Tracy Brabin was an actress and scriptwriter before becoming the Batley & Spen MP following Jo Cox’s murder. Chris Bond talks to her about her new life as a politician.
For Tracy Brabin there was a moment on New Year’s Eve just gone as she stood on the terrace at Westminster watching the fireworks display light up the night sky, when the enormity of events in the preceding 12 months caught up with her.
“I was thinking that the year before my New Year’s resolutions were to lose half a stone and give more to charity,” she says. “I didn’t have a clue that this is where I’d be. It’s been a complete chicane in my life - but an amazing chicane.”
For Brabin, 2016 started well. She appeared in Kay Mellor’s In The Club, played Paulina in a production of The Winter’s Tale, “the best role in Shakespeare for a woman”, in her view, and travelled to Singapore where she appeared in a production of Noel Coward’s play The Vortex alongside Jane Seymour.
Then in June she, like the rest of the country, was left shocked and appalled by the senseless killing of Jo Cox, the Batley and Spen MP.
Like Jo, Brabin was born in Batley - the pair went to the same school and worked together on the campaign to save Batley Library in 2014.
A long-standing Labour supporter Brabin was encouraged to stand in the Batley and Spen by-election to replace Jo. The former Coronation Street actress saw off 70 other initial applicants before being selected as Labour’s candidate in September.
The Conservatives, Lib Dems, Green Party and Ukip opted against fielding a candidate as a mark of respect for Jo and she won the seat with an increased majority the following month.
Saturday marked her first 100 days as an MP and it has, unsurprisingly, been a steep learning curve. As well as getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors of Westminster during her first week she also found herself inadvertently sitting on the Tory frontbench.
“I’ve come at it from a complete standing start so I’ve taken the view that every day’s a school day and it’s ok if I get things wrong occasionally,” she says, laughing.
There’s a refreshing frankness about the mother-of-two at a time when there’s a growing appetite among the public for straight-talking politicians.
Brabin has been touched by the reception she’s received from fellow MPs since joining their ranks. “Given the circumstances everybody genuinely wants me to do well and everybody has been incredibly generous, warm and kind.”
But she admits that filling the void left by her predecessor has been a challenge. “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. It is a bit like being the second wife because Jo was amazing and she’s an extraordinary act to follow.
“I was having a bad day and I confided in another MP who said ‘no Tracy, you’re not the second wife you’re the much wanted baby after a baby’s died and you’re here to bring us together,’ and I can’t tell you how grateful I was to hear that.”
The burden has been eased by the the fact that Jo’s widower Brendan Cox is heavily involved in the Jo Cox Foundation, which supports a range of charities championed by the late MP, and Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are taking the lead in the loneliness project she started, allowing Brabin to focus on being a voice for her constituency.
Part of her appeal is down to the fact she isn’t a career politician having spent the best part of 30 years as an actress and scriptwriter.
Not that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. “I’ve lived my politics - I come from council estate where my dad was often out of work and we were homeless for a while,” she says.
“I managed to do well through hard work, but there were times I relied on DSS because I was sleeping on a friend’s floor. There aren’t many people as I look across the benches [of the House of Commons] who have experienced that.”
Brabin is well aware of the tragic circumstances that have brought to here but is determined to carve out her own space. “I have to be myself and be a new character. I’ve got my own set of skills and I hope to bring a fresh vision to Batley and Spen,” she says.
We’re sitting in a small room at the Batley Resource Centre in the heart of her constituency, a corner of West Yorkshire that has long been in the shadow of Leeds. But Brabin wants to change this and believes she has the energy and drive to make a difference.
She’s certainly hit the ground running in the short time she’s an MP. As well as quizzing Theresa May at PMQs, she’s given several speeches, had a “full and frank” meeting with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt over concerns about Dewsbury District Hospital and been on a fact-finding mission to Kurdistan.
Improving local transport links and creating more long-term jobs are also high on her agenda, and she’s critical of the Prime Minister for rushing to the US to meet Donald Trump when she hasn’t been to Yorkshire since taking over from David Cameron. “It’s annoying that Theresa May, for all her talk about Yorkshire and the Northern Powerhouse, hasn’t been here yet and she’s been in the post for months now.”
On the inescapable question of Brexit she is more conciliatory. Brabin, unlike the majority of her constituents, voted Remain but says she will abide by the public’s decision. “I’m voting to trigger Article 50. We’re a democracy and we accept it and we move forward.
“Our role now is to hold the Government to account and hold their feet to the fire over this [Brexit]. We were the ones pushing for a White Paper and as a result we’ve got a vote in Parliament so that it’s not just Theresa May and her cronies in a room.”
However, she’s become an MP at a time when Labour’s support is being gnawed at by the Lib Dems on one side and Ukip on the other. “The general public have been put off by all the squabbling and I would say watching in the summer from the sidelines it was ghastly.”
She concedes that the polls are “terrible” for Labour at the present time but is reluctant to openly criticise Jeremy Corbyn, despite the rift that clearly still exists among the party’s MPs. “He was incredibly helpful to me in the election because he came up and met medics, talked about Dewsbury Hospital and took it to the House of Commons and that’s the sign of a great leader.
“Both my daughters joined the Labour Party because of Jeremy and you cannot get away from the fact that we have the strongest membership we’ve ever had and we need to build on that.”
Aside from the ongoing political machinations within her own party Brabin hopes to use her contacts in the TV industry to help create new jobs and has been invited by Tom Watson to run a commission, along with Gloria De Piero, looking at working class opportunities in film and TV which starts this week.
And she has bold ambitions for her home town. “I’d like to set up an apprentice institute, that’s my great aim. Cultural industries are the biggest expanding industry after finance and I want more young people in my community to be involved in culture.”
In doing so she hopes to put Batley on the map. “I want the people here to be able to hold their heads higher with a sense of aspiration and pride.
“Some northern towns get tagged as being a foodie town, or an arty town like Hebden Bridge. I want us to be a cultural hub - this is my mission.
“I came from this town and I’ve been successful. It’s about aspiration and self-belief and if I can engender that then I will have achieved something.”
Swapping one stage for another
Tracy Brabin was born in Batley, West Yorkshire, in May 1961.
She went to Heckmondwike Grammar School and later studied drama at Loughborough University before moving to London.
Brabin is a long-standing Labour member, campaigner and trade unionist.
Her acting and screenwriting career spans 30 years. Her long list of acting credits include Coronation Street (1994-97), EastEnders (2001) and Emmerdale (2014). She has also written for programmes including Heartbeat, Family Affairs, Crossroads, Tracy Beaker and Hollyoaks.
Brabin was elected as MP of Batley and Spen in last year’s by-election, triggered by the death of Jo Cox.