"Parliament is a weird place to be a working class woman. You have to work twice as hard to be heard"
From people asking whether she went to Oxford or Cambridge, to men assuming she is the ‘coffee girl’, Tara O’Reilly says Parliament can often be an unwelcoming environment for young, working-class women. But the Labour staffer – who last week won the Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Trailblazer’ Award – believes the culture can change. She talks to Marie Le Conte
"I don’t think parliamentary staffers are listened to enough. I want us to be part of the conversation”. Tara O’Reilly is 24, works for Labour MP Clive Efford, and she has a point.
The people who work for MPs are mostly young and generally come in with little experience, but the House of Commons would grind to a halt without them, and many have their own story to tell.
Well, Tara definitely does; born in London and from a working class background, her formative years were spent in a state school in Kilburn. “I was one of about three white people in the year”, she says, “everyone had a different language, a different flag to bring in, it was wicked and for me that was normal, that was home”.
In that world, “it was totally normal to be on my benefits and to not have much money”, which is why the culture shock that followed was especially hard. At 17, Tara started going to a “really, really middle-class sixth form with just women and they all came from money”, and she hated it.
It did not help that life at home wasn’t easy; at that point, her family was in the process of losing their flat and her stepmother was dying from lung cancer. “Things were so bad with money, I dropped out of school because I just wasn’t enjoying it and I wasn’t doing really well, and there wasn’t really food in the fridge, so I needed to get a job”, she recalls.
She found a job at a Mexican food truck in central London, intending to work there for the summer then go back to school, but ended up staying for several years, self-teaching her A-Levels in her spare time instead.
Once that was out of the way, she knew she wanted to go to university – “because that’s the only way for people like me from our areas to succeed; otherwise I’ll be like my mum and my dad and living month to month and I was terrified of that” – but never got round to it.
Instead, the lightbulb moment came from somewhere unexpected: “I was seeing a therapist for anxiety, and she saw how angry I was at the world; she just saw that I was just so bloody pissed off at everything that was going on. And we’d been made homeless for three months and I basically slept on the floor of my dad’s living room, with my sister on the sofa. I was so angry.”
Her therapist introduced her to mental health charity Young Minds, and everything clicked; Tara had found an outlet for her anger, and something she was good at. “I was gobby enough, I was hard working enough, and it just fit. So I worked by day in the truck and then by night, evenings and weekends, I just signed up for any kind of volunteering and campaigning I could.”
This soon turned into a full-time job at international development non-profit Bond, after which she applied for a campaigning assistant job for Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign. Though she “had no links to the Labour party and knew absolutely no-one” there, she got the job, and loved it.
After Khan’s campaign came Rosena Allin-Khan’s by-election in Tooting, then Clive Efford got in touch as he needed someone to help him launch the Tribune group of Labour MPs.
She has now worked for him for two and a half years, but still hasn’t given up on extra-curricular activities; she was a mentor for the Queen’s Young Leaders programme until recently, and is currently on the board of trustees of Peace Brigades International UK. Oh, and she is studying for a law degree at the University of London as a distant student.
Keeping all this in mind, it is unsurprising that she ended up winning the title of Trailblazer of the Year at this year’s Young Women’s Trust Awards. “I decided to apply because I saw the word trailblazer and I thought ‘that’s definitely me’; that’s something I definitely feel describes how I’ve gotten from where I was to where I am today.”
Speaking of which, while Tara has probably seen and done more than a lot of people currently working in the Palace, it does not mean that she hasn’t found it hard to work in politics. “Everyone looks the same and they talk the same”, she says. “It’s a weird place to be when you’re a working class woman; you do have to work twice as hard to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected.”
From men refusing to shake her hand and assuming she’s the “coffee girl” to the MP then under investigation who made rape jokes to her, she doesn’t see Parliament as a welcoming place for young women and people from diverse backgrounds.
“I’m so tired of having the conversation of ‘so did you go to Oxford or Cambridge?’, like ‘actually neither! I’m studying law on top of my job’ and they look at you like ‘which planet to do come from? When did they start flying people in from Mars?’
“I’d love to think that in ten years, young women coming in here will be much more protected, not at the receiving end of abuse and harassment. Or at least if they are, not feeling like they have to hide it, which is definitely the case at the moment. Even now after everything – more so actually, because we’ve not really seen any success in it.
“MPs should not feel like they can do whatever the hell they want in here. They have a duty of care towards their staffers, which definitely gets ignored.”
Still, the one thing she is endlessly positive about is her network of friends in the Commons, without which she says she would have quit a long time ago. “As soon as you find really good friends here that you can trust, you hold on to them for dear life because they are the backbone when everything else is falling apart,” she concludes. Here’s hoping that more women like Tara follow her path.
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