Have you heard the one about the new Labour MP who refuses to be friends with Tories? When Laura Pidcock dropped into an interview with a left-wing website that she has ‘absolutely no intention of being friends with’ any Tories, she was surprised by the fuss that followed. It might have seemed odd to her, but within Parliament it’s well known that friendships that cross the divide spring up the whole time. Sometimes it’s personal: Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, caused headlines when she started dating a nationalist MSP. But more often, political: to achieve something, MPs from different parties often have to work together.
But the new member for North West Durham sounds as if she is appalled at the whole system. Her first speech in the House of Commons was a denunciation of it. ‘The clothes, the language, the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination, are symbolic of the system at large,’ she told her fellow MPs. Then she elaborated in her interview, saying she’s ‘not interested in being cosy’ with the Tories (or ‘the enemy’), as she’s ‘disgusted at the way they’re running this country — it’s visceral’. It was such strong, almost hateful language that I felt a little nervous trotting up to her in Parliament and asking if she’d like to be interviewed by The Spectator.
The strangest thing about the 29-year-old is that, in person, there is no trace of the angry tribalist. She’s constantly smiling, giggling quite often, and has a warmth to her that is so at odds with her public image as to be rather discombobulating. So what’s going on?
‘From a very, very young age I was taught to see everything through a political lens and through a class lens,’ she explains. She attended anti-Thatcher protests in her buggy and in her final year of primary school she recalls her parents celebrating Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 election. At secondary school she was known as ‘the political one’ and a ‘swot’. ‘I always felt compelled to stand up for people that were being ribbed because they didn’t have the best trainers. There were very visible signs of poverty in the school that I was very aware of.’
She’s on the left of her party, but dislikes being described as a ‘Corbynite’, which to her makes Labour sound like a ‘cult of personality’. But she says she can’t think of anything she really disagrees with him on. Before entering Parliament she was a trade unionist and anti-racism campaigner, working on the Show Racism the Red Card campaign. She was also a councillor, but lost her Northumberland seat to a Tory a month before being elected to Parliament.
Her constituency has the highest rate of suicides in the country. She says she often feels ‘close to tears’ after her surgeries with people in crisis, often as a result of government policies such as benefit cuts and the rather clunky introduction of universal credit. ‘I do feel genuinely sick and frustrated and, yes, angry. But really upset that there can be this picture painted that is so starkly removed from what I’m seeing in my constituency.’ She is in politics both to confront stereotypes and those who she thinks propagate stereotypes.
But here is the puzzle: Pidcock may be appalled at some ‘nasty party’ Tories who are relying on stereotypes of the people she represents. But might she, now, be relying on a stereotype of a Tory? It isn’t just that Pidcock doesn’t want to go drinking with Conservatives. She doesn’t seem to want to do much drinking (whether coffee or wine) with anyone. She mentions the importance of ‘professionalism’ throughout our interview, and ends up admitting that she doesn’t really socialise with politicians of any political persuasion. ‘I want to reach out more because I don’t really socialise much,’ she says. ‘I’m just so insistent on doing a good job and I don’t know if they [her fellow MPs] are all off having a good time.’
She has said already in the chamber that she finds the place ‘intimidating’ — and it isn’t unusual for a new MP to pitch themselves as standing outside the system. But Pidcock doesn’t seem to want to enter it at all, save in a professional capacity. She even believes that she and other Labour MPs with strong northern accents, like her colleague Angela Rayner, are treated like ‘exotic creatures’ merely because of the way they speak, not what they say.
Is this just a new MP sounding a bit earnest? Perhaps, but normally newly elected folk like to emphasise the camaraderie in their intake, rather than suggesting, as Pidcock does, that they see each working day in Parliament as a ‘shift’ and save their energy and time for their friends at home. It might actually be that Pidcock’s refusal to be friends with Tories has as much to do with being a ‘swot’ as it does with her discomfort about their beliefs.
It will be interesting to see whether she keeps this up, or whether she finds drinks and dinners with unlike-minded colleagues help her get things done. But my more immediate concern is whether, having had a coffee and an hour’s interview with me, she would want to be my friend. She bursts out laughing. ‘I’m sure there’s humanity in you, Isabel,’ she jokes. ‘From what I gather from you, you are a very genuine person or I wouldn’t have agreed to do the interview.’ I’m happy to take the compliment, but I don’t think this makes me particularly unusual in Parliament.
Indeed, I wonder whether if Pidcock ends up accidentally having a coffee with a real-life Tory MP she might find there’s humanity in them, too. She might even find she wants to be their friend.