The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. This week, it's Cat Smith...
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A wannabe firefighter, a pub regular, and perhaps David Cameron’s favourite Labour backbencher – there are many sides to Cat Smith.
The Lancaster and Fleetwood won the perhaps unwanted approval of Mr Cameron after asking about the UK’s credit rating during Prime Minister’s Questions.
A smiling Prime Minister replied: “The first question she asks is about fiscal responsibility and sustainability, I take that as a sign of progress.”
“I would say to her: there is a leadership election on, throw your hat in the ring.
“In that one question she has made more sense than all the rest of them put together—go for it!”
Cat declined his offer to stand, instead throwing her support behind Jeremy Corbyn – not to get him on the ballot to broaden the debate, but because she is a true believer in the Islington North MP.
She did used to work for him, after all.
A devout Christian, who sees Jesus as radical socialist, Cat joined the Labour Party after a few pints of lager in the Student Union bar while at university (we’ve all done it, right?)
Here is Cat Smith’s 15 from ‘15
1) Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Barrow-in-Furness and that is where I was raised. I didn’t move about or anything. I moved to Lancaster for university. I started off doing my degree in Religious Studies and I was very committed to the idea of theology and religion but then I discovered that my own Christian faith conflicted a little bit with studying academically. To be an academic it’s important to step back a little bit sometimes and I find it very hard to accept critiques of my own faith somehow. But I think at 18, where I was with my faith and where I was in academia didn’t sit very comfortably. I think these days I would be fine, but at 18 when you are finding your feet and finding your faith, and at the same time studying academically, was too much for me. So I switched and graduated in a degree in gender and sociology. I exchanged the religion for Women’s Studies and enjoyed every second of it.
2) What did you want to be when you were a child?
I really wanted to be a firefighter. My next door neighbour was a fireman and I always thought he was amazing. I did watch Fireman Sam as well, and I did Duke of Edinburgh Award and for my service section I did the fire brigade and my work experience at school was with the fire brigade. I had an accident, a severe head injury, and wrote it off really but right the way through until I was 18 I really wanted to be a firefighter. I was really committed.
Fireman Sam - an inspiration to many
3) When did you first become interested in politics?
When I was about 14 and I started campaigning for Fair Trade bananas. If you would have asked me how I would voted when I was 17 or 18 I’d have gone ‘I don’t really know’. I voted when I was 19 in the European Elections [in 2004] and I remember getting my ballot paper and I just didn’t know which one to vote for. I remember going up and down with my ballot paper with my pen. I knew I wasn’t a Tory, my dad’s a trade unionist and was in the trade council, I was raised in the Methodist church and I unknowingly had already ruled out some parties. I was looking at parties of the left, this was under a Labour government and that had been most of what I had known so it wasn’t particularly...I barely used to call it Labour at that point, and I remember really struggling. On my first ballot I’m afraid I didn’t vote for the Labour Party.
I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in a world that’s more equal, that wealth is shared more evenly, that we don’t have children being born into poverty in one of the richest countries in the world, that we don’t have homelessness going up, which we do have. I don’t think it’s radical to say that I think these should be a bit fairer, which is kind of what socialism is. I think people think the word ‘socialism’ is radical, but I don’t view my politics as particularly left wing, I think it’s more common sense. I was always brought up to play fairly, and share your things, and that’s how I think we should live as a society. I think it’s wrong to cut the rates of tax for the richest and then cut the support we are giving to the poorest, and I can’t square that at all.
Jesus was a radical socialist. He was there turning over the tables in the temple, and healing the sick, and touching lepers. Labour owes more to Methodism than to Marxism, as they say. Christianity and Jesus, as I know that relationship to be, I’m inspired by someone who was the Son of God, but he was also a socialist. The world that he preached about, the society that he tried to create and that was a message of peace and eradicating poverty and disease and that’s exactly what I think, to be a good Christian, I should campaign on and campaign for a better world. Having said that, we live in a multicultural society of many faiths and we all rub along and that’s exactly as it should be, and it bothers me that we have reserved places in the House of Lords for people of a Christian faith. We either do it properly and reflect society or we don’t. Faith is a private thing for me but it lives out through my public duties.
4) Do you have any political heroes?
I’m a bit cautious to hero worship, partly through my Methodist faith where we are very big on not creating false idols. I guess there are politicians I admire and look up to. I’ve got quite an internationalist outlook and in order to make the world a fairer place we need to work cooperatively, internationally and not see ourselves as a little Britain island, just floating out there and looking after our own.
One of the things that struck me as being a really good way of supporting the poorest people here and the poorest people elsewhere was Ken Livingstone’s campaign where he worked with the Venezuelan government to get cheap oil for London buses and then to give free travel for people that were out of work. That was one of those moments where I just thought ‘bingo’, that’s like working to support a country that was developing at that point and building it’s economy and at the same time helping the poorest people in one of the richest countries in the world. There is poverty, there is real poverty, in London even though it’s a rich city and I thought that was brilliant.
The first MP who ever gave me a break working here in Parliament was Jeremy Corbyn. I was there on the first day, I nominated him for the leadership. He’s been a real tutor. I don’t idolise him and I certainly wouldn’t call him a hero and we are all flawed human beings at the end of the day. He has helped develop my politics and shown me things and opened doors in my mind to look at things and encourage me. I started working for Jeremy in 2008 and I campaigned for him in the 2010 General Election. There are international injustices which I wasn’t even aware of and they’re huge and it was that level of education, I guess.
I couldn’t possibly name two men and not a woman, so the political biography that’s inspired me most is probably Jennie Lee’s. She was one of the first Labour woman MPs and she was born up in Scotland and dabbled with the Independent Labour Party for a while and she was married to Nye Bevan. To be that working class woman who became an MP, I thought if she could do it I could do it. I was born into a working-class family in Barrow and I was the first in my family to go off to university – the classic stuff that politicians say – and I found reading that book was one of the most…it gave me that oomph I think which I was really looking for at that point, when I was young adult.
5) When did you first stand for election?
I stood in the Lancaster City Council elections of 2007, beaten by the Green Party. Then I stood in the 2010 General Election in Wyre and Preston North just south of Lancaster and got beaten by the Tories. I stood again in 2015. Third time lucky. In 2010 it was a last minute thing. There was no candidate and Gordon was about to call the election, there wasn’t even a selection process.
I joined the Labour Party in the JCR bar of my college at Lancaster University after a few drinks. Many students go for night’s out and do things they don’t plan on doing, and off all the things, I think joining the Labour Party is one of the tamest.
6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?
I was working for the British Association of Social Workers. I was working on their policy and complaints team. Things around governance of social work.
7) What do you do to relax?
Socialising, going to the pub, enjoying a nice glass of wine or a pint of beer. I cycle, it started off as way of commuting as it’s faster than trying to drive a car around Lancaster,as it’s pretty much gridlocked so much of the time.
8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?
If you’d asked me before the election, I would probably have said transport because I have some very strong opinions on transport issues such as renationalising the railways. I think public transport is a real good way of bringing people together and I think that’s one thing that London does really well. You have integrated systems of public transport which is well funded and reliable and car use is going down in London. If we are going to meet our carbon targets we have to get more people on to public transport and whilst it is happening in London, it’s the reverse that’s happening elsewhere in the country and I just think there’s so much more you could do there. However I am really enjoying Foreign Office questions and Justice questions and I’ve decided to go for the Women’s and Equalities Select Committee.
The role Britain plays in the world isn’t always the role I would like Britain to play in the world and I think we could be better. We are quite selfish sometimes as a nation. I don’t think we realise how good we’ve got it. I don’t think we step up to the mark when it comes to combating climate change and I think we could do better.
I don’t think we should bomb [Isis in Syria]. Bombing anyone has never brought peace, and why now? One gunman working as part of a very small cell in Tunisia is not a reason to bomb Syria. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me that that’s a logical reaction. I believe in an ethical foreign policy, and an ethical foreign policy doesn’t mean bombing other countries, it means dialogue. Lasting peace always come through dialogue. Look at the troubles we had in Northern Ireland for decade upon decade. None of that was ever solved through military action, it was only ever solved by peace talks and I know it’s one small conflict but every conflict in the world is only ever going to be solved by dialogue and compromise - not bombs.
9) What is your favourite film?
I like animation, I like silly, silly animation. The last film I went to see at the cinema was Minions. There’s a lot of serious things which crosses my desk now as an MP and if I’m watching a film I want to unwind. What is dafter than dozens of small yellow creatures going from disaster to disaster in a bid to serve a master and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. I also enjoy Toy Story. I know that sounds really daft and I should have come up with some artsy film but I think cinema is there to help MPs relax! I just want something that’s going to make me laugh.
10) Who is your favourite band or artist?
I vary quite a lot, and will change my mind frequently, but at the moment I’m listening to quite a bit of Scissor Sisters. I got back into them and it feels very carnival-y and circus-y and happy. I’ve never been one that’s been able to get into angry music, with the exception of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ which was the anthem of my teenage years. Every break-up, that was on repeat.
11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?
I’m not that attached to the building, I’m not that bothered about the building. We always talk about moving out and I’m like ‘bring it on, that’s fine’. The best thing is the doorkeepers, they are so helpful and lovely. They really are. Any question I ask they might not know the answer but they know someone who does.
12) What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?
I get lost a lot, and I swear, like Hogwarts, the staircases move. I remember hearing one MP say it’s a bit like school, but other than being given a locker on the first day I’m not sure it is very much like my school.
13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?
Trust. No one trusts politicians. I think I should be trusted, but I don’t know if all politicians should. What really bothers me is the fact that before the election I was community activist and everyone was fine with that – I was a community activist trying to sort out the world and make it a better place, and now I’m a politician and I’m down there with traffic wardens! It’s the comments people make when they don’t know you, and they make assumptions, like you’re only in it for yourself or what you can get, and actually this is the best job I’ve ever had and I love it, I really, really love it, but that’s because I know that there are avenues that I can go down to make a difference to people’s lives in my constituency and beyond – globally.
Not everyone, some people are really lovely and get it, but some people just say ‘oh, you going to get that on expenses?’ when you go into the local pub and you get a round of drinks in. I still go to my local on a Friday night and someone always makes that joke and after a while it starts to hurt a little bit. That [the expenses scandal] was two Parliaments ago. There’s some quite funny incidents as well. I was in the pub one Friday night and this quite rowdy, not in a nasty way, group of 21-year-old lads came in and one of them goes: “Shit, that’s the MP!” and they suddenly go quiet and start behaving themselves and it’s really weird because you are thinking “Chill out, I’m having a quiet drink with mates here!” They drank up quickly and left, I felt terrible.
14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?
There’s everything. My constituency goes from the Yorkshire border, right through the Lune Valley, which is stunning, natural, classic England scenery, through some lovely villages, into the city of Lancaster, which is an historic city with an historic castle where there were witch trials. Then you’ve got the fishing port of Fleetwood which is where all the Fisherman’s Friends are made. You’ve got seaside, you’ve got historic, you’ve got countryside, it really is gorgeous. Every MP says there constituency is beautiful and all that – but they’re all lying!
15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?
You better ask someone who knows me really rather than me. I think I can be probably quite annoying. I’m fairly certain that my partner Ben thinks I’m quite annoying. We got engaged in March. It was on the tenth anniversary of our first date and we went back to the restaurant we first went to. On our first date we had gone to the Pizza Margherita in Lancaster and then went over the road to the Dukes Theatre and they had a French film showing called A Very Long Engagement. So we did the same on our anniversary, except we went over to the theatre and the film showing was some kind of lesbian dominatrix film, so we didn’t go in.
The best is I think I’m passionate, but sometimes passion can be perceived as a bit annoying. It’s the same trait but I suppose it depends whether you view it positively or negatively. I do take things seriously.