The new Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam, Olivia Blake, has reaffirmed her commitment to representing students in an exclusive interview with Forge Media.
The politician was elected to Parliament in December’s General Election, one of few wins for the Labour Party on an otherwise poor night for them nationally. She has now represented the seat for two months, and is very aware of the high proportion of students who live in her seat, in the Endcliffe and Ranmoor student villages, and around Crookes.
She sat down with Forge Media to talk about her priorities in Parliament, how she will represent students, as well as everything from the legalisation of cannabis to the fight for transgender rights.
“I have been a student, I know the issues around housing and mental health support, and they’re issues which quite often get put to one side,” Blake said.
“There’s a whole issue of marketisation in our universities and colleges, so it’s really important we work together with staff and students. The concerns of staff are just as equal to students’, because their working environment is also students’ learning environment.”
The new MP, as well as tackling her constituency work, has also been supporting university staff who are currently striking as members of the University and College Union. She has been on picket lines, and spoke at a joint Sheffield University and Hallam rally in November.
“It’s about working conditions but it’s also about having respect and listening to your staff. There’s been moves away from things that were already agreed and it’s absolutely clear they do need to get round the negotiating table and recognise that there is an issue with the workplace and try to adapt and be sensible about it,” she said.
“When staff are this angry about these issues there is clearly something breaking down and going wrong, and that’s on the employers to solve and work with the unions to solve.”
Olivia Blake also has a task in rebuilding trust in the Labour Party in her Sheffield Hallam constituency, following Jared O’Mara’s stint as the Labour MP for the area following the December General Election. He had a controversial two years in Parliament, including rarely turning up for votes in the House of Commons, firing his office staff and making a number of controversial comments before and during his time in the role.
O’Mara eventually quit the Labour Party in 2018, leaving the seat with an independent MP, although Blake has now regained the seat for Labour despite stiff competition from the Liberal Democrats’ candidate, Laura Gordon. Blake is only the second Labour MP to represent the seat.
She says her work to rebuild trust in the party has already begun, which is why, she says, they were able to win December’s poll. She said: “We spoke and listened to people about the issues which really mattered to them, and made sure we were working on those issues in the campaign.
“I’m totally working on them as a Member of Parliament now, whether it’s on the green agenda, or on public services, or just being a good constituency MP, we’re getting on with the work and hopefully we’ll continue to rebuild that trust.”
A few months before her victory in the December General Election, Olivia Blake quit her post as Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council over an impending referendum in the city. The question at hand is whether to change the system of governance of SCC back to a committee system, rather than the Cabinet system which is currently in place.
Blake, along with a number of her Cabinet colleagues, quit in order to support the fight to change back to the previous system, and says she still believes this was the right thing to do.
“That was quite a hard decision to take but I felt it would’ve been hypocritical for me to continue in that role while also calling for change,” she added.
“For me, this is all about democracy and after ten years of austerity it has become really difficult for local people in Sheffield to feel like they are connected to their democracy, and this gives us an opportunity to build stronger links and review what we do as a Council going forward.”
The new MP is currently also a councillor for Walkley ward on Sheffield City Council, but will be stepping down at this May’s local elections.
A leadership election often throws up new issues which any political party must deal with, and this time around for the Labour Party the two issues in particular have been the legalisation of cannabis and the fight for trans rights.
The leadership contenders all denied they would legalise the sale and consumption of cannabis, while Blake told Forge Media that she would be more in favour of harm reduction in policy, and that it was a task for the whole public health sector.
On trans rights, she added: “I think it’s important we have politicians willing to stand up for our trans and non-binary siblings so it’s clear that this isn’t an okay thing to deny someone their identity. It’s really important we are able to have the voices of trans people in this debate.”
“It shouldn’t be a debate on this fight for more rights and I think it’s really important to make sure that all our spaces in the Labour Party and outside the party are safe spaces for trans people.”
The full interview with Olivia Blake MP can be seen on youtube.com/forgetelevision.