By Sofie Kwiatkowski, News Reporter
Thangam Debbonaire, the Labour Member of Parliament and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons has held the seat of Bristol West since 2015, after training as a professional cellist at the Royal College of Music, completing an MSc at Bristol in Management, and working for Women’s Aid and a domestic violence charity. She cited the Bristol degree as giving herself a chance to work on what sort of social change she was interested in, describing it as the start of a major arc leading her almost inevitably into politics.
Speaking to Epigram last week, Thangam described her election in 2015 as a ‘surprise’, in what was a bad election year for Labour, she fought a Green Party surge to win Bristol West’s seat by a majority of over 5,000. She attributes this success to her volunteers and ‘a lot of hard work’; such energy and drive has propelled her into her position as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, a role involving the organisation of the House of Commons and especially holding the government to account over its managing of the House’s business and time.
While she says there’s no identical day in politics, her job involves a lot of reading. ‘As an MP, your primary role is to be a legislator. My staff can’t do that on my behalf, I have to do that.’ Instead, her office staff mainly deals with an increasing caseload brought by Bristol constituents.
'The government haven’t just failed to mend the roof while the sun was shining, they basically burnt the house down and they took away the fire extinguishers and they laid off the fire officers.'
One of the biggest constituent bodies is the University, which is currently experiencing industrial actions. The UCU picket lines will not get a visit from Thangam, who says most trade union leaders don’t want her at the strikes, but rather in Parliament, trying to get Labour into power in order to ‘put in a regime where workers have really good reliable rights.’
Thangam recognises that students are in an ‘unenviable position at the moment,’ noting high housing costs and mounting debt - she clearly sympathises with the students who want to make the most of the teaching time they have and get the best return on the money they invest in their education. But these strikes, for her, are within the broader political context. ‘[The Strikes] have to be dealt with’ she notes, ‘but nothing takes away people’s inalienable right to strike.’
Last night I voted against the Tories anti-strike law which would effectively allow them to go from clapping nurses to sacking them.— Thangam Debbonaire (@ThangamMP) January 17, 2023
Appallingly ironic given how the Tories have run down our NHS and public services. pic.twitter.com/saaZWePMqP
Moving on to country-wide problems, Thangam agreed that the cost-of-living crisis was affecting many people around the country, including students. Epigram asked if the government was doing enough to support students. In her response, Thangam talked about the many flaws in the student financing model that results in students often losing out on financial help that others are able to access, a foundation that helps worsen the impacts of the crisis for students. She grows animated: ‘What makes me absolutely mad [is that] there was always going to be a cost-of-living crisis when the war kicked in, but it didn’t have to be as bad as this.’
Thangam speaks passionately about her frustration over the failings of the Conservative government. Describing Liz Truss’s 45-day premiership as a ‘fever dream’ in which the Conservatives tanked the economy, Thangam draws attention to the ‘lack of remorse’ shown by the Tories for their role in causing many of the problems that ‘everybody is paying for.’
'These new, cutting-edge ideas and technology could come from a student from the very poorest community, but if we don’t give these students the chance to come to fulfil their potential, it potentially effects everybody’s future'
Our talk turns to sustainability. Improved infrastructure and renewable forms of energy generation are important issues for Thangam, and she raises the plight of the poorest people in the worst private accommodation. Under a Labour government, she says that up to 4 million homes would have been insulated and that these people ‘would be paying less on their bills.’ Citing how the Russia-Ukrainian war has highlighted the value of renewable energy sources, she criticises the government’s lack of investment in sustainable energy:
‘The government haven’t just failed to mend the roof while the sun was shining, they basically burnt the house down and they took away the fire extinguishers and they laid off the fire officers.’
However, Thangam’s overall message is a positive one: she believes that there is another way of doing things, a future which lies in the hands of students. She describes our generation as the ones who will make ‘windmills cheaper’ and ‘batteries lighter’; the ones who will develop the economic growth and resilience needed to tackle climate change. ‘These new, cutting-edge ideas and technology could come from a student from the very poorest community, but if we don’t give these students the chance to come to fulfil their potential, it potentially effects everybody’s future.’ That’s why equal access is so important: ‘This is what drives me in politics. That belief.’
Following the recent conviction of a Met Police Officer who admitted to multiple rape charges, Epigram asked Thangam at which point this abuse of position could be labelled systemic. She pauses, then answers: ‘I’m conflicted because I think the Met has got such a particular form at the moment of dealing with these sorts of things… That does not mean the majority of police officers are misogynistic, women-hating or homophobic.’
'She wants tighter standards, calling for a genuinely independent ethics advisor to examine ministerial behaviour'
She adds that most police officers want stronger standards as they want people to know that they can be trusted, giving a nod to her colleague Yvette Cooper, who is currently working with the police. On a related note, Thangam talks of how disheartening it is for a self-described ‘old-lag feminist’ to see things like this happen, and how we can’t be complacent about misogyny for a moment.
Trust is important to Thangam, and to the Labour party, she mentions trust time after time. She speaks of the systems that try to keep trust alive in Parliament, with strict rules against lying in Parliament; to an extent, if we see someone caught out for lying, that is a good thing as it means the systems are working. ‘That’s a sign in some ways that the system’s working… I would really like it to be rarer that someone is found to have broken the rules.’
For the avoidance of any doubt re my own view: Boris Johnson should definitely pay back the £129,700 the tax payer paid for his legal advice. Parliament is investigating whether or not he knowingly misled Parliament. Why should the tax payer pick up this tab? Pay it back! https://t.co/6iM8oG9ktd— Thangam Debbonaire (@ThangamMP) November 3, 2022
Describing Boris Johnson’s regime as ‘corrupt’, Thangam feels ‘proud’ of the role she played in helping bring government’s behaviour to light, citing her role in heading up a debate on standards. She wants tighter standards, calling for a genuinely independent ethics advisor to examine ministerial behaviour, so that the system does not have to rely on a Prime Minister taking responsibility for initiating inquiries. Johnson’s disregard for his own ethics advisor’s findings has exposed this problem in the system.
On a constituency level, Thangam says she always tried to start her constituency days with a school visit; indeed, mentioning how important she thinks political education is, she wishes more people knew how parliament and democracy work. ‘I'd like all students to leave school with a good working knowledge of the how democracy works.’
Thangam expresses her enjoyment in music and knitting, as exemplified by her hand-knitted scarf she wears to the interview. She speaks of how she enjoyed returning to Bristol’s cultural life, noting that she is still getting used to being in large crowds post-Covid. Her love for the ‘incredibly interesting’ city is a driving force for her, and she enjoys ‘watching it change.’
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Thangam reveals a desire for stargazing, choosing CHAOS— Bristol’s Physics Society —as the society she’d want to be a member of. Thangam has visited CERN’s ‘amazing’ large-hadron collider in France, paying to join a select committee trip. She hopes that the students within CHAOS may be able to explain to her ‘what it all really means’.
Plans for the weekend? Without a break, Thangam heads off to a food bank collection with Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers campaign, ending a pleasant conversation with a friendly MP.
Featured Image: Nikki Powell
How do you think the Labour Party should respond to the cost-of-living crisis and the resulting industial action?