Former Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff tells of the "crater-sized hole" she feels after losing in the General Election
As the ‘red wall’ crumbled, Paula Sherriff was one of the Labour MPs in Yorkshire to lose her seat in the General Election. She spoke to Rob Parsons
Paula Sherriff grabbed onto a friend’s hand as the seconds ticked down to 10pm on December 12 and the nation’s main broadcasters prepared to announce the General Election exit poll.
Defending a majority of just 3,321 from two years earlier in her constituency of Dewsbury, the Labour MP was determined to fight to the end despite many disheartening moments on the doorstep when ex-coal miners in her Labour heartlands told her they were backing her Conservative opponent.
On rainy November days like those she was convinced she’d lost, while on other days when she spoke to previously Tory voters who agreed to support her the flame of hope briefly flickered despite worrying signs from national polls.
“I didn’t have a day off in the entire six or seven week campaign, I didn’t even take half a day off,” she tells The Yorkshire Post. “I was out there with my activists morning, noon and night. We were out in the dark, in pouring rain. I couldn’t have done any more.”
All hope was extinguished when the exit poll dropped and showed the Conservatives to be heading for a healthy majority. “When it came through I swore”, she says.
”I knew then that I had lost. The exit poll was slightly worse than the actual outcome but I knew then that we couldn’t retain Dewsbury. It was about national swing unfortunately. Everybody in the room was saying ‘you’ll be fine’. They said Dewsbury will buck the trend. I said ‘we’ve lost, we need to accept it’.”
All that was left to do at that point was turn up at Cathedral House in Huddersfield to have her fate confirmed. In the early hours of the morning it was duly announced that Conservative Mark Eastwood had won with a slender majority of 1,561 votes.
”It was heartbreaking”, Miss Sherriff says. “The worst part for me was not getting to the stage to hear the result which was tough, but it was just before they actually declare the result publicly you are called over to look at the results from the returning officer.
“It is just written on a piece of paper, and all the candidates and agents are called up to look, that for me was probably the hardest moment, because that was it there. You always hold out about them finding a bundle of your votes, but actually seeing it written down in black and white, I think that’s really, really tough.”
Reflecting on the loss of a seat she has held since 2015, Miss Sherriff says she is “deeply disappointed”. “I’m disappointed for Dewsbury and I’m disappointed for all the charities I work with and things like that.
“Of course I wish Mark [Eastwood] well, I hope he’s an independent voice and he isn’t just at the behest of his party.
“I went to the supermarket a couple of days ago and a couple of people came up to me said ‘oh I’m so sorry’. It’s really tough. You can’t move away from the fact that the people rejected you, that is what an election is all about, there’s got to be losers.
“You literally just want to hide away and go where nobody knows you, I understand why people take off on holiday.
“Politics is absolutely brutal, you can’t compare it to anything. Other jobs are harder and people get paid far less for doing far worse jobs but the actual nature of politics and the way you get an email within a couple of hours of losing saying come and clear your office out, you’ve got five days. Your pass will expire on Thursday.”
Miss Sherriff leaves Parliament with a notable list of accomplishments to her name from her four years as an MP.
Not long after being elected in 2015 she secured an agreement from WH Smith to reduce the price of their goods in hospitals, after a campaign on behalf of vulnerable patients and their families.
And she became the first backbench MP in Parliamentary history to have an amendment to a government Budget resolution successfully adopted when her motion to abolish the “Tampon Tax” - the five per cent sales tax applied to sanitary products - was passed.
She says the tax itself was less important than “having a parliament where we could talk about things that matter to real people”.
“Of course it’s important that we talk about the economy, we talk about infrastructure, we talk fiscal issues and things like that, but equally it’s really important that Parliament needs to get into the 21st century”, she said.
She has also worked on increasing the number of women who get smear tests, helped secure extra funding for the debilitating condition of endometriosis and campaigned for greater workplace protections for women during the menopause.
”The women’s health stuff is something I’m incredibly proud of,” she says. “I genuinely don’t want to sound pious, but to be honest, I probably gave it too much I sacrificed a lot in my personal to be a good MP, it was my life and that’s why I feel such a crater-sized hole right now, because part of the thinks I should still be down there championing stuff round here.”
A friend of murdered MP Jo Cox, Miss Sherriff made headlines in November when she berated Boris Johnson for his use of language at a time of heightened political tensions.
Elected after ten years as a victim support worker for the police service and a spell in a community healthcare role, she speaks of the importance of encouraging "true working-class northern women" to go into politics.
"I'm only 44 but when I was younger Parliament was a place I perceived as very male, very upper class, publicly educated people. Me getting there showed that with a bit of grit and a bit of determination and passion, you can make it."
Having lost her job - and with only around £5,000 of an MP's Loss of Office Payment left for her personally after her office costs have been paid - she still has bills and a mortgage to pay. She is looking at possible jobs in advocacy of women's health, but is waiting to see what comes up.
"I don't regret anything, I don't regret shouting at the Prime Minister. I don't regret any of the votes, " she says, looking back on her four years. "I was a really diligent MP. I don't want to sound arrogant but I gave it everything I had and sadly it wasn't wasn't enough."