Wendy Chamberlain’s maiden speech

As is traditional, Liberal Democrat Voice is covering the maiden speeches of our new MPs as they happen. Yesterday, Wendy Chamberlain, MP for North East Fife, spoke in the Education and Local Government debate:

I begin my maiden speech, perhaps unusually, by congratulating the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) on his excellent maiden speech. We can certainly agree on ensuring that deprived children and those with additional support needs are supported. I note his work on the board of governors of Hoyle nursery and commend its achievements as well as those of Springfield Primary and Bury College. I commend the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to education. I appreciate his telling us about his cricket-playing career and the fact that perhaps it does not live up to expectations. I play the amateur Scottish sport of shinty and would be happy to tell Members all about it. I do not play particularly well, so stand well back. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Gentleman again during his time in Parliament.

It is a great honour to make my maiden speech as the new Member of Parliament for North East Fife. I pay tribute to my most recent predecessor, Stephen Gethins, who served North East Fife with distinction from 2015. It is clear from my few days here that he was well liked and well respected by Members across the House. I recognise the work of his parliamentary team, both here and in the constituency. It is easy to forget in the heat of an election that when Members lose or resign their seat that has a direct impact on their employees, so I wish all of them the best for the future.

I thought of Stephen last week, as he is a committed European and a strong supporter of the Erasmus scheme. He will be saddened that the House voted against the scheme, which has nothing to do with the EU’s institutions, which will simply deprive British students of the chance to enjoy studying across Europe—something from which Stephen benefited.

There is much that Stephen, his former SNP colleagues and I agree on regarding Europe and the UK’s role within it. North East Fife as a constituency voted to ​remain within the UK and in the European Union in recent referendums. Maintaining Scotland’s place in the UK is best for the economic and social wellbeing of these islands, and it is incumbent on everyone who believes that to demonstrate it not only in our words but in our actions. It was my friend and colleague, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, who turned North East Fife into a Liberal Democrat constituency, to which it has returned with my election. He is held in much affection in the constituency, but North East Fife has a longer Liberal tradition, with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith representing the seat in its previous form of East Fife. Asquith and I might differ in our views on universal suffrage, but 100 years on from Nancy Astor it is a huge honour to be the first female Member of Parliament to represent the constituency. I could not have achieved that without the support of the Liberal Democrat campaign for gender balance, the Parliament Project and the 50:50 Parliament #AskHertoStand campaign.

I am aware that I come from a position of privilege. I am white, heterosexual and cisgender. I was in a position where I could afford to take an unpaid career break during the election campaign, then leave my employment directly after my election. I know that for many who have an ambition to enter politics, whether at local or national level, that is simply not possible. I urge the House to consider how it continues to increase diversity not only in the Chamber but throughout politics and across all areas of diversity, including disability, ethnicity and socioeconomic background—we should not limit ourselves to a gender perspective. Local government in particular needs increased diversity. I had the privilege of serving for 12 years as a police officer. Like the police service, we should seek to ensure that we are truly reflective of the communities we serve and represent.

North East Fife is a diverse and beautiful constituency, taking in Levenmouth, the Howe of Fife, the East Neuk, the royal burgh of Cupar and communities on the south banks of the Tay. It is home to Leuchars Army and former RAF base. St Andrews is the home of golf, which will again welcome the open in 2021. It is also home to St Andrews University, Scotland’s oldest university, established in 1413. The university is the area’s major employer, and was recently ranked by The Guardian as Scotland’s top University, and second in the UK—a considerable achievement, I am sure Members agree.

My constituency’s other industries include tourism, farming, agriculture and our vital fishing communities. One area that combines a number of these is the growth in distilleries in the constituency that are providing both produce and visitor attractions. My predecessor mentioned our whisky distilleries in his maiden speech, but I would also like to mention North East Fife’s increasing number of gin distilleries, such as Eden Mill, Pilgrim’s, Darnley’s of Kingsbarns and Lundin Links. Having come to this House directly from the drinks industry, I hold a general certificate in distilling and would be more than happy to tutor Members accordingly. I am also noticing a theme to my party’s maiden speeches, given that my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) referred to the number of pubs in her constituency yesterday.

North East Fife is a largely rural constituency. As well as presenting many of the opportunities I have outlined, this also means that it has challenges, particularly around transport, rural poverty and accessing public services. I am delighted to see that the reinstatement of ​the Levenmouth railway is now moving forward. This will see one of the local communities that is most poorly served by public transport properly connected to the central belt of Scotland. I commend the work of the members of the Levenmouth Rail Campaign for their efforts in this regard.

I am my party’s spokesperson on political and constitutional reform, and believe that transformation is required in local government in England in order to ensure better representation. Alongside the introduction of a written constitution and renewed support for the devolved Administrations, these steps are urgently needed. Local government in England is confusing and often unaccountable, and that also speaks to the Westminster electoral first-past-the-post system. It took 330,000 votes in the general election to elect me or one of my Liberal Democrat MP colleagues, whereas it took just 38,000 votes to elect a Conservative. To elect the only MP for the Greens—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—took 866,000 votes. On a personal level, I would much rather that people voted for me and my party because they liked and agreed with me and my party’s policies the most, rather than because we are the option that they disliked the least.

We have myriad electoral systems, resulting in confusion and disengagement. Ultimately, when we then ask for binary answers to complex questions, we should not be surprised if they come out with results that we were not expecting. The sinews of our parliamentary democracy are being strained, and it is our role as parliamentarians and legislators to ensure that these systems are fit for purpose. Without solving that democratic deficit in the voting systems, which differ in all four nations of our country, we continue to weaken the bonds of the UK. Is that fair? In the Brexit referendum, two of our nations voted against such a step, yet we are set to leave the European Union on the hardest of terms. There has been no attempt by this Government to treat this as a process of four nations. This has failed the devolved Administrations, weakened our democracy and undermined the United Kingdom. And yet, the Government’s own electoral reform proposal in this Queen’s Speech will make it more difficult for people to vote, by introducing voter identification. If the Government think that making it more difficult to vote is the answer, I would respectfully ask, “What is the question and where is the evidence?”—remember, I did mention that I had been a police officer. In an era of social media, when MPs are more accessible than ever, surely our voting system should be too. That means giving EU citizens the guarantees they were promised about the voting rights post Brexit, and following the devolved Administrations by delivering votes at 16.

In this Parliament, I look forward to representing the people of North East Fife and working with Members across the House to deliver the changes to our democracy that will make the United Kingdom fit for purpose as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.

Here is a video extract of Wendy’s speech via Twitter:

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6 Comments

  • Barry Lofty 15th Jan '20 - 4:12pm

    A very good speech by Wendy Chamberlain and I particularly enjoyed her strong argument in favour of electoral reform across the UK.

  • Stephen Gethins always came across as likeable and constructive, unlike many of the of the other SNP MPs in my opinion.

  • Yes, Stephen Gethins is the very best of the SNP. A decent, open sort of guy who genuinely cares about lots of issues apart from independence. Unfortunately the vast majority of their MPs and MSPs are just the opposite of that.
    I don’t know who described them as a left-wing UKIP, but it is certainly true that they have the same single-minded obsession with one policy above everything else, and (rare exceptions like Stephen G aside) their default position is to be unpleasant and hectoring of anyone who doesn’t agree with them on that issue. So I can see the similarities. They’re not actually all that left wing, but I guess they are in comparison with UKIP.

  • Jane Ann Liston 16th Jan '20 - 10:35am

    Comment about Mr Gethins heard at the count – ‘nice guy, wrong party.’

  • Peter Hirst 16th Jan '20 - 1:13pm

    If we are going to preserve our union, we need to make it more homogeneous if not unified in its approach to voting systems. We can no longer take it for granted that it will persist. Common procedures, systems, values, culture and heritage are all important to make it the force for good in the world that is so urgently needed.

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