Special Report: Catherine West MP reflects on her first six months in Parliament
- Credit: John M Fulton
Catherine West had something of a shock win for Labour at the General Election, beating incumbent Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone with a majority of over 11,000.
It’s a long way from Australia to Archway, where she lives now, and growing up in Sydney, the young Catherine West never imagined she would end up as a politician in the UK.
Her earliest ambitions were modest ones. “I wanted to be behind the counter in a sweet shop, and then I wanted to be an air hostess,” she says.
“Eventually, I studied languages, and through my travels I became interested in current affairs and war and peace.”
The former leader of Islington Council says she is enjoying the varied challenges of being an MP.
“I like being out and about and talking to people the most, asking them their views and problem solving where I can.
“What’s most challenging as a new MP is figuring out how Parliament works. When you first arrive, you look around and think you’re the same as everybody else, but you soon realise that although it’s not very pronounced, there is a hierarchy, and the longer serving members will be called to speak first.”
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One of the things she likes best about Haringey is the range of arts and culture , and her favourite places include Jackson’s Lane Theatre and Lauderdale House.
“I love the music, art, drama and dance on offer in our schools. I think through the arts we can do so much with young people, and it’s wonderful that we have an arts scene that is accessible to everyone in Haringey.
“Through culture, we can communicate with each other and talk about difficult issues.
“I hope we can do more to promote arts in Haringey, because it’s all there.
“Hornsey Town Hall will be really good when it’s finished and will be a go-to place for arts.”
Unsurprisingly, the MP says the most common problem she hears about in her constituency surgeries is housing.
“I see families who have been in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, and increasingly I see people in poor quality but expensive rented homes, and some of the photographs they show me are just shocking.
“I formally object to all housing developments in Haringey which aren’t 50 per cent affordable homes. We can make changes, but we need to be quite firm with developers because there is a sense that they’re getting away with far too much.”
She gave her maiden speech on housing, which she admits was a daunting experience.
“It was nerve-wracking the first time I spoke in the Commons, but like everything else, it gets easier with time.”
She was one of the few MPs to back Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race, and the multi-lingual Ms West is now a junior shadow in the foreign office team, working alongside Hilary Benn.
She said: “I was very pleased to be called to serve in Jeremy’s team. I have a brief in the Asia-Pacific region, which is perfect for me because I have a degree in Chinese studies.”
On the infamous “little red book” incident where Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quoted Chinese dictator Chairman Mao in Parliament, she says: “I thought it was hilarious, but I’m not sure many others got the joke.
‘‘Behind the joke was a serious point about whether we should be allowing foreign governments to own important parts of our infrastructure, like nuclear stations.
“I can’t say that I’ve read Mao myself, but I think I remember people still having the little red books when I was a student in China.”
She has always urged caution over military intervention in Syria, so it was no surprise when she voted against the government last week last week.
She says: “I’m very worried about extending military action. What I would like to see is the UK using more of its soft power to clamp down on how ISIS is funded, and greater use of intelligence to prevent radicalised people from entering the country.”
Unlike many of her Labour colleagues, Ms West is keen to praise Mr Corbyn, who she has known since her days as a councillor in Islington, and believes the opposition may be more effective than some are giving it credit for.
“All the media coverage is negative, but when you look at the u-turn on working tax credits, I think that was definitely helped by the opposition. For the first time, I can hear people starting to question some of our alliances abroad, with Saudi Arabia for example.
“Jeremy is very committed to public services, to human rights and to the peace process.
“He is making the government be more cautious, and that is what the opposition is meant to do, not just give them an easy ride.”
Ms West has two children, aged 13 and 20, and says juggling family life with parliamentary life can be challenging.
She says: “The hours are long, and they can be unpredictable because you never know how long some of the debates will last. The 20-year-old can take care of himself, but the younger one still needs help. Luckily, I have a very supportive partner.”
For Christmas, the West family will head home to Australia. “We don’t go every year because it’s too expensive, but we’re going this year because it’s my mum’s 80th.
‘‘Living over here, I’ve missed a lot of family occasions. And obviously, I miss the weather!”