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?
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry