Image Credit: Sophie Brown
When she isn’t taking the train down to Kings Cross St Pancras to represent her constituents in Parliament, Rachael Maskell is busy engaging with York’s local communities. Upon first meeting Rachael, she informed me that she would not be attending the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. Instead of listening to delegates and Sir Keir Starmer’s conference speech, Rachael planned to conduct surgeries for residents.
Throughout the pandemic, students have expressed their frustration with the lack of support received from the UK Government. Students were rarely the focus of the press conferences in No.10 and after the Christmas break,it was unclear for many as to whether they should return to a ‘locked-down’ university experience. Rachael expressed her empathy for students who felt very disillusioned with politicians in the current political climate and said that “I think that students have been forgotten by this government.” Throughout the Covid lockdowns, Rachael said that she was in “close-contact with the Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery” and recognised the lack of governmental support for those students “living out in the city” who “had to pay for accommodation they couldn’t live in.”
Rather than blaming the pandemic entirely for the problems students experience while in higher education, Rachael identified “a completely broken system” as the issue. Rachael said that “A lot of students didn’t have the quality of education they had invested in” and called for a necessary “transition” to a system where students don’t have to pay for tuition fees. Recently, the Financial Times reported that the government plans to reduce the £27,295 threshold at which graduates will have to start repaying their loans and Rachael was keen to encourage students to “find their voice and speak out.” Rachael highlights that the initiative was taken by students in 2011 and 2012, although she promised to continue “fighting for students” in Parliament.
Unsurprisingly, Rachael described the current political arithmetic in the House of Commons as “very frustrating.” Proudest political achievements for Rachael so far in her political career include her efforts to try and thwart Brexit and she specifically highlights her contribution towards improving the health service in York. In response to the Bootham Park Hospital closing, Rachael told Nouse: “I campaigned against different regulators to see a single regulator.” In addition to this, Rachael pointed out that she had prioritised the issue of the River Ouse flooding and had ensured that York “was given the flood defences we needed.” Today, Rachael said that the greatest issue York faces is housing and this “is not just an affordability issue but includes the problem of having enough council housing.”
When not dealing with local issues, Rachael has been extremely vocal in the Commons during debates regarding the UK Government’s response to the Afghanistan crisis. Rachael tells Nouse that she has made extensive efforts to help refugees and believes that politicians in the House should act as “stewards on this planet.” When asked whether the UK Government’s plans to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees over five years was enough, Rachael said that “We have got a responsibility to these people and as one of the richest countries in the world- we’ve got to be generous!”
In York, Rachael explains that she has been working with private developers to put in place arrangements to house refugees when they arrive. Refugees in York are likely to receive a warm reception, as Rachael recalls her conversations with those in York who have served in Afghanistan and says that “they really want refugees to come to York and to repay them for the support they received during their time in Afghanistan.” For Rachael, a fundamental problem with the ARAP scheme is that question marks remain over whether it is equipped to help the LGBTQ+ community, as she highlighted that “in order to be prioritised for the scheme you have to give a reason and if you come forward and identify as LGBTQ+ then my worry is that this clearly puts you at risk.” Rachael argued that it was concerning that the “government hasn't come up with a solution for how you can have your identity protected.”
With reports in the York Press suggesting that York hospital has been struggling with staff shortages, Nouse questioned Rachael about the challenges the NHS could encounter this winter. Rachael asserted “I’ve been listening to a lot of staff that have been struggling with the trauma of Covid- people are just exhausted and burnt out.” While acknowledging that “the hospital is going to be very challenged over the winter”, Rachael blamed the government for failing to “get a grip over the workforce shortages.
“The government needs to pay their NHS staff what they deserve and they need to expand their training places.” Above all, Rachael is deeply concerned about the growing mental health crisis and said that York was in need of a new hospital.
Despite the Labour Party remaining in opposition since Maskell first entered Parliament in 2015, she is an experienced member of Sir Keir Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet. As the current Shadow Minister for the Voluntary Sector and Charities, Rachael occupied more high-profile roles in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet when she served as Shadow Environment Secretary from 2016-2017 and then later as Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights in 2020. The greater seniority given to Maskell during her time in Corbyn’s cabinet could explain why she is more complimentary of her former leader.
Rachael described serving Corbyn as a “real honour”. Jeremy is characterised as a leader that was always willing to reach out to MPs in his party, as Rachael says that “Jeremy ran a very open party, and he was constantly engaged with all of us as MPs.” It would not be uncommon for Jeremy to “just pick up the phone and have a discussion” insisted Rachael. Under Starmer’s leadership, Rachael says that this is “less so”, although she acknowledges that he is “very different.”
With the Labour Party now looking to the next general election as their chance to return to power after more than a decade of the Conservative Party’s electoral dominance, Nouse asked Rachael what she thought the party needed to change to convince voters to return to the party. First and foremost, Rachael said that the party needs to be “bold, clear and simple.” Rachael would like to see attention placed on the importance of “having good public services” and argued that “if we invest in our future economy, that is what is going to make the difference.” In the future, Rachael said that you should look out for “Boris Johnson putting out a narrative that he is a man of action and gets things done”, as “if we turn our heads and look behind him, he is leaving a trail of devastation.”
When not putting questions to government ministers or the prime minister, Rachael says that what she admires about York when out and about is its “social history” and “high level of civil society.”
This interview was conducted on Saturday 25 September.