York Vision sat down with Fleur Anderson, Putney’s new Labour MP, to have a chat about Brexit, Corbyn, and her time at the University of York.
She came to York for the UYLC’s first conference, where a number of speakers came on March 12, almost a month before Keir Starmer became Labour’s new leader and replaced the Shadow Cabinet.
This interview has been edited for the sake of clarity.
VISION: Parliament is sort of a sacred building. It’s ancient. What’s it like being a new MP there?
FLEUR ANDERSON: I was selected a year before the election. So this whole year built up to that. It’s been a really intense year. I’ve been campaigning, I’ve been out talking to people. And then it builds up to the election itself. It’s just a massive honour to be elected. So exciting and amazing to see. I always campaigned to see if I could win and encouraged everyone else: “Yes, of course we can win.” But you never know. You can’t let yourself think that you would [win]. It was a very, very close election. I always thought there’d be about five votes in it. So, to actually get there and win, it’s just very exciting. We didn’t win the Labour government; I never had imagined that I would win in Putney, and that we wouldn’t win nationally. I’d always thought we either wouldn’t win in Putney, and we wouldn’t win nationally; or I would win and that would mean we’ve got a Labour government, because that’s the kind of seat that Putney is. So it was two things to get over: to be able to take all of the concerns and the issues that people have raised with me on the doorstep, take them to a national level and be able to be their voice and their representative is a real honour. But at the same time, it’s really disappointing that I’m in opposition and trying to work out what I can do in the opposition.
VISION: The latest cohort is the most gender balanced in the history of Parliament, which is incredible, with 220 female MPs. But that still means that two thirds of MPs are men. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Westminster is still a bit of a boys’ club. Do you think that’s the case? And do you think it’ll ever get better?
FA: I read Harriet Harman’s articles when I studied politics here. Harriet Harman is herself an alumnus. And she, right back then, was calling for more equality and for more women to stand up. And that was one of my inspirations to get involved locally in campaigns, to become a local Councillor and then become an MP. Lots of people were saying, “Oh, you should stand,” and I thought, “Well, I keep telling other women they should stand. So, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is.” So that was definitely one of the reasons why I stood. When we sat down in with the 2019 intake, it’s a room mainly of women. But then I walk into the chamber and I remember “oh no, it’s very male-dominated”. Sometimes I can look across the Conservative Party, and it’s pretty much all men, which is a good reminder for me that we’ve got a long way to go. I think we will get there. But it’s only going to be by very concerted action. It’s not just going to happen. There have to be all-women shortlists, actual action has to be taken.
VISION: What other actions could the political system here take in order to get women more involved in politics?
FA: One is to have more job shares in political parties and for local councillors, for example. I job shared as the deputy leader of Wandsworth council opposition. But that was a big fight to get that. And lots of men were saying, Labour MPs and Labour councillors as well, were saying, “You can’t do that. You can’t job share. Why would you want to?” It’s very practical things like that to enable more women to think, “I could juggle my whole life with my whole family and job, if there can also be childcare in political meetings.” We used to have that a lot in the Labour Party. For some reason, we don’t have it very much anymore. I hardly ever see it. For many years, when I had small children, I just couldn’t go to political meetings. It’s practical things like job shares and childcare. But it’s also seeing more role models. I’m seeing more people speak out, which is why I think it will change, because we do. When you look at the Labour front bench now, you can see just how equal it is. And makes any young, younger person think, “Oh, I could do that as well.” You can see that Labour has now reached parity, and the Conservatives haven’t. A big reason for that is the all-women shortlist, because there’s just a lot of being in the know and being in the boys’ club. Labour Party Unions are a big part of your selection. They provide money for people standing for selection. At the moment, it costs a lot of money to stand to be an MP.
VISION: How much does it usually cost?
FA: It costs a lot because you have to write to all the Labour Party members in the constituency, and just that postage and printing costs a lot of money. It cost me over £1000 to stand which puts you off if you’re working class, if you’re on lower pay, and if you’re a woman.
VISION: What sort of form should that support come in? Rachel Reeve spoke earlier, and she was telling us how she went to Oxford to do PPE. And that’s a bit of a typical pipeline, isn’t it? You go to Oxford, you do PPE. And you become an MP down the line. How do you think it might be best to get people outside the pipeline into Parliament to represent the people they know in a constituency?
FA: I think a lot of people come from being a local councillor. I’ve come from being a local councillor, that’s one area which I think we can do so much better on. It’s much more possible because it’s in your local place. There are loads of women activists, [who talk about] issues about their children’s school, on work issues. But they’re not being encouraged or enabled to stand by being given that bit of information on how to stand. Other people seem to have got a fast track on this, because they might have come from that more standard background. So parties have to sit down and we’re trying to do this in our local area and really intentionally decide that we want to have more people from black and ethnic minorities, and we want to have more women, how are we going to do that and build that into every stage of the process.
VISION: So how have you been doing that in your constituency then?
FA: We’re having a women’s empowerment meeting, which is just building us up towards local elections in two years time, but thinking at that stage, “Okay, so let’s get more women interested locally, let’s find out who might be.” And then we can mentor them. We can mentor them as we go, we can find out who’s interested. But then we also stand alongside them and help give them the insider track of this process, widen the pool of people who we know who might be interested and enable them to get involved. It’s thinking ahead; it’s spotting those kind of people who might come along to one canvas, welcoming them and making them feel that this is something they can be part of. It’s just doing that quite consistently. It’s in the small things that will make a big change, I think.
VISION: Have you had one of those mentors that you were talking about in Parliament? Or have you just been going at this on your own?
FA: Different MPs are interested in different issues that I’m interested in, and I’ve kind of learned along with them. There’s an MP that’s really interested in air pollution, which I’m interested in. So we’re working a lot together. It’s not one person, but lots of different people. The Labour Party MPs are really friendly and helpful.
VISION: Has it just been MPs from the Labour Party who’ve been helping you, or has there been more cross party support as well?
FA: It doesn’t really work like that.
[We both have a chuckle at this.]
VISION: What do you think your biggest goal is, in this term, being an MP?
FA: That’s really hard. I really want to be a good, hardworking MP. I don’t want this to be a one-term. I’ve turned Putney red. And I want it to stay red in the long term. So I want to be known as someone who’s on people’s side, [that] they really value me as their local MP. I’ve worked really hard for people and they can see that, so they vote for me again in the future. Because I want us to have a Labour government next time. We can only get the change that I want to see in society if that happens. So I’ve got to do my part.
VISION: What are those changes in society that you want to see?
FA: Locally, there are all sorts of local campaigns that I’m going to be part of. It’s about transport. We’ve got a lack of disabled access. I’ve been campaigning for our Tube stations, for example, this week. I want to stop Heathrow expansion. There’s nothing more that we can do on for climate change that would be as big as stopping Heathrow expansion. That is a really big target of mine. I was at the High Court two weeks ago where the judge said actually, it’s against policy, it’s “legally fatal” is the term he used. So I’m gonna keep campaigning on that. Climate is a very, very big issue. The big thing is like Heathrow and cutting our carbon, but also on air pollution in our streets as well. That’s a really big priority of mine.
VISION: Not to mention the dreaded elephant in the room, but Brexit’s still happening.
FA: I’d love to keep talking about it. It’s definitely not done.
VISION: It’s been reported in both The Guardian and The Express that you’re open to a second referendum. Are you still open for that, even after Mr Johnson signs the divorce papers from the European Union?
FA: It’s happening. I totally see that it’s happening. But how it happens is now the fight.
VISION: How do you want it to happen in your ideal world?
FA: All those standards for workers’ rights, consumer rights, and environmental standards that were baked into the EU’s rules and regulations, they are things that we fought for. We were part of that. I don’t want them to be watered down. So I would like to be that as our baseline; we start there. And in fact, this is our opportunity to do even better. That’s what I’d like our ambition to be: to say, “Okay, we are now separate from those. But actually, we can have better environmental standards, better worker rights, better consumer rights.” What I’m really worried about is that there are lots of trade deals happening behind closed doors. There’s far less scrutiny. So, before the trade deals had to be scrutinized by the European Parliament, by our MEPs and our MPs. But now they don’t have to be. There’s a whole level of transparency that’s gone in the process. So, we’re not going to know, for months down the line, what these trade deals are actually going to look like, and what the outcome is going to be for us. I think there’s a huge role to play still in the Brexit negotiations.
VISION: This election was called by a lot of outlets and media organisations as mostly a Brexit election. Do you think that’s true? And do you think that’s potentially part of the reason why Labour didn’t win, and actually lost a lot of key support, especially with the red wall in the North?
FA: Brexit was a big part of the election in Putney. It’s a very, very Remain constituency. And so for us, one of the biggest messages was,“It’s your last chance to stop Brexit.” We dithered on Brexit as the Labour Party. So I think that was part of the reason why we lost. The Tories were better at being a Leave party than we were at being a Remain party. So, I don’t think it’s the fact that we were a Remain party. I just think it’s the fact that we didn’t do very well at that. We didn’t have a very clear message. It wasn’t very clear into the last couple of weeks that we were a Remain party. We lost votes to the Liberal Democrats. I know here in this constituency [York Outer], Labour would have won by seven votes, if you put together the Lib Dem and the Labour vote, so the Lib Dems split the vote. But there’s a very interesting survey called the British Election Survey which looked at the hypothesis of, “Was Labour too left wing a party? Was it too much a Brexit party? Or was it the Corbyn effect? Which of those three was it?” And in their analysis, Jeremy Corbyn as the leader was the biggest factor, not Brexit. And that’s what I saw on the doorstep as well.
VISION: So what did you think of Corbyn as a leader throughout his term?
FA: When I studied here, I really saw the need for systematic change; the change of our whole system. The global economy is not working. That’s what I had my eyes open to when I was a student. And then I worked in international development around the world and I’ve seen exactly that: there’s a failure of capitalism. What I liked about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was that he was not just looking at things we could change along the surface, but actually [took] a fundamental look at the whole that’s not working. However, he was not seen as patriotic, I think. There’s something about him, people didn’t trust his leadership. And he didn’t manage to get his message across. And we can’t just blame the media for that. There was something about his leadership that was really, really problematic for us in the election. That’s a big part of the story of why we lost the election, I think. And it’s a big challenge for us now going forward.
VISION: Was there anything else that you saw that might have been considered problematic to the British public about Mr Corbyn?
FA: Well, there is that. I just think that he was known for being a strong leader. In a world where people trust politicians less, he was a very trustworthy person. But he lost that when it came to not being decisive over Brexit and then antisemitism. So those were two issues on which he wasn’t decisive enough. And so that lost the main reason people put their faith in him in 2017. And they didn’t feel they could put their faith in him in 2019. And we lost 28% of the voters who voted in for Labour in 2017.
VISION: You mentioned just there that people trust politicians less and less these days. Have you got any thoughts as to why that might be the case?
FA: Well, I think that people think they don’t mean what they say. And they’re just trying to say things that are in it for them.
VISION: Do you think that’s true overall?
FA: It’s true that there is that perception of politicians.
VISION: Do you think that it’s true that the politicians put their own self interest over the interests of their constituents?
FA: I dont know. I’m a new MP, I would just not like to be that. That’s all I’m concentrating on: being an MP who is true to my word. I’m very accessible for everyone. I know what my constituents want, and I stand up for them in Westminster. So I’m finding out as much as anyone else is, and I’m meeting all these new MPs, but I hope to not be like that. And that’s all I’m focusing on.
VISION: Are you looking forward to the rest of your term?
FA: Very much. I love being an MP. I really enjoy it. I loved studying politics when I was here.
VISION: So what did you actually study here at uni? Just straight politics? How did you find it?
FA: Yeah. Straight politics. I absolutely loved it. It’s such a varied course. So I was studying the politics of novels, to international development to America to philosophy. It’s a really varied course.
VISION: What was your favourite part of being at the Uni of York?
FA: Well, I really liked being able to campaign on stuff. I found out about fair trade, and I was part of what we called “Third World First”, which became “People On Planet”. We were campaigning outside Lloyds Bank in York. And so I just enjoyed the time to be able to campaign on issues. I also loved dancing, going clubbing loads. It’s a great time when you can just spend time thinking about big issues, but also taking action as well.
VISION: Just one final question: if there was, someone at this university who is going to read this article, who was considering being an MP, what would you say to encourage them to go out there and participate in politics?
FA: Well, if I can become an MP, anyone can. Absolutely. Don’t think that you can’t. But also go off and do something else first. Go off and find out what your passion is. It could be a whole range of things and you don’t have to follow a political path. I certainly didn’t. Go off and find your passion. Campaign for change in society and then take that back to being an MP in the future. But never think that you can’t. Don’t let anyone else tell you you can’t.
Image Credit: David Woolfall