Sarah Jones: “As MPs, our responsibility is to make sure Grenfell doesn’t happen again. That realisation was very real”
Labour frontbencher Sarah Jones counts former Tory minister Peter Lilley as her “biggest inspiration” for entering politics. But her journey to Westminster included working for Labour stalwarts Tessa Jowell and Mo Mowlam, two “steely” politicians who had the human touch. Now in the shadow housing team, Jones hopes to take this empathetic approach as she helps shape the party’s response to the Grenfell disaster. She speaks to Sebastian Whale
Sarah Jones experienced myriad emotions in the second week of June 2017. Two days after being elected as Croydon’s first ever woman MP, her father passed away from mesothelioma, a lung cancer that was caused by exposure to asbestos. “They say that people hold on,” she tells me. “He definitely held on to see me win.”
That was the Sunday. In the early hours of the following Thursday, Jones saw the devastation that had taken place in West London at Grenfell Tower, where 72 people lost their lives. “It was probably the biggest thing that’s happened to any of the new MPs. Obviously, we didn’t win the election, but as individuals in our areas we were euphoric because we just won. And then, bam, this massive thing happened. It was just awful,” she says.
The Labour MP attended a summer fair in her constituency on the Saturday. A fireman from Croydon, who was one of many summoned to attend the blaze at Grenfell, told her some of the “horrific” things he had witnessed. With tears in his eyes, he took her by the hand and said: “You have to promise that you’ll get justice for what happened”.
“As new Members of Parliament, we had that sense of helplessness but also wanting to do something about it,” she recalls. “That moment of realisation that you are a Member of Parliament and that it’s your responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen again was very real.”
Weeks later, she dedicated her maiden speech to Grenfell, telling MPs: “The victims were speaking, but we were not listening. We cannot make the same mistake again”.
In May of this year, Jones was appointed to join the Labour frontbench as a shadow minister under John Healey. Members of the Housing team are congregated on the terrace before we meet, doing some last-minute cramming ahead of the committee stage of the Tenant Fees Bill.
I prise Jones away from her colleagues and take a pew at a table next to the Thames. Twelve months after the Grenfell fire, she laments the progress that has been made for the families and survivors. “Here we are today, still, a year on, and remarkably two-thirds of the people who survived the fire are still not in permanent housing. Most of the cladded buildings are still covered in dangerous cladding and we haven’t got any resolution on the wider issue of regulations,” she says.
It does beg the question how people could excuse a repeat of the horror at Grenfell. But Jones, whose brief sees her lead on affordable housing, is quick to highlight that last year’s disaster was not the first of its type.
“It happened at Lakanal House and here we are again,” she says, referring to the 2009 tragedy in Camberwell that took the lives of six people. “We can’t say we don’t want this to happen again, because it’s already happened.”
A privately-owned block in her constituency is fitted with the same cladding used at Grenfell. The freeholders have written to the leaseholders and told them they have to pay for its replacement, at a cost of thousands of pounds per household. The law, Jones says, supports this – and she is working with the new Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary of State James Brokenshire to see if measures can be taken to ensure the burden does not fall on leaseholders. She is hopeful of success.
Jones says that, when analysing what led to the Grenfell fire, all factors must be taken into consideration, including the “wider problem around housing and why we even allow buildings to be built that have any question of having flammable materials on them”. For this, politicians must take on the notion that “less regulation is good”, she argues.
“We need to completely flip that on its head. Regulation is not just something that is done to people for no purpose. It’s something that is done to keep people safe when it comes to building materials,” she says.
“I think we need to completely rethink how we look at housing and how it’s developed into a way for people to make money, which is fine. But we’ve completely forgotten the bit which is about making sure people are living in decent homes.”
The Grenfell inquiry began taking evidence in May and will complete towards the end of next year. How can the inquiry gain the backing of the families and the general public more broadly?
“I think that any inquiry that’s on something so difficult has to have the community at its heart. The key is that people don’t feel like things are being done to them or that the decisions are being made behind closed doors or that people are taking a view and not listening to them,” she says.
“There’s been so much disappointment with the response overall, that this is the opportunity to try and put some of that right. You can only do that if you are completely transparent, completely thorough and take the local community with you.”
Jones’ victory in Croydon Central saw her oust the incumbent, Gavin Barwell, who can now be found in Number 10 as Theresa May’s chief of staff. She turned his slender 165-vote majority to more than 5,000 in her favour. It was an especially sweet victory, after her predecessor wrote about his 2015 success in his book, ‘How to Win a Marginal Seat’. As Jones quipped in her maiden speech: “I cannot wait for the sequel.”
Her political journey began while a student at Durham University. Born and raised in Croydon, she attended an all-girls school before moving up north to study. She came from a Methodist, middle-class background – “so always of the left,” she says.
Aged 19, she was pregnant. “It was quite a shock for my family, for me, for everybody. I was there in Durham, pregnant, knew I was going to be on my own facing a life of single parenthood,” she says.
It was 1992. Jones decided to watch that year’s Conservative party conference. Peter Lilley, then Social Security Secretary, delivered his infamous “little list” speech, in which he sang a song detailing his gripes with society.
“It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. ‘I’ve got a little list of ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue. They will not be missed. They will not be missed’,” she says.
“He had this whole list of people that he basically wanted to get rid of. Teenage mums were top of the list, bogus asylum seekers, left-wing councillors. The thing about the video is everybody is falling about laughing.
“I thought I am not a problem. I need help at this point in time, but I am not a problem to society. I can contribute. It made me angry and it made me get more active. So, I joined the Labour party and have been in the Labour party for the last 25 years.”
Jones wrote to several Labour MPs before she graduated, looking for work. Living with her grandparents at the time, her grandmother approached her to say somebody had rung about a job by the name of Mo.
It was Mo Mowlam, then shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Jones was “the most junior person” in her office, she says, but was in awe at her boss’s work ethic. “She was really powerful and very inspiring because she was just incredibly driven but incredibly normal. She could do amazing things but be normal about it,” she says.
She recalls the “incredible” work Mowlam did to reach out to unionists in Northern Ireland (with whom Labour had limited ties at the time), alongside John Major, which she says “paved the way for what came later with the negotiations and the Good Friday Agreement”. Is her legacy acknowledged as much as it should be?
“I think not as much as it should be. We had the anniversary recently didn’t we and there was comment at the time about how she wasn’t as prominent as she should have been. There’s absolutely no way she wasn’t. I was there, she was an absolutely central figure to the Good Friday Agreement,” she replies.
“At the same time, of course, she was not well and she was having treatment and nobody knew about it. She was getting stick in the press for having put on weight. People in the Mail were speculating about ‘why has Mo Mowlam got so fat, is it because she’s given up smoking’. It was because she was having treatment and nobody knew about it. She was putting up with all of that while just cracking on.”
Another Labour stalwart that played a big part in Jones’s career who also, sadly, passed away of brain cancer was Tessa Jowell. Then a civil servant, Jones worked with the former Cabinet minister on the Olympics. Jowell could be a challenge to work for (in a good way), she recalls, as she wanted to change everything through the Games; from eradicating childhood obesity, cutting down youth crime through to regenerating east London, all while delivering the Olympics.
“The thing I always remember is she said, ‘you have to expect the best in people, don’t assume the worst’. That’s what she thought about everything,” she says with great fondness.
Jones sought out Jowell’s advice about running for parliament. The baroness went to local events at both the 2015 and 2017 elections, including a fundraiser in May last year a couple of weeks before she had a seizure. During her illness, she was “utterly extraordinary”, Jones says, in her push for new cancer treatments. “Government ministers couldn’t say no to her at all because she’s so compelling, compassionate, committed and selfless,” she adds.
Though she regards Lilley as her “biggest inspiration” for entering politics, she credits Mowlam, Jowell and Harriet Harman as being key influencers in her life. Are they people she seeks to emulate? “I think people who get on and do things are definitely people who I admire the most in parliament,” she says.
“Mo and Tessa, neither of them courted publicity and both of them ended up being two of the most popular politicians of our time. They did it because the public could see that they were doing the right things, getting on doing it, but they were normal people as well. They weren’t in it for the glory.
“They were both really steely, clever politicians. They weren’t soft. They were both so committed to what they were trying to do that you wanted to go with there with him and you wanted to work really hard for them. But they both knew exactly what they were doing.”