Laura Pidcock, the new MP for North-West Durham, made a splash with a maiden parliamentary speech that unflinchingly took on the classist, sexist, deliberately intimidating set-up at Westminster – and her performance since then, in a series of forthright comments and interviews, has seen many identify her as a rising star.
So the SKWAWKBOX was delighted to have the privilege of interviewing Ms Pidcock this week about her experiences in Parliament so far, about the ‘archaic’ and ‘intimidating’ Westminster set-up – and the people on the other side of the Dispatch Box – and more.
With the election called suddenly for June and Parliament already in recess, you must have felt like you’d just got your feet under the table and you were out again. How has your first experience of Westminster been?
The seven weeks I was there were enough! You’re very much in at the deep end and just expected to get on with things, but I think there’s a bit of an imbalance in amount of time you spend there. Legislative business is very important, of course, but there’s not even much of that at the moment with a weak minority government.
I’m glad to get back to work on getting my constituency office sorted out – I feel about a hundred years younger since getting back and getting some proper sleep. I want as many of my staff as possible in the constituency making sure the people there are properly looked after.
A big change compared to life before, then.
Oh, absolutely – a bit of a whirlwind. I was living in Cramlington, then the General Election was called and I was selected within four weeks. I moved to Lanchester – there are still some papers that say I don’t live there but I do. Before that I was born and brought up in Northumberland, which neighbours NW Durham – my Wikipedia page says I was born in Cramlington but that’s wrong, I was born in a little place called Seaton Delaval.
Then during the General Election we spoke to nearly 7,000 people in six weeks, as well as hand-delivering leaflets to 36 or 37 thousand properties. My CLP [constituency Labour party] has been fantastic – everyone worked amazingly hard every day for me to win and it’s continuing. Really hate the thought of low turnout and we did everything we could to make sure people got out and exercised their democratic right!
That takes a lot of work! Were you very politically engaged growing up?
I was always brought up to dislike Tory ideology and in a family of five there were always very frank discussions going on! Half my family is Scottish, so things got very interesting around the independence referendum. We had to stick a notice up on the door saying “you can come in but no talking independence” – but for myself I’m a big believer in people’s right to self-determination.
It was my union that got me into Labour. I did a little bit as a student but the student Labour scene wasn’t really my cup of tea. But when I started activities with Unite, that really got me engaged. I was on Unite’s National Labour Party Liaison Committee – it doesn’t have much direct power, but it let me see how things work.
And it sounds like the people in your CLP have taken to you – you paid tribute to your predecessor Pat Glass during your maiden speech, but you’re a little bit different in your politics.
The CLP has been brilliant. Everybody knows my politics and they’ve been really supportive, even though media tries to talk me up as a hard left Marxist revolutionary. We’re all working together to shout loudly for ourselves – you have to shout twice as loud if you’re from the North-East. It’s almost like there’s a wall between us and the south and even just getting to other places is hard work, especially on public transport, which is something [Shadow Transport Secretary] Andy Mcdonald is working hard to improve.
What else did you do before you were an MP?
I worked for Show Racism the Red Card, delivering anti-racism education and providing resources for teachers. I had one resource published myself called ‘No Place for Hate’.
I also did a stint with VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) – I started off in this country, living with Muslim family in Edgbaston and did some work with the Terence Higgins Trust and then went to Jos in Nigeria to work on HIV and AIDS awareness. While I was there I also got to know human rights barrister and ended up helping him out, too.
Then I went to uni and did a Masters in disaster management and sustainable development, with a particular focus on how to build communities better after a disaster.
I went to Bulgaria for research and saw how a minimal social security system makes a nation precarious for people, which couldn’t be more relevant now. Just today I dealt with constituent who was suicidal because of a system that depersonalises and frustrates people with the aim of making them give up on their claim – or even on life.
I saw the same in Nigeria, how the system just rolls over people – oil pipes going through communities for no benefit, human rights activists assassinated. I do have pride in people in this country who have fought so bravely to defend it and build what we’ve got but I also got to see how imperial we’ve been and how aid can trap people in impoverishment and debt – I’d really recommend people to read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo if they’re interested to find out more about that.
Now, to the part I was really looking forward to asking you about – your maiden speech and the way you regard Tories. You said Westminster “reeks of the Establishment and of power”, which was brilliant. It’s one of my bugbears that some people go to Parliament and seem to be drawn into the ‘club’. A Tory MP recently said that they look at Labour as ‘the opposition’ but Labour sees Tories as ‘the enemy’. He meant it as a criticism, but I think that’s how it should be. How do you feel about it?
My very very initial reflections are that there are two basic types of Tory. You’ve got the ones – like Boris Johnson – who are so blinded by their own privilege and have never experienced hardship, that they genuinely seem unable to see what it’s like in our communities.
If they see someone in tears from the sheer weight of everything that’s being piled on top of them their reaction is, ‘oh you’re being very dramatic’.
The other type is completely ideologically driven. They seem genuinely to believe capitalism is the best way to improve society and it blinds them to the evidence under their nose.
I have met a couple of Tories who were genuinely really anxious for me to see that they weren’t horrible people and really believed putting everything into private enterprise will achieve better results.
Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class – I’m not interested in chatting on.
I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral – I’m not interested in being cosy. I hate those Tory questions that start with ‘Does the PM agree with me..?’ – when one Tory MP stood up and asked one I told him I think those questions are disgraceful. His response was ‘you mustn’t be a very good MP‘!
The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people – a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.
Superbly put! Now I have to ask you this, because you’ve already made such an impression on a lot of people: do you have any ambitions for a seat on the front bench? You used to work in mental health, for example – any interest in that brief?
I’m vice-chair of the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) on mental health and I’m on the justice committee as well. But I feel need to get my own house together before thinking of a front-bench job. A lot of people have been there for a long time and get involved in all sorts, but I want to concentrate on creating an outstanding service for the people in my constituency – individuals and businesses. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can do it all and I have enough on my plate for the moment.
There’s just so much work to do for my constituency. County Durham has the highest number of suicides – not in percentage terms, we’re just behind Blackpool on that, but in numbers. It’s linked to the economic devastation – mining communities, textile industries in Crook and the economy in general.
Maybe people in more affluent areas see it slightly differently, but in a job is a key part of people’s social linkage and self-perception and when it’s gone it’s a huge blow to your self-esteem and at the same time isolating. We’re really focusing on bringing in industries but to achieve that properly that we need a train line that works for the area.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. People are amazingly resourceful and really support each other, but they’re fighting uphill. I’m part of a generation sold a complete lie on social mobility, we were told if you work hard you can get on but it’s complete crap – some people work hard and don’t succeed.
The structure of the society and the economy is designed to work against cohesion as well. Too-easy credit undermines it – instead of working collectively with your union to achieve better pay, people think just borrow – but then end up saddled with a lifetime of debt. There’s a mantra of individualisation eroding trade union rights – even if people had less materially in the past, we were more secure because we worked together better.
You stand out as a strong female MP with an equally strong accent. Angela Rayner is another and she regularly suffers abuse because of her it. Have you had any similar problems yet?
Ha, my accent. No, I’ve had no real abuse – at least so far – like Angela gets. The way some of the Tories look at her and snigger in the House is absolutely dreadful, they seem to really think your accent reflects your intelligence and that a private education makes you better than others, which says it all really.
I think when people like Angela or myself go to parliament, there’s a feeling among some of the Tories that we cheapen the prestige of the role – ‘oh, if they’re one, then it can’t be all that special‘. That irks them.
But we know that we shouldn’t compromise or cheapen ourselves for the sake of sitting in that building. There hasn’t been that much abuse but if people want to waste their energy it’s up to them.
If my accent was incomprehensible it would be a problem but in no way should we sanitise ourselves and lose our identification with the people we represent – nothing’s more important and I will never forget the more than 25,000 people who left their houses in June and voted for me, although of course really they were voting for Labour.
You sit on Labour’s National Policy Forum, which is one of the less well-understood bodies in the Labour Party structure, because Conference is supposed to be the sovereign policy body. Can you enlighten us?
Well, I’ll probably have to step down from the NPF now I’m an MP, but it essentially sends documents to Conference for delegates to vote on. It formulates policies for others to decide on. The complication is that the manifesto supercedes other things, so at this year’s Conference we’ll be voting on the policies in the manifesto and the NPF has been a bit quiet. But that’s in no way a bad thing – the manifesto was so successful because took members’ ideas and wasn’t cautious. People really embraced it.
The National Executive Committee is another vital body for the direction of the Labour Party and many members would love to see more ‘lefties’ on it. Any ambitions in that direction?
[Laughs] No, no ambitions to be on the NEC. It’s not something I ever had an ambition about – I never wanted to end up sitting in meeting rooms all the time, but that’s what I spend a lot of time doing. I wouldn’t want to add to that!
Laura, you’ve been absolutely brilliant and really generous with your time. It’s only fair to let you choose what you’d like to end the interview with, without me steering it with a question. What comments would you like to round off with?
I think we’re on the brink of something incredible. I’m not one for blind faith, but I think we’re going to be a million-member mass movement of people out there. Not just to get people to vote for us but changing the whole moral compass of the country and our expectation of what the country should look like. I think we’ll have a socialist government and we’ll reorganise this country as it’s just not working for most people as it is now.
Follow Laura on Twitter here.
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