A year in the life of Lancaster's MP
A year on from winning the Lancaster & Fleetwood seat in the General Election, Cat Smith talks exclusively to GAYLE ROUNCIVELL about some of her experiences during a whirlwind 12 months.
From shaking like a leaf during her maiden speech in Parliament to being asked to give a talk at Glastonbury – it’s certainly been a year to remember for Lancaster’s MP.
Labour candidate Cat Smith gained the seat from her Conservative counterpart Eric Ollerenshaw in a close contest, ousting him by 1,265 votes.
The result ran counter to the national picture, as the Conservatives won a majority 331 seats to Labour’s 232.
Cat, a former Lancaster University student and Students’ Union women’s officer, won the seat with a grand total of 17,643 votes, overturning Mr Ollerenshaw’s 333 vote majority from the 2010 General Election.
The weeks leading up to last May’s General Election were a small indication of what was to follow.
“It was a few weeks before the General Election that it all started going crazy, but at that point you don’t know if it’s building up to something that will suddenly stop if you lose,” said Cat, who had been working for the British Association of Social Workers
“You are working towards a goal but you don’t really know what’s coming next. My diary was full leading up to the election but then nothing, and that was quite scary.
“On the morning of the election I woke up at about 4am and had planned to go back to sleep but I started watching the exit poll and was glued to the TV.
“I thought there was no way I could win so I was just thinking it would be back to work the next week.”
However, within days of the election result Cat was being given a guided tour of Westminster and trying to remember the numerous rules and regulations that go with such a prestigious position.
“I went down to Parliament on the Monday,” she said. “I had to take my passport to prove who I was so they would let me in.
“All of a sudden you are aware of this parliamentary hierachy. There are people catering for your every need and calling you ma’am.
“I was given a tour of the building. I was taken to the Chamber and I asked if I could sit down. That’s when it really hit me that I would be there for the next five years.
“I still haven’t got my head around all the rules. Sometimes I break them and find out about them that way!
“It was a strange time to arrive in Westminster because you are excited that you have won but the party is grieving that they have lost the General Election.
“It took arriving in Westminster to realise how hard the party had been hit.
“And then suddenly you were right in the middle of a leadership election and I had no staff or office. I was really stressed for the first six months.
“All of a sudden you are expected to be the MP. The first couple of months I was recruiting staff. I physically couldn’t answer the phone, I was that busy.”
During her first few weeks in Parliament, Cat managed to get a few important debates under her belt, including fracking and foreign affairs.
“I was the first one of the new intake MPs to speak,” she said. “I asked the Speaker first how it was done to check I was doing it right.
“My first questions in Prime Minister Questions was on Tory economic credibility which I was really pleased with.
“At that point I knew I had to get my maiden speech out of the way.
“My dad came down and was in the gallery for it.
“My knees were shaking and my palms were sweating.
“The first 30 seconds were horrible but after that I forgot that the cameras are on you and I sort of enjoyed it.
“It was probably the hardest speech to do and it was a big relief to get it done.”
Cat now splits her week between her flat in Lancaster city centre and a flat in London.
“I think it’s important that MPs live in their constituency,” she said.
“I don’t think I will ever feel settled because I am living in a very strange world. I certainly don’t feel complacent.
“I am representing people who didn’t vote for me or didn’t vote at all and that’s important to me. I put that way ahead of the party.
“My survival technique is to be honest and straightforward with people. If you don’t know the answer then just admit it. You don’t have to have all the answers.
“People aren’t always going to agree with me but I always try to explain my views. If people don’t agree with me, that’s fine.
“I will stand in Market Square handing out leaflets. I pledged to be an open MP and I hope I am doing that.
“The December floods were a good example of that. I was there in the middle of it all. That’s an important part of being an MP – to be there when a crisis hits and speak out in Parliament about it.
“Being Prime Minister doesn’t interest me. I didn’t stand for MP to become the Prime Minister.
“I want to change the world but that’s not necessarily the best way to go about it I don’t think.
“There are some MPs that will crave being on the front bench and the prestige that goes with it.
“I would much rather be seen as a really good constituency MP standing up for the people here.”
Cat’s strong personal beliefs came to light just a month into her tenure when she nominated Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader.
She was later among 48 Labour MPs who defied the party leadership to vote against the Government’s welfare reforms.
“You have got to stand up for something in politics otherwise what’s the point?” she said.
“I went against the party whip on the Welfare Bill and I stand by that. You have got to stand up for what you believe in and I don’t regret it.
“That’s why I got elected. It was to work for the people of Lancaster and Fleetwood.
“You don’t regret the things you do in life; you regret the things you don’t do.
“I have spoken in 80 debates which is far above what’s expected, but I think you might as well jump right in and play an active role.
“I feel quite confident in being in the Chamber now. I know I am not your typical MP but I have as much right to be there as anyone else so why shouldn’t I get up and speak about the things that matter to my constituents?”
Cat is still getting used to the ‘celebrity status’ that goes with being a Member of Parliament.
“It was a big shock at first being recognised,” she said. “People look at what you are putting in your shopping basket in supermarkets.
“I get recognised by children a lot, if I have visited their school.
“My favourite thing to do is school visits. Children will ask you the questions that adults won’t.
“But it’s all part of the job and I really don’t mind being stopped and asked things.
“It’s nice that your work is being noticed.
“It’s so nice when people get in touch to say how grateful they are; you realise that you can change people’s lives.”
Part of that newfound ‘fame’ includes being asked to appear on TV, something Cat originally shunned.
However, she later followed the advice of long-standing Labour MP Dennis Skinner and appeared on BBC Question Time.
“I had refused it once already,” she said. “I am not here to be a media celebrity.
“But I mentioned it to Dennis Skinner and he told me to say ‘yes’ the next time I was asked and a few weeks later they called me back.
“I spent the whole week worrying about what I had done but I actually enjoyed it.
“Harriet Harman said on the first day, ‘treat every day like it’s the last’, and I feel like I have done that.
“I have jumped in with both feet.”
Next month will see one of Cat’s more surreal moments since she became MP, when she speaks about feminism at the Glastonbury festival.
She will be joined by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and fellow Labour MPs John McDonnell and Clive Lewis in giving talks.
“Billy Bragg called me up about it!” Cat revealed. “I was having a cup of tea with another MP and my phone went and it was Billy Bragg!
“It was one of those mad moments where you are trying not to freak out while you are on the phone. I got off the phone and lost it completely.
“I’m doing my talk on feminism on the Friday. I will be camping, and – given it’s the weekend after the EU referendum – once I have spoken I will be enjoying myself!
“As an MP you get invited on a lot of glamorous trips but I have never accepted them because I don’t see how they are of benefit to my constituency.
“But this is different because it’s not often I get the chance to speak on something like this.
“I saw Tony Benn speak there years ago, and I never dreamt I would be doing the same thing one day.
“It’s very surreal and very exciting.
“It’s also the chance to be a normal 30-year-old for a few days – you have to do that sometimes, and I like to think I am still like that as much as possible.”
Cat is not expecting much of a break during the summer either; she is due to marry her fiance Ben at the Ashton Memorial during the Government’s summer recess.
The couple got engaged at Pizza Margherita in March 2015, 10 years to the day after their first date at the same restaurant.
However, despite struggling to fit in time for a honeymoon, the lack of time off is certainly not something Cat is complaining about.
“It’s been a wonderful year and I feel quite blessed,” she said. “I still feel like I have got to pinch myself when I go into Parliament. It’s a privilege to represent people.
“It’s not a career; it’s a public service. I am just seeking to serve my community.
“That’s what I went into it for and if it stops feeling like a privilege and an honour then that’s when you stop, or if you stop feeling like you are helping to change people’s lives.
“You look at some MPs and wonder why they are still doing it.
“If I stand down at the next election I will have other things I can do and I will not regret it. I don’t want being an MP to be the last thing I do. At the moment I am happy.
“I look at some of them and think ‘I don’t want to become a part of the furniture’.
“Every day is different and that’s possibly what I didn’t expect, but I love that.
“It’s good fun and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”