First published on Progressonline
Sound and fury rages again around the preponderance, or not, of Oxbridge-educated Labour party candidates. Much of the outrage bypasses a public only tangentially aware of this very Labour debate and its internal dance, but there remains a sense among the voters that more authentic, ‘real life’ parliamentarians are needed. And, if perception is truth, it should be the Labour party which is best placed to turn this situation around.
Recent changes to the party selection procedures – cutting the selection window from 13 to eight weeks, as I argued for in March – make a difference. But some avowedly working-class prospective MPs are already in place, and have been for some time.
When I ring Labour’s candidate for Carlisle, Lee Sherriff, she is, she tells me, ‘in the middle of taking the dog to the vets, getting the ironing done, and finishing off the rest of the housework.’ And a main thrust of her pitch as the city’s future member of parliament is as a person with an understanding of ordinary life.
‘I live locally, and I understand the issues that face people in Carlisle because they are issues that face me’. A support worker, former shopworker, and mum of three, Sherriff believes this sets her apart from the sitting Conservative MP – like many in parliament, a lawyer – who snatched the seat by 853 votes in 2010, bringing over 40 years of Labour reign to a brutal end. ‘I am working class, one of the people, and he seems more detached. He doesn’t appear to be very visible in Carlisle where the majority of people wouldn’t know who he was if you put him in a line-up.’
Being a single mother on the green benches means she can ‘bring a different perspective’ to parliament, she argues, and budgeting and knowing how to ‘balance the books’ is a constant refrain. For Sherriff, to be working class means ‘people who are out, earning a living, not sitting there privileged having everything handed to them. It’s having to go out to work to get by, look after our children, pay our mortgage, or rent, or whatever – like the majority of people.’ This is experience that matters now more than ever. Tough times around us ‘makes you more resourceful’, she reflects. ‘It is like being a single mum – you have got to sort of stretch things, and you know you haven’t got a huge amount of money to do it with.’ And this is part of why she is Labour, Sherriff says. Only the Labour party has the right people knowing ‘how to get value for money, being able to budget that money better because, again, it’s that working-class thing, we know the value of things. You know you are able to make the menu work the best way you can.’
In terms of what the party should be looking at doing, it should draw on its recent past, she says, singling tax credits out as particularly beneficial. ‘Tax credits enabled single mothers to get out to work. Life was a lot better for working-class people under the Labour government.’ But for the future the living wage is the natural next step. Sherriff is a proud member of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, and she will use the crucible of parliament to speak up for the sector. ‘Things like the living wage are really important to me. I can understand the issues that affect people in retail, the lower paid … I can be the voice for that and for them.’
Sherriff has certainly set her face towards recouping the 2010 loss, and her determination shows. ‘Politically I have got focus, which is why I have risen in what people consider is a short space of time, because I have drive, focus and can knuckle down.’
Knuckling down is exactly what the party and its candidates will need to do in these swing seats. As Peter Kellner warned recently in his report for Progress, Majority Rules, past elections show that incumbency for first-time MPs can bring a ‘bonus’ of 1,000-2,000 votes, meaning Carlisle remains a tough fight. Historically speaking, as UK Polling Report writes, the city’s position near the Scottish border made it ‘an important strategic stronghold, and the castle and city walls remain relatively intact’ – and in the image of the local Sherriff seizing control of this northern outpost, there are certainly the makings of a gripping battle ahead.
Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and tweets @RichardAngell.
With additional writing from Adam Harrison.