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25 January 2017

Tracy Brabin on representing Jo Cox’s seat: “The community is still raw“

The former soap actress won her seat in a by-election in October, after the murder of the Labour MP. 

By Julia Rampen

In October, Tracy Brabin was elected Labour MP for Batley and Spen. Her predecessor, Jo Cox, had been murdered on the streets of her constituency. Out of respect, other mainstream parties did not put up candidates for the by-election. But as the results came out, far-right protestors heckled Brabin from the crowd. 

Another woman might have taken this as the cue to hire a bodyguard, and retreat into the safety of Westminster. The new MP, though, smiled as if she hadn’t heard a word. “I can’t wait to get to work,” she declared in her acceptance speech. 

A month later, she had enrolled on the cross-party fact finding trip to Kurdistan. When I meet her in the airy security of Portcullis House, when she is just shy of 100 days as an MP, she is recounting the adventure with a big smile on her face.

“What I learnt there was really helpful about what is one of the biggest issues – Daesh,” she says. Brabin, who briefly left the Labour party over the decision to go to war in Iraq, wanted to know whether the Kurds blamed the militant force that calls itself Islamic State on this fateful choice. The answer she got reassured her. “They said, no, you didn’t create it. That might be controversial but it was important to hear that on the ground.”

As for the hecklers closer to home: “I don’t recognise those people from Batley and Spen.” There is, she suggests, “a sadness about them – they have been left out of society”.  

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This time last year, Brabin was also travelling, but on something of a different itinerary. A successful actress and screenwriter, she was preparing to jet off to Singapore to perform in a Noel Coward play. 

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“I was thinking, this New Year’s Eve, that last New Year’s Eve I wouldn’t have expected to be there,” Brabin says of Parliament. Nevertheless, she feels like she is in the right place. “It was desperately sad but I do feel all roads led here. I have been a campaigner all my life.”

As for Batley and Spen, “the community is still raw”, she says. “I went to a Remembrance Sunday service and one of the policemen started talking to me. He was there when Jo was murdered, he was on duty and he was in floods of tears.” Brabin has inherited Cox’s constituency team: “They are Trojans, the way they work.”

For all the good will, Brabin faces the same challenge as any Labour MP in an area where the majority voted to leave the EU, including Brabin’s own family. So far, the party’s conversations about immigration have been painfully awkward. So how is she negotiating it? 

“It is incredibly difficult,” she acknowledges. “The truth is Batley and Spen has the lowest number of EU passport holders in Yorkshire and Humber. What is perception and what is true is very hard to get across.”

MPs are divided on the link between immigration and pay, but Brabin believes this is an underlying issue. “The big issue is about undercutting wages,” she says. “You can’t run a business lower than the minimum wage and then not be surprised that people are angry.” In February 2016, one local bed factory owner was found to be using Hungarians as slave labour, with workers receiving just £10 a week for 112 hours of toil. (The owner was jailed). 

“That is illegal,” she says. “What we should be doing is fighting for a rise in standards for those skilled jobs, so they will attract local people and also protect people who are most vulnerable.”

A proud multiculturalist, Brabin is also clear-eyed about the challenges in her constituency. “There are schools that are not very integrated – white schools and Asian schools where there is no cross-referencing.”

For her opponents on the right, all this adds up to the alienation of a white working class. Brabin, though, points out young working-class men from Asian backgrounds are also lacking opportunities. A mother of two daughters aged 19 and 23, she believes the pressures on a younger generation have led to more anxiety. “I would also say that this generation feels left behind,” she argues. “That is reflected in mental health among young people.”

Brabin herself comes from a working-class background. Her career speaks of opportunity, but also elbow grease – a minor role on Coronation Street before she landed the major part of Tricia Armstrong; screenwriter credits on everything from comedy to drama; a long list of television roles. If she wants to give one thing back to her local area, it’s the business of TV.  

“Manufacturing is shrinking, cultural industries are expanding,” she says. It would be a small step, she believes, for the local Asian wedding industry to branch out into theatrical make-up. 

Meanwhile, dramatic projects would bring the community together. “Culture is a very powerful tool for social cohesion,” she says. “When you have a play to put on it doesn’t matter who you pray to, because you need to make it work.” 

As well as talking to local industry, Brabin has been leading a campaign to protect the services at a local hospital, visiting food banks and trying to use her position as a “blank slate” to patch up divisions in her parliamentary party.

“I used to say to my sister, ‘I feel so useless I am just an actor’,” she recalls. “And she would say, ‘No, when I get home I get to relax’.

“Both have their role. Acting and writing are great skill sets for this job. I am not saying you pretend, but it’s the confidence.”

As for her predecessor’s legacy, if she could speak to Cox, she would thank her “for making the relationship with the constituents strong enough”.

“It could have been horrendous,” she says, with the same steely smile she used on election night. “[But] I feel so supported by the constituents, who are all desperate for me to do well.”