“We came over to make ice cream”: Tonia Antoniazzi MP on her struggle to accept Brexit

The new MP for Gower, the UK’s most marginal seat at the election, on why she joined Labour, playing rugby for Wales, and her Italian immigrant story.

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If you’re ever after an ice cream in Wales, you might end up in an Antoniazzi café. It is just one of the many famous Italian family names that run cafés throughout the country, among Chiappas, Bracchis, Contis, Rabaiottis and many more. Italians began migrating to south Wales at the turn of the twentieth century, where they opened everything from ice cream parlours to fish and chip shops.

Many of those bringing café culture to Wales were from Bardi, a northern Italian town near the city of Parma. One man who made this 1,000-mile journey during the First World War was the grandfather of Tonia Antoniazzi, the newly elected Labour MP for Gower in south Wales.

We meet for coffee at a café in parliament, a world away from those of her ancestors. She is relaxed in a black-and-white patterned t-shirt and blue jeans, joking with a fellow new MP passing by about the approving “yeeeaaarrhh” noises you make in the chamber instead of clapping.

“I never thought of what would happen if I did win”

“There are still Antoniazzi cafés all over Wales,” she grins over her Americano. “We’re from the family that came over to make ice cream and run cafés. And there are many others that are similarly [part of] a long tradition in my constituency.”

Her story is one that may never have been represented in Parliament. Gower was the UK’s most marginal seat following the 2015 election, when the Tories unexpectedly won the Labour heartland consituency by 27 votes. It wasn’t expected to go Labour’s way this time around, and Antoniazzi – head of languages at a local school – is “still shell-shocked”.

“We weren’t being expected to win back Cardiff North and Gower, and I thought, shoulders back, you’ve done the best you can,” she recalls of election night. “I never thought of what would happen if I did win – I hadn’t planned to win, but I hadn’t planned to lose; I just thought que sera, sera, really.”

She puts her victory down to Welsh Labour being “well-respected”, an “excellent manifesto” and Jeremy Corbyn’s “positive campaign” and appeal to young voters. “It did become very much a two-horse race,” she adds. “People were very disappointed that they had a Tory MP; they just couldn’t believe that Gower was blue.”

“You have me to thank for ice cream”

Her stint playing rugby for Wales also helped. For about three years, she played for the national team – her last of nine caps being in 1999. A lot of her teammates from the Nineties came out to back her campaign.

She was a tighthead prop – “not that you would have guessed at all!” she jokes, gesturing at her broad frame. It’s a position that requires power at the front of a scrum. Although she misses the camaraderie, and is grateful for her rugby friends’ support, she had to “hang up my rugby boots” by her 39th birthday. A rib injury made it difficult for her to look after her son, who is now 13. “I had to take a little bit more responsibility,” she smiles.

Antoniazzi only became involved in politics three years ago, when navigating childcare support and pension changes as a single mother. “I took the brunt of all the bills of my break-up, and that made me realise that if I’m like this, and I have a good wage coming in, then what’s it like for everyone else?”

So she joined the Labour Party in 2014, and began campaigning for Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli – the south Wales town where she grew up.

“It’s very difficult for me to be able to accept Brexit”

In her maiden speech, Antoniazzi joked to the Commons that, “yes, you have me to thank for ice cream”, and used her immigration story to champion freedom of movement – an aspect of EU membership currently dividing parliament and her party:

“The freedom of movement and opportunities afforded to my forefathers is close to my heart. I will fight for those rights to continue, not only for my child but for the children of Gower and Wales.”

Antoniazzi – who learned Italian when she was growing up, and has been a language teacher for over 20 years – did not defy Jeremy Corbyn by voting for the Queen's Speech amendment to stay in the single market, but admits it’s a tricky subject. We speak before the vote, when she says she would “personally like to vote for” single market membership but will toe the party line.

“It’s very hard for me, being the head of languages, and being in an immigrant family, it’s very difficult for me to be able to accept Brexit, to be honest with you,” she says. “For me, we have to have free movement of EU citizens. I’m concerned for my son, my friends who live abroad, because they’re worried. They’re settled in France, Italy, Germany, and what does the future hold for them?

“But also, what does the future hold for my child, and our children, who are going to want to work abroad. And if I want to live abroad, where are we going to stand?” she asks. “I would like to see unfettered access to the common market, and the customs union . . . [that’s] what I want for my constituents.”

As her political career unfolds, it looks like Antoniazzi will be facing some of the toughest decisions in British politics to honour her ancestors’ ice cream legacy.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.