“It’s a hugely humbling position to be in – and very scary”: Sarah Jones on being Croydon’s newest MP

By - Monday 7th August, 2017

Croydon’s first woman MP talks to Tom Black about what a difference two years makes, how to solve a problem like Southern, and the sudden celebrity status of Jeremy Corbyn

Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

When I meet her, Sarah Jones has only been an MP for five weeks. But if her schedule the day we meet is anything to go by, hers is a job you just have to dive into.

“I’ve been at two schools this morning”, she explains as the two of us sit down in the Nelson Mandela Room of Ruskin House, my colleague Zach on hand to take some snaps. She goes on to describe the surgery (meetings with constituents) she held across lunchtime here in this room. She’s chatty and detailed, and at no point in our conversation is there the dreaded long pause of a politician not sure what to say. Jones is Croydon’s first woman MP, and came exceptionally close to earning that honour two years ago, when the Conservative Gavin Barwell held Croydon Central by just 165 votes. Last month, she won their rematch by a healthy 5,652. Standing twice in a row has given her some profile locally, but for the benefit of those with little idea who she is beyond that, I start by asking her how her political journey began.

“I’ve always lived in Croydon, and while I come from a left wing family, I was never engaged in politics particularly. That changed when I got pregnant at nineteen, during my first year at university. That was unexpected. And surprising!” she laughs, then changes tone. “And difficult. My first engagement with thinking I wanted to ‘get involved’ was listening to Peter Lilley, who was then the secretary of state for social security, reciting a spoof song from the Mikado, including ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue’. Have you seen it?”

We attempt – and fail – to load it on YouTube, then Jones goes on. “I had no voice at that time. He thought I was a problem. I knew I was perfectly capable of contributing to society. What I needed was support – not to be told by a man in government that I wasn’t worth anything. That got me motivated. I joined the Labour Party, got active, and have been in the Labour Party for… a generation, now!” She laughs again, not sure how she feels about the idea of having done anything for a generation.

What are her credentials for being an MP? “In my career I’ve done lots for different people, I spent two years working for Mo Mowlam during the Northern Ireland peace process under the Blair government, as she went around building relationships and trust in the different communities”. Jones enthuses about the late Mowlam’s actions and attitude, calling it inspiring. I can believe it. She’s also worked as a senior civil servant on the government implementation of the 2012 London Olympics, having to look at inter-departmental communications in the event of major disasters, and has deliberately been taking shorter contracts since being selected as a candidate for parliament in 2013. She counts Gatwick Airport, the Department for Transport, and the Commonwealth Secretariat among her past employers.

Now her employers are the voters of Croydon Central. As she embarks on a career on the frontline of public office, what is it that gets her up in the morning? She gives a comic wince of embarrassment. “It sounds so cheesy, but I just want to make a difference. My maiden speech was me telling it how it is. It’s a hugely humbling position to be in and very scary because I want to make a difference, and I have to work out how, as a backbench MP, I can do that”. What needs to change, in Croydon and the UK generally? “The things that need changing are very clear. Some I know about and some I need to know about”. A lot of listening – and thus a lot of days like the one I’ve interrupted – is on the horizon.
”I think the Labour Party got to a point where we got scared of being too radical”

Jeremy Corbyn was in Croydon Central the day the election was called and has seen his reputation transformed by the result. In London, at least, he is being widely credited with a lot of Labour’s success. Does Jones regret supporting Owen Smith’s challenge to the Labour leader last year?

Jones laughs. “Well, I didn’t just support Owen Smith, I supported Liz Kendall before him! The thing is that all the people in all the contests the Labour Party has had have been perfectly capable people. So whoever wins, the party’s going to be fine. Jeremy brought things to the election that I had not seen before. He engaged a community of people that I have been frustrated for years in trying to get engaged”. What was that community? “Young people. In 2015 you’d speak to young people on the doorstep and they’d say ‘I’ll get my mum’. They were apathetic, but more than that, there was an X Factor view of the world that said you have to get out there and work hard, do what you can do for yourself, and that’s all there is to it. That sense of working together, having a community, having sympathy for others’ hardship…” She trails off, but a sort of shrugging gesture confirms she’s saying young people seemed to have no sense of what she’s describing. Until now?

“Yes. What Jeremy managed to do was engage and excite young people in a way I hadn’t seen in years. When I spoke to young people this time, they all said “we’re voting for Corbyn. A group of young people told me they supported him because he had opposed apartheid back in the eighties. I asked if they’d seen the stuff in the Daily Mail about him being a a terrorist sympathiser and the rest of it. They said “well, no, because we don’t read the Daily Mail, we’re all on Snapchat”.

“I think the Labour Party got to a point where we got scared of being too radical because the centre ground is where you form a government. We’d forgotten that things can get so broken that just putting a bit more money here and there isn’t going to change things anymore. That’s where we are now”. The Labour manifesto wasn’t hugely radical, she says, but was “significantly different” to what the party had said before. On the doorstep, she says, people had only heard good things about the Labour manifesto. About the Conservative one, by contrast, they had only heard bad things.

Was there a large contingent of Momentum people from outside Croydon involved in Jones’ campaign?

“What also transformed the election”, Jones continues, now holding a fresh cup of coffee, “was Jeremy Corbyn turning up to debates and Theresa May not doing it. I heard that so many times from voters”. At her own hustings, challenged about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she bluntly replied, “at least Jeremy Corbyn turns up”, receiving a roar from the crowd.

Local Conservatives tried to make an issue of your campaign being largely out-of-town Momentum members, not local Labour members. They sometimes tried to depict them as thugs over incidents like a gaffe with a war memorial and, er, lots of complaints about stickers. “Yeah, on Twitter”, Jones points out, “I don’t know how many people talked about stickers in real life. But they did go on about them on Twitter”. I assume Jones doesn’t think that her hardworking volunteers were thugs, but was there a large contingent of Momentum people from outside Croydon involved?

With a bright smile, she nods. “There absolutely was, and it was absolutely marvellous”. In 2015 Labour had a structured strategy across the country with ‘key seats’ and ‘non-key seats’. Activists arrived to campaign in a structured fashion, but Jones still lost to Barwell by 165 votes. “In 2017 – people just came. There was a surge of membership, people would just rock up all the time, aware that it was the most marginal seat in London. They were lovely people who would come back and then they’d be the experts training other people. Politically, I wouldn’t describe them as being anything other than being of the left. They had been engaged by Jeremy Corbyn, and wanted to get involved because of Jeremy Corbyn, not because of anything else. That capacity enabled us to talk to thousands of thousands of people”.

“The Labour Party has already won lots of key arguments”

Jones said in her maiden speech that she was grateful to Theresa May for giving her a second chance to stand for Croydon Central so soon. What was it like to return to the campaign trail just two years after the last election? Was the atmosphere as different to 2015 as the result was?

“In 2015, austerity and cutbacks hadn’t quite reached everyone. Now there’s nobody you meet that hasn’t been hit. The biggest change was education, that was a huge issue on the doorstep. We’ve got situations with a class of thirty kids where there’s one adult in the classroom because TAs are being cut. How on earth can you provide help for children with SEN in that circumstance? Headteachers are distraught with the decisions they have to make. And the sense of that has now spread across the community. There was a palpable difference on the doorstep between people’s real life experiences between 2015 and 2017. They can now see the impact of cuts to local government”.

“We’re not voting against Brexit, we’re voting against the way that it’s being done”

The Tories have also been criticised for failing to make an election called about Brexit actually be about Brexit. What does the best Brexit for Croydon look like?

“Not this!” Jones says extremely forcefully, immediately grabbing a copy of the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill and opening it on the table. “Have you read it?” she asks me as she points at different pages. “There’s all these clauses that say a ‘minister of the crown may… do anything he wants’. There’s nothing about parliament being able to hold ministers to account”.

I ask what she’d look for if she and her parliamentary colleagues do get to hold the Brexit deal to account.

Jones opens with the usual Labour script on Brexit, but goes on to provide detail. “We’re leaving Europe, that’s been decided. Labour voted for Article 50, and we respect the will of the people. It needs to protect jobs and protect people’s rights. It’s important that people know that when we vote against things like this, we’re not voting against Brexit, we’re voting against the way that it’s being done. On most of the rights that workers have, Europe has been ahead of the UK. So how we make sure that we transfer all of those rights, environmental regulations too, is about being clear on who enforces that status quo”.

”What does Croydon’s tech scene need from Europe? What do our companies need?”

And Croydon specifically? “Croydon wants to thrive, we have to get the right people in place for our public services and our lower paid jobs. Croydon has a lot of EU citizens; how do we get assurances for them? The number of people applying for nursing from overseas has fallen by something like 95%, so there are going to be gaps. And what does the tech scene need from Europe? What do our companies need? What does the Corporation of London need?” Like so many aspects of Brexit, finding the right deal for Croydon isn’t going to be easy. But Jones is clearly giving it thought.

We’ve begun talking about what Croydon needs to develop and grow. Persistent delays in the Croydon Partnership development are causing concern among businesses and residents alike. What will Jones do to make sure Westfield is on track and gets delivered in good time? “I will do what I can in terms of the conversations I can usefully contribute. It has to be a priority and I wish the development well”.

No Croydon interview is complete without a mention of Southern Rail, and Jones has already in her first five weeks become a vocal ‘#SackSouthern’ proponent. What exactly needs to be done?

“Take the franchise off them, pure and simple. The parliamentary debate on Southern was the most depressing I’ve ever been in. It was literally just [transport secretary] Chris Grayling throwing insults at the unions. I know the unions have had an impact, everyone does, but everyone also knows there is an underlying issue that Southern were mismanaging this long before there was strike action. Labour’s policy is that when franchises come up, they come into public ownership”.

A campaign closer to home is Zone 4 Croydon, launched back in 2014 in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Proposing to bring East Croydon and West Croydon into Zone 4 and thus reduce commuters’ fares, is its implementation still on the horizon?

“Yes. I need to make the economic case for that and run it as a proper campaign. They’re not just going to roll over and say ‘okay’”. It certainly looks that way – after initial indications of support, when London’s mayor Sadiq Khan visited Croydon last September, he was non-committal on the idea, citing the need to look at “all revenue streams for TfL”.

Jones seems prepared for this battle. “We need to tie it in with Westfield and the new developments. Changing a station’s zone has only ever happened as part of a wider economic case. The economic argument has to be that the money people will save and then spend when they get here will outweigh what the rail companies lose, boosting our inward investment. It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. They did it in Stratford by tying it in with the growth the Olympics was going to bring”.

Jones’ predecessor Gavin Barwell was very happy to criticise the council when it did things he disagreed with. Of course, it helped that he was a Conservative and the council is Labour. Will Jones be prepared to take her Croydon Labour colleagues to task?

“The biggest criticism I had of Gavin was that he wasn’t prepared to take on his government. He voted for cuts to our services and that damaged his credibility. So I’m very happy to disagree with the council but I also want to work with the council. If there are issues to be raised I will take them to the council but I won’t be shouting about it in the press. I like to think I’ll do the same with government: if I can talk to the Department for Education in meetings, I’m going to do that. I won’t publicly criticise people for sake of it and don’t defend people for sake of it”. Are there any issues she’s raising with the council already? “I think the council is doing a great job, I praised it in my maiden speech for its attitude of just getting on with it. Fairfield Halls needs redeveloping, let’s do it. We need more housing, let’s do it”.

Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

Gentrification has been greatly exaggerated in Croydon in the past, but certain changes in the last eighteen months are now plain for all to see. Is the character of Croydon Central changing? Jones is philosophical.

“I think there are people moving from South London into the north of the constituency. Young families who can’t afford to live in Lambeth or Dulwich or Brixton are moving into Croydon, into Woodside in particular. That’s happening, that’s a fact”.

”We deserve good things to happen because we’ve waited a long time!”

“But in terms of Croydon’s character, I don’t think that’s changing. When you sit in Boxpark, you look around and it’s still Croydon people! We’re still Croydon people, we sound the same, and we are strong in our diversity. Croydon became a town in the first place because it was a gateway up to London and I think that’s true now – either to London or Gatwick or into the rest of country via Lunar House. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon”.

With a passionate flourish, she continues. “We deserve good things to happen because we’ve waited a long time! I’m so excited about Fairfield Halls, I’m so excited about Westfield. We need to retain that amazing community Croydon has, we want to be what we are: a town that feels like a city, not just because of our size but because we’ve got our own unique character and we want to retain it”. As if summing up Croydon in a single sentence, she adds: “We’re the biggest London borough but also the greenest”.

And that’s all we have time for. Jones has a meeting with the council leadership and must be off. Zach and I thank her for her time, and she says she’ll keep in touch with the Citizen. I hope she does – Sarah Jones has a lot to say, but also loves to listen. From Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn, she says she’s challenged her own assumptions time and again and been ready to change her mind in the face of new information. Let’s hope she demonstrates that as she takes on the task of representing Croydon’s most marginal constituency.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Michael Swadling

    Tom very interesting article. Was Sarah able to clarify if Labour’s policy is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union when we leave the EU? Everything else rather feels like meaningless words. Leaving these is truly leaving the EU (as of course voted by her constituents).

    • Tom Black

      Thanks Michael. The interview took place shortly after the election and I didn’t ask Sarah to expand on Labour’s published policies in its manifesto.

      • Michael Swadling

        Tom – appreciate you responding. You are of course right we should assume Sarah will be true to the words of the Manifesto she stood on and vote to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.

    • Anne Giles

      I am sure many of her constituents did the right thing and voted Remain!

      • Michael Swadling

        Many did, thankfully more did the right thing for Britain and voted Leave.

        • Anne Giles

          So we lose out EHIC cards and any chance of free medical treatment. Those of us who can’t get travel insurance because of our medical problems might have to give up going abroad for our holidays. Gee, thanks.