Sarah Olney interview part 3: Politics

You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

It’s not even been two years since you joined the party, and you are now sitting in the famous House of Commons. Has it sunk in yet?

Not really. One of the things I think is quite strange is how familiar it is when you enter because you see the House of Commons on tele so much. It doesn’t actually feel that strange in there. The weirdest thing I’ve experienced while there was when waiting for one of the votes, the Article 50 one I think, I was chatting with Caroline Lucas, and I got a text from my husband saying ‘You look really grumpy!’ It was just the weirdest thing. I was just sitting there having a chat, and my husband is watching me on the tele at home. When someone does something like that, it’s really weird.

In your short time as an MP, what are your likes and dislikes of the role so far?

The best bit is getting out and meeting people. I see people doing all sorts of different things. As an accountant, I was chained to my desk for eight hours a day while seeing the same old faces. Now I get to go into schools, workplaces and hospitals. I’m meeting different types of people, including staff, customers and patients. You get such a better idea of how the world works and how different people relate to each other. That is fabulous and a real privilege. It’s only MPs who get the opportunity to do that.

I like having the opportunity to contribute to the debates I feel passionate about. There was a schools funding one recently. It was brilliant to be able to stand up and talk about something I care about. I have kids at school, and my dad’s a teacher. To speak about that and, hopefully, to have some impact is great.

I dislike the way some people feel that they are entitled to have a go at you just because you are an MP. You might not have done anything in particular, but you are there to be shouted at.

Do you mean on the streets or online?

It’s more the social media thing. I tend to stay away from it. The discourse on there is so aggressive. The people I meet on the street have been almost uniformly positive. Some of Zac’s supporters were a bit unpleasant but, apart from that, people stop me in the street and say ‘You are Sarah Olney. You are our MP. I think you are great.’ I get a lot of that. So the real life interactions are really good. I think it’s when people talk about MPs more generally in disparaging ways. In ways they wouldn’t talk about any other jobs. Six months ago, I was an accountant. I didn’t just become a bad person overnight because I became an MP. I am very much the same person as before. There was nothing inevitable about me becoming an MP. It wasn’t a natural thing. I never could have guessed I’d win a by-election. It’s not like I planned to become an MP nor was it a career path. Not like the case of the Tories and their safe seats. They can do that but not me. That rankles a bit I think.

You mentioned your children earlier. How has being an MP affected your family life?

It’s not been too bad, actually. Because I’m a London MP, I get to go home every evening. If not in the evening, I get to see them in the morning. I still get to spend quite a lot of time with them. Anyway, they seem to have taken it in their stride. They are not fussed.

What is the main message you want to get across to the public and the party?

My message to the party is that we have a real opportunity to make a difference. Right now, it’s a very interesting time politically. There are real opportunities for us. If people put themselves forward for elections and work really hard and get the right messages out there, then we can have more upsets like Richmond Park. We could win more seats and councils.

My message to the public is to vote Lib Dem, obviously!

Besides Brexit and your local work, are there any other national or even international issues that you feel strongly about and may, or even are, campaigning on?

Yes. There’s the schools’ funding one. I’d also like to do more on air pollution. Air pollution is quite a local issue for me, but it’s also a national one.

You are the party’s only female MP. How do we get those from underrepresented groups elected?

I think we need to examine some of our own approaches for selecting candidates. We have done a great deal of work in this area, but there is so much unconscious bias. Although that wasn’t my experience. People were happy to have a female candidate. I can’t honestly say what it is that’s stopping us. All I know is we have some extremely good women in some winnable seats.

The Lib Dems are the only credible pro-EU party in Britain today. However, as much of the party’s attention is focused on fighting Brexit, are you concerned that the Lib Dems may become a single-issue entity like UKIP or the Greens?

I don’t think so. We’ve always had a broader policy base. Right now, it is about Brexit because we are the only people who are providing any opposition to it. As Labour disintegrates further, we will be the only ones providing any type of opposition at all. Therefore, more and more of our policy platforms will be promoted.

What lessons can the Lib Dems take from your victory?

More female candidates. Clearly, we are the winners!

So we are at the Lib Dems Spring Conference in York, what have you been up to here?

I spoke at the Rally yesterday. I did a Fringe event earlier for Radix. I’ve looked at all the exhibitions. I’ve been speaking with people about the various campaigns they are involved in. And maybe a bit of drinking last night!

Difficult question I know, but where do you see the party in four years’ time?

In four years’ time, we will have at least another twenty MPs, if not thirty. It’s difficult to say as it’s such a fluid time in politics at the moment, but I confidently predict that we will continue to increase our representation in every parliament and assembly in the UK.

So the future is bright for the Lib Dems?

Absolutely.

Sarah Olney, thank you very much.

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

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