It’s been a funny old year. For me personally, it’s been bittersweet. Bitter because my father died in the middle of it – three days after the election – sweet because he lived to see me become the first ever female MP in Croydon.
It was bitter that Labour didn’t win the election or get to form a government. Every day, through the lives of my constituents, I am living the impact of that failure.
But despite that, it was sweet because we won the argument. And that matters because we stopped the worst of their plans, because we are winning arguments in parliament.
And because the British people might not quite be ready to trust us to govern, but they increasingly have the measure of Theresa May. And she is being found wanting.
I’m actually very grateful to Theresa May because she gave me an early replay after we lost narrowly in Croydon Central in 2015. And it turns out I was able to repay the favour by helping her with her own staffing problems – my opponent Gavin Barwell subsequently filled the role at Number 10 left by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
In many ways, this year is feeling like the television show Stranger Things – the sci-fi horror with Winona Ryder set in a small American town where people keep disappearing into what turns out to be a strange mirror image of reality – called the Upside Down.
I think perhaps we are all in the Upside Down. An awful reality TV star gets elected as US president, and Brexit gets off to a horrible start. Then we get the curveball of general election that still no one can quite fathom, where the wise words of our best commentators and pollsters and politicians were all wrong.
We have David Davis and Boris Johnson in charge of Brexit, men who think we’ll leave Europe with £350 million a week in our pockets. The president of North Korea and the president of the USA shout across the world at one another – “you’re deranged, you’re a madman.” It’s diplomacy on acid.
And then, in the middle of one of the wealthiest parts of our capital, in a country with the 5th largest economy in the world, 80 people – mothers and children and husbands and grandparents – die in a blazing inferno . A tragedy that could have been avoided if we had cared enough about our community and if we’d cared enough about our homes.
So yes, we are in the Upside Down. My own experience was strange – from losing an election in 2015 to sitting in the House of Commons barely two years later – but it can also tell us something about how the Labour party has changed, and where we can go next.
When Theresa May called that election, we were not expected to win Croydon Central. Despite being the most marginal constituency in London we weren’t a key seat. The polls looked that bad. And yet, we ended up achieving a 5,500 vote majority and the largest vote share we’ve ever achieved in the seat – 52 per cent. Even in 1997 we only achieved 45 per cent.
So what happened?
First, we were building on fertile ground. We may have lost in 2015, but in that election we spoke to well over half of the electorate, ran a great local campaign, and delivered a 9% increase in the vote share to Labour. That’s exactly the same increase we saw in 2017. In 2015, we delivered that increase in the context of a result that saw many people move away from Labour, not towards. We gave a human face to what was quite a technocratic campaign.
Second, we had something clear and positive to say. Now, I know there are those who adore the manifesto and those who say it wasn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. But for me, having lived in the Party for the last 25 years, this time round we felt united, we were clear, we had a story to tell that offered hope. New ideas, a new wave of cool people – even Stormzy coming our way! Like 1997, we are actually relevant to young people again.
Third, times had changed and people underestimated the public mood. What were saying chimed because they could see the impact the cuts had made. In 2015 it wasn’t quite there. We ran a large part of our campaign on education – and everyone knew we were right.
Fourth, and directly because of Jeremy, we had thousands of enthusiastic, wonderful activists who literally poured into Croydon. And that made a difference, they had a fresh approach. Maybe we are too stuck on a few questions, too transactional on the door.
And finally, we won because people voted, including a huge number of young people who we hadn’t talked to in person. Kids who hadn’t been reading right-wing tabloids but had been learning from Snapchat about Jeremy’s fight against apartheid in the 80s.
So looking to the year ahead, how do we move forward? Well we need to stay united, we’re lost forever without that. We need to build on our manifesto not sit back and enjoy it – we need new ideas, new commitments, more and better ways to tell our story.
We need to stick to our course on Brexit – focused on jobs and the economy. Being the grown ups in the face of the childish chaos being wrought by the Conservatives.
And finally, we need to live our values. I promised a firefighter from Croydon who battled the flames at Grenfell that I wouldn’t rest until those responsible are bought to justice. And I won’t. But that is far from inevitable.
So we’re going to have to fight, and keep the pressure on the government, keep living our values and keep united as a party. And I’ve still got my stake up in the front garden ready for the next election.