Olivia Blake: 'I couldn't have won Sheffield Hallam without Jeremy Corbyn'
As the Labour leadership race kicks off, many across the country have been quick to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the downfall of the party’s voter base in the North.
But for new MP Olivia Blake, one of Labour’s rare success stories in the December General Election, she is adamant she would not have taken Sheffield Hallam without him.
Ms Blake, 29, was in an odd position during the six-week election campaign. She was technically campaigning for Labour to hold the seat they won from the Lib Dems in 2017 in Sheffield Hallam.
But since that election so much had changed under former MP Jared O’Mara, that her campaign felt more offensive than defensive as the Laura Gordon, the Lib Dem pick, looked a dead cert to snatch the constituency.
“We always said it will be on a knife edge,” she said.
“I would not say the Lib Dems were going to beat us because the kind of campaign we ran was very much about listening to people, there was a lot of trust to rebuild. And actually the platform I stood on was about rebuilding our public services.
“It went down really well, people wanted to talk about policies in Sheffield Hallam, we were having in-depth conversations. It was such a good campaign.”
In July, Mr O'Mara announced he would step down after a series of problems which saw him suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party and then resign from the party.
But the Treasury, which administers MP resignations, later announced that he had postponed this decision. He did not stand for election in December.
Ms Gordon had been largely picking up casework in that time, polls suggested she was set to win the poll.
However it was not to be.
Speaking about election night, after she had been told she had won, Ms Blake said: “I realised I had nearly given it away because it was so close, I was hoping I would get five minutes to write a speech, but I didn’t so I grabbed a couple of bits of paper and I walked on stage with them [the pieces of paper].
“All the cameras were on Laura because they expected her to win - I do feel bad about that - and I just hid the papers behind my back and I looked so serious because I didn’t know what to do. I’m so proud of what we managed to achieve.”
But the former Prince Henry’s Grammar School pupil and University of Sheffield alumnus knew she was the anomaly, with colleagues elsewhere in the country and region either losing their seats altogether or suffering severely slashed majorities. She said: “We had Penistone and Stocksbridge in our room [which went to the Tory’s Miriam Cates], so we knew it was bad elsewhere, but Paul Blomfield’s seat [Sheffield Central] was very, very successful.
“I came out the next morning seeing what had happened, it was very bittersweet.”
However she stopped stopped short of decrying leader Mr Corbyn, while many had laid blame directly at his feet.
She said: “I would not have won without Jeremy, 134 years in Hallam and we’ve won twice, both with Jeremy as leader.
“The conversations we had with people were 15 minute conversations and Jeremy was not the first thing that came up on the doorstep, Jared was, but we wanted to talk about the issues. I wanted to be the change.”
At the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting since the election Ms Blake said “tensions were running high”.
But she said: “I’ve been in worse meetings in my time as a trade unionist and in local government.
“It’s obviously really difficult to explain how I feel about it because the manifesto we stood on was very hopeful, people understood our Brexit stance in the campaign.”
Now she added: “I hope we have a clean leadership race, if we focus on issues and ideas.
“I would like to see who comes forward. I’ve got my three tests which are Brexit - I’m a strong remainer - the climate crisis, and rebuilding our public services. I know I’ll probably have to compromise a bit.”
Ms Blake said she would love to see a woman from the North as leader, she said: “It would be fantastic to see a woman, I would love to see that absolutely. But it’s about ideas, I think we have had an issue of personalisation from Northern cities and communities.”
Looking forward to getting started in Parliament, Ms Blake speaks to The Yorkshire Post in Portcullis House, she is getting ready to be sworn in.
“You turn up like it’s the first day of school, you don’t know where anything is,” she said.
“It’s been a really supportive welcome environment, which is quite different to local government.
“Being in the chamber is very different, you are literally so close to the opposition benches, that was quite intimidating. But it’s been nice to come in with a group that was so diverse, me and Fleur Anderson [newly elected MP for Putney] are the only two long term candidates.”
While she hoped her experience in local politics would help her.
Ms Blake was elected onto Sheffield City Council in 2014 and later became Deputy Leader.
She said: “I’ve been living and breathing the effects of austerity in my role. That’s given me a bit of real insight into what has happened.
“It’s very easy to forget the decisions we make in this place impact people’s lives. Local government was hit hardest, more than any other department.”
Ms Blake said her mother, Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council was “very happy, very proud”.
She said: “It’s very funny really, mum got into politics because of her children really, because our school was at risk of closure. I’ve come through the same routes of campaigning for change, I got really active in the living wage campaign and student fees, trying to deliver change.”
She added: “I’m really proud to be here and to be able to get on with work.”