Making the most of the last weeks of Summer, I took a break from taking a break to meet Lee Sherriff, the Labour candidate for Carlisle, at her Chatsworth Square offices. With the election still around 9 months away, the result in Carlisle is far from decided. The boundary changes in 2010 favour the Conservatives; but Lord Ashcroft’s most recent polls in the area predict a Labour win, based on a leftwards swing in popular opinion.
Some interesting aspects of the election are, however, already decided. 2015 will be the first time in fifty years that the constituency will see a Conservative incumbent – John Stevenson MP – attempt to hold the seat against Labour. It is also the first election in which a female candidate has a realistic chance of winning.
We spoke about the issues that will determine the election; about mixing the personal and the political on Twitter; and about why Sherriff thinks that the day when nobody is discussing a candidate’s gender is the day that we don’t need gender quotas.
Let’s start with what matters in Carlisle. What are the top three issues that people bring up, when you’re out campaigning?
First, it’s the NHS. Second, the cost of living crisis. Then, people tend to bring up a range of more specific, local issues.
Is it the specific, local issues on which this seat will be fought, then?
The deciding issues will depend on the area you go to, I think. The bedroom tax is an issue in particular wards, where many people are affected, whereas in other wards, barely anyone is directly affected by it.
Before 2010, Carlisle had been a Labour seat since 1964. Why do you think Labour lost here in 2010? Was it the national mood, local issues, or both?
Partly, it was the political climate at the time – after thirteen years of one party being in government, it’s natural for people to want something to change. There was the boundary change, as well – so a mixture of issues, really. It was a very close run election: at the time it seemed like it could have gone either way. We are aware of the reasons that we lost, and we are trying to do things differently. But moving forward we want to make this our campaign for 2015, as opposed to something focused on past events.
In terms of the 2010 boundary changes, some more Conservative wards – Wetheral, for example – have been added to the Carlisle constituency. What are you doing to make inroads there? Or are you focusing on consolidating in your more traditional strongholds?
As far as we’re concerned, nowhere is a no-go area. For example, we are spending more time and doing more work in the rural areas, that perhaps hasn’t been done as much as it should in the past.
You mentioned that the bedroom tax is one policy issue which seems to have different importance in different areas within the constituency. Do you vary your campaign literature at all, based on which ward you’re in?
We have newsletters which go out every Saturday from the ward councillors, which I’m also a part of, which are very localised. But then we also have literature which goes out across the city, covering issues that will affect everybody. You do find that, on an issue like bedroom tax, just because someone isn’t personally affected, that doesn’t mean they’re not angry about it.
Carlisle has been, historically, a Labour stronghold. Now you’re out of national government, do you look to your majorities in local councils, and collaborate with those groups for your campaign?
Absolutely. I’m on the local council, I’m on the city council. We have the leader of the local council, the leader of the city council, and myself, and we all work closely together. It’s important that we have a good working relationship: we’re all there, trying to do the same job, which is to do the best for the city.
What specifics do you and local councils collaborate on?
We do a lot of campaigning together. We’re all involved in the party, so when things party-wide go on, we discuss and work on those together. There is some separation – there are issues that are local, and issues that are national – but issues can start locally and go national, or vice-versa, and at the end of the day our aim is to get fairness across the board: the right government, the right council, for the area.
You’re quite active online, and your presence on social media platforms seems to be event- and image-based, rather than specialist commentary. Do you think your online presence will change in the run-up to the election? How do you see things like Twitter and Facebook as tools for campaigning?
I try to keep it interesting. I think that’s the thing, it’s about me as a person. I don’t have separate accounts for personal use and for my politics. Nobody wants to read about just the politics; it’s nice to break it up. An account, it’s part of who you are; and you’re not just this, or just that – just a politician – are you? The social media content is all quite organic: nothing is planned ahead in that respect. And in the lead up to the election, I don’t envisage changing it.
Have you had a look at who’s following you? What kind of people do you think you’re reaching through Twitter and Facebook?
There are quite a lot of people who are obviously into politics, but I’ve noticed more and more that new followers tend to be people in Carlisle, who are starting to take notice and think about the election, which is good.
Do you find that you’re contacted online, asked questions by prospective constituents?
Yeah, quite often through direct messages, which are a good way to get in touch with people and address individual concerns. Sometimes people will tweet me, or retweet things, too – it’s all useful, in terms of getting in contact with different people.
Obviously you differentiate the content, then, between your online presence and the traditional literature. Your Twitter certainly seems a bit more personal. Do you find that people access both forms of communication, or do different people access these quite different sides of your campaign?
I’ve had a few cases of people I meet on the doorstep saying they’ll follow me on Twitter – some people seem to quite like the possibility of doing that. I remember speaking to one lady in particular when I was out campaigning, and we had a good long conversation on the basis of some of the online content. I wouldn’t say it happens a lot, but sometimes people recognise me in person, knowing from Twitter that I’m the Labour candidate for Carlisle.
I’d like to go back, now, to your selection as the Labour candidate for the Carlisle constituency. You were selected on an all-women shortlist. Do you support the use of these shortlists nationally? What do you think about them?
I think they’re a temporary measure – but that when you look at the numbers and the current ratio of men to women in Westminster, it’s something that is needed. To me, the day when nobody is discussing a candidate’s gender is the day that we don’t need them any more. I know there is sometimes controversy about it. But I think that if some of the people who make critical comments on the issue genuinely considered the comments they were making, they would understand why we need the shortlists.
Do you find that people bring it up when you’re campaigning? Or do you think that it’s more of an issue in the press?
It’s more of a press issue. Just the other week, we were saying in the office that while there might have been some controversy at the time, it’s barely mentioned now. Especially within the party, because I’ve come in to the position and worked hard, they’ve seen that I’m deserving of the position. No one can criticise the amount of work I’ve put in – so in the party, it’s just not an issue anymore. It’s not something I’m picking up on at all, as an issue, when I’m out campaigning. It’s very, very rare that we would. Sometimes people outside the party, with a certain agenda, might mention it. But even that is very rare now.
You’ve quite recently entered local politics, and very quickly moved onto the national scene. What drew you to get involved in the first place?
I’ve always had an interest – ever since I was a child. Then, I thought a few times about joining the party. But I had young children, it was a Labour government. I had my life: it was fine. For me, it was work, and the kids. I became a single mum and, through things like tax credits, managed to continue working, and managed to keep my house. The last election, people started saying that we need a change. I was thinking, “I grew up under Thatcher – do you not realise what you’re letting yourselves in for?” Then, just after the election, the coalition was formed, and I just thought, “I can’t sit and shout at the TV any more, I’ve got to do something.” I joined in May 2010, and as soon as I got involved, that was it. Here we are. I’m the kind of person that likes to throw myself in to things.
Do you think that the all-women shortlists encouraged you, and perhaps others like you, to apply for the role?
I would have gone for it anyway. I made that quite clear beforehand. When it was announced, I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity, particularly outside the party, to latch on to the all-women shortlist as the reason that I went for it and won. I had already made my intention to run clear, before it was even decided that Carlisle would be an all-woman shortlist.