Today is the start of Week Eight in my new role as a Labour MP. The first question I often get asked is: “So, how is life as an MP?”. The truth is that each day has been different so far, and at this stage I am just trying not to get lost in the Commons. I am still very much getting to grips with the new procedures, including some of the many long-held customs and practices that I hope will evolve as we make our parliament more in touch with modern day life.
Like many people from my background, I was not active in student politics, and yet growing up on a council estate in the heart of Brixton meant I was very much aware of the role of my local council. I was dependent on local government to ensure that basic – yet important – services, like the repairs to the communal boiler and the estate window cleaning schedule, happened on time. Councillors are the lifeblood of local politics and they have a big impact on the quality of life of residents. Councillors are responsible for everything from housing, education, local regeneration and economic growth, environment and community safety, right through to the potholes that constitute every councillor’s favourite casework enquiry.
I decided to put myself forward to stand as a councillor because I was shocked that we had only four BAME councillors out of 63. This was in no way representative of our community. As a councillor, I held many different roles, including chair of a scrutiny committee, deputy cabinet member and cabinet member with responsibility of a departmental budget of £20m. At a time when councils are facing a host of challenges – reduced budgets, low voter engagement, more complex needs from a growing local population – councillors sometimes get bad press from central government and MPs. But the skills I acquired from having the confidence to speak at a busy public meeting, making a case for a controversial policy proposal to a group of residents, presenting difficult budgetary increase proposals and getting heckled from time to time helped me to develop the confidence to stand for parliament.
In 2016, I was elected as an Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark, working with the mayor of London. I firmly believe that regional government can work hand in hand with local and central government – if only the government trusted local politicians and devolved more powers to the local and regional level. It doesn’t make sense that the mayor of London and Assembly oversee policing in London – whereas the wider probation, re-offending and criminal justice system is still controlled centrally, and the re-offending rate for young people at 47.5% is higher than the rest of England and Wales.
Who can forget the sorry saga of Southern Rail, or ‘Southern Fail’ as they were often referred to by long suffering commuters, in Lambeth and Southwark? Where the government failed, a coalition of businesses, community groups, cross-party politicians and even Conservative MPs all supported a Labour mayor of London who stepped in with his proposals for the government to transfer control of rail infrastructure management to TfL so that it could manage the devolved suburban services.
I will always remember the feeling of being elected as a councillor, as an Assembly Member and now in my new role as an MP. My previous posts offered training on how to deal with a resident who contacts you, distressed, as they are facing eviction for non-payment of rent due to a mix-up in their housing benefits payment. It involved responding to what sometimes seemed like angry emails and letters from community groups, businesses and residents who were passionate about their local causes. Eating cold sandwiches after a long committee meeting, not having enough time to grab dinner before the next event, was normal. These experiences have made me excited for the next chapter in my political career.
The next few years will continue to be challenging for local councillors and a Labour mayor in London. I know that only a Labour government will invest in council homes, bring an end to the unfair welfare policies that has plunged so many Vauxhall residents into financial difficulties, reverse the cuts in education so that our teachers aren’t forced to organise fundraisers, address the challenge that is social care and properly fund the NHS. Until that happens, it is our local Labour councillors, a Labour mayor in London and hard-working voluntary and community groups that will continue to support the most vulnerable residents. I will be their champion in parliament as they carry out this difficult task.