Eight years ago I was sitting in a basement in Kings Cross. I was watching a panel discussion of women political representatives from around the world. They were talking about what it was like to be a woman in the man’s world of politics. Talking about life in our own Parliament was a backbench Labour MP called Emily Thornberry.
I was inspired and exhilarated. Here was a woman talking with both courage and conviction about inequality. I was not a particular Labour supporter, but I thought if there were people like her in this party, I wanted to know them. At the time I was doing my Masters in Gender at the London School of Economics. I spent hours in the library reading about why women are so under-represented in politics – in fact I wrote at 12,000-word dissertation on the subject. But here was a woman who’d lived it and who was talking about it publicly.
So I emailed her office and asked if I could volunteer for her. One day a week I headed up to Emily’s constituency office, folded letters, filed casework and stamped envelopes. Emily was as comfortable writing to ministers about environmental policy as she was sharing a cup of tea with local volunteers. Not the snobbish, Westminster elitist the papers have made her out to be.
But that wasn’t what really impressed me. What impressed me was that on countless occasions I saw Emily and her team go above and beyond for constituents, supporting them with their housing issues, their immigration problems and their benefits payments. No letter went unanswered; no piece of casework went uninvestigated. I saw a different side of politics to the one portrayed in the media. Emily and her team cared about the people of Islington and were making a difference for them. They didn’t mind that this kind of work does not headlines make.
The day I handed in my dissertation in September 2009 was a grim one. In the aftermath of the financial crisis it felt like there were more redundancies than jobs and I had been pondering my future, worrying if I’d ever find gainful employment. I didn’t have to worry for very long. By complete coincidence, on that very same day, I received a phone call from Emily:
‘Would you like to come and work with me in my Westminster office?’
I tried to play it cool on the phone but I was elated. Emily continued to show the same integrity and passion in Westminster as she had in her Islington office. I didn’t always agree with her but she never showed herself to be anything but honest, hardworking and committed to the job she’d been elected to do.
In the run-up to the general election I pounded the streets of Islington with her and countless volunteers. Islington was a Lib-Lab marginal seat and ‘Clegg-mania’ was taking hold of the country (do you remember that?!). Nonetheless, she received a warm reception on the doorstep from the numerous people whom she had supported. One of the proudest moments of my professional life was being with Emily and her team in the wee small hours when it was announced she’d kept her Islington seat in May 2010. Her commitment to being the best constituency MP she could be had paid off: her narrow majority of a few hundred votes was transformed to a few thousand.
There’s no mistake, Emily’s infamous Rochester tweet was ill judged. I don’t know what her intention was when she sent it, but in the current political climate it was a badly thought out move. But don’t we all make mistakes? Should one tweet eclipse all the fantastic work she’s done for the people of Islington South and Finsbury?
We live in a world that’s hungry for scandal, in a world that’s quick to judge and slow to forgive. In the aftermath I felt so angry with Ed Miliband for failing to support Emily. She has been one of his most vocal advocates and he abandoned her. Loyalty is easy when someone is riding high on the crest of a wave – the real test comes when they face adversity.
But then I realised, who am I to judge Ed if I don’t support Emily too? I was judging a politician by a standard I had not met myself. So that’s why I wrote this blog post. To shed a bit of light on the woman behind the tweet and to show my loyalty to someone who gave me my first break, my first paycheck and who became my first role model.