AN ABUSE scandal so shocking she thought she would ‘lose her mind’, a Labour party on which some had turned their backs, and a TV crew in tow have made life for Rotherham’s MP radically different from the job she might have expected when she took over in 2012.
Sarah Champion has told how she has had to battle her own way through the abuse scandal, setting up a victims HQ in her office as girls and women identified in the Jay report turned to her rather than trust again the police or the council.
The move made her a hate figure for some in Rotherham’s Labour party, with many making clear they will not campaign for her on the doorstep, a local election strategy that has been vital to Labour party success for generations.
Ms Champion says she has no regrets about the path she took, even with Rotherham now among the top Ukip targets for the General Election,
“I made a decision very early on that I was there to represent Rotherham not to represent the council or the Labour party,” she said.
“I knew what I was going to have to do would upset councillors and Labour party members but I don’t care. This is about abuse and getting justice for people and that is much more important than making friends.”
The scale of the abuse, 1,400 at the minimum according to the Jay report, has staggered her.
“At the start of the Jay report I had a lot of victims and survivors coming to me, as they didn’t trust the police or the council but they needed help.
“For the first three weeks I thought I would lose my mind at the horror of what these women have had to endure, the total lack of support that they got, it was just at the bit were any sane person would not believe that this had happened.
“I knew these women were telling me the truth, but it didn’t match up to the world I knew, and it was really, really difficult.”
Many of those women have stuck by Ms Champion, who brought in to her staff Jayne Senior, the Rotherham youth worker at the Risky Business charity who led efforts to expose what was happening for a decade.
The MP added: “What’s amazing is that I sent out 5,000 Christmas cards and a lot of survivors came to help me stuff those envelopes, so I know I have the people that matter to me with me.
“That means more to me than the fact that some of the councillors here will not campaign for me.
“We are doing a lot now as a party at the national level, and that is why I find it all the more disappointing that locally some councillors failed to do anything for victims.”
When Ms Champion started as an MP in the 2012 by-election, she entered a career she had no previous experience of.
Explaining how she took up the role, she said: “When I was working at the hospice I got to know a lot of local MPs. A couple of them said to me, Sarah, you would make a great MP.
“I thought it was like someone telling me I would make a great astronaut, it was such a ridiculous statement to make, that would never ever happen.”
Since getting elected she has had to deal with a life in Parliament far removed from the real world.
She said: “All of the bad things that you know about MPs is true, but I didn’t realise the hard work many do, and the direct impact you can have to help people on a daily basis.
“What I would say is Parliament is exactly the old boys’ club, the public school environment, that we think it is.
“Because I worked in the arts or in health, I went through my career with no real gender divide. This is the first place I came to where I felt I was viewed as a woman rather than Sarah. I have been acutely aware that I am a woman in a man’s environment.
“It is getting better, but at a glacial phase. There are 650 MPs at any one time and it has been like that for a while. But for the couple of hundred years of parliament I am only the 368th woman ever to be an MP.”
Ms Champion has seen her profile raise with less controversial issue thanks to the BBC documentary Inside the Commons, in which viewers appear to have warmed to the MP’s down to Earth approach.
“People watch it and say ‘wow, you are really normal’ which is the sort of thing they would never say to you if you were not an MP, you just think what do they expect me to be?”