The Labour candidate for Carlisle, Lee Sherriff. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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“I know what life’s like”: On the road with Lee Sherriff, the working single mother heading for Westminster

Labour’s candidate for Carlisle on being a political outsider, why we need more working-class voices in politics, and how her background helps her campaign.

“I’m a working-class mum of three so I know what life’s like,” Lee Sherriff tells a resident while out door-knocking in Upperby, a suburb of Carlisle.

“Good for you!” the elderly lady replies. “Watch out, dear, it’s slippery”.

We shuffle along a pavement glazed with slimy black ice to the next house. “I’m sick of politicians at the moment,” a man who answers the door in a wax jacket and slippers says, looking down. “They’re like children – they get paid all that money and just goad each other.”

“Let me get in,” Sherriff insists. “I’m a mum – if they’re being like kids, I’ll sort them out!”

He smiles, but says he feels “disillusioned”.

“I’m a different politician,” Sherriff reassures him. “I’m working-class, I’m from Carlisle. We should vote here, because all the rich people in London will.” The man still looks unsure, but he nods and takes a leaflet.

A young woman who is just about to go out on the school run opens the door at the next house, pulling a pushchair into her hallway as she does so. “I don’t normally vote,” she admits.

Sherriff launches into her pitch, her breath clouding in the freezing air: “All those men in suits in London will be voting! And there’s never been a female MP in Cumbria. I’m a single mum of three, and the MP here is a solicitor who lives in Great Corby.”

“So he’s a tosser then?” laughs the woman.

And on we slip and slide to the next house.

When out doorknocking with Lee Sherriff, Labour’s candidate for Carlisle, her dedication is astonishing. We knock on people’s doors in icy conditions for two hours without a break. She wears a purple dress and black boots (“I hate wearing trousers”) and a pair of fingerless gloves her daughter bought her from the pound shop. I, as a pathetic southerner, can’t feel my toes after the first ten minutes. And I’m wearing trousers.

Giving me a rundown of her weekly routine, Sherriff, who was selected in September 2012, says she does three of these sessions three days a week, and two sessions on the remaining days apart from Wednesday, when she catches up on emails, has meetings, does a phone canvass and finds time to go home and “swap my washing over”.

What is also clear from our trip around the houses is the desire of voters – and, crucially, non-voters – for a different kind of politician. Sherriff, who grew up in Carlisle, raised three children here independently and began working and living in a bedsit away from her family at the age of 17, has that practical but sympathetic outlook that seems so absent from our current political class.

A political outsider, and one who only joined the party in 2010 after the last election, she’s forthright about the need to have different voices in parliament – and is very likely to become one of them in May. The Tory MP here is John Stevenson, who appears to be little-known both in Westminster and Carlisle – by some accounts he was caught off-guard at the last election, not expecting to win the seat that had been in Labour hands for nearly half a century. He has a precarious majority of 853 votes.

Watch Lee Sherriff and the Carlisle Labour party doing the Harlem Shake. Video: YouTube/Lee Sherriff

Sherriff tells constituents, many of whom are sceptical about voting, that such a small margin means every vote will count. She is also keen to point out the differences between herself and Stevenson.

“I’ve been proud to be a single mum,” she tells me. “I look at my three kids – my eldest is at university, one in sixth form, one in secondary school – and I think, ‘Wow, I’m proud of you’, and, you know, ‘I did that!’”

Far from growing tired of a media that fixates on her background and motherhood, she believes her back story is key to her personality – and the way she approaches politics and her candidacy.

“As a single mum, people don’t realise how hard it is because you’ve got dual roles. Within your household, you’re both parents, which is difficult. And I think in a way I’m actually closer to my kids than a lot of people are because we have to work together as a team . . .

“I’ve always worked to provide for them, kept the mortgage and whatever else. And I’m proud of the fact that both of my eldest, as soon as they were old enough to work, even though they're both in education, went and got Saturday jobs. Obviously the work ethic has rubbed off on them.”

Sherriff’s parents, who I meet at her campaign shop in the centre of town, are supportive, helping out with childcare and being available at her campaign base when she’s out canvassing. They are dividing their support between her campaign, and that of her sister, who is coincidentally also running to be a Labour MP in the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury. They won their council seats on the same day. “I think they’ve got a dilemma haven’t they?” Sherriff chuckles when I ask where her parents will be on election night.

When Sherriff was 17, her parents moved down to Yorkshire following her father’s promotion at work, taking her younger sister with them. But Sherriff, aged 17, decided she didn’t want to move: “I got myself a bedsit much to their dismay.”

It was soon after this that she started working, leaving college because she “found that I had to work to be able to survive and really to support myself”. She did all sorts of jobs – working in a restaurant, running a cafe, taking a job in Woolworths, anything to get by. She is now a support worker for a mental health charity, and, until recently, had three different jobs in that field while working both as a councillor and a parliamentary candidate.

Both her experience of living alone from such a young age and bringing up three children on her own have given her the independence she believes is necessary in politics. “I am quite strong-willed,” she smiles. “I put my mind to it, and I do something. You really can’t be a wallflower in politics, you’ve got challenges to face, especially as a woman in politics. So there are challenges to face, and I face them. I think probably the way I am helps me to do that.”

She adds: “I’ve not had an easy life by any... I can think of...” she trails off. “Being a candidate is hard in a way, it’s challenging, but it’s pleasant, because the best bit to me is going out and meeting everybody and I’ve really enjoyed that – whereas there have been other periods in my life where things have maybe not been as hard work but they’ve been unpleasant.” She won’t elaborate.

“And I won’t lie to you, it is hard work. Sometimes you’re doing emails at two in the morning and hoovering at 11 o’ clock at night,” she laughs.

But rather than being a campaign robot, eyes fixed obsessively on Westminster, Sherriff is not taking herself too seriously. She tells me a story about how, when Harriet Harman came to visit, she took her ice-skating – much to the horror of an accompanying party press officer, and Sherriff and the Carlisle Labour party did the Harlem Shake a couple of years ago, which is one of the main clips on her YouTube page.

As we walk around the constituency, she teaches me some of the local dialect – “‘Twining’ is moaning, ‘gadge’ is man, ‘bewer’ is woman, ‘jewkle’ is dog, and my favourite word is ‘parney’, which is rain, or water”. But when she tries to use modern slang, her children tell her off. “They tell me I can’t say ‘bant’ instead of banter at 42,” she smiles. She says her children were at first “embarrassed” by her political ambitions, but have come round to the new situation – although she jokes that she only takes her son leafleting “as a punishment”.

Cumbria has never had a woman MP. Sherriff finds this “pretty shocking”, and ties it into her argument that parliament should be more representative:

“We don’t want 650 men in suits, but in the same breath we don’t want 650 of me either – we need a diverse range across the board, so that every section of society is represented . . .

“We need to get more people in there, more women in there, to be able to change it. For anything to change, you’ve got to set the wheels in motion: encourage more women to get there, and more people from all sorts of backgrounds. More working-class people as well – it’s not just about gender, it’s about background as well, isn’t it?”

This is where the Labour party has fallen down. While Ed Miliband comes under repeated attack for surrounding himself with a narrow elite of like-minded advisers, his parliamentary party – especially the frontbench – is criticised for failing to represent working-class people as the party used to. There is also the parachute problem, in which London-based advisers are sent to run for office around the country by Labour HQ.

However, in yet another example of how Sherriff will be a gift for the party if she wins, she is very on-message on this subject: “It’s not about how much money somebody’s got, or the background they’re from,” she asserts.

“It’s about the attitudes they’ve got as well. You can be a millionaire but still want to make sure that the poorer people in society are looked after. It’s taking nothing away from them [middle-class Labour politicians], but I just think that it is about having a wider spectrum of people down there.”

And, come parney or shine, Sherriff is going to fight to be one of those people.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.