No time to waste

Enfield North MP Feryal Clark (credit parliament.uk)
Feryal Clark was elected the new Labour MP for Enfield North after winning more than 51% of the vote last December (credit parliament.uk)

Enfield North MP Feryal Clark speaks to James Cracknell about her first six months in the job

When Feryal Clark was elected the new MP for Enfield North in December, she couldn’t have imagined how extraordinary her first six months in the job would be.

The former Hackney councillor hadn’t even finished setting up her office and hiring her staff when the pandemic arrived in March. The nature of her job would immediately change, as face-to-face surgeries with constituents ended, parliament moved online, and the immediate priority for everyone was getting help to those who needed it.

Starting out as a new MP is always a daunting challenge, and the dominance of Brexit over British politics had already made it a tough time to be joining the House of Commons. So what motivated Feryal to seek the Labour Party’s nomination for the seat?

“What motivated me was being involved in local government and the public sector for the past 14 years,” says Feryal, who first sought to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Enfield North in 2013, when Conservative Nick de Bois held the seat.

“A normal route in is to be a lawyer or to work for other MPs – I was a scientist working in a pathology lab. I wanted to get into politics to help out my local area in Hackney.”

First elected as a councillor in 2006, Feryal became a full-time politician in 2010 when she joined Hackney Council’s cabinet – the start of the ‘austerity era’ for local government. “What kept me in politics was the satisfaction I get influencing change and improving my area for people. I gave up my career in science and dedicated myself to it. But I realised the changes I wanted to see needed to come nationally – in local government you keep banging your head against the wall.”

While not a local resident, Feryal already had plenty of connections to Enfield borough – including running a cafe in Edmonton.

“I had family here and spent my childhood going to Trent Park. When I left university I got a job in the NHS and I was thinking about going back to uni, but I needed more money and I ended up starting a greasy spoon cafe in Fore Street.

“Running a business is hard and it’s a lot of dedication and long hours. I take my hat off to anyone who does it. The margins are so small. After a year I went back to the NHS.”

The opportunity to finally stand to become an MP came last year when Joan Ryan quit the Labour Party and announced she would not contest the next election. Feryal beat a long list of contenders to become Labour’s candidate for Enfield North – arguably a tougher contest than the one she faced in the general election itself. Although Conservative-held as recently as 2015, Labour’s majority had risen to more than 10,000 votes by 2017 and the seat was no longer considered marginal.

“I know I was expected to win, but 2017 was an unexpected result and it had been 20 years of Joan Ryan versus Nick de Bois. I didn’t think it was a guarantee that I would win and at some points I thought I might not win. I didn’t take it for granted.”

What were Feryal’s first impressions of Westminster? “Going into parliament was a real eye opener. It feels like you are in Hogwarts. The building is overwhelming, it is very old and it’s a like a maze!

“When we went back in January we had the first votes on Brexit, but I made all these plans to meet people and start working on certain issues, then Covid-19 started.”

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Feryal had spoken several times in parliament, often to raise Enfield’s disproportionate public health funding allocation. Since the pandemic, it has been more difficult. “I had a lot of other issues I wanted to raise, but since Covid-19 I have only been able to speak once. It deprives me of being able to represent my constituents. Parliament returning to Westminster doesn’t change that – only those who have been selected can speak.

“The physical voting takes away the opportunity of MPs with health conditions or a vulnerable family member from being able to participate. It is incredibly unfair. The whole situation is a farce.”

At the start of the pandemic, Feryal helped out where she could. “I spent some time volunteering with the Felix Project and doing deliveries with [council support programme] Enfield Stands Together, delivering packages to residents in my constituency.”

How did the health crisis impact on casework?

“We spent a lot of time on the phone to embassies, trying to get constituents back to the UK. Now we have got businesses and self-employed people being impacted and people who have fallen through the gaps.

“The casework has definitely doubled. There are a lot of complex cases.”

Feryal’s first six months also included a Labour leadership contest. She voted for Lisa Nandy, but says she is now fully behind Sir Keir Starmer.

“I backed Lisa because I thought it was about time Labour had a female leader, but I have not been disappointed by Keir. He is doing a fantastic job. I think the party is 100% behind his leadership.”

What should Labour do to win the next election? “We are so far away from that [the election] we don’t know what the country will look like after this. I am certain we can’t go back to the age of austerity and cuts to the public sector.

“Whatever the country looks like, the recovery has to be done in collaboration with local authorities, and those people working closely to the ground. There will be lots of lessons to be learned but I think if local authorities were brought into the fold early on we could have dealt with issues faster and better.

“I believe we are far too centralised. If you look at the countries that have dealt with the pandemic well, they have a lot of devolved power.”