A Political Star Rises in Britain, Helped by Twitter

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LONDON -- Stella Creasy is young, female and very blond. But there aren't many anecdotes about this British politician being mistaken for a secretary or an intern.

There is one: In 2011, a year after she was elected to the House of Commons for the opposition Labour Party, Ms. Creasy got into an elevator in Westminster and was stopped by a male lawmaker from the Conservative Party. Andrew Robathan, a junior minister, told her that it was reserved for members of Parliament only. He thought she was a researcher.

"Can't you read?" he snapped.

Ms. Creasy, 36, took no offense. But in a recent interview she recalled rebuking Mr. Robathan, 62, for telling another woman, a member of the public, to get out of the elevator as well: "I said to him, 'Don't you realize, when you're rude to the public, they think we are all like that?' And he was like, 'Oh well, I'm sick of these people coming in and using our facilities,' and I was like, 'We are only here because of them, don't you get that?"'

Indeed, most stories told about Ms. Creasy these days are about her fearlessness, her connection to voters and, most intriguing, how she might be one of Labour's best hopes to win back power. She is one of only 147 women in the House of Commons, which counts a total of 650 members.

The first time she walked into Parliament in May 2010, Ms. Creasy put on her headphones and listened to "She Bangs the Drums" by the Stone Roses ("The past was yours / But the future's mine / You're all out of time"). She had created a special playlist for the occasion.

Since then Ms. Creasy has banged on several drums herself, building a reputation as an effective campaigner who combines traditional politics with social networking savvy and a community organizing background that dates from her teenage days protesting on freezing shipping docks. "The MP who won't back down," a recent headline in The Guardian called her.

First she took on high-interest payday lenders in a drawn-out battle that forced the government late last year to give regulators the power to cap the cost of credit in Britain.

Then last month, in what might end up being remembered as the moment when she became a household name in Britain, she went after misogynist Twitter trolls -- and Twitter itself.

When Caroline Criado-Perez, a journalist who led a successful campaign to keep images of women on British bank notes, started receiving a stream of rape and death threats on Twitter, Ms. Creasy rallied to her defense and soon became a target herself. Screen grabs of masked men with knives started appearing in her in-box, as did crude threats from accounts with names like @killcreasy and @killslutmps.

She dismissed her attackers as "morons," reported them to the police and then set her sights on Twitter, challenging the microblogging platform to overhaul its global policy on sexual abuse. The company's British management team initially responded to Ms. Creasy's posts to them by blocking her and locking their accounts. It has since vowed to change its policy and introduce a button to report abuse on every post, but Ms. Creasy wants more.

"I think Twitter don't understand the determination and persistence, not just of me, but of all of us," she said, demanding a broader "panic button" that would report an account that is under attack rather than just individual posts. "We will be holding them to account."

Nicknamed "St. Ella" inside her own party, Ms. Creasy has no shortage of fans on the other side of the political divide. ConservativeHome, a Web site close to the government, called her "Labour's most interesting member of Parliament," applauding her "good sense" on public spending and government debt.

Currently the opposition's spokeswoman on crime prevention, she may be appointed to a more prominent role in a reshuffle before the Labour Party conference next month.

"She is a bit of a star," said Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of Parliament who sat on the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons with Ms. Creasy. "She's been mentioned as a future leader," Mr. Bacon said. "If the Labour Party knows what's good for it, she is one to watch."

Unlike the Conservative Party, which produced Margaret Thatcher, Labour has never elected a female leader. Ms. Creasy was elected from an all-female shortlist, but she acknowledges that her party still has "a road to travel" when it comes to gender equality.

The Labour Party is in something of a bind. It remains the most popular party, but it has the least popular party leader: Ed Miliband just saw his approval rating plunge to another record low. In an Ipsos-Mori poll published on Aug. 15, 55 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with him and only 17 percent declared themselves "satisfied." Half of the respondents -- and 4 in 10 Labour voters -- said they did not know what Mr. Miliband stood for.

Nobody has to guess where Ms. Creasy stands. An obsessive user of Twitter -- posting "probably more than I should but not as often as I mean to" -- she shares her views with her 37,825-plus followers several times a day.

She is an unapologetic feminist ("my mother is a feminist, my father is a feminist, my brother is a feminist") who has supported grass-roots campaigns against sexual violence and casual sexism since the days she went to a girls' high school.

"I feel that my generation of feminists dropped the ball a bit," she said. "We didn't push as hard as we should have. And now we're seeing a kind of backlash."

A graduate of Cambridge University with a Ph.D. in social psychology from the London School of Economics, she has also been vocal about her belief that government should take an active role in regulating markets and stay close to people's everyday concerns.

It was after several families in her northeast London constituency of Walthamstow had come to see her about spiraling debt problems that Ms. Creasy went to the local main street to count the number of payday lenders and pawn shops. There were 12, one of her advisers recalls. Some, like Wonga, can charge cash-strapped borrowers upward of 4,000 percent on an annual basis for short-term loans.

What was a source of concern in this ethnically mixed working-class part of the capital turned out to be an issue nationwide: Nine out of 10 Brits say payday lenders "take advantage of the vulnerable," according to a YouGov poll published this month.

The daughter of an opera singer and a special needs teacher who were always involved in community work, Ms. Creasy also met her long-term partner through campaigning. He now works for the army.

When she was 15 and had just joined the Labour Party, she had what she described as a "light bulb moment": Shouting at sheep on a dock near her hometown of Colchester to protest their imminent export, she realized that winning local elections and gaining control over the port would be a more effective way of reaching her goal.

What has she learned in three short years in national politics?

"It's one of my frustrations that people think you have to be a campaigner or you have to be a politician," she said. "For me, I am both."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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