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The rapid rise of Laura Pidcock – the Labour MP tipped as a possible successor to Corbyn

The 30-year-old newcomer loathes “the exoticisation of the working class” in politics. “I don’t want to be part of romanticising it.”

As we walk through Consett, a former steel town in North West Durham, Laura Pidcock laughs loudly about her new London life. Since she was elected last year, the Labour MP stays near Westminster during the week, dodging colleagues at the local Tesco. “I don’t want them to see me buying my Super Noodles!” she wails.

Though dressed all in black from her blazer to her backpack, she catches the attention of passersby – “we’re right behind you, Laura!” – and is happier here, about an hour’s drive from the old pit village of New Hartley where she was born, than in the capital.

As a young newcomer, Pidcock, 30, is perhaps best known for her reluctance to charm fellow politicians. In the summer after the election, she made headlines saying she wouldn’t befriend Conservative MPs. “I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them,” she told the left-wing site Skwawkbox. “The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional.”

Although this has been Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s approach for nearly 50 years, her words touched a nerve in today’s political atmosphere, and she’s been asked about it ever since – though she hasn’t changed her mind.

“It’s got a bit boring,” she says, over tea in a café around the corner from Consett’s sparse high street. The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” plays over the stereo. Pidcock mimics the heckles she gets from Tory MPs around Parliament of “Will you be my friend?” and “Ohhh, it’s my long-lost friend!”, her green eyes flashing wryly behind tortoiseshell-framed glasses.

“My parents have always told me at the heart of socialism is friendship and relationships, which is quite funny considering all the bloody furore over what I said,” she grins.

Pidcock was brought up in a politically active household by her social worker mother and her father who worked on the riot-stricken North Shields estate of Meadow Well. They took their daughter to anti-Thatcher marches in her buggy, and protested against apartheid. “My brother and sister thought it was all very cringe because they were teenagers, [when my parents] used to take South African goods to the counter and say ‘we’re not buying these’.”

Memories of the Victorian-era Hartley Colliery disaster haunted her birthplace, and she’s angry about the North East’s post-industrial malaise. Her first job at 15 was at McDonald’s (“I did quite enjoy it, though it’s really hard; you get a load of abuse”), and then she moved into mental health care work and anti-racism campaigning.

But not everyone here escapes precarious employment. Decrying benefit cuts and privatisation, Pidcock gives Consett – which fell into commuter town limbo after the steelworks closed in 1980 – as an example. “Thousands of people were made unemployed overnight, and obviously that has a huge impact on a community,” she says. “I think replacing that with a mega Tesco isn’t long-term, sustainable, good quality work.”

In Consett centre, the old, white-fronted sports and social Steel Club sits directly opposite a giant Iceland and Lidl – as if in a stand-off. You alight at the space in between when arriving on the bus from Durham or Newcastle.

Jeremy Corbyn visited last November, when welfare reforms were about to hit the town, and made national headlines having egg and chips at Geraldine’s café (all net curtains and posters of the royals; apparently Geraldine wants to host Theresa May too).

In January of this year, Pidcock was promoted to shadow labour minister, which would be a cabinet position under a Labour government. Having been tipped as Corbyn’s successor, she finds it “impossible” to answer whether she’d like to lead. “If you say ‘no’, which is my natural instinct… people might criticise you for maybe not being loyal enough – ‘if that was asked of you, would you not step up?’ But I genuinely am not interested,” she says, citing other ways to make a difference: “I think the activists at the minute are extremely influential.”

Pidcock supports the newly empowered Labour membership, unlike Corbynsceptic colleagues who fear being ousted by their local parties. “If you have really been convinced that you are right about an analysis on society or on our leadership or whatever it was, and that bears not to be true, there’s going to be a fall-out from that, isn’t there?” asks Pidcock, regarding these tensions.

“And ultimately, I believe in sovereignty of the membership… I just can’t, now I’ve become an MP, with the threat that might happen to me one day, go ‘oh no, I don’t agree with members having the power to do that [deselection] anymore’.”

Yet she would change her mind about leaving the EU – for which she makes a left-wing case – if members officially opposed Labour’s pro-Brexit stance. “I don’t necessarily think they’ve [the Labour leadership] had a direct conversation with members, in the sense we’ve not had an internal referendum recently,” admits Pidcock. “If they were given the choice and decided that, I would have to accept that. I do think it jars though with the democratic will of the rest of the nation.”

Although the North East was a net beneficiary of EU funding, Pidcock found “people were suffering even within that structure”. She asks: “Why would anybody vote for things to stay the same when their life is crap? Or it feels crap?”

Pidcock still feels “100 per cent working-class”, but she loathes “the exoticisation of the working class” in politics. “I don’t want to be part of romanticising it,” she says. “People might feel excluded by the use of the word ‘class’, if they [feel] they’ve brought themselves out of that class. I’m talking about most people… on your seventy grands in London, or whatever. Because if they lose their job, they very quickly lose everything that makes their existence appear middle-class.”

From London to Consett, Pidcock is a modern voice selling Corbynism to the country. She admits Labour winning is “not inevitable” and “the people need still to be convinced that socialism should be the majority in power. We’ve got a lot of work to do to strengthen and give confidence to members of the public”. Could she be the one to do it?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.