LAURA PIDCOCK talks to Conrad Landin about what’s changed since the general election, the challenges ahead and what it’s like being in the media firing line
TO Theresa May, Laura Pidcock is the embodiment of a “big problem” with British politics.
The newly elected MP for North West Durham might well say just the same about the Prime Minister.
But mostly she is baffled by the spotlight that the media and her fellow parliamentarians have placed on her since she arrived in Westminster in June.
“Honestly, Conrad, I’ve never ever thought I’d get this attention,” she sighs when I meet her in her Westminster office, which she shares with fellow leftie newbie Dan Carden.
“I thought I’d come in and have time, to know deeply the issues, and know how to use the system to try and solve some of those issues, to be part of getting a socialist government.” Instead, what she got was “just another lesson about the system and about power.”
The first taste was perhaps after she made her maiden speech in the Commons. Pidcock used the occasion to put forward a sharp critique of Westminster’s ways.
The Palace of Westminster “reeks of the Establishment, and of power,” she said.
For many, this was the first they had heard of the 29-year-old Pidcock. But she was already a familiar figure to many in the labour movement. She’d served a stint as a Labour councillor, she’d led Unite delegations to Young Labour conferences, and she’d played a key role in one of Britain’s most innovative community-focused charities, Show Racism the Red Card. So Pidcock was an obvious choice for a profile interview in the Star’s bumper election edition on June 1 this year.
Back then, we talked Brexit (she voted against, but accepts it’s happening), Blairism (she’s not a fan) and Labour’s chances in the upcoming poll. And while most commentators were predicting a wipeout, Pidcock calmly maintained it wouldn’t be “as dramatic as everyone’s making out.”
“I’m a psychic,” she laughs. “The commentariat got it completely wrong, didn’t they? That’s about being detached from communities and the movement.”
But Pidcock isn’t saying the campaign was an easy ride. “I’m not going to lie, the first two weeks, three weeks were grim,” she says. “It was only when the manifesto came out — and Jeremy acknowledges this himself — that it’s not a cult of personality, the real star was the manifesto. And it spoke to people’s needs, the atmosphere lifted, it definitely changed.”
For the first time in a generation or more, voters could see “clear dividing lines” between the Labour and Conservative manifestos.
And rather than proposing minor technocratic amendments to the budgets of public services, Labour was offering a vision based on the principles of a supportive welfare state and an equitable society.
But as welcome as this might be to Pidcock, she believes it also poses a challenge to the way Labour works.
“It’s really important that we’re not just searching for votes every four years, or five years. Because that’s real short-termism, and I don’t think that to enact socialism, five years will be enough. We’ll need longer than that to do all of the things we’ll want to do.”
And the fact that Labour did not win the election is not a setback in Pidcock’s view. “I believe that change is incremental, and it is quite a departure for the general population to have experienced New Labour and then for all of a sudden trust that we’re a socialist party and we’re really committed to these ideals,” she says.
“So I think that’s a fantastic springboard for what will be greater enthusiasm and understanding.”
Importantly, she argues, those Labour figures who spent the campaign talking down the party’s programme will now have to take a different tack.
“We probably should have differences and we should argue them out — that’s very healthy,” she cautions. “But there aren’t attacks on the idea of socialism in the same way as there used to be.
“And that’s important, because even if you have doubts about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, if you have doubts about the popular appeal of socialism, or if you’re not necessarily a socialist yourself, you have to be quiet now.”
Pidcock sees this process as “shifting the moral compass of a nation.” We shouldn’t underestimate the sheer difference having a left-wing opposition leader has made, she says.
“You’re making those who believe in austerity or who are fully signed up to capitalism, think that it’s a credible economic system, you make them have to justify themselves.”
This, she says, “makes people voting for socialism easier, because we’re holding the capitalist system to account like we never have before.”
But Pidcock is quick to connect this ideological battlefield to the lives of her constituents.
“Whether you talk about neoliberalism, or have a conversation down the pub, when you say to people: ‘Do you think this system is working for most people?’ the answer will be ‘no’.
“Because people know they’re poorer now than they were 10 years ago. I had a prison officer talk to me, he gets £34 more now than he did nine years ago.”
Pidcock suggests that the poverty in her own Co Durham constituency has been a key part of convincing her of the sheer imperative of Corbyn’s agenda, and a break with New Labour.
“To anyone who knows anything about the teachings of socialism, [Corbyn’s programme] isn’t radical by any stretch of the imagination,” she laughs. “It’s actually rational common sense policies that speak to a failed capitalist system.
“I think some people might not like it because maybe they represent constituencies that aren’t ready for that kind of agenda, or don’t need it as much as others.”
Nonetheless, the political context post-election has allowed Labour to advocate a left agenda like never before. Pidcock says that in the past few weeks, she has witnessed a “consistent relinquishing of responsibility from the government.
“They don’t turn up for votes, they abstain on lots of things. It’s really difficult to explain to constituents what’s going on.”
She talks of Labour having to use the arcane procedure of the “humble address” in order to get the government to release Brexit documents.
“We’re basically having to get the Queen to intervene,” Pidcock laughs. “It seems to be an absolute shambles.”
Figures on Labour’s right wing have accused the party of not taking advantage of the government’s Brexit meltdown. Progress director Richard Angell accused the front bench of “having a lie-in” when the weekly shadow cabinet meeting was put back by 45 minutes.
Pidcock takes a different view. “There doesn’t necessarily seem to be any way other than what we’re doing to put any more pressure on them,” she says.
“But it goes hand in hand with workplace resistance, resistance on the streets. And it really is working. All the stuff on universal credit has made the government capitulate.”
But speaking out for a left agenda has also put Pidcock in the firing line. This peaked when she noted in an interview that she would not use her time in Westminster to make personal friendships with Conservative MPs.
The press found no shortage of political figures to condemn her — and several members of her own party took part in a newspaper feature describing cross-party friendships.
Then, in her speech to Conservative conference, Theresa May not only referred to Pidcock’s comments, but suggested this went against the spirit of the late Jo Cox — who said in her maiden speech that Brits “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Cox was not referring to inter-party soirees, but to how Irish, Pakistani and Indian immigrants had enhanced her constituency.
But in May’s view, Pidcock’s sentiments showed just how intolerant Labour had become under Corbyn.
So how did it feel to be at the centre of such criticism? Pidcock says it was a realisation that, with newspapers seeking endless commentary on the matter, “there’s a whole industry around commenting on fairly innocuous things.”
“I think what’s the most frustrating to me — and not just me because I think the team [working in her office] actually has to deal with more of it than myself — is that it draws them away, and sometimes this is intentional, from the bread-and-butter issues of helping people,” she says. “We’ve got things to get on with.”
Not that it’s all about her, she says. “If there is somebody who’s left-wing, socialist, feminist, all that kind of stuff, very quickly … people want to caricature you. I think that the building of the picture of who I am which clearly is so far removed from who I actually am, is clearly about saying: ‘Ah, don’t listen to anything that she says from hereafter because she would say that, or she’s that kind of person’.”
Pidcock says she never suggested that Conservative supporters should be ostracised by leftwingers.
“I think the conflation between Tory MPs and Tory voters is a really dangerous one,” she says. “The 16,000 people in my constituency in the last election do not wield power in this nation other than at that ballot box.”
She says the culture of Parliament and its jolly relationships between MPs of all parties, and journalists of all newspapers, came as “a bit of a shock.” And her reaction was to want to keep her relationships in Westminster professional.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction. “A lot of the reaction is people defending their own positions, their own relationships, and their own entrenched nature in this system.
“If they see me as any sort of threat or critique to the system, I’m sure people want to shut that down as quickly as possible, and put that in a box and get away. But they might have never been introspective about the system within which they sit.”
Interestingly, it’s Pidcock’s experience of running anti-racism workshops that she draws on here. “I used to often see when somebody had heard something for the first time or being challenged for some of their own behaviour, what you do get is an attack, or a defence of a person’s own position.
“That’s why my colleague Richard Burgon gets a massive amount of abuse, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn — these people are, I believe, of the movement, rather than [people who] just use the movement.”
Pidcock’s original critique of the Westminster bubble came before the exposure of multiple incidents of sexual harassment on the parliamentary estate.
She stresses the need to “challenge the culture of sexism,” but says any response to the issue can’t be narrowed down to the world of politics.
This “interpersonal sexism,” she says, must instead be tackled in conjunction with “structural sexism” — such as the impact of austerity on women and the closure of domestic violence refuges.
“The structural stuff actually causes deaths, people are dying at the hands of their partners,” she argues.
In spite of having never experienced anything like this before, becoming one of Britain’s best-known outspoken MPs is just another chapter in a lifetime of political experience for Pidcock.
“It’s a sharp learning curve, it’s a really valuable lesson, but it’s just another lesson about the system, and about power. It’s not going to want anybody to critique it.”