Image Credit: Callum Tennant
We're in a new year and a new decade, did you have any resolutions?
Well I’m obviously really focused on what’s happening in Westminster and the constituency.
You’ve brought us straight into politics. On a national scale, the recent election certainly didn’t go as planned for your party. Do you think the problems existed within the party’s Brexit plan or Jeremy Corbyn?
There are a whole lot of complex issues that define today’s politics: of course, the Conservatives had a very strong narrative that really cut through. My concern is that we’re economically worse off now, as a result of Brexit. York could be one of the worst-hit places in the country.
Congratulations, however, on holding your seat. What are your priorities for the community?
In many respects, they haven’t changed. I want to address the housing and economic inequality. Low-wage insecure work in York does impact on people’s choice of living location. We also have to address the future. Our climate is burning, and we cannot ignore the crisis. Part of helping this is helping York find more sustainable public transport. The government’s road-building schemes are going to introduce more roads, more capacity. I disagree with the MP for York Outer on this.
On houses and employment, how do you plan to fit the student community into your priorities?
Housing is a massive issue. I’ve seen some gruesome pictures, and heard some horrible stories about exploitation in the private rental sector. We’re seeing at the moment the option of cooperative housing being built; currently in York, we’ve got YorSpace. There’s always going to be tension around where students live in the city, but I hear so many great stories about students, who are fantastic neighbours working in their community. I heard a lovely story about a student who took the couple who lives next door to the hospital. It’s about recognising your role within a community.
Some of the horror stories seem to give us a bit of a bad name.
I think the amount of work students do in community volunteering and supporting projects are to be celebrated too, of course.
Another part of your responsibility is to prepare for flooding. Do you think we’re in a better position for that now?
We’re definitely better prepared than we were in 2015 when we saw the failure of the Foss Barrier and the wrecking of so many homes and businesses, but we’re not quite there yet.
The problem I have with the Environment Agency’s programme is that it’s all about putting higher barriers up around the city. What we should be looking at is catchment management, slowing the flows of the river, storing water, planting. It’s costing the economy billions of pounds - £17 million for the Foss Barrier upgrade. If we’re serious about cutting the cost of flooding, we have to mitigate where it matters, not just building barriers.
I’d like to talk about the NHS and your background now. What changes have you seen in it from the start of your career there to now?
I started working in the NHS in the mid-90s. It was bad; nurses were working double shifts, lots of sick people, and no resources. It showed how much the NHS had been run into the ground. Throughout the Labour government I saw the difference, the investment, the increase in staff. It made such a difference in quality of life for patients. After austerity measures came in, straight away admin staff disappeared who were playing a crucial role.
I remember walking onto a ward one day and there were a pile of incontinence pads, and it said how much it would cost to use them. I thought “hang on a minute, this is about a patient’s dignity. What’s the message you’re trying to send?” That was the wakeup call for the NHS. People are stressed out, and there are challenges in mental health too. We’re rationing surgeries, which is a big issue I’ve been battling here. Anyone’s experience in the NHS is amazing, as are the workers, but it’s clearly breaking. Something like IVF was an issue that was brought to me. York is far more restrictive than elsewhere. We’ve seen rationing of people needing knee replacements because some patients are obese. These patients have been told they’ll have to wait. They’re not going to lose weight if they’ve got pain in their hip or knee!
What is also really important is mental health, which in your 2015 maiden speech you highlighted. In that time do you feel enough progress has been made?
I feel we are regressing. It’s a thing that keeps me awake at night and I get very stressed over. Particularly with youngsters as well.
Life is really difficult, especially when you are a teenager or a student, and now with social media and a lot of societal pressures. There are initiatives like mental health facilities in schools, but we have to be proactive about creating a better environment and better understanding. If you break your arm, you may be waiting in A&E for a few hours but you will be seen. If your mind is breaking, you may wait months. I’m still battling, shall I say, I meet with ministers, right before the election the last conversation I had with a minister was concerning the removal of the GP-led mental health service in York, not cutting it but removing it. A really needed service particularly for those people struggling to access it, people with substance abuse issues who wouldn’t traditionally be able to access it were dependent on that, I believe it was harmful to remove that service.
Looking to the future, your party is up for new leadership. Why did you initially put your support behind Clive Lewis?
Okay, I think out of all the candidates, Clive had a very sound analysis about where we are as a party and where we need to be. He’s a big thinker and we need somebody in that position who could communicate. I think what we saw in the time he was in the leadership race is that he led the debate. I think that showed his capability as leading us as a nation. I’ve also worked closely with Clive and we were both constantly looking at how the party represents and empowers people. We address the issues in a way that will include a better society in the longer term.
Labour has only won eight elections; part of politics is about being in power to do things. I don’t want to be in opposition forever. We need to find a way though without being radical, which is what his agenda is, as well as mine.
Why have you now decided to back Emily Thornberry?
Well, we are at a stage where constituency parties now make a nomination of the trade unions. So, Emily was struggling to get onto the ballot paper and I thought it would be absolutely right to come in behind her.
Speaking about another one of your colleagues, were you friendly with Caroline Flint when you were working together?
Caroline was a Yorkshire MP obviously, but I didn’t work that closely with her. That can happen in parliament.
She’s now claiming that Emily once said to her, “I’m glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours”. Did Emily say this?
Emily has said she didn’t. I wasn’t there. I’m not going to make judgement on that. I very much hope she didn’t. She’s contested it and put down a legal challenge so I’m sure the truth will come out in the future.
If the quote is contested, was Caroline lying?
To be honest, in a world where we have 135 children who didn’t have a home to call their own this Christmas, I find this a complete frustration because we have to talk about the things that really matter.
I want to talk about the bigger picture. Last year, a common accusation was that the tone of politics had become bitter. This is why The Jo Cox Foundation had called for a new parliamentary code to be set. Do you hold hope for this and if so would it be stuck to?
It’s a really important debate that I raised early on in my time in parliament about the toxic culture. There is what’s called mobbing, a collective bullying, that we are seeing. I notice this when I carry things like the transport brief, a very male dominated environment. Not many women attended these debates, and if I stood up, many men tried to shout me down so it’s very noisy in the chamber.
People shout at you when you are trying to speak. The behaviour in parliament is embarrassing. Behaviour must change and I shall support all proposals. I sat on the working party that was looking at bullying issues in parliament to try and create a framework for addressing these issues. What I would like to see is the legislation in place that essentially says for parliament to get on with the job they are there to do.
For the students reading our paper, what would you say to those wanting to get into politics?
Politics is ultimately about power, and how you use it. People always look to Westminster, to say that’s where politics happens. I don’t believe that. Young people have a very powerful voice. Bring about the change you want to see, and never accept someone saying no. That word shouldn’t belong in people’s lexicons.
A thick skin is needed?
People will always attack because you are challenging the status quo. You‘re putting your life on the line for this. I often look back to the historic suffragette movement and what those women sacrificed to enable us to have the right to put a cross in a box. I have real hope that young people are finding their voice and leading the way forward.
Nouse extends their thanks to Rachael Maskell MP for taking the time to speak with student media.