I arrive at Stephen’s office on Albert Road just after midday and as I walk in, I’m greeted by a very stylish open plan office. There is a seating area, a long table with desk spaces and an open kitchen at the back. It is a casual, open and welcoming setting, and as I sip my tea I observe people communicating efficiently and working hard. Another constituent arrives while I am there and he is welcomed by name, only serving to reinforce the impression that I have of a very open space.
When Stephen comes over, he shakes my hand warmly. He has a friendly smile, wearing a sharp suit and pink tie. He asks how I am, discussing work for both he and I, and we start the interview. He is softly spoken, with a coherent voice and is easy to listen to as he talks in a matter of fact way. He says himself he would rather discuss ideas than go after individuals and this is something which comes across very clearly throughout the interview. He prefers to refer to his own values, rather than necessarily those of the Labour party.
I start by asking him how he has found the role since being elected last year. ‘So it’s been a fantastic year and a real privilege to represent the city that I was born and bred in- went to local schools, where I got my first job, bought my first pint, and it’s a city where everyone I love lives, so it’s been a real honour to represent that city in an election that I didn’t think I’d win last June.’ He describes his early political life to me; ‘I joined my party when I was 16, so when I was at secondary school, and I was always active in my local community as a young person. I was on the school council, I was a volunteer and I learnt those kind of values which I hold dear now, politically, from a young age from my family and friends.’
After graduating from the University of Bristol, he remained passionate about approaching jobs which allowed him to continue to exercise those values, culminating in the 2017 general election. I broach the subject that Portsmouth has not had a Labour MP and ask him why he thinks his message resonated enough to get him elected- ‘I’m not someone who gets involved in bashing personalities or people. I’d much rather talk about ideas and have a battle about ideas than personalities and I think that’s what people in Portsmouth want.’
‘I think the real challenge has been learning quite quickly that, what people’s expectations of what an MP can do, and in reality what they are able to deliver, are often two very different things.’ Some of the things he has been asked to help with range from slugs in the garden and ASDA food deliveries, to bringing about world peace tomorrow. However, the concerns which he takes most seriously involve single-use plastics, affordable housing, parking as well as the state of public services and the need to invest in them.
As he says, ‘What I learnt growing up in Fratton was the huge inequalities we still face in society, and in particular in Portsmouth where we have a third of children living in poverty, in Portsmouth South, where we’ve got life expectancy 10 years less in the south of the city than it is in the north; where we’ve seen a doubling of the number of people sleeping rough in society. What I believe is where you’re born shouldn’t determine where you end up in life. I think a route out of poverty and encouraging people to fill their aspirations is by having really good public services that people can access.’ He passionately espouses the principle that aiming high in life ought to allow one to achieve one’s dreams, so long as we have equality of opportunity.
I move on, putting to him the fact that the majority of undergraduate students who have started this academic year, those who came straight to university from college, are not likely to have had the opportunity to vote in the 2016 referendum, and that trust in politicians is at a historic low. I ask him what his message is to students to reassure them the political class does have the best for their futures in mind.
‘So, what I’ve been trying to do is engage young people in the work I do in lots of different ways; by encouraging young people to come up to parliament, offering shadowing opportunities, by going to visit young people in places that they go.’ When I press him on why young people seem to be apathetic to politics in the way they weren’t in decades past, he suggests that ‘people increasingly get involved in issues as opposed to parties and I’m keen to engage people in ways we haven’t done in the past.’ He reiterates Labour’s policy that the voting age ought to be lowered to 16, and that he actively campaigns for that.
Specifically on Brexit, he says he would like to see a general election, but is also willing to express his firm unambiguous support for a people’s vote, justifying it because ‘I think we are at a stage now where, clearly what is being proposed is not originally what was intended and I think we should put that back to the country.’ As this clarity is not something which the Labour party has seemed to present in recent weeks, I ask if this is for certain what the country needs- ‘So it’s very clear that she (Theresa May) won’t command the majority that she needs on the 11th of December for that crucial vote. I think the Labour party have played a long term strategy, which is about what the impact Brexit will have (sic) and then trying to find alternatives.’
This prediction of the way the ‘meaningful vote’ will go in parliament is substantiated by his own interactions with colleagues in the House of Commons, but he does caution that things may change. He does add that he would prefer a general election- ‘I didn’t go into parliament to deliver Brexit; I went into parliament to stand up for Portsmouth and for Portsmouth schools, the NHS and our police.’
Talking about the concerns for the residents of Portsmouth brings the conversation on to the social responsibility that students have to their area. It’s often a complaint between both students and residents that a positive net contribution is not there. When I ask Stephen about this, he says ‘This is something I’ve regularly discussed with the student union and the vice-chancellor, and I think there’s a huge amount already going on where the university and student union are engaging in communities. But often that’s not got a spotlight shone on it. So, the amount of volunteering we see students do, what the staff do in terms of working with local groups is really commendable.’ However, this issue is that ‘The university is very good at demonstrating the economic value it brings to the city, but it’s a bit harder to demonstrate the social value.’ He highlights the university sponsoring the football club as something which has been valued by residents, and sends the right sort of signals.
Another issue which has been highlighted, particularly recently, is the responsibility we have to preserve a clean and sustainable society. Unfortunately, Portsmouth recently came 340th out of 352 local authorities for rates of recycling. When I put this to Stephen, he responded, saying- ‘I think some of the challenges are that we can’t recycle all the plastics in our city, and that presents issues and challenges. It’s a real issue that people write to me on a regular basis, specifically plastic waste ending up in the ocean. It’s certainly something that young people are very motivated to contact me about.’
I ask him exactly what he would suggest we can do to tackle this issue in our day to day lives- ‘So I think there’s definitely more we can do in terms of learning from elsewhere; we need to reduce the amount of plastic waste we use… buying a container for water would make a massive difference. But I also believe there’s more producers of plastic can do to reduce overall waste we see in society.’
One of the final topics which we address is the presence of crime and violence on the streets of Portsmouth. Using data from Police UK, a recent article highlighted the 11 worst hotspots for violence and crime. 6 of those are from his ward- Charles Dickens. I put it to him that this is a problem which affects both students and residents in equal measure. He responds by highlighting that Hampshire has lost 1000 police officers due to cuts and has seen a 10% rise in crime and violence, ‘specifically and worryingly violent crime is on the rise.’
He does defend the police, emphasising that- ‘the nature of policing and the nature of crime is changing, so there’s a lot more cyber-crime than there used to be and their focus with limited resources is now on what we call ‘risk and vulnerabilities’ essentially. So the nature of work by police is very different to what it used to be.’ This refers to the fact that police are focusing on those who are at most risk and vulnerable, yet possibly at the risk of missing some cases. He goes on to say, ‘My worry is that police officers are doing a lot of work around mental health, and supporting people in mental health situations, because those services have been cut elsewhere’. He has raised this issue with the prime minister herself in parliament earlier this year, and brought a delegation of local businesses to Westminster to emphasise the damage cuts were having.
I suggest that perhaps there is more to cutting crime than policing alone- looking at preventative measures- and he agrees, saying ‘Ultimately, we should be preventing criminal activity taking place in the first place’– highlighting the Labour policy of a statutory youth service as being part of the solution. This policy was endorsed earlier this year, and seeks for councils to have a ring-fenced budget specifically for youth projects and schemes.
We finish up by discussing what students can do to integrate better in Portsmouth. He uses the term ‘transactional relationship’ and we talk about how as a group, students could be more proactive in approaching and introducing themselves to residents. He suggests something as simple as ‘a neighbour goes round at freshers week… rather than fearing, developing a positive relationship at the outset.’ And on that hopeful note, we end our half hour together.
I thank him and his assistant for allowing me the time, and we discuss the possibility of a follow up interview after the next fortnight in the Commons, by which time, the political landscape of the country could be severely shaken. We can live in confidence however, that for now we have a committed MP who has demonstrated his passion for the area and all the people living in it.