Preet Gill: "I ignored every poll. I went in there knowing that we could win"
On 8 June Labour’s Preet Gill became the first woman Sikh MP. She talks to Sebastian Whale about making history, her hero bus-driver father and defying expectations
Few elections to parliament receive global attention. While the national outlook makes headlines, the success of individual MPs rarely, if ever, piques the interest of those residing overseas. But election night 2017, with all its intrigue, was a little different.
On 8 June, Preet Gill created history by becoming the first female Sikh MP. In doing so, she has received media requests from Canada to pretty much “every paper” in India, while also taking phone calls of congratulations from people in Zanzibar to Australia. So what effect has this had on the 44-year-old?
“It’s made me feel like wow, there’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t have an issue with that. I think the one thing that’s made me feel proud is that I’ve had young people subsequently contact me saying ‘you’ve really made us think about a career in politics, how do you get involved’,” she explains.
“That’s the bit – the fact that actually it’s started to get a lot of young people thinking about a career in politics – that’s been brilliant.”
Gill is juggling the deluge of media requests on her own, as she puts together her team in Parliament. Indeed she remains admirably focussed throughout our conversation in Portcullis House, despite her phone vibrating every other minute, doubtless with more bids from pesky journalists.
But this is not a new phenomenon for the Birmingham-born politician. Gill already had the spotlight focussed on her as she sought to follow in Gisela Stuart’s footsteps as Labour MP for Edgbaston. Her predecessor had become known for her local campaigning in the area, holding onto the seat that pundits had, for consecutive elections, forecast to turn blue. Defending a majority of 2,706 in a Brexit-backing area, and with Conservative Andy Street elected the first mayor of the West Midlands, the writing seemed on the wall for Gill’s electoral hopes.
After an ominous night for the Labour party at May’s elections, I visited her in Birmingham for a feature on the West Midlands. At the time the electoral calculus gave the Conservatives a 61% chance of regaining Edgbaston, which they lost to Labour in 1997. But, in a result typical of the night, Gill won with a majority of 6,917. So what changed in the month after our first interview?
“I think for me nothing really because I ignored every poll, I went in there knowing that we could win,” she says. Forecasting that the Ukip vote, which stood at 4,154 in 2015, would split between Labour and the Tories, Gill adjusted her strategy, and was aided by the momentum of the national campaigns.
“A lot of things happened during the election. I think Theresa May, the U-turns, their manifesto launch really didn’t go down very well,” she says.
“Jeremy did really well. Some people that we initially spoke to maybe were not convinced, or had a view about Jeremy, actually changed their mind. That was really good to see, that people were willing to give him a chance, they’d seen that he’d been very credible and came across really well. The launch of the Labour manifesto really was a game changer.”
She adds: “Whether it was renationalising the electricity companies or water companies or whether it was the student fees, there was something that somebody had to talk about related to the manifesto, which was really good. It meant you could really engage with people. And the young vote, I had loads of people through social media contact me saying ‘we really want to come and join your campaign’ and felt really invigorated by Jeremy.”
Gill became a councillor in 2012 and was Sandwell’s cabinet member for public health and protection, alongside being chosen for the ‘Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme’. She cites Nan Sloane, the director of the Centre for Women, as one of her political heroines, and says the advice she gave during the initiative was “very positive, very empowering, very supportive”.
“Actually if there’s somebody who I admire and look up to I’d have to say her, because without realising it that programme and it’s structure and what she has given me during that period has been the ability to recognise my confidence, my skills, my leadership, value myself in a way that I don’t think we as women are always very good at doing,” she says.
Growing up though her main political idol was a little closer to home. Her father, Daljit Singh, moved to Birmingham in the 1950s and worked in a factory before becoming a bus driver. This tells only half the story, she is keen to convey.
“He was very politically active, always campaigning, leafletting, you name it. I remember him in the 70s going to Romania to do aid work. I talked about him being a bus driver, but actually he was much more than that, he was a community leader,” she says.
Singh was the longest standing president at the Smethwick Guadwara, and, Gill claims, coined the concept of the foodbank by delivering free cheese in the 1980s.
“I think he’s been a real role model for me right from the outset. When I did my trip to India and worked with street children, I got to meet a lot of the women from the widows’ colony that had lost all of their husbands and sons from 1984,” she says.
“That really awoke this thing about human rights and actually what’s my role? How can I help and what can I do that makes a difference? I think that was the thing about my dad, it was always like ‘don’t just think about going to university and studying, think about what you’re going to give back to society, how do you give back to the community’. That’s why I always got involved in volunteering or charity, aside of what I also was doing.”
Her father, who passed away three years ago, had always dreamed of Gill becoming a Member of Parliament. Did she think of him on election night?
“Oh yeah. I think throughout the campaign it was amazing when I was out door knocking how many people knew my father. They would always say ‘we knew your dad, he helped us’, I heard lots of stories about him. That was incredible. I mean constantly being brought up by so many people, it was unbelievable,” she says.
Since being elected, Gill has received a “tremendous” welcome from her Labour colleagues, including Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson. Identifying her politics as centre-left, Gill is complimentary, some might say diplomatic, of her party leader, praising him as a man of integrity.
The 2017 election delivered the most diverse House of Commons in history, with the number of LGBT, women and ethnic minority MPs rising. Along with Gill the election of fellow Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi means there are now two Sikh MPs in the Commons. Gill hopes this will bolster representation in the future.
“I think there’s something though about my community in terms of how we push our young people to get active in politics. It’s not generally been the profession that most of our parents chose, it was always law or doctor or business or something like that. I think there’s been a real awakening… It certainly in the last five years consciously became something really important to the Sikh community."