Hi Lisa. Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me today.
This is genuinely quite terrifying! I’ve had various journalists on the phone this morning about the latest change in Brexit position, and this is genuinely much scarier!
Don’t worry! We’re hopefully quite a friendly bunch. Wigan voted overwhelming to leave the EU. Do you think that your constituency is now going to be heavily targeted by the Conservative and Brexit Parties?
I think that, to some extent, Wigan and other places like it are being targeted by the right in British politics for quite some time, but they’ve never made much traction. We did have a big spike in support for UKIP a few years ago but that died away very very quickly and in 2017 we saw a complete collapse in that vote. After ten years of huge cuts to council services and public services, actually there is a sense that Brexit is one issue but there are lots of other issues as well, and that people do understand that it’s the Tories who caused the crisis with the hospitals, the problems in schools. I think there will be an attempt to target places like Wigan in the next election, but I think that the Tories in particular will struggle to make inroads given the history of the last ten years and what it’s meant to people in the town.
Do you miss pre-referendum politics? Do you think that other important issues have maybe been side-lined, for example would the environment crisis be even more of a focal point if politicians weren’t so preoccupied with Brexit?
I do. I was talking to a colleague the other day and said “do you remember when you had to actually learn things for TV interviews?”, because we’ve basically been having the same conversation for three years. It is quite frustrating. I think it’s more frustrating for the public if people are quite desperate to see a lot of those issues back on the agenda. What’s worse about what’s happened since the referendum, though, is the tone of politics and the political culture that has been allowed to develop. I miss most of all being able to have genuine, heart-felt, passionate disagreements with people in a tolerant, respectful way, and that is almost entirely absent from politics at the moment at every level – not just in Parliament, where people are happy to scream “traitor” and “betrayal” at each other, but also on social media, and even in person. It is very difficult, when tempers are running so high, to get people to listen to one other, and I miss that culture. I think the damage we’ve done to the political culture will remain with us much longer than Brexit.
You said that after you first launched your campaign to become MP for Wigan you faced many harsh comments from the right-wing. Do you feel like it’s becoming more difficult to be a politician?
It has unquestionably become more dangerous to be in politics. It’s also very off-putting for people to see the level of aggression, quite aside from the violence. I think it puts young women off from coming into politics, and it’s incumbent on all of us to set a better tone. I do also think that the last few years have seen a very very troubling rise in activity among far-right groups. Obviously, Owen [Jones] faced an attack recently, but going back there was Jeremy Corbyn outside Finsbury Mosque, my colleague Jo Cox was killed, my neighbouring MP Rosie Cooper was targeted by National Action, and people are now serving prison sentences for trying to kill her. We’ve allowed this to become normalised to an extent, and we’ve got to get a grip on it.
You mentioned that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young women trying to get into politics. You were the first female MP for your constituency; how do you feel the representation of women in politics has developed over the last few years?
I’m trying to be positive, but I think that we are going backwards. That’s a reflection of the fact that, across the country, we’ve closed off a lot of opportunities for people and avenues people traditionally would use to progress from less well-off backgrounds, working-class backgrounds, women, ethnic minorities, such as removing the Education Maintenance Allowance which essentially allowed bright kids from low income backgrounds to attend college and progress onto university. Ten years ago, I would go into schools in my constituency and I wouldn’t hesitate to say to young women that they should definitely but themselves forwards and consider a career in politics, but now I do hesitate because the amount of abuse many have to put up with, especially on social media and with the levels of violence. The biggest solidarity I’ve felt in politics has been from women from all different political parties when you’re under fire, particularly for things like what you look like, how you speak, and how you dress. The solidarity is there, but it’s really important that we change our political culture and the tone in which we speak to one another and what we consider to be acceptable. There are lots of MPs who are acting as leaders like that such as Stella Creasy, Jess Philips, Jo Swinson, who have just established a zero tolerance approach to this sort of behaviour.
A number of high-ranking Labour Party members, including John McDonald, have said that the next leader of the Labour Party will be female. Do you think that that is the case?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. I was selected as the candidate for Wigan from an all-women shortlist, and, although lots of my members who are lovely will say that I would have been selected anyway, the truth is that there have been de facto all-male shortlists for hundreds of years. I was the first woman to ever represent Wigan. You can’t tell me that, since the 1600s, there’s never been a woman who was good enough. The truth was, it took positive action to change that. I’d like to think that, having more women coming into Parliament, that what people think of when they imagine political leaders has changed; in the past it was assumed that an MP would be an older white man. I’d like to think that has changed, but I’m not sure to be honest.
Do you think that there needs to be a more electable leader of the Labour party to challenge Johnson? Corbyn has proven to be very divisive. What kind of leader do you think would be the best to shape the future of the Labour Party?
I think in 2017, where Labour really confounded any expectations and saw a dramatic shift in the polls, should be a warning to us that no one individual is unelectable, but nobody is a dead cert to become prime minister, and you can’t take the public for granted. I do think that Labour needs to do more to reach out to people in constituencies like mine who feel like they don’t have a voice in British politics. That’s not simply a question of who leads the Labour Party; that’s been quite a long-standing trend for over a decade. Many people feel like, not that the policies or values are wrong, but that the relevance isn’t there. We’ve got the crisis with the trains, the collapse of the bus services; these are day-to-day quality of life issues, that perhaps aren’t quite as fashionable as some of the other issues that we talk about in Parliament, but they are really important to people.
Do you feel like Labour is still the party of the working-class, and of the students as well?
I don’t think we’ve got a God-given right to represent any part of the electorate. Our representation of the working-class is something I’ve thought about – and worried about – for some time, representing a constituency like mine with a very high working-class population. We’ve got to get better in this country ensuring that all parts of Britain can thrive, and that young people have options available to them.
It’s suggested that Brexit may lead to an intensified North-South divide due to the withdrawal of EU regional funding. Do you think that will be the case?
It could be the case, but it depends very much on what we decide to do next. The North West was a huge beneficiary of EU funds, and I think the North East was the biggest beneficiary, so for regions like ours this was really important. But if you look at where that funding actually went, much went towards rebuilding the cities. I was at Newcastle during the time when the EU put a lot of money into the project regenerating the Quayside, and watching that improvement was so dramatic and so important – and not just because it gave us a much bigger choice of bars to go to! It was incredible for the confidence of the city as well, but that benefit hasn’t trickled over to many of the surrounding towns; if you go to Redcar, Bolton, Oldham, Wigan, you’ll find the same problems – that the major beneficiaries of that have been the cities and not the towns. We could see that get worse through decreased regional investment, but there is a cross-party group working in Parliament to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’ll do our best!
What’s the hardest thing about being an MP?
I think the trade-offs, really. All politics is compromise in the end. Sometimes, especially in the past few years, you’ve been faced with a choice between unfathomable decisions, and you have to choose the least bad option. For someone like me, who studied Politics at Newcastle, you think you’re going to change the world. I still hope I might play a part in doing that, but the last few years have been about stopping things from getting worse, rather than being ablw to make it significantly better. That has been incredibly frustrating. There’s also a lot of trade-offs with your life; I used to have a lot of friends before I was elected, and a thriving social life. I still manage it a little bit, but it does take a lot out of you. On the other hand, when you win for people it is the best feeling in the world; there’s nothing like it.
Do you feel like studying Politics at university prepared you for life as a politician?
No, definitely not [laughs]. My three years at Newcastle were largely spent on boats, or at Icon, neither of which I think exist anymore. Baja Beach Club? Legends? [Grace shakes her head] This is so sad. A group of friends and I came back to Newcastle a year ago for an anniversary of graduation, and the Students’ Union did seem to have a lot fewer bars than it used to. We did manage to bust our way in, and we were quite horrified by the number of computer stations and working spaces. [Laughs] Things have obviously changed, probably for the better. But ultimately, the debates you have at university don’t bear much resemblance to how politics works in real life. What they do help you with a lot is understanding the strength of different ideas, and how you build an argument. You learn about the history of ideas, and why some of these things matter, and that has been quite invaluable to me. It forces you to get to grips with challenges.
Do you have any particularly fond memories from your time at Newcastle?
Oh, all of it. I literally loved every minute of it, from the moment I turned up at Castle Leazes to the moment that I left. I lived on Osborne Road in Jesmond, and the day that I left I just threw everything in the car and drive off and didn’t look back, because I thought it was just such a vibrant and friendly city, with such lovely people, and I knew that I would miss it so much that I just couldn’t think about it, so I just left and never turned back. I was just so lucky in the end; I didn’t really have a clue where I was going to university. Most of all, I have made some of my best friends for life – not necessarily the people I thought I would stay in touch with. I actually have stayed in touch with a lot of the people I worked with at the Courier too – there are lots of people who work in and around journalism and politics now who I keep coming across in different places. At school I wasn’t really one of those people who put themselves forward for things – I didn’t do after-school clubs or anything like that, and when I turned up at university my tutor said to me you’re going to have to have something that you can say you’ve done with your time here if you’re going to get a good job. I went and signed up for the Courier, and it was a good decision. They drove me mad, and I think I drove them mad. I did all sorts. I started as a News reporter, and then I did a letters page for a while, with a sort of column. I used to hide from our editor, because I had never written what I was supposed to have written by the deadline, and often our editor would have to write it himself, and it all went wrong in third year when he moved in with us. He’d be ringing my phone and shouting, “I can hear your phone ringing, Lisa – I know you’re in the house!” and I’d be hiding in a cupboard somewhere. I wrote Features as well – in all honesty, the quality was not high, but what I did learn was confidence, and how cut-throat student journalism can be. It was so competitive when I was there, which was really good grounding for going into front-line politics. My message for anyone who works on the student newspaper would be this: it will never be as tough as this. [Laughs]
Thanks so much for speaking to us today! I really appreciate your time.