Alex Sobel interview: 'Life as an MP is going to take some adjusting'

A surprise surge in the Labour vote saw Alex Sobel overturn his 2015 defeat to become the new MP for Leeds North West. He talks to Kate Langston about Brexit, climate change and the need to crack down on anti-Semitism in the party.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 9th September 2017, 5:00 am
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:47 pm
Alex Sobel
Alex Sobel

Sitting down in a crowded Portcullis House, Alex Sobel takes advantage of the brief pause in an otherwise hectic day to grab some lunch. Despite three months having passed since his surprise victory over Lib Dem rival Greg Mulholland, he admits he is still learning to juggle the seemingly endless demands of life as an MP.

Whether its the daily influx of hundreds of emails from constituents and campaigners, or the constant churn of questions, debates and votes in the Commons chamber, it is a job that can easily expand to fill every waking – and sleeping – hour. And as someone who “likes doing everything myself”, the 42-year-old says one of the biggest challenges has been learning to delegate.

“This ‘new normal’ is going to take some adjusting,” he tells the Yorkshire Post. “I like to be involved in everything, and that’s almost impossible.

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“When I was first here I had no staff, I had to do everything myself and it was quite stressful, and I did miss stuff.

“So it’s about working out what needs your direct attention and what you can delegate.”

His two sons on the other hands – Jakob and Zac – seem to have come to terms with their father’s new role fairly quickly. Recounting an episode which saw him drive back from a formal dinner in Liverpool to take his youngest son to hospital for swallowing a coin, Sobel rolls his eyes: “The first thing my son says to the receptionist is ‘my Dad’s an MP’.

“I was like: we don’t need to tell the NHS, when I’ve come with you because you’ve swallowed a coin, that I’m an MP.

“But they like to tell people. I think they quite enjoy the novelty.

“The novelty might wear off at some point...”

Thursday’s are typically a quiet day in Parliament, set aside for backbench business and opposition debates. Yet speaking to this paper on the first Thursday back after recess, Sobel is surrounded by a relative hive of activity.

This is easily explained by the fact that the Commons is about to begin the first day of debate on the long-awaited Repeal Bill – formally known as the EU Withdrawal Bill. With Labour expected to oppose the Bill and a number of high-profile Tories lining up to accuse the Government of a “powergrab”, this is not a debate you want to miss.

Countless column inches have been devoted to the divisions that Brexit is opening up within Sobel’s own party – but he takes a pragmatic approach to the issue. He accepts there is no solution that will make those who want to stay in the single market and those who want to limit immigration “100 percent happy”, but he is optimistic that over time Labour will reach a position that its members and supporters can get behind.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a position where everybody is going to be happy, within any of the political parties or in the country,” he says. “But it's about having a position you can go forward with, which is best for people’s jobs and best for people’s livelihoods.”

Another ongoing challenge for the Labour Party is its handling of allegations of anti-Semitism. As the only Jewish MP in the new 2017 intake, Sobel has already committed to raising the issue with leader Jeremy Corbyn.

He is planning to support a motion at the upcoming party conference which aims to make it easier to crack down on members who have engaged in racist, sexist of homophobic activity.

But he also wants the party to move more quickly to expel members who have been on suspension for anti-Semitic behaviour “for a long time” – and this includes the former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

“There is a an elected committee [to make these decisions] and they need to got through their process, which I understand,” he says. “But we need to go through it much more clearly. Some people have been suspended for a long time and were clearly well over the line.

“[In the case of Livingstone's remarks] if he had said it the first time and then apologised for it, that’s one thing.

“But the fact that he kept repeating it, and then tried to defend his views that somehow Jewish people were complicit in an attempt for their own genocide... [that] really isn’t acceptable.”

Next week MPs are expected to approve the new members of Parliament’s influential select committees. Sobel is down to become a member of two, including the Environmental Audit Committee, which is chaired by Wakefield MP Mary Creagh.

He has campaigned on issues relating to climate change and sustainability since his early days at university, and says he intends to build on this work in the Commons. He is acutely aware that many people do not see global warming as a priority for their constituency MP, and wants to drive home the fact that it will eventually affect everyone.

“The thing about climate change is the effect isn’t immediate, it takes a long time,” he says. “A lot of issues people deal with, you do something today and you see the effect of it pretty quickly. So if someone says we’re going to open or close the local hospital, quite quickly you see the effect of that on local healthcare.

“I hope members of the public start thinking about this just as seriously as things like the local schools budget or health services, because their children or grand-children’s lives will be significantly worse if we don’t do something now.”

But another big focus will be transport, including increased investment in local and regional rail infrastructure. “If we’re going to be a world-class city, that’s the biggest challenge,” he says.