothered writing a book when he’s apparently receiving so much money from the Israeli state?
He laughs. “Do you know, it’s unbelievable. I said to a former Israeli ambassador, you know, ‘where are my invoices’? Because according to social media I’m in the pay of the Israeli government. I mean, putting to one side the fact that I have been a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and very passionate about a two-state solution, I’ve been to the West Bank with medical aid for Palestinians and I’ve done work with human rights groups in Israel… I just accept that I will always be a pantomime villain for the hard left and the one that they love to hate. And I wear that as a badge of honour.”
Sometimes one wonders if he actively invites it, though. Why, I ask, attend Rupert Murdoch’s summer party, as Streeting (and other senior Labour figures) did last month? Murdoch’s papers are highly unlikely to endorse the party next year, whether Labour figures attend his parties or not.
Streeting takes an extra big sip of his iced coffee at this. “I think it is so important that we talk to the readers of the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph… you know, their readers are furious with this government, and they’re open to change as well,” he says.
“I’ve seen what those papers have done to every single Labour leader, and from time to time I’ve taken my fair share of knocks from those papers as well, but… you should never box off talking to the readers of newspapers that don’t give you favourable editorials every day. The Labour Party’s got to speak to the whole country, not just the converted.”
Talk of the converted is a reminder of another aspect of Streeting’s book: his religion. He is a committed Christian and the book charts some of the difficulties he had reconciling that with being gay (he came out at Cambridge University).
“I do do God,” he says, in an echo of Alastair Campbell, of this parish. “And I’ve chosen to, actually, because one of the things that I wrestled with growing up was the conflict I felt between my faith and my sexuality. And it trapped me in years of self-denial, which I think lots of gay people go through, actually, for a whole range of reasons – family pressure, worries about their future, their careers. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve kind of finally reconciled in my heart and my faith and belief that there is no contradiction whatsoever between being gay and being Christian.
“And one of the sadnesses I feel about being, not just a Christian, but being religious in public life, is there are so many people in our country who aren’t religious who associate Christianity and other faiths with bigotry, prejudice, discrimination and exclusion, whether that’s saying gay people aren’t accepted or we’re against a woman’s right to choose or other social issues. And I find that desperately sad, because I think the fundamental message of Christianity is about love, acceptance, being non-judgemental of others, never walking by on the other side. And I look at the social action that takes place in my community in Ilford on things like street homelessness and rough sleeping or food banks – the vast majority of it is driven by our faith communities.
“I’m not seeking to sort of proselytise or go round evangelising and shoving religion down people’s throats, but I want to reassure people that, you know, being religious doesn’t mean being against other people or other beliefs.”
Finally, we talk Brexit and the disappointment many Remainers – and many New European readers – feel about Labour’s attitude to the EU. Is the party trying to out-Brexit the Tories? Is fear of Red Wall votes terrifying shadow cabinet ministers from talking about what has so clearly been a disaster?
“We have got to accept where we are today, and I cannot see a credible route back into the European Union any time in the foreseeable future,” Streeting says.
“And I get so frustrated when Labour’s talking about how we build a stronger relationship with the European Union, how we tackle trading barriers, how we enhance our security cooperation, how we try and rebuild science and research cooperation through crucial platforms like Horizon… there is a group of our movement – and I say ‘our’ because, you know, we fought alongside each other in the referendum and in the aftermath – basically saying unless the Labour Party’s out there saying ‘Brexit is a disaster, we want to rejoin the EU’, it will never be good enough.
“And people need to get real about what’s possible. In the unlikely event that this country wanted to go through years and years of the same argument again about whether to rejoin, I’m not sure the European Union would have us back. And even with things like the single market and the customs union, we can’t become the mirror image of the Leave campaign. The Leave campaign basically said that Brexit would be really simple and would make everything better. And Brexit has been far from simple and it has not made things better. I think Remainers, or some Remainers, are now at the risk of making the same mistake, of pretending there is an easy answer where we could rejoin the European Union and everything would automatically become better. Or even the single market and customs union, where, you know, being a rule-taker without a seat at the table is not without risk.
“We’re not afraid of talking about Brexit, we talk about these issues all the time. I think what people want to hear from us, and some parts of the pro-European movement, is ‘this is a disaster and we want to rejoin’. Well, that just ain’t gonna happen, because there’s no credible path, and if there’s one thing worse than no hope it’s false hope. What we can do, and what our allies in the European Union are absolutely up for, is building a stronger, mature, respectful partnership with the European Union.
“Of course I wish things had been different, but the moral of the story, folks, is voting counts and losing hurts.”
It may not be a message readers want to hear. But losing is not something you imagine Wes Streeting intends to do next year.
● One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up: A Memoir of Growing Up and Getting On is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20