The Labour Leadership Contest 2020: Emily Thornberry

The Labour Leadership Contest 2020: Emily Thornberry

 Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry was the first to declare her candidacy in the leadership contest. The Shadow Foreign Secretary has spent over a decade in Parliament, and is the most politically experienced candidate in the race. Her candidacy has been long anticipated, but she only just reached the required 22 Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) nominations minutes before the deadline. Thornberry carries some political baggage. In 2014, her tweet of a picture of St George’s flags outside a house in Rochester, in the middle of a parliamentary byelection campaign, led to accusations of snobbery and led to her resigning as Shadow Attorney General within hours. Being neither a committed Corbyn, nor a reliable moderate, she does not easily fit into a tribe in the PLP, which may explain her modest nomination figures. Although she has been critical of Corbyn, for calling and then losing last year’s election, Thornberry has spent a significant amount of time in his Shadow cabinet in several ministerial roles.

Thornberry’s leadership campaign has so far centred around her ability to challenge Boris Johnson at the despatch box, mirroring the approach of Jess Phillips, who has focused on much the same. However, unlike Phillips, Thornberry has tangible experience going toe-to-toe with Johnson, having shadowed him in his time as Foreign Secretary. The strength of her performances on the frontbench and her ability to capitalise on her political experience will be tested as she moves to the next stage of the leadership contest.


Emily Thornberry was born and raised in Guildford, her mother was a teacher and her father was a lecturer at the London School of Economics who later became an Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations (UN). When her parents divorced, Thornberry left home to live with her mother and two siblings and recalls having to survive on free school meals and food parcels. On her website, she says her experience being raised by a single mother living on a council estate motivated her to join the Labour Party at the age of 17.

Thornberry worked as a cleaner and barmaid alongside studying for her A-levels, before studying law at the University of Kent. She was called to the bar in 1985, working as a barrister specialising in human rights law.

After an unsuccessful run at Canterbury in 2001, she was selected to stand in the Labour seat of Islington South and Finsbury in 2005, holding it with a small majority, and has retained the seat since. After several years on the backbenches, she was appointed as a Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change in 2010. She missed out on a role in the Shadow Cabinet, which at the time was elected by Labour MPs, by just one vote. In 2011, after abolishing Shadow Cabinet elections, Ed Miliband promoted her to Shadow Attorney General, but she was forced to resign in 2014 over the infamous St George’s flag tweet.

Thornberry nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2015, and was repeatedly promoted by him, first to as Shadow Minister for Employment, then to Shadow Defence Secretary, and finally to Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Brexit Secretary (which later went to Keir Starmer). Thornberry was also given the role of Shadow First Secretary of State and has frequently deputised for Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions.


Thornberry indicated that she would be standing for leadership in a Guardian article published shortly after the election last month, where she highlighted her ability to challenge Boris Johnson and said she had repeatedly

warned the Labour leadership against calling a general election and against taking a neutral stance on Brexit. Following the launch of her campaign, Thornberry said she believed she could win because she came "from the heart of the party".

Aside from Brexit, Thornberry has spent much of her time in Parliament campaigning on issues of equality, housing and the environment and introduced the Housing Association Bill to Parliament in 2006. The bill sought to give more control to housing association tenants over landlords. In 2015, she was critical of the Housing and Planning Bill, which she said would damage the supply of affordable homes and has also criticised the right-to-buy policy. In a Westminster Hall debate on affordable housing, Thornberry said more affordable homes needed to be built and called for better regulation to control private sector rents. In the same debate, she was critical of then Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s proposal to redevelop the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre into luxury flats in her constituency, arguing that more social rented accommodation was needed and branding Johnson’s definition of “affordability” being 80% of market rent as “simply nonsense.”


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