Wendy Chamberlain: ‘I’ve been described as the Lib Dem who picks up all the bits and pieces’
The new MP for North East Fife on potholes, proportional representation and why you should always "have a go".
Wendy Chamberlain is doing “pretty well for a Lib Dem”. The new MP for North East Fife only joined the party in May 2015, directly after the general election, and says the best advice she’s ever been given is: what’s the worst that can happen? Advice that saw her through joining the Lothian and Borders police at 22, before moving into a career in HR and development, and now Westminster.
“I think that exemplifies what’s happened to me over the last four and a half years. Have a go, if it’s not for you, you’ll find out soon enough,” she says.
After testing the water in an “unwinnable” council seat in May 2017, Chamberlain received a call from leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, whose Scottish parliament constituency overlaps with her own, when the snap general election was announced.
North East Fife – still a target seat from when former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell held it from 1987 to 2015 – was running an all-woman shortlist, and Rennie thought she should stand.
“I didn’t have any expectations of securing the candidacy. But I just thought, I’ll get on the bus and see how long it is before I get chucked off,” Chamberlain says.
As it turned out, Chamberlain was selected as a paper candidate – “a much nicer [term] than no-hoper” – in Stirling, and the Liberal Democrats didn’t take either seat. North East Fife went down to a two-vote margin and three recounts.
After the local party “dusted itself off”, Chamberlain was selected as the candidate for North East Fife in June 2018, and the campaign started again, eventually turning the constituency from the most marginal seat in the UK to the 40th, and the only SNP loss of the night in December.
Despite the close race and the resulting media attention, Chamberlain says the campaign between herself and her predecessor, Stephen Gethins, was very positive.
“It was easy to be nice” about him in her maiden speech, but his popularity around Parliament was “obviously one of the challenges” when she first started working on the Estate. “I have felt a few times [that I’m always saying]: ‘Yes, he was very nice. Yes, yes’,” she laughs.
The unionist MP believes that another Scottish independence referendum in the next five years is “more likely than not” – perhaps good news for her husband, who is an SNP supporter. Their different opinions on the constitution have not come between them, however.
“The bigger challenge has been the fact that [my political career] is something that’s come out of nowhere … in terms of that resetting expectations,” Chamberlain explains. “But we’ve been married for 17 years. So hopefully, in Westminster, that’ll be fine.”
Regardless of what form of proportional representation they support, it is a damn sight better than what we have currently
One of the consequences of having a small Parliamentary party is that Chamberlain is now spokesperson for numerous areas. “I’ve been described as the Lib Dem executive member who picks up all the bits and pieces,” she tells me.
Her brief covers political and constitutional reform, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and international development.
Last month, with her constitutional reform hat on, she wrote to the Labour leadership candidates calling on them to support moving to a proportional representation system in UK elections. The Liberal Democrats’ preferred method is a single transferable vote – but Chamberlain would work with the future Labour leader if they have a different preference.
“Regardless of what form of proportional representation [they support], it is a damn sight better than what we have currently,” she says, highlighting that in her own seat more people didn’t vote for her than did.
“I’m very proud to be [their MP] but how do those who didn’t vote for me feel? If we had a more proportional system, would there be potentially better engagement and potentially better solutions, as opposed to the quite binary politics that we currently find ourselves in?”
Chamberlain is also cautiously optimistic about the Liberal Democrats’ future in Scotland, being the only non-SNP party not to lose net seats in the 2019 election, and with steady Scottish parliamentary representation (five out of 129 seats) since 2011.
“It’s difficult when politics is determined by a binary question, and in some ways I see that the rest of the UK is just a couple of years behind Scotland in that regard,” she explains. “It’s just been a different binary question.”
Like most in politics, Chamberlain draws support from WhatsApp groups, particularly the Lib Dem Ladies – a group of Scottish women who stood in target seats in 2019. Although Chamberlain is the only one who made it down to Westminster this time, the group are in frequent contact, with Chamberlain being referred to as “Mammy” by the others.
When I ask how her friends would describe her in three words, the responses that flood in are all variations on: “hilarious”, “kind”, “caring”, “quick-witted”, “passionate” and “intelligent”. Some have even put a fiver on at 80-1 for her to be the next Lib Dem leader – although she assures me she has no intention of standing.
One of her highlights since becoming an MP has been taking her mum around Westminster, and having her sit in the Gallery. “She is somebody who is quite shy and retiring herself, would never think about any of this, but is very proud of her daughter,” says Chamberlain.
Her children, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic when they visited. “My daughter was like, ‘I haven’t seen anybody I know’,” she laughs, “I mean, frankly, they’re probably more impressed by the fact I’m now verified on Twitter.”
That isn’t the only perk of her new job. As the North East Fife MP, she automatically becomes one of the board members for the Links Trust, which runs all the golf courses around St Andrews. “My dad is properly excited about that,” Chamberlain admits.
How many of our Olympians went to private school? How many talented children have we missed because they don’t get the opportunities for sports?
It is the history of her constituency which Chamberlain says she loves most, with a number of historic sites, landmarks and areas of natural beauty, as well as a proud distilling tradition – she herself has a General Certificate in Distilling (Cereal Elective) from her time in learning and development at Diageo.
A major concern for the area, however, is the disparity in terms of industry and deprivation, with 24.47% of children across the Kingdom of Fife growing up in poverty.
There are also significant challenges in the geographical size of the constituency and associated transport connectivity issues. Road conditions are notoriously poor, she says, and there is an ongoing debate about whether St Andrews, the seat’s major settlement, should get a train station.
In keeping with her varied professional career, Chamberlain has a range of interests she wants to push from the backbenches. As well as a passion for veterans’ resettlement, she is a keen supporter of equal access to sports based on social background.
In fact, before entering Parliament, Chamberlain was the first female board member of the Camanachd Association, the governing body for shinty (an amateur sport mainly played in the Scottish Highlands, slightly similar to hurling or hockey).
“How many of our Olympians went to private school?” she asks, “How many talented children have we missed because they don’t get the opportunities for sports?”
However, if she became prime minister, the first “really mundane” thing Chamberlain would dois invest in “a machine that deals with and eradicates potholes for good” – and not just because she recently cracked an alloy.
“When you think about it, how much of our time is spent with those kinds of firefighting issues?” she asks. “It stops us getting to the symptoms of some of the really difficult things.”
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Go-to karaoke song? “Mamma Mia by Abba.”
Biggest pet peeve? “I’m a neat freak, so any general cleanliness issues.”
Worst habit? “Overtalking. When I’m nervous, I don’t shut up.”
Dream superpower? “Invisibility. Sometimes it’s just nice to blend into the background.”