Gisela Stuart, the West German-born turned-Brummie Labour MP, doesn’t mince her words. “It is completely the wrong question,” she says to the first thing I ask. Earlier, it is in a tone of awe, if not fear, that Helen, the treasurer of the church where Stuart is holding her surgery, reassures me that Stuart’s first name is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ – “I’ve been saying it like that for the past four years, and she’s the sort of person who would have told me if it was wrong.”
It is not hard to see how Stuart has earned such respect. Her seat, Birmingham Edgbaston, is a classic bellwether constituency – and yet, in 2010, she resisted the swing towards the Conservative party and managed to keep hold of her job, winning a majority of over 1, 200. The Spectator were so impressed they gave her their Survivor of the Year award.
A few days before our interview, Stuart had been at the British Museum to take part in a panel discussion entitled ‘German lessons: what can the last 50 years of division, coalition and prosperity teach us about how to run a country?’ Hence my first question, what is the best way to do coalition government in the UK?
“It’s completely the wrong question because what coalition means is that no one single party has managed to succeed in [convincing] sufficient numbers of people to say, ‘I want you to run the government.’ So it’s a compromise, and under the British system, we tend to reach the compromises within the political parties, and then you take a worked out programme to the electorate.
“Now, if you go into the systems where you have permanent coalitions, it means the political parties fracture, the electorate chooses which bit of the menu they prefer, but actually they don’t know the outcome, because there’s another negotiation, after the ballot, as to what the manifesto is.
AV, or the Alternative Vote, was one recent proposition that could have made Westminster somewhat more suited to the sort of coalition government discussed at the British Museum, but Stuart was not in favour the idea: “I thought Nick Clegg was quite right when he called it a wretched little compromise,” she laughs. Nor would she, any time soon, favour moving to a form of government comparable to Germany’s federal system. As she points out, Germany’s political structure only began working after the powerful and large state of Prussia was broken up – comparable, perhaps, to London’s current influence over the rest of Britain.
“The problem at the moment in the UK is that the devolution process did not look at devolution in England outside London, and that’s the unfinished business. My preferred thing, given that there aren’t natural units, is that you go for city regions.”
City regions are far from a new idea – Greater London became an administrative region, as opposed to just an idea, with the passing of the Local Government Act of 1963 – but the Scottish referendum, with the resulting calls for greater devolution to parts of England as well as to Scotland, has given new impetus to the debate. Plans are being drawn up to give Manchester a directly elected mayor, with powers over transport, housing, planning, and policing; similarly, Liverpool has been agitating for greater control over its own affairs.
How does Stuart see a Birmingham city region working in practice? “You know, the one thing I didn’t get the chance to say ahead of that debate in the British Museum: I got my geography book, the one I was taught with as a child, copyright 1963, and it said Great Britain is undeniably part of Europe because it is part of the European continental shelf, and the industrial heartland is called the West Midlands, with the main centre of production called the Black Country, but the region is dominated, like a big spider, by a city called Birmingham. And I thought, hmm, nothing’s changed.
“This is the problem with devolution in the United Kingdom, that you’ve got a West Midlands with one thing that’s a big block on one side of the M5, but the G7 of the West Midlands will have to come together. You’ve got Greater Birmingham and Solihull, and then you’ve got the five regions on the other side of the M5, and I would now go for a directly elected metropolitan mayor of a big city region.”
Though Stuart is keen to press for city regions, her real “obsession” is youth unemployment. “If all the regeneration that goes on in Birmingham is not providing jobs for young people in Birmingham, given that it is the fastest growing youngest city in Europe, we will have a problem,” she points out.
For the last two years she has been promoting the Birmingham Baccalaureate, or the ‘BBac’ for short. The project focuses on getting schools and the big employers to communicate with one another so that the curriculum provides the skills the employers are looking for, and that the pupils better understand what jobs are out there.
The BBac certainly seems a worthwhile project, but in such a marginal constituency, wouldn’t it make more sense for Stuart to focus on issues that affect people old enough to vote?
She disagrees: “The minute you go in and say how do I win the next election, I’ve got the wrong question. The start is, what is the best I can do – combined with the best campaign I can run, and if that wins me the seat, then I’ve won.
“So for example, with youth unemployment, it happens to be my obsession. But I tell you, if you go out into Quinton, one of the four wards, which is demographically the oldest ward, they are probably more concerned about whether their grandchildren have jobs, than what’s happening to their own pension, as long as they can pay the bills. So yes, it’s the seventeen year olds, but it affects the whole family and everybody will acknowledge that they are the future.”
Talking of the future, I ask Stuart what she’ll be doing if she loses the election next year.
“You don’t think about it.”
Not at all?
“No. Simply because if you go in for a fight, you’ve got to mean it. If you go in there and say, Oh well I’m going to line up a few jobs, and it’s all right. No, you will not give your all.”
That said, for several years she has been thinking about writing a book on Ludwig Erhard, a finance minister and chancellor of West Germany in the 1960s.
“There isn’t a proper English biography of him – he’s the father of the German social market economy. He was a great post-war chancellor. Actually he was a great post-war finance minister; he wasn’t very good chancellor – I wonder where I’ve heard that before,” she laughs.
“But the other thing which I have, and this may amuse you, is: during the election campaigns there always emerges a theme, which keeps you going. So in 2005, I had to have the Battle Hymn, Henry V, Non nobis nobile, which was a CBSO recording. I had to get this CD, and this was when things were getting tough, I’d listen to that.
“And in 2010 – I don’t know whether you know Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi – there is this moment when she thinks the children are dead, and she just says, ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still.’ And when everybody thought I was dead, I was toast: you’d go to election hustings and the guy would even forget to introduce me because they were so sure I’d lost, I would sit there and in the back of my mind I was going, ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’.”
When I was walking to the Church of the Redeemer from New Street station, I passed Gillian Wearing’s new statue, A Real Birmingham Family, which depicts two sisters and their sons. A man was protesting for fathers’ rights and had covered up the figures’ faces, arguing that fathers needed to be included in the family, too. So, to wrap up our conversation, I ask Stuart, who had been involved in the commissioning process, what the political message of Wearing’s work was.
“I just saw the five short-listed ones. Whichever one we picked, there would have been a group of people going and arguing with the decision And to me, that was the greatest reflection of, what is the perfect family? Or what’s the Birmingham family?
Stuart finishes by reminiscing about a recent trip she had taken to see the statue: “there was a couple there, and he said, ‘I didn’t think Birmingham was about lesbians.’ And I was standing behind him and said, ‘No they’re sisters.’ We started talking, and then, after the conversation, he went up and was stroking the little boy’s head, and she was holding the hand of one. And it was so nice, and I thought, if that’s what it does, then that’s great!”