One hundred years on from the landmark victory in the women’s suffrage movement, Sarah Freeman spends the day with Halifax MP Holly Lynch.
It’s not just the artery-busting quantities of cheese which make the Houses of Parliament’s macaroni bake the ultimate in comfort food. In a world where few things are certain, its guaranteed presence on the Westminster Monday lunch menu is at least one thing that Holly Lynch can rely on.
“It’s good, really good,” says the MP for Halifax, tucking into an extra large helping. “Because the House sits later on a Monday we can end up voting quite late into the night, so it’s good to have some fuel.”
Lynch, who won the seat for Labour in 2015 with a majority of just 428, is not be the youngest MP in the Commons. However, at 31 she has brought down the average age a touch and tipped the gender balance a little. Today there are 208 sitting female MPs, but with that equating to just 32 per cent of the total, the front and back benches remain dominated by white, middle class males who during the weekly PMQs sessions are guilty of the worst playground tactics.
“Honestly? I don’t always go to PMQs,” says Lynch, as though confessing to some parliamentary cardinal sin. “I do feel a little sad that each week the public really only gets one glimpse of what happens in here and it happens to be that. So often it represents the very worst of British politics.”
It has just turned midday and having travelled down from Yorkshire the previous evening, Lynch has spent the morning catching up with emails and the few minutes spent wolfing down that pasta also doubles as a catch-up with fellow Yorkshire MP Tracy Brabin.
They have both received complaints about high performance hire cars tearing around the streets at weekends and between them and the police they are trying to come up with a plan of action.
“I love the House of Commons library, it is a brilliant resource,” says Lynch, brandishing a list of every single hire car company in West Yorkshire. “These kind of issues aren’t going to hit national headlines, but they blight people lives and when they don’t know who else to turn to they often come to us.”
While television shows like the West Wing have elevated the drama of politics, the day to day business of parliament is largely mundane. There are letters to constituents to check and sign, speeches to prepare and question sessions to sit through knowing that you might never get the chance to open your mouth.
“If you don’t get drawn beforehand your only option is to bob up and down in the hope of catching the speaker’s eye,” says Lynch before ably demonstrating that very art in questions to the Secretary of State for Education. She wants to ask about the impact of the apprenticeship levy, but never gets a chance. Instead, Michael Fabricant says something no one quite understands about the importance of learning a foreign language.
“It is frustrating, but you get used to it,” she says afterwards. “The Commons can be something of a black hole. At first it’s tempting to attend every debate, but you quickly learn that your time is often better spent elsewhere. Those sessions are just a tiny part of the job.”
Education questions done, Lynch has half an hour to catch up with some more correspondence. After initially operating out of little more than a windowless broom cupboard, she managed to bag a corner office in Portcullis House which has views across the Thames and looking out over the London Eye, she does occasionally have cause to wonder how she ended up here.
“I came to politics quite late,” she admits. “I didn’t grow up in a particularly politically minded family, but I studied history and politics at university and realised it was the latter that interested me the most. I guess though I have always been quite tenacious. If you see something wrong, you should call it out and to me that is at the heart of being an MP.”
After a spell working for an export company, Lynch, who wsa born in her constituency, got a job in the offices of MEP Linda McAvan. She still describes as her as her political hero and it was McAvan who encouraged her to stand for election after Linda Riordan announced she was stepping down due to health reasons.
It has not been the easiest introduction to life at Westminster. Just as she was settling into her new role, Theresa May not only called another election, but with Halifax one of the target seats, decided to launch the 2017 Conservative manifesto on Lynch’s home turf.
“I’d like to say I saw the election coming, but I didn’t,” she says. “Panorama sent a film crew to shadow me. We all knew why they were there. Everyone expected Labour to be crushed and the rise and fall of Holly Lynch would have made a neat chapter. Except that’s not how it panned out, there was a lot of last minute editing.”
As a reminder of those surreal six weeks, there are two photo frames on her office shelf. They look like race numbers, but they’re not. One has the number 428. The other reads 5,376, her new majority as of last year.
“It is an unusual environment to work in. I don’t think I will ever get completely used to it. During your first few weeks you assume everyone knows exactly what they are doing, but you soon realise that when it comes to parliamentary etiquette everybody fumbles their way through those first few months. It can be intimidating, but you just have to remind yourself that you were voted in to do a job and get on with it. The biggest frustration is when you have prepared a speech which runs to exactly to 10 minutes, which has everything you want to say in it and then you find that the time you have been allotted has been cut in half.
“Of course there are things that I would change and when you are trying to get things done, it can seem like the wheels turn very slowly. However, being an MP is a privilege, particularly right now. As an opposition, how we handle Brexit will be crucial and we all have a right to have our voice heard.”
Lynch, who is also shadow Defra minister, had only been married two months when she became an MP and while her husband Chris works for the Department of Work and Pensions and so understands a little of what her job entails, she admits politics is not suited to family life.
It’s now late afternoon. Before that day’s votes there’s a three hour debate on fireworks regulations to fit in. Despite a passionate contribution from Lynch, it ends with a whimper rather than bang and there will be no review of the current legislation.
“Would I want to be Prime Minister?” she says as another story surfaces over yet more division in Theresa May’s cabinet. “If you are an MP and you don’t have ambitions to get to the top, then you have to ask yourself why you are in politics. But it is a pretty thankless task. You get to Number 10, only to find the world is waiting for you to resign.”