City of Durham MP Mary Foy: “Durham City and its area isn’t an infinite place”

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Note: This interview was conducted before the Cabinet reshuffle which saw Gavin Williamson leave the post of Education Secretary.

Mary Foy was elected as the MP for City of Durham in the December 2019 general election, and was swiftly plunged into a global pandemic after three months on the job. Some of the many animosities and divisions created by this pandemic were, as so often, played out between Durham’s permanent residents and its students, some of whom were accused of flouting the rules to socialise during last winter’s long, harsh lockdown. At the start of our conversation, I ask her if she senses an uneasy relationship between ‘town and gown’.

“I think it’s always been there. It’s two different worlds, isn’t it, really,” she says pensively. “Students are students, and they’re going to want to go out, and it’s been so difficult for them.”

She admits that she has had contact from residents worried about students spreading Covid-19, but she seems eager to stress an optimistic approach to the town/gown relationship:

“You know, there were some groups in the city centre, there were actual residents and students that came together to form in their own communities those mutual aid groups. People really worked together like that… with a little bit of give and take, I think people could possibly work together.”

But can people work together if Durham adds two to four new colleges, as it’s planning on doing by 2027, swelling Durham’s student population even further?

“I do think that expansion of a great university like Durham is good, but we do have to remember that it is a small city, and I’m not sure that 4 colleges is going to be sustainable at all.”

“Does it mean that they’re going to create more housing for those new students they’re attracting in, when they haven’t even dealt with the current set of students? I think the University needs to remember that there has to be some give and take, and that Durham City and its area isn’t an infinite place, and that they’ll maybe have to stop at some point.”

“Some of the people who contact me are those who say the University is taking over the city, and it’s not right.” Foy tells me that this is one of the things she is eager to discuss with incoming Vice-Chancellor, Karen O’Brien, when they have their regular meetings next year.

The impact of Covid-19 on students is not just going to affect people until the pandemic is over. This could be lifelong

Mary foy, mp

Our conversation moves on to one of the biggest scandals to engulf Durham University in recent times, Lauren White’s report into alleged discrimination against northern students at the University.

“I read that report and it was absolutely awful, very harrowing, especially for me being a northern working-class woman,” Foy tells me, an expression of disgust spreading across her face. “I’ve been told that there were actions taken with certain students, but I don’t think it’s been consistent enough really.” She brings up the fact that Durham University admits the lowest proportion of local students out of all British universities, with just 10.1% of full-time students coming from the northeast.

“That has to change, but it’s only going to change if northern young people feel like they’d be welcome in that place, and it’s OK setting up policies and saying there’s a reporting process, but that has to be backed up with actions as well — not just their words. Decisive action has to be taken against those perpetrators [of anti-northern discrimination], it’s absolutely shocking.”

It might be unlikely that a much higher proportion of working-class local students enter the University in the near future, given the demographic breakdown from this year’s A-Level results. 70% of private school pupils received A* and/or A grades, compared to 39% of state school pupils. I asked Foy why this disparity might have come about.

“I think it’s the outcome of the whole structure of the education system,” she says. “In private schools the funding per pupil is more than three times higher than for kids from the state schools, so obviously you’re going to have smaller class sizes, you’re going to have better-paid teachers and staff — all of those things add up to how a student can learn. And, of course, you’ve also got the disparity in incomes with families, where you may have those who attend private schools with their own bedroom, [with] the right resources, peace and quiet at home. Whereas some other families don’t have that luxury, so learning is more difficult.”

Should the education secretary Gavin Williamson have resigned over the way education has been handled during this pandemic? Foy’s answer is clear enough. “Gavin Williamson should be gone. He’s well out of his depth. And what’s happened now with exams, and the impact of Covid-19 on students, is not just going to affect people until the pandemic is over. This could be lifelong for a lot of people — their exam results, their mental health, jobs, it’s a lifelong impact.”

If the NEC says it’s OK, why can’t Corbyn have the whip restored?

Foy was offered a first rung onto the ladder of frontbench politics last year, when she became the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Andy McDonald, the Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights. This surprised some, given that Foy is a Corbyn loyalist from the left of the party. It could have been the start of a reconciliation between Keir Starmer’s more moderate leadership approach and the democratic socialists who were largely cast out into the cold after Corbyn. However, last year Foy resigned from this junior frontbench role, in order to vote against the controversial Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) bill. The Labour whip had been to abstain. I asked her why she voted against the bill, rather than abstaining.

“I’d had a lot of discussion with the trade unions and other groups in civil society about the harms of this bill. I had a lot of time to reflect on it, and I think the front bench messages… I just wasn’t convinced by them. In effect the bill was legalising those things that have happened in the corners — intelligence agents, they could murder, they could rape, and it was all done covertly, but as part of the interrogation methods for terrorism and that sort of thing.”

Foy offers an explanation for the Labour Party’s whip to abstain: “[The Labour leadership] also thought that if those things were happening, they could depend on the Human Rights Act to make sure that justice was served. But we already know that the government doesn’t give a hoot about the Human Rights Act. We’ve seen that with what’s happening in Northern Ireland at the minute with Brexit, where there’s issues that they’re not dealing with. And we know that the Northern Ireland secretary said that he’d just rip it up if need be. So I wasn’t convinced by the front bench’s views.”

“I couldn’t in all honesty be comfortable with myself if I’d voted for it or abstained, so I voted against. But I knew what the consequences were. It was a really difficult time, very difficult, and I had the front bench on the phone to me until the last minute, trying to convince me otherwise, but I think I’d heard too much from the human rights lawyers and the trade unions on why it shouldn’t go ahead.”

It’s abundantly clear that Keir Starmer’s leadership approach is much more conciliatory, more cautious, than that of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. I ask Foy how she thinks this change of approach is working out for the Labour Party.

She hesitates for quite a long time, clearly choosing her words very carefully. “I think during the pandemic it’s been very difficult. As he started his leadership there’s been a pandemic as well. I guess it’s balancing working with the government and doing what’s right for people during the pandemic, which he has tried to do.”

“I do think however, now that the pandemic’s on its way out, and the vaccines have happened, that we’re becoming a little bit more vocal and opposing. We’ve already opposed the health and social care bill, the first reading, and there are a few other things… the fire and rehire, the furlough scheme. I do believe that we need to be stronger on it, but in the last few weeks I’ve noticed Keir being a bit more vocal and voicing a bit more opposition.”

“I think the jury’s probably still out with a lot of people. It is very different to the last leadership.” She pauses, laughs and then sighs. “I think not just in terms of the opposition, I think everything else that’s going on with the Labour party, what’s happened with the NEC [Labour’s governing body] and the expulsions and… that’s not good. Why on earth is that happening now? I do not know, I really am baffled.”

I’m not too sure what she’s talking about. “Do you mean with people like Ken Loach?” I ask, referring to the left-wing filmmaker recently expelled from the Labour Party.

“Ken Loach, Ian Hodson from the Baker’s Union,” she replies, sounding very exasperated. “There could be a few more. I mean, really decent… obviously you’ve got the further hard-left groups which quite often aren’t helpful, but this is just ridiculous really. People who have been involved with the trade unions and leading trade unions… Ken Loach, for heaven’s sake!”

I suggest that Ken Loach might have been expelled because he directed a play whose writer described aspects of the Holocaust as a myth, and that Corbyn might have lost the whip for a similar reason: to draw a thick red line under the last leadership’s antisemitism crisis, and to start repairing links between the Labour Party and Jewish communities.

Foy doesn’t agree. “Well, I think if the NEC has said it’s OK, why can’t he have the whip restored? He went through due diligence and he went through the right processes, and if the NEC have agreed that he shouldn’t be expelled then he should have the whip restored, and rightly so.”

I put it to her that maybe Corbyn would be allowed back into the fold if he simply apologised for the statement in which he said that antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons.”

“He did put that statement out, soon afterwards,” she acknowledges, seeming a little more sympathetic to this line of reasoning. “I think in hindsight it might have been best that he’d waited a little bit, and thought about it before he reacted. But we are where we are, and there are people in the Labour party, there are sitting MPs who will have done a lot worse than Jeremy Corbyn. It’s causing more harm than good by continuing the way it is, not having the whip restored. And we know that the Labour Party is losing hundreds of members by the day.”

In private schools the funding per pupil is more than three times higher than for kids from state schools.

We finish our conversation with a discussion of how Foy came to political consciousness, how she came to care about politics and representation. She emphasises her upbringing as a daughter of Irish immigrants, emphasising the role of her Catholic faith.

“As a young person, I joined a youth organisation in the Church, and that was for working-class Catholics. And that was all about solidarity and internationalism, standing up for your rights at work, looking after each other. That’s what my formation was, if you like, in becoming political. It was that method of see, judge and act. It was always starting with the experiences of the people around you, you and the people around you, looking at that, and analysing what your experience was, in light of what you think it should be, and for us it was in light of the gospels, and taking action.”

It sounds a lot like liberation theology to me, an analysis she agrees with wholeheartedly. “It’s so frustrating when you mention being a Catholic and people go oh, Jacob Rees-Mogg, et cetera. Yes, you’ve got that sort of right-wing Catholicism, but the left-wing, more Latin American Catholicism is very much about social justice and that liberation theology.”

My final question for Foy was this. If you could achieve one thing in your parliamentary career, get one objective done, what would it be?

After laughing at the absurdity of the question, her answer is very serious. “It would be trying to address income inequality, which leads to health inequality, which leads to [lower] life expectancy, so all of the issues around that… if I could close that gap somehow, and people could live a long and healthy life no matter where they came from, no matter what your background was and no matter what your income is, and let people have those same opportunities and can live happy prosperous lives, that would be a start.”

Image: Official portrait of Mary Foy MP

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