How to be an MP and stay true

It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny day in the north west of England, and a day unlike any other I’ve experienced in politics. I’m in the passenger seat of a car driven by Cat Smith, the 33-year-old MP for Lancaster & Fleetwood. A dynamic and vocal politician on the issues of poverty and social mobility, since 2016 she’s been the shadow cabinet minister for voter engagement and youth affairs. I joined Cat for a couple of days to see her work as an MP in a constituency with diverse challenges.

Over the course of this time I learnt much about what it takes to be an MP, and I also gained a further perspective on the challenges of navigating politics when you are not cut “from the usual cloth”?—?and the critical contributions that you can make.

As Cat signalled our arrival in Fleetwood, the area seemed worlds away from the Georgian brick buildings of neighbouring Lancaster. Fleetwood is the financially-neglected cousin to Lancaster with no major rail lines or connections, high unemployment, and low levels of ethnic diversity. Cat pointed out derelict fishing communities, which once employed a third of the population in the 1960s. Today the fish sold at the early morning market comes in by road from other ports. She spoke passionately of aims to improve rail links and to work with local people to revive fishing communities for the 21st century.

Confronting these and other challenges is an MP with a strong sense of her roots and community. Born in Cumbria and raised in the North West, Cat studied at local comprehensives before moving to Lancaster in 2003 as a university student. Having unsuccessfully stood for election as a councillor, it was in 2015 that she was elected in a tough contest, winning a marginal seat back from the Conservatives.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent time with Cat in all kinds of places, at her local constituency offices (she has two?—?one in Lancaster and another in Fleetwood), at a local hospital, with local students, up and down the high streets of Lancaster, and more.

Being open and connected to local people is at the heart of Cat’s work as an MP, as demonstrated by pretty much every stop of our road trip. Towards the end of my stay, we settled down for lunch at a local Wetherspoons. Every so often we were joined by a local keen to discuss an idea or issue, the informality of a chat in a local pub seemed to bring out honesty and lively discussion, something Cat clearly encourages.

As a young woman from a working-class background Cat shared how she has always felt different from the stereotype of a “typical” MP. What marks her out for me is how she proactively uses her unique perspective to make an impact in her work. Cat is an accomplished and compelling public speaker, but even still there’s nothing in Cat’s approach that creates distance from her audience; what you hear and see is what you get from your MP. I was really struck by how you can do these things in your own way and lead with your authenticity. I found this to be as true of Cat spending time with her in Westminster (I also spent two weeks in her Parliamentary office) as I did in her constituency: a handy reminder for me that even if you are fortunate enough to become a frontbench politician on the national stage, you can still be yourself, and will probably be all the more effective an MP for it.

It also gave me a fresh perspective on my own political journey. As a Peckham born and raised, black male local councillor, I am very used to being a rare (if not the only) black voice in many of the rooms I represent my constituents in; something which can serve to quieten my voice. But with my background comes lots of lived experience that others in the room often do not bring, whether that is my personal experience of serious youth violence and the damage it does, of precarious economic and living situations, and of much more; it all informs how I approach politics today and should strengthen, not weaken, the voice that I bring to the political table.

Cat apologised towards the end of our time in Lancaster and Fleetwood for “all the short stops and travelling about” we did in her patch, but it was this that demonstrated the challenges and rewards of being a MP that serves your constituency. As a local politician representing a ward facing similar challenges, I was inspired by her passionate commitment to changing poverty and joblessness through improving education and opportunities for work. And I left Lancaster and Fleetwood clear that being yourself and coming from the community you serve can be a powerful inspiration to become a parliamentary politician.

Peter Babudu