Emma Lewell-Buck is the ‘new girl in school’ – so new in fact, when I arrive at Portcullis House the receptionist cannot even find her on the computer.
Two months into the job, the new MP for South Shields is finding her feet. However she admits a feeling of being ‘overwhelmed by it all at first,’ after being greeted by two big bags of post on her first day in the job. ‘When I first arrived it was a bit of a shock to the system,’ she says.
Prior to her election, Lewell-Buck had never been to parliament, not even as a visitor. As well as those two large sacks of post on the first day, the Queen’s speech was being announced, so there wasn’t much time to find her feet.
Being sworn in in front of a packed Commons, the former social worker recalls: ‘It had the feeling of being the new girl in school, but you have come in halfway through the middle of term. Literally everyone knows who you are, but you don’t know who they are.’
Of the 650 members in the house, just 147 are women, and the other 503 are men. The whole atmosphere in Westminster is ‘very male,’ Lewell-Buck comments, but she isn’t put off. ‘Coming in from being on a council at a young age, surrounded by people who are ex-miners, ex-shipyard workers, quite tough men, you don’t really feel frightened and intimidated by that kind of environment.’
When she first started in politics, people often made the assumption she was the council’s ‘tea lady’ or ‘receptionist’. They were surprised and sometimes sneering when she told them she was their councillor. Nine years of this have made Lewell-Buck thick-skinned, strong and determined to succeed, adding that this experience made it ‘less difficult’ for her on arriving at the Commons.
This determination showed during the South Shields selection, an open shortlist, where she defeated three male candidates in the final hustings. She hopes more women will contest open selections. ‘Women should go for any seat, if you feel that you want to stand for somewhere, it shouldn’t matter. I was the only female on the list and if you want it and you are strong enough, people will vote for you regardless of whether you are a man or woman.’
She is, however, a supporter of all-women shortlists, saying they are ‘important’ because prior to them there were ‘very few women in parliament’. She fears female representation in Westminster would go ‘downhill again very quickly without them’.
Lewell-Buck, who is the first ever female MP for South Shields, was helped on her way to becoming a MP, with the support of the Labour Women’s Network. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the LWN aims to see 50:50 equal representation at every level of the Labour party.
This is something that Lewell-Buck strongly endorses. ‘It’s that old argument that we should reflect the society we represent. In the Labour party we have done pretty well. When I sit on them green benches, I look across and all I see is grey suits. There are very few women opposite.’
Lewell-Buck says the LWN was ‘very supportive’ to her. ‘They tailor the training so you know what it’s really like and it’s really honest and refreshing. It covers everything from being selected, to once you’ve been elected and then becoming a MP.’
She entered parliament when David Miliband vacated his seat; Miliband decided to stand down as an MP. It was a shock to the political world and also a ‘surprise’ to Lewell-Buck who had been a councillor for nine years. ‘I didn’t know him hugely well before, I had only met him once or twice. It was really through my election that I got to know him because he offered me lots of help and advice, and his wife and children would come out and help me with the campaigning.’
Recalling one moment during the by-election campaign, she said to him: ‘I can’t believe I am having coffee with David Miliband; it’s not normally something that happens to me.’ She adds that it wasn’t necessarily ‘intimidating’ to step in his shoes, but describes her predecessor as a ‘political superstar’.
Lewell-Buck, a proud South Tynesider, cites Ellen Wilkinson, a member of the Attlee government and MP for neighbouring Jarrow as her political hero. As Wilkinson inspired her, she wants to do the same, especially helping youngsters in South Shields, where she was born herself.
‘A few years ago a teacher came up to me when I was on the council and asked me to come and speak to some of the children. It was about getting the message across that having aspirations is important – telling them they can do anything they want to.’
And Lewell-Buck is proof of that, saying: ‘I didn’t come from a privileged background and I wasn’t destined to come here, but I knew with hard work and determination that I could.’
Andrew Bettridge is a journalism graduate and tweets @AndyBettridge1
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