Sarah Olney interview part 1: Before becoming an MP

You get bad people in power because good people are doing other things.

Sarah Olney

Imagine, for just a second, less than two years ago you were living in relative obscurity. You were known to only a select few people – friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues. You belonged to no political party. Then, in only a few months, you rose from anonymity to the hottest national topic of the day, creating history along the way. The contrast is almost unimaginable. In short, that’s the story of Sarah Olney.

Five months have yet to pass since she overturned a 23,000 majority to pull off an incredible by-election victory, over the well-known Zac Goldsmith, to become MP for Richmond Park. The Lib Dems newest parliamentarian was attending her first party conference as a backbencher (and only her second since joining the party). In between handshakes and selfies, Sarah took half an hour from her busy schedule for an interview with me, over tea and cake, in the Conference’s Parliamentarians Lounge.

Sarah has been a regular feature in the media since the announcement of her candidacy at the end of October last year. Focus has largely been concentrated on her opposition to both Brexit and Heathrow Airport expansion, and, of course, the by-election. I wanted to find out more about Sarah Olney the person, her take on the election campaign, how she is adjusting to her new role as MP and her opinion on the issues surrounding her party.

Can you tell me about your formative years up to when you finished education?

I was born in Frimley, Surrey. My dad’s a teacher, and my mum’s a nurse. I’m a middle child with an older sister and a younger brother. I was educated at local state schools and, following my A-Levels, I was accepted to study a degree in English Literature at Kings College London. At the time, I wanted to be in London. That’s the outline.

In between your university days and becoming an MP, what did you do?  

I did a variety of things actually. I was a project manager for several organisations: Barclays Bank, followed by a charity and then for a friend’s start-up. While working for my friend’s start-up, I migrated from project manager to finance manager. That was when I started studying finance. Subsequently, I became an accountant and worked as part of a finance team for the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. I was working there when I was elected.

Did you take many transferable skills from these roles into your new career as an MP? Accountancy and parliamentarian appear to have very little in common.

You are probably right. There probably aren’t many applicable skills. And there’s certainly a disappointing lack of requirement for spreadsheets! My carefully honed spreadsheet skills have gone completely to waste! It certainly is not a natural transition.

The only thing I would identify is that, as I said, before accountancy, I had many different jobs, in various industries, for different organisations. The one thing I learnt was that if you wanted to be at the heart of what was happening and you wanted to be able to shape the decision-making, you needed to be where the money was. Essentially, that’s what prompted me to move into finance. Therefore, the one thing I see as connecting my previous working life to my new one is that I became interested in politics because I wanted to get closer to where the decision-making was, to be able to affect some of the changes I wanted to see. The motivation was similar in both cases.

Apparently, twelve accountants sit in the House of Commons. There are more accountants than Lib Dems. And I’m the only one in the Venn diagram of the two.

Why did you get into politics?

There are push and pull factors. Firstly, it was just the right time of my life. I’d finished the accountancy qualification, and my children were not babies any more. I had time on my hands and needed an outlet. I arrived at that point in my life just as the 2015 general election was happening, the one where the Lib Dems were decimated. I was dismayed and upset. You get bad people in power because good people are doing other things. I thought ‘Well, I’m not as busy doing other things as I was, so I’m going to spend some time trying to get the Lib Dems back into parliament’. I didn’t expect it was going to be me!

So you do what most don’t. You don’t just moan and do nothing about it; you moan and do something about it?

Yes. I have done a lot of moaning about it though. Like I say, I did have time to spare but, in addition to that, accountancy can be quite boring, and I wanted to do something outside of work.

Do you miss accountancy?

Sometimes. I miss the regular hours, the team around me and the anonymity of the job. The predictability of accountancy is quite comforting in its own way.

However, on the whole, I don’t miss it. Being an MP is far more interesting. It’s much more impactful. I get to meet far more people. I’m quite a sociable and gregarious person, and I like to get out and converse with others. I like the diverse range of issues you become involved in when you’re an MP. You generally have the opportunity to make a difference. That appeals to me. Moving numbers around spreadsheets does not change the world!

So no regrets?

No regrets.

Why the Lib Dems?

Although I grew up in a Tory area, I’ve never liked them. Their worldview seems to be inherently selfish. It’s all about looking after people who are already well able to look after themselves. They give even more advantages to those who are already doing quite nicely.  I find the Labour philosophy quite combative. It’s based on conflict. There’s the workers and then there’s the bosses. It’s quite an old fashioned way of looking at the world. We are not just workers or bosses anymore. It’s like setting groups of people against each other. I really don’t like divisive politics of any kind, and that’s what I see everywhere I look right now. It’s just getting worse and worse. I prefer cooperative and collaborative politics. It’s far more effective.

Labour is taking it to extremes at the moment aren’t they? They are fighting each other!

I think they always have to a certain extent. I was speaking with, our Gorton candidate, Jackie Pearcey yesterday. She was telling me how Labour are going about selecting their candidate in Gorton. It makes your hair stand on end. It’s just unbelievable.

Is there a standout political figure who you admire?

This may sound like quite a surprising one, but I’ve always admired Harriet Harman. I don’t think she’s the most shining example of a politician, but she came into parliament when it wasn’t common for women to be there. I remember seeing pictures of her at her by-election while heavily pregnant. I thought it was really cool to see a pregnant woman do that. She would not be held back by it. I like that. It’s brave, even now. I haven’t seen anyone do that since. There are a number of women in parliament who are currently pregnant, it’s more common, but back then it was unheard of. Pregnant women were nowhere near parliament. Also, she’s really dogmatically stood up for women’s rights. She gets so much abuse for doing it but, from my perspective, most of the things she says are correct. If she hadn’t done that I don’t think we would be where we are in parliament now. I wouldn’t be there and many other women wouldn’t either. It so matters that we make being in parliament as accessible as we can to the widest range of people. If we can’t even make it possible for women, who make up fifty per cent of the population, to be in parliament then we aren’t going to make any progress with other disadvantaged groups. I admire her for that.

 

(To be continued tomorrow.)

* Rob May is a Political History PhD student and Lib Dem activist.

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2 Comments

  • Yay! Sarah please also support maternity leave for candidates as well as for MPs.

  • It’s often said that anyone who wants to become a politician should be barred from becoming one. I don’t entirely go along with that point of view, but there is a lot to be said in ensuring that our politicians come from a range of backgrounds, and at the very least, have a bit of experience of life outside the political bubble.

    Sarah is a breath of fresh air for Parliament, and I hope provides some inspiration for others who think they might have something to offer. I hope local party members are encouraged to reach out to the less obvious candidates.

    I like that Sarah is keen to be involved in cross-party collaboration. Some might argue it’s a necessity for a LibDem, but it’s not something that comes easily to some politicians, yet is essential if we want to ensure good policy is implemented.

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