‘Westminster didn’t seem for people like me’

What is the experience of working-class women standing for parliament? Caroline Flint compares notes with Lee Sherriff and Lisa Forbes

I think it is fair to say I come across as confident. I enjoy going into the bear pit of Question Time and do not shy away from the tough issues. In fact, I think Labour can run at difficult issues like immigration, welfare and crime and come out on top. Not by being ‘Tory-lite’, but by listening to our voters and being prepared to reform the system – with our values informing the policy – so it works for those they affect most and the taxpayer at large.

Following another painful defeat, I threw my hat into the ring for deputy leader. Having mentored Lucy Rigby, our excellent candidate in Lincoln, been the south-east champion and travelled the country, I had a thing or two to say about why we lost and how to win again. But these are issues I find easy, the way others in our party do not. Partly because I have known life as a single mother on benefits, because I know how immigration can make life challenging in communities that already feel left behind, because crime affects working-class communities more than most. My politics were informed by my life. I did not learn it from a book. But talking about my background, why I do politics and the unconventional route to it, is one of the hardest things I have done.

This great party was founded to put working-class people into parliament. It is why the Labour Representation Committee was established and why we are called the Labour party and not the British Socialist party. Yet the idea appears to many, even within our own ranks, just as radical today as it was then.

I wanted to talk to some women, who might have been through similar experiences to me, nearly 20 years later. I was lucky in many regards. While I did not win an all-women shortlist selection for a relatively middle-class seat local to me in west London, a few months out from the 1997 general election the members of Don Valley, a more working-class seat, chose me in an open selection to be their candidate. A lot of hard work later and I was part of the 1997 intake. It is fair to say that we had helpful headwinds then, winning Labour seats like mine and many well beyond our target list. Those standing for Labour in 2015, however, were pounding the streets for years rather than months.

Lee Sherriff – a single mum, Usdaw member and care worker – and Lisa Forbes – stay-at-home mum of four – were selected as the parliamentary candidate for their respective home seats, Carlisle and Peterborough, in September 2012. Both joined the Labour party after the 2010 defeat and soon became councillors. But did standing for parliament seem a step too big perhaps? Lee says, ‘It was suggested to me in 2011 that I should stand to be the MP. I hadn’t thought about it before because my view was “people like me don’t do things like that”. Two male friends – both experienced in the party and older than I – suggested I go for it. I respected them greatly and decided that I would. Their belief in me gave me the confidence to stand.’ Lisa had a similar experience. ‘The year after I joined I was encouraged to stand for council, eventually winning in what was a safe Tory ward and from there being encouraged to stand for parliament. This took a lot of persuasion and encouragement as I felt parliament was not for people like me, but for university-educated professionals … in the end I decided to put my name in the hat.’ The fact that both these brilliant women who had joined our party felt politics was not for ‘people like me’ should worry us all. It is time to dust down the work of Gloria De Piero and others and address the real issues holding back working-class women who think politics is not for them.

Both women talk confidently about their background and family situation. Carlisle’s 2015 candidate is the daughter of a ‘submariner – 22 years in the Royal Navy’ and ‘an office worker’ turned Woolworth’s staffer ‘when my sister and I started school’. Across the other side of the country, Lisa’s mum was a carer in a residential home for the elderly. It was ‘well suited to her caring nature’, she says with real pride. Her dad worked in the building industry. My mum, by contrast, had me as a single parent at 17. She left school at 16 and did a secretarial course and spent her working life in pubs, shops and offices.

In a funny way I have become more conscious of my class background since becoming a member of parliament. When I was young, I only met people like me, and never noticed what we had or went without. At university, we were all from different backgrounds but we were all young, having a good time and going on demos so the lines seemed blurred. Parliament was a different matter altogether, as was the parliamentary Labour party. Being working class seemed to be about being male and usually a former miner or the like. It meant what you had done before parliament not how you might have gone without. Talent was too often seen and talked through your connections to the big beasts, being an Oxbridge alumnus or having worked for an MP or minister.

Our former candidates, and hopefully would-be MPs, own their identity in a different way. Both outwardly describe themselves as ‘working class’ and are from families of Labour voters. Lee says her parents, ‘flirted with the SDP or Lib Dems’ from time to time but are otherwise Labour voters. She reveals, however, that ‘music got me interested in politics. Red Wedge made me want to know more.’ ‘Growing up on a council estate in the seventies, it seemed everyone voted Labour, [and] my family’, Lisa recalls, ‘were no exception. There was an excitement around election time with Labour posters up in most windows. The local kids chased the Labour van with the loudspeaker that reminded people to vote, hoping for Labour stickers which then ended up on lampposts and garden gates.’

Lisa came to prominence in the party about a year after being selected. She wrote a piece for LabourList that went viral. ‘I need your help to beat my local Tory MP’, she cried. ‘I’m struggling with the cost of heating the home’. Explaining how her husband’s full-time salary and her council allowance meant she was having more experiences like those being asked to vote Labour than most like to ‘admit’. ‘I don’t have much disposable income and party members in Peterborough aren’t rich … I can categorically say that not a single one of my friends is a millionaire’. ‘If you could spare just a few pounds’, she concluded, it would go a long way. Many chipped in and others rallied round. ‘Without that help there is no way that we could have achieved what we did’, she says. Lisa and her team bucked the national trend and slashed the Tory majority. Lee, supported by Usdaw, has a similar story. The shopworkers went the extra mile for her the way GMB, Unite, CWU and Aslef did for Lisa.

It is a huge loss to parliament that Lee and Lisa are not sitting in the House of Commons. Not just because it would be nice to have them here, but because my constituents need their votes. With enough seats like Carlisle and Peterborough, we would be on the government benches. We would be months after a Tory leadership election, not the other way round.

How do these inspiring women feel now? ‘I felt a bit abandoned by the party at first’. Lee’s voice brings a lump to my throat. ‘It’s a culture shock to be busy one minute and left with nothing to do … the next. My answer to that was to go abroad the week after’. A well-deserved break, I am sure. ‘The main feeling’, she continues, ‘that you don’t expect is the overwhelming grief. It’s the only way that I can describe it, as a loss or a death. I went through all of the emotions that I went through when I had lost somebody close to me.’ More in sorrow than anger, she says, ‘I just wish that somebody had prepared me for what would happen if I lost.’ Lisa says, ‘Since the election, there has been little support from the party.’ ‘It can be a lonely experience being a candidate, and no more so than after the election in a losing seat.’ My colleague Fiona Mactaggart, Lisa tells me, organised a ‘helpful meet-up with other women candidates’ after the election. The contact with others in the same boat was ‘cathartic’.

Lee and Lisa did our party a huge service last May. It was not them but matters way above their pay grade that lost for Labour. It is time the party looked again at the support it gives its candidates – women and men, working class and otherwise. But before it overburdens the next round of candidates, I will be calling on Iain McNicol to recognise and support Lee, Lisa and the efforts of other target seat candidates immediately. It is, I believe, the least we owe them.

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Caroline Flint MP is a former member of the shadow cabinet 

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Comments: 2...

  1. On March 14, 2016 at 4:14 pm Ken McDermott responded with... #

    Fascinating read and the conclusion is well supported. It is also a comfort to know there is such talent in-depth in the party and surely the fight back is on and they will have a big role to play in future.

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