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29 March 2019

On the road in Crewe: Laura Smith on life as a Labour MP in a Brexit town

Two years ago, the former primary school teacher didn’t expect to beat the Tories in her hometown. Now she rebels against Jeremy Corbyn to represent its Leave voters.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Crewe was once a railway town. Now it’s known mainly as a place to change trains.

Built on the might of its railway works during the industrial revolution, the east Cheshire hub would once have been awash on Friday afternoons with workers on bikes, cycling out of its rail engineering facility, Crewe Works.

Over 20,000 worked there at its peak.

Most of the old site – which now hosts a supermarket and other businesses, with a housing development on the way – was redeveloped in the Eighties. Some train maintenance and inspection works remain at the facility, bought by the transport multinational Bombardier in 2001, but employment has fallen below 1,000.

Rows of boarded-up shopfronts line the town centre, with cafés that once served its bus station now shuttered. They disappeared along with some bus routes as local transport cuts kicked in.

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In a square off the shopping centre, a shiny metal train wheel perches on a brick pedestal. The sculpture celebrates a proud industrial heritage, but sits surrounded by closed units.

Crewe has become “emptier and emptier” over the past decade, according to Laura Smith, a 34-year-old former primary school teacher who grew up nearby. She remembers working in local pubs and going to the shops and cinema with friends via a bus into the town centre. Crewe has always contrasted with its county’s stereotype – “leafy Cheshire, footballers’ wives”, is how Smith puts it – but the town is now especially in need of some love.

“You can see here, this used to all be full of shops,” she tells me, gesturing towards a barren stretch of the town square as we wander round. “It’s a bit of a ghost town. I have hope that it will change but it’s going to need people investing in towns because for too long the whole focus has been on metropolitan cities. These kinds of places have just been forgotten about.”

Due to uncertainty over the future of HS2 (a high speed rail project whose hub station would be in Crewe), a general decline of high streets throughout the UK, and local government cuts, the town centre here is visibly lacking investment.

“We’re just seeing more and more people packing up and going; it’s a sad state,” says Smith.

Six years ago, towards the beginning of the Conservative government’s austerity plan, Smith and her fellow teachers were taking food and toothbrushes into school for deprived pupils. Some would even arrive in school without underwear. One child, who rooted through a bin for an apple core another had discarded, sticks in her mind.

Smith eventually organised a protest against school funding cuts in March 2017, with hundreds of parents marching through the nearby market town of Sandbach – “a place that has never had a march since the Peasants’ Revolt”, she laughs.

Less than three months later, Smith became MP for Crewe & Nantwich. She unexpectedly beat its Conservative MP since 2008, Edward Timpson, whose family owns the locally-grown Timpson shoe repair chain, by 48 votes after three excruciating recounts.

“I wasn’t expecting to win, so I then had to think ‘I’m going to have to speak to my parents to find out what I’m going to do with my children!’” Smith, a single parent to two children who were aged one and five at the time, recalls.

Growing up on the only council estate in Nantwich – a quaint market town peppered with listed Tudor buildings, which makes up the contrasting half of the constituency – Smith felt embarrassed in such an affluent area. When seeing friends, she would ask to be picked up and dropped off on the corner, to avoid the estate.

“I want to shake myself now,” she laughs, showing me the old two-storey redbrick terrace, as she drives us around her old haunts to an eclectic soundtrack of David Bowie, Alanis Morissette, Nina Simone and Simple Minds.

“I was always the poor kid in school,” she recalls. “I felt like I might as well have come from Mars.”

The youngest of four, Smith remembers the “rug being pulled from under us” as a child, when her father lost his business while suffering from clinical depression.

The Labour MP at the time, Gwyneth Dunwoody – who represented Crewe from 1974 until she died in 2008 – was his friend, and helped the family secure their council house. He then became a taxi driver, while Smith’s mother, a Methodist preacher, worked in care and volunteered in schools.

Now her parents and other family members look after Smith’s two children during the week when she’s in Westminster. She takes her seven-year-old son (who, speaking for the nation, is “so bored of Brexit!”) to school on Monday mornings, and tries to return from London by Wednesday afternoon.

Brexit votes make this tough, and not just logistically. Smith campaigned and voted to remain in the European Union, whereas just over 60 per cent of her constituents voted to leave. Her party is treading a fine line on its stance towards a second referendum.

Smith resigned from Labour’s frontbench as shadow Cabinet Office minister last June to vote against the UK joining the European Economic Area (Jeremy Corbyn had instructed his MPs to abstain). She was also one of 14 Labour MPs to rebel in January against Yvette Cooper’s proposal to prevent no deal and delay departure.

“I support the politics of the Labour Party and the direction it’s gone in; I don’t want to be somebody who breaks the whip,” she tells me. “From the conversations I’ve had with employers and businesses here, they do not want a no-deal Brexit. It’s a very different story if you go and knock on doors. There are an awful lot of people who do want that.”

For Smith, Brexit happened because of the way Crewe, like other northern post-industrial towns, has been neglected. “They have voted for change,” she says. “I have gone the journey with this where I do think that we can come out of this the other side with a Brexit that isn’t a disaster, where towns like this can flourish again.”

Since the EU referendum result, both Labour and the Conservatives have been pitching to English towns, realising their electoral sway. But Smith values action over words.

“There’s definitely an understanding that our towns need investment – but I think at the same time, I just hope it’s not one of those election promises, ‘here’s a token gesture’, because it’s going to take a holistic approach to sort somewhere like this,” she warns.

“Just throwing a small amount of money at it and getting a Primark or something isn’t going to change Crewe.”

The only way this will work, in her opinion, is with a Labour government. She was so exercised about this belief at Labour Party conference last September that she called for a general strike in the absence of an election.

“Comrades, we must topple this cruel and callous Tory government as soon as we can,” she told a packed hall in Liverpool at an event run by the pro-Corbyn network, Momentum. “And if we can’t get a general election, we should organise with our brothers and sisters in the trade unions to bring an end to this government with a general strike.”

Labour’s leadership, despite some shadow frontbenchers giving her a standing ovation, distanced itself from her comments.

“It was a highly rhetorical speech,” she says now, when I bring it up over tea in her constituency office. “I wasn’t expecting there really to be a general strike… it’s a Momentum fringe event.”

Yet she insists “there does have to come a point where people understand the power that they have… I think too often we allow that apathy, that feeling of nothing can ever change, things are just being done to us, to take over. My thing to people always is, no, people can change stuff. But you have to do it in a way that is united.”

As a single parent who relied on working tax credits and benefits while working, Smith’s background is still a rarity in the House of Commons.

She finds herself explaining to people in Westminster that she doesn’t own a house, and that it’s normal to have worked at a pub and cinema while doing a school placement during her teacher training. She wouldn’t have been able to go to university without the maintenance grant, which has since been scrapped.

“For me, as a mother of two young children, it’s always been about government. It’s their education, the health service – domestic issues that really terrify me. What is social care going to look like for my parents who are in their seventies?” she asks.

This is what keeps her up at night. “As a Labour government, what are our priorities going to be? I’m more terrified of another ten, 20 years of Conservative government, rather than the main priority and focus being inside or outside of the EU. Some people don’t like that opinion.”

In a razor-thin marginal seat, impatient for Brexit and hungry for investment, it’s an opinion that could yet define Crewe’s future.