The Parliament building always has a very intense energy. It is filled with an incoherent series of corridors and lobbies, weaving their ways around debating chambers, offices and bars. There is also a gift shop, where demented egg cups (or shot glasses?) of former Prime Ministers sit in a glass cabinet, leering out into the dark mahogany lined corridor.
Today, it’s even more frenetic than normal, as MPs are gearing up for the final vote on the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill which will see us ‘leave’ the European Union on January 31st. It’s almost a month to the day since Charlotte Nichols was elected as Labour Member of Parliament for Warrington North and she’s still not quite figured the place out.
“We wear these green and white lanyards if we’re new and eventually, if you stand looking lost for long enough someone will come and help you find your way,” she says, pausing for a second by the egg cups. They watch on as she reorientates herself before confidently striding towards a set of doors and out into the terrace.
28-year-old Nichols spent much of her working life in trade unions, before being selected as a parliamentary candidate just weeks before last year’s December general election. In the month since Labour’s crushing defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, she’s been embroiled in two ‘scandals’ and seen the party leader resign, prompting a bruising leadership election. We sat down with her to talk about the experience of becoming an MP, the media torment, and where the party should go next.
How was it being elected?
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I was selected as candidate four and a half weeks before the election was called. Then it was straight into the campaign and before I knew it I was coming off stage after they announced the result, and the returning officer put an envelope in my hand which had ‘Member Of Parliament’ written on it. Once I had it, I was officially the MP.
What was in the envelope? Was it the nuclear codes?
I wish I could say it was really spicy stuff like official state secrets, but no – it’s literally like payroll, email setup and travel information. Just practical stuff.
With an 80 seat Tory majority, it’s going to be hard to affect change through Parliament. How can one hope to serve your constituency, or the wider left movement, in the face of such overwhelming odds?
Fundamentally, for any MP, your sole driving purpose has got to be your constituents back home. It’s really easy to get disaffected and disillusioned, but I think you have to resist the temptation. We’re actually at a much more important place in many ways than we would have been if we’d got a huge landslide because the result was so bad that this is now about the future of the party. The project of renewing the party and learning from our mistakes is what I think has to be the driving purpose behind every Labour MP, so we don’t find ourselves in a position like this – or heaven forbid, a worse one – next time around. We’ve gotta keep the energy we harnessed in the election and pour it into rebuilding, as well as pushing for rebalancing the economy, bringing in a new industrial green revolution and all of the big systemic changes to the way society is structured to put more power in the hands of normal people.
You’re talking about this energy that people brought to the general election – you know, 10s of thousands of people out on the streets door-knocking across the country – what do you think those people should be doing now, in terms of rebuilding the party?
Everyone is heartbroken by the result. We have to use the energy that people were bringing during the election campaign to rebuild trust with our core vote – not just in red wall seats, but in seats in London, Scotland, wales, across the country where our vote has felt neglected.
The biggest way to do that is focusing on local government, because with a massive Conservative majority, one of the best ways that Labour can not only rebuild trust with people, but show the difference that Labour makes to people’s lives, is going to be in local government. Warrington council and Preston council both get a lot of attention for some of the innovative ways that they try and raise revenue to stop having to cut back in other areas.
There’s a lot to be said about the Preston Model around housing and transport and how these things really make a difference to people. We also need to look at other areas Labour is involved in: whether it’s local trade unions campaigning on getting a real living wage, or banning zero-hours contracts, or being embedded in local community campaigns around hospital or fire station closures, or schools that need support or food banks.
Are there are ‘routes’ the Labour Party could take, in terms of leadership candidates, that would see that five-year project of renewal scuppered, and never able to get off the ground?
I don’t think so. As much as it’s very cathartic to go for each other, you know everyone is hurting. Everyone wants to blame everyone else or start pointing fingers and getting aggy with each other, but that’s really not a constructive way of moving forward.
I think it’s about having a positive campaign that’s really focused on people’s vision rather than ‘who don’t we want’. I know that sounds a bit like I’m politicking, but if we’re seen to be scrapping with each other and being really negative that’s what the public’s going to see on social media and in party meetings. So it’s trying to encourage everyone to be like ‘what’s good about your candidate’ as opposed to what’s bad about someone else.
I hope every single one of them gets their heads kicked in by the good folk of Glasgow. https://t.co/5JXSofOdnV
— Charlotte Nichols (@charlotte2153) October 24, 2019
You’re someone who hasn’t been without controversy in the last month… so I wanted to talk about kicking Nazis in the head.
I posted a tweet in October 2019. But this was before I even had any idea that I might be a parliamentary candidate. There were a group of Lazio fans who were playing Celtic in what I believe was the Champions League – or it might have been Europa I wasn’t following. There were a group of about 100 Lazio fans who were parading through the streets of Glasgow doing the Hitler salute, and I remember seeing the video on my timeline and just thinking, ‘oh my god, people are openly doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Britain’. You know, we talk about issues of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and I don’t seek to disparage that debate at all, but we’re all talking about antisemitism on the left like it’s this big issue, but then there are these people doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Glasgow. I felt physically sick seeing it.
Then everything happened with the election campaign, and I was coming off the stage as a newly elected MP and straight away, the BBC put the camera on me and say: ‘so what about this tweet where you said that these football fans should have their heads kicked in?’ I was just like ‘Wait… what? Are you asking me to apologise to Nazis?’ I found the whole thing really strange.
As someone who is Jewish and as someone who’s grandad fought in World War 2, the fact that there were people doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Britain, and that it was being implied that I was the one in the wrong, I just found totally disconcerting. There are other times online where I’ve told people to fuck off, sure, and I recognise that I’m an elected public official, so I’ve got to be more responsible in my use of social media. But would I apologise to a Nazi? Um… no.
Highly unimpressed by the marchers behind us 😷 pic.twitter.com/EG8uRxiTLM
— Charlotte Nichols (@charlotte2153) August 26, 2017
That leads me to the furore around the picture that emerged of you pulling faces at LGBTQ Tories…
That one popped up over the Christmas recess, it wasn’t something that had been remotely on my radar before I just sort of got tagged in this tweet and suddenly my phone just started absolutely melting. I got all these tweets calling me a homophobe, but I have never said anything that could be remotely construed in that way. Then when I saw it was about that tweet, I just started laughing. It’s a picture from Manchester pride 2017, me and a friend of mine who were wearing LGBT Labour t-shirts (I‘m also LGBT myself). We were pulling silly faces at the fact that the LGBTories were behind us because we were like, ‘why have the organisers of Pride put the Conservatives block behind the Labour Party block?’ Obviously we’re not friends at parties, it would be like putting Greenpeace and Shell next to each other. It was just such a silly throwaway tweet from years ago.
People are always going to try and spin things that you’ve said, but I was just looking at the tweet thinking: ‘this is the one? Are you ok hun?’ Heaven forbid, if I had said something that was homophobic I, of course, would apologise unquestionably, but I don’t think that I’ve ever, to my knowledge, said anything that could be construed in that way.
Do you think these two instances – asking a Jewish woman to apologise for thinking Nazis shouldn’t be walking on the streets, and then asking an LGBTQ woman to apologise for not wanting to be marching next to the party that implemented structural homophobia – are such ridiculous and insane attack lines, but they’re ones that the media have picked up on? Do you worry that no matter what Labour does, you’re always going to be faced with this kind of coverage?
I don’t think the Labour Party has ever had an easy time with the press. You look at the stuff the Sun used to say about Blair when he was Prime Minister, and the stuff about Neil Kinnock being the most dangerous man in Britain. But the difference then was about trust – people saw what the media were saying and could disregard it because it wasn’t something that filtered through before. Whereas when you’ve lost the trust of people and there are negative attack lines in the media, that kind of reinforces what they already believe and their experience of the party and their understanding of how it operates and who the kind of people who support the party are. We can never expect the media to give Labour a really easy time, so the important part is rebuilding trust within the community which means that when people see ridiculous attack lines they can see them for what they are, which is ridiculous attack lines. That’s the way to solve the issue, rather than trying to say ‘we expect the media to treat us more fairly’. I mean… why would they?
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