The Political Cheat Sheet: Emily Thornberry

Each month, The Stack hands the mic to four women MPs. They get 15 minutes to tell us how they broke into politics and what they stand for

By Edwina Langley

20 April 2021

MP: Emily Thornberry

Party: Labour

Constituency: Islington South and Finsbury (since 2005)


mily was born in Guildford, Surrey, and lived in a council flat with her mother and siblings after her father left when she was seven years old. They relied on benefits to get by. She failed her 11+ exam and went to a secondary modern, but progressed on to the University of Kent, where she read law. She joined the chambers of left-wing barrister Michael Mansfield QC, in 1985 and worked as a barrister for the next 20 years.

While political activism had always been a focus – she joined the Labour Party as a teenager – she cites her experience representing miners during the miners’ strike in the 1980s as one of the catalysts for her switch to politics in later years.

“I’d only been a barrister for a very short period of time when the miners’ strike happened,” she explains. “There were miners who were being taken to court and criminalised basically, just for being involved in the strike.”

“I learned a lot from that,” she continues. “I’d always sort of thought I knew about solidarity… [but] I hadn’t really felt it in the way that I did when I would go to a miners’ welfare hall where people had collected all the food that they had, in order to keep body and soul together. And they wouldn’t let you go without feeding you.”

‘We need all sorts of different people represented in Parliament so that we can make collective decisions representing the country in all its forms.’

Image by Andrew Hasson / Alamy Stock Photo

Emily stood as the Labour candidate for Canterbury in the 2001 general election, but was unsuccessful. She tried again four years later – this time for Islington South and Finsbury – and won. Why do it a second time? Someone asked her to.

“Somebody said to me, ‘You’d be good, you should do this!’,” she recalls. “And the reason I think they asked me was because I was living in Tower Hamlets at the time, and we had an all-women shortlist, which meant that the local Labour party had to select a candidate [who] had to be a woman… And when I was asked, then I started thinking, ‘Yeah, why not? Why not?’”

Since 2005, Emily has held a number of prominent shadow cabinet positions including Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Defence Secretary, Shadow Brexit Secretary and, as of last year, Shadow International Trade Secretary.

How she voted

Emily has always voted in favour of same-sex marriage. She campaigned to remain in the European Union, and recently voted in favour of renewing the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

What she’s working on

Emily has spent the last year working on the Trade Bill – a piece of legislation that lays out how the UK should set up international trade agreements following Brexit.

“We haven’t had our own trade policy in Britain for 50 years because we’ve been part of the European Union and they’ve done all our trade for us,” Emily explains. “Now that we’re outside the European Union, we have to have our own trade and we have to work out who we’re going to trade with (and) on what basis.”

Part of Emily’s role was to push for amendments to the bill, one of which was arguing that the government should not enter into trade agreements with countries committing genocide. (Parliament voted against this.)

“Many of the arguments we have again, and again,” she says. “[Then] we try another way. We say, ‘OK, you don’t like this, Government. Let’s tweak it and have this instead’. So we work with the House of Lords who put forward amendments to the Trade Bill.’”

Advice for aspiring female MPs

How to get more women into parliament in Emily’s opinion? Ask them. “I’ve learned that women need to be asked, and they need to be asked many times before they’ll do it,” she says.

Her legal background helped prepare her for politics as she says it gave her an ability to “take in large amounts of information, put it in a logical order and not be afraid to get up and say it”. But she points out those skills may be learnt from many other jobs too.

“A broad experience of life is really important,” she continues. “We need to have all sorts of different people represented in parliament so that we can make, as I say, collective decisions representing the country in all its forms.”

Anything else?

Articulate and confident, a common misconception people have about Emily is that she’s posh. “There am I, a sort of mouthy Labour woman, and ‘she’s southern, she must be posh’,” she says. “It’s all the same stuff; it’s all the same: ‘pull the wings off her’.”

She adds: “I spent nearly half my life living in social housing, my mum was a single parent, we were brought up on benefits… I’ve done alright, I’ve done well. Doesn’t make me posh.”

Bet you didn’t know…

Emily once worked on the musical Evita selling ice cream. As a result, she can sing it from start to finish.

The Short Stack

Emily Thornberry has been described as a “mouthy southerner”. She has strong views and is not afraid to voice them.

By Edwina Langley

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