Cat Smith Labour MP and Shadow Minister
How did you find your university experience - what societies were you a part of?
I liked uni - the course was good, I really enjoyed that. Societies… I was on the football team, the President of the Feminist Society and I was involved in a production of the Vagina Monologues, which fundraises for the local Women’s Aid. It was such a long time ago! As for my involvement with Labour, I was a member of the Labour Club but I was never on the exec, so I was a low-key member.
What was it like being a part of the Labour Party from such a young age?
Every Labour Party member who is under 27 is automatically a member of Young Labour, so that was what I would have technically been a part of when I was 19. However, the local Labour Party was always very welcoming of young members, so we never really had a specific Young Labour group. As a part of this, I knocked on some doors for councillors or council candidates, campaigned and delivered leaflets. There were also a fair few meetings. When I joined the Labour Party, I think the chair of the Lancaster branch was about my age; he was probably 20 or 21. But there wasn’t a need for a separate group - it was fun, integrated and it still is. Our Vice-chair of the local constituency party is also a student at Lancaster University, so there isn’t really that separation between Young Labour and the rest of the local Labour Party.
Has there been a particular achievement or win where you’ve thought, ‘Yes - this is why I’m doing this’?
It’s the little things, like when I met with Stagecoach and we managed to make a deal where the foodbank vouchers that you get now also include a free bus pass to get to the foodbank. Locally, our foodbank is actually in Morecambe, so for people in Lancaster it’s very expensive to get there. If you’re going for a big food parcel, you can’t really walk it. It’s not very grand, but it makes a huge difference to people’s lives when they’re really vulnerable, so for that reason it’s a big win. No-one is going to stand up and say, ‘I’m delighted that I’m able to pick up my foodbank parcel because Cat Smith campaigned for me to get a free bus ticket to get there.’ But it is making a difference to people’s lives.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
To be honest, my biggest challenge was probably getting to uni. I was the first person in my family to have the full university experience; my dad did an Open University course and then went to university as a mature student part-time, but in terms of that 18-year-old experience, I was the first. Going to university really opened doors for me as many people wrongly write off those who don’t have a degree and there are so many very bright people without degrees who are overlooked by many employers. You don’t need a university degree to come and work in my office - if you’re the right person for the job, you’re the right person for the job. It’s so much more about people skills and life experience than education qualifications.
As of the time of this interview, 191 out of 650 MPs are female - why do you think this ratio is so low?
Because historically, women haven’t been MPs. Sexism does exist in our society and therefore women have been discouraged from becoming MPs in the past. This means you’ve never had a history of women MPs, and I think women need to see women in these kinds of roles to think it’s an option for them too.
Where would you suggest a young woman who wanted to get into a political career should start?
Well, the most important thing is: don't want a political career. I would discourage anyone from thinking of politics as a career because it’s not – it’s a vocation, it’s a calling. I wouldn’t say I had a political career, I’d say I’ve done jobs to have money to live and I have been elected to represent my community. This isn’t a step in a career ladder for me. This is a public service, and I think that they are very different things. It is very dangerous to think about politics as a career option because it should truly be about you wanting to represent your community and your community wanting you to represent them. You need to win an election! If this is how you feel, then you should do it. But never think of it as a career.
Which women in the world personally inspire you?
I’ve always said that the women who inspire me the most are the women that I meet in real life, so that means they wouldn’t be people you’ve heard of. Women like my grandmother, who was born shortly after we were given the vote. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of women in politics at the time, or anything like that, and she was a shop steward in Barrow shipyard. So she was working in a very male-dominated workplace, but was elected by the rest of the workers to be their union rep and represent them to the management. It’s ordinary women who do extraordinary things that inspire me, like the everyday woman who manages to juggle childcare whilst caring for an elderly relative or small children and helping in a soup kitchen. That’s what inspires me, rather than the women in sharp suits who make grand speeches.
What is the one piece of advice that you’ve picked up over the years that could apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
I got some really good advice the first day I went to Parliament, actually. We had a big meeting with the new MPs and Harriet Harman was chairing – it was just for Labour MPs. She said, ‘Treat every day like it’s your last, fight every day like it’s all going to be over tomorrow’ – which in politics it often can be! But in any career, don’t say ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, say ‘I’ll do it today.’
What did we learn from Cat?
Politics isn't just for the older generations - Cat herself describes how joining the Labour Party at 19 was an inclusive experience and there isn't a strong division between Young Labour and the party itself
Sometimes the greatest achievements aren't in grand transformations, but in the small victories - a moment that stuck out for Cat was arranging for free bus passes for people travelling to the local foodbank
University degrees aren't everything, as Cat says, "if you're the right person for the job, you're the right person for the job"
To get into politics, the main thing is to not want a political career - this can be a "dangerous" attitude as you should be doing it to help your community, rather than for your own personal gain.
What do you like, what do you not like, what was useful, what should we have asked instead? Please give us your feedback
"it makes a huge difference to people’s lives when they’re really vulnerable, so for that reason it’s a big win"
Earlier on this year, we spoke to Cat Smith, Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, about degrees, female MPs and why politics shouldn't be a career
Barrow Sixth Form College
A-Levels: Law, Religious Studies, Sociology
Degree: Sociology and Gender Studies, 2:1
Christian Socialist Movement
Venezuela Solidarity Campaign
Worked for Jeremy Corbyn
Worked for Katy Clark
Middle East researcher for Bob Marshall-Andrews
British Association of Social Workers
Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities
Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood
Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs