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18 February 2015updated 20 Aug 2021 7:47am

“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.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“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”.

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“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.

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