A constituency conversation with MP Kerry McCarthy

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At the end of 2021, Berkeley Squares sat down with Kerry McCarthy to elicit answers from the perspective of a figure who is not only MP for Bristol East, shadow secretary for transport, but a veteran Parliamentarian for nearly 2 decades as well. From Gordon Brown to Marvin Rees, Kier Starmer to Boris Johnson, Kerry McCarthy revealed the intricacies of her role and experiences in a long career of public service. Berkeley Squares would like to thank MP McCarthy for her time and extend praise to her team, who organised the interview.

Having been elected 5 times since 2005, Kerry McCarthy has been a consistent figure within Bristol and national politics. Although holding the position of shadow minister for transport since 2020, she has held numerous other positions, sometimes for extremely brief periods of time as Labour has reshuffled ministers. Her previous posts include as the assistant whip, shadow minister for work and pensions in 2010, then shadow foreign and commonwealth affairs minister from 2011 to 2015.

The transcript for this interview has been shortened for the sake of clarity and is not a print verbatim of the discussion, but the summation of the essential points in order to be concise.

Berkeley Squares: Could you introduce yourself, and the constituency that you represent?

Kerry McCarthy: I am the Labour MP for Bristol East – an historically Labour seat with MP Tony Benn but it experienced a boundary change in 1983 which lost it to a Tory. People never remember that there was a Tory MP, but it has always been on the cusp of ‘semi-marginal’: not entirely changing hands but not a safe seat either. Labour won it back in 1992, and I replied the MP in 2005. So, I’ve been around a while now, for 16 years. Bristol East… when people think of Bristol they tend to think of the Bristol West bits: the city centre, Stoke’s Croft, Clifton, all those bits of Bristol West. My constituency is pretty much where people live, including Stockport, Fishponds, St George, Eastfield and Brislington.

Having been elected 5 times, do you feel you have a read rapport with the constituents?

Much as I would like to say [labour dominance] is all down to my personal vote, it obviously ebbs and flows. The smallest my majority has been is under 4,000 and it was very much considered a Tory target in 2017, when Theresa May came to launch the South-West election campaign in Hungerford Road, which is a very traditional council estate. I was up against Jacob Rees-Mogg’s niece, who, shall we say, is quite different from me, and they thought they could take the seat. I ended up with a majority of over 13,000. Some of it was down to the campaign, some of it was down to my opponent, some of it was down to Theresa May going to the social club. There were also factors like Brexit, squeezing of the Lib Dem vote, and there’s a changing demographic in Bristol East now. Bristol West has become quite Bohemian… people are moving into Bristol East. The greens tend to vote for me at general elections. So, it is a bit of me but… I think it has the highest Labour majority in the South-West.

As an MP who has served their constituency for so long, you must be very aware of the local implications of legislation. How do you balance loyalty to your constituency with your duty to enact national policies?

The normal pattern is when Parliament sit from Monday to at least Wednesday. Then on Friday, we go out and do constituency stuff. With COVID, that was obviously more difficult to do those visits. In terms of me visiting places, when you add up all of the recesses we get as well, which I spend in Bristol East, it works out about fifty-fifty. In terms of the work-load, I have got a team of people in Bristol who are doing case-work and policy issues. I just think that when I’m in London I am limited to either the shadow transport role or whatever is on the Parliamentary agenda. There has not been – partly because I am in opposition, it is not the same… the first five years Labour was in government, there was not really an issue where my constituency interests were different to what the government was trying to do. Sometimes that arises. I think the big thing since then has been Brexit. Actually, people think that Bristol was massively remain but my constituency was 52 -48, I think, so it was very narrowly remain. Bristol East was more divided than Bristol West, and I was very aware of that. I just did what I thought was right, in terms of Brexit, which was to oppose it, and then get as good as a deal as possible. We had the cases where Labour MPs were in Leave seats, and some took the view that they had to go with how their constituents voted, but there were others who really stuck their heads above the parapet and said “I’m sorry, but I’m here to make up my own mind.” Quite a few of them lost their seats, as a result, but I think they did the right thing.

MP McCarthy has repeatedly voted to stop cuts in local government funding, in the period 2017-19 against withdrawals of cup to 56% less on previous years. She has also voted to remove hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, reducing Lords membership in 2016, and ‘improving’ the system through a 15 year term with an elected element in 2012. 

What is it to be an MP? Is it to have an MP’s opinions endorsed by the people, or for an MP to directly promote the opinions of the people?

Are MPs delegates or representatives? I think I had to do an essay on that for politics A-Level! We are not there as delegates; once we get elected we can do what we want, basically. I think that what is important is to be as in touch as possible with your constituents but ultimately make your own judgement. I am always very conscious that the sort of person who writes to their MP is not necessarily representative of the people. If I have 300 emails on an issue, that does not mean that 90,000 other people agree. At the end of the day, you end up doing partly what you think is right for your constituency and party what you deem to be morally correct.

To what degree does the party homogenise MPs? How much freedom does an MP truly have?

For one thing, people do not elect a political party: they elect an MP. As I was saying earlier, the people want Labour representation, it is not all about me. Had I stood as an independent, I would not have won the seat. But I suppose you stand on the party manifesto, and when you go out door knocking people will say “I’m not voting for Jeremy Corbyn” rather than it being about MP. Where the party really comes in is when you are whipped to vote certain ways. When in opposition, it is usually rather straightforward, because we are opposing the ‘evil government’. It is quite an easy stance to take, and there have not been many votes where I felt conflicted. Wheras, when you are in government, it is a bit more difficult, because you might understand what the motivation is. It is quite easy to just oppose. If the government was to do some spending on something, it would be very easy to say no, but if you are more responsible, you might realise that the government has to make tough choices. It is the same for local councils. Marvin [Rees, Mayor of Bristol] has to make difficult decisions regarding budgets being slashed and not enough reimbursement because of COVID.

How would you describe the dynamic between MPs and Mayors?

I get on really well with Marvin, and of his cabinet most of them are actually Bristol East councillors. We are pretty well represented. I talk to Marvin a lot, sometimes socially. There are some issues where our roles differ. Transport is a good example. We definitely need more investment in Bristol East. We have some roads, like the A4, which are massively congested. Issues like that are not under my jurisdiction: I just lobby the government for money. It is the council that must draw up plans.

What were you experiences when Labour was in government?

I came in as Labour was going down. When I first got involved in politics with the party it was 1992, and that was brilliant, because they were on a roll. We nearly won the 1992 election, but it became obvious that we were going to win the next one. By the time I got into power [after the 1997 landslide], it had become tougher because we had been in office for two terms already. Then things occurred like the financial crisis, which made it more difficult. It did not feel like you were doing a lot, it was more like fire fighting. It was a bit depressing because we could not do the things we wanted to do. I was really disappointed that Gordon lost, as I had a huge amount of respect for him. He prevented a lot of damage, globally as well as nationally. The public somehow did not get what he had done, they fell for Cameron’s charms.

Since then, it has been tougher as a part of the opposition, especially because of the [2010] coalition. Under Theresa May, it became a little more interesting because her majority was fragile because of the Brexit votes and that. Now, although Boris Johnson has got a large majority, skipping from one crisis to another, he has upset his own party in the last couple of weeks. There is nothing worse as an MP than being whipped. It was only once or twice in government but on a small scale. one vote I was fairly uncomfortable with was Tony Blair’s policy to introduce Super Casinos. I am not keen on gambling, and did not think it was a good idea to have town economies based around casinos. I was really scrupulous, asking ‘do I rebel or go along with it?’ Then, we had a meeting of Blackpool MPs who really wanted the idea implemented, and were making the case for dying seaside towns. They were arguing that “there is nothing to keep the economy afloat, we really need this – it is an issue about working class people.” In the end, I very reluctantly voted for it, but when the contracts were awarded, Manchester won over Blackpool. I do not thing I experienced anything like [the pressure] on Tory MPs recently though, if you look at the Owen Patterson issue.

“[Gordon Brown] prevented a lot of damage, globally as well as nationally. The public somehow did not get what he had done, they fell for Cameron'”

Given that a significant factor in the selection of an MP is a party and its manifesto, is it so wrong that MPs are whipped? In the case of the vote on Owen Patterson, was Boris Johnson doing anything constitutionally wrong?

Boris Johnson has gone about it the wrong way. The job of the whips is partially to tell people how to vote, but it is usually to sound out the party and warn if there is going to be a rebellion. My view is that it is very egotistical for MPs to constantly rebel, particularly if something was in their party manifesto. At the same time, there will be moments when you think that [the legislation] is wrong. They allow free votes for ‘issues of conscience’, assisted dying and so on. Even that is problematic, as they allowed free votes on gay marriage. When you think that Labour stood on a platform of LGBTQ+ rights, and that they allowed a free vote, to Catholics mostly, or people with religious views…. there was a big argument whether Labour MPs should be allowed to choose to vote for Gay marriage. I think Ed Miliband ended up whipping MPs to vote for it, because it seemed incompatible to where Labour was on LGBTQ rights. It is quite a difficult issue when religion comes into it.

One of the only times I rebelled was on prisoners having the right to vote. Nearly everyone voted against [the policy] apart from about 12 MPs, including people like Jeremy Corbyn. I felt strongly that, just because someone has lost their liberty, it is not to say that they have lost their lives. I do not like giving into the tabloid agenda either. [The articles] were all about giving criminals the right to vote, and it is not about them. It is about people who are serving much shorter sentences, and want to be rehabilitated into society. Actually, being in prison might be a good environment to start talking about your role in society. Otherwise, they feel totally disenfranchised. Apart from that, it is only on Brexit that I have rebelled on.

What are your views on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership stint?

If you were to place Jeremy Corbyn, as a back bench MP, on a political spectrum, he would have been the most left-wing, an outlier. He voted against the whip all of the time, so he was not somebody who was just on the left of the party. He was somebody who was barely in the party. It was then odd for that person to become leader. If you want to win elections… you have got to be realistic about what you can achieve. That means, to an extent, being pragmatic. It means taking responsibility, and I felt that Jeremy never really took responsibility. I think John McDonald did, and as shadow chancellor he took it very seriously in terms of trying t cost the manifesto, not making promises that he could not keep. I do not think Jeremy Corbyn did not look to what h would do. He just liked participating in his rallies. John asked… what was realistic. With Jeremy it never felt like he wanted to be there. He seems happier pottering around the committee debates now. The 2017 election was concerned with Brexit, and Theresa May ran a terrible, terrible campaign. [In the 2019 election] there was quite a lot of anti-Jeremy feeling on the doorstep.

“If you want to win elections… you have got to be realistic about what you can achieve.”

With Boris Johnson, you have the problem where he is not seen as a politician. It is that populism – that Trump thing.

How successful do you think Kier Starmer has been in governing the Labour party thus far?

Kier has a forensic approach. There is a danger that he is seen as a bit dull next to Boris, who is seen as a party. People do appreciate his seriousness. Kier said in his speech that he does not think Boris is a bad man, he thinks he is a trivial man. I actually do not agree with that because I think he is pretty amoral when it comes to his personal relationships and lying. He lies left right and centre, not as a political thing but that is how he does things and always has. We are making ground now.

Before the Labour party conference, a leak revealed that the party had consulted a firm which suggested that utilising the Union Jack flag and such would increase Labour popularity. How does the Labour party reconcile patriotism with advocating fundamental change?

It has been a perennial problem. Gordon Brown did quite a lot on it. I think Ed Miliband did something on it – a cabinet member was sacked for making fun of the English flag. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, so long as you are not being exclusionary. There is a way to be patriotic, looking at the Olympics, Lewis Hamilton… When you are on the left it can be quite easy to be cynical about soldiers and so on. I went to the States two years ago, and its amazing how much they recognise the contribution of veterans. Whether they have fought in a bad war or in a good war, they put their lives on the line for their country. When you go into cafes in the States, you get discounts and benefits for veterans. You just would not get that here, maybe for NHS staff.  I think there is something to be said for patriotism, so long as it is about giving something to this country and what it has achieved and not about race. I am a little bit uncomfortable if it is used in too clumsy a way. You get all of these tory ministers with these great big Union Jacks. If you go to other countries, it is not such an issue. There is not a problem with being proud as a Norwegian or being French. Americans do it fairly well – and I think it helps that they do not have a Queen. You know the way that Americans all know what the constitutional rights are, and when it was established. Knowing what your  country stands for, that courts stand up for those rights: I think we are lacking that.

Would you promote a codified constitution?

I would like to see a proper constitution. I love the idea, that in America, everyone knows where they stand. They have a bill of rights, and I think it is a good thing.

 

An issue prioritised on MP McCarthy’s political agenda is the environment, however our discussion on the issue was limited. McCarthy has a substantial history of lobbying for greater environmental legislation, as a member of several committees including the Environmental audit membership and the Environment, food and rural affairs board. The UK emissions breakdown by Statista suggests that transportation claims the largest stake in carbon dioxide outputs, at 27%, so naturally, as the shadow transport secretary, McCarthy has played an important role in promoting emissions targets. Labour’s green recovery plan states a ban on the sale of diesel by 2030 and an objective of zero emissions by 2050, demonstrating the impact that environmental movements have had on the party.