What's it like being an MP in your twenties?
When you’re elected to Parliament in your twenties, how much of your old life can you keep? Marie Le Conte sits down with Labour’s Charlotte Nichols, the SNP’s Amy Callaghan and Conservative Dehenna Davison to discuss
“I liked it when my Twitter was just mine and it was only my friends”, says Amy Callaghan. “I could tweet about far more mundane things, more about what I was watching on Netflix than the political matters of the day.”
Callaghan is 27 years old, and these days her social media presence cannot be the one of a normal woman in her twenties: on December 12th, she defeated Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and became the SNP MP for East Dunbartonshire.
Life has been hectic since; we meet at 11am on a Wednesday and she boasts about having had a quiet day so far, by which she means that it’s only her fourth meeting of the morning. Still, she is exactly where she wants to be: working for an MSP until the election and having studied politics at university, her becoming an MP felt like the next logical step.
“I’ve always been one of those people that thought that change comes from within, so I thought: be a driving force”, she explains. “That was why I was working in politics, and I was really, really enjoying that.”
Though clearly the right path for her in the end, this wasn’t originally Callaghan’s career of choice. While growing up, she had wanted to be a teacher, but discovering a lump on her cheek as a teenager changed everything.
The growth turned out to be a melanoma that had spread to her muscle, nerves and bone, and after a relapse at 21, it took her until 2014 to be cancer-free. “My battle with my health was what inspired me to get into politics”, she says, as her experience made her want to fight for “our precious NHS and our vital resources”.
She also credits this difficult time in her youth for her ability to be a very young MP without getting suffocated by the demands of being in the public eye: “I had to grow up quite fast when I wasn’t well, so I’ve been a bit more mature for age than I probably should have been.”
This is a bit of a pattern among female MPs in their twenties, of which a record ten were elected last year across parties.
Like Amy, 27-year-old Dehenna Davison was never an obvious person to end up in Westminster: “I had no clue what I wanted to do – my family weren’t political at all, and then my dad got killed, and it completely threw my life upside down.”
When she was 13, her father was punched in a pub in an unprovoked attack, and died from the single blow. After his alleged assailant was acquitted, Davison represented her family at a criminal injuries compensation tribunal, despite being only 16 at the time.
“I realised I really wanted to do something that would make a difference. At 13, I didn’t know what that was, but just something to try and stop other young people having to go through that same experience. And so a few years later, I accidentally stumbled into politics and I realised ‘actually, this, this is the way that I can do it. This is the way that I can get involved and really try and make a difference’.”
What followed was a happy coincidence. “I was living in Hull when I was 20, I was at uni, and they were desperate to find a candidate; they were quite low on applications, with Hull not exactly being a very strong Conservative area. I jokingly said I’d give it a go, and then we started exploring this idea. And you know, mentally I thought, ‘No, here’s no way that I can do that. I don’t have the experience’. Anyway, fast forward six months, and suddenly I’m the candidate.”
She (unsurprisingly) lost in Kingston upon Hull North in 2015, but enjoyed the experience so much that she stood again in Sedgefield in 2017 – and lost again. It was a case of third time a charm when in 2019 she won Bishop Auckland for the Conservatives.
“From literally the minute you're selected you start to realise the scale of abuse”
Dubbed one of the Boris’s “babies” and part of the new generation of working-class Tory MPs with northern seats, she has had to get used to the spotlight quickly, but she is loving it.
In fact, speaking to all these young female MPs feels like a good way to feel optimistic about the future of British politics. This is not what it felt like when the general election was called in October and in the ensuing weeks, when female MP after female MP announced that they would be standing down.
Abuse and threats to their safety was one reason given by several of them, and it is something the new generation is keenly aware of. Though Davison says that she rarely wavered in her decision to become an MP, one tragic event made her wobble.
“If there’s one thing that made me question whether or not it was something I wanted to do, it was what happened to Jo Cox”, she explains. “She was so young and so vibrant, and seemingly so harmless like she wouldn’t hurt a fly; I had I never had the pleasure of meeting her but from what I heard, she was a really wonderful, kind, generous woman.
“So for someone to do that, to an MP who also wasn’t super high profile, that was the biggest concern. It was a real moment of confusion, concern, sadness. I remember calling my mother and saying ‘what do I do?' Because part of me wanted to just step away and do something where I wouldn’t be at risk, but part of me thought...is it better to actually stand up and prove to them that they’re not going to put off people going into politics? And eventually I settled on the latter.”
Sadly, determination doesn’t make dealing with abuse any easier. Charlotte Nichols, 28, thought she broadly knew what she was getting into when she decided to stand.
“There is a level of naivety when you’re new to it, and you think ‘oh I’ve had trolls online before, I’ve had people harass me, I’ve got a bit of experience of this’,” she explains. Still, “from literally the minute you’re selected, you start to realise sort of the scale of it”. “I mean I’m fairly new, fairly unknown, so I feel like it’s only really going to increase.”
To be fair to her, she didn’t have much time to ponder over the details: originally from a neighbouring seat, Nichols didn’t pay much attention when selection opened for Warrington North. It was only the afternoon before the selection process was due to begin that she started seriously thinking about it, as friends kept messaging her to say she should go for it.
“I thought ‘I’m going to go for it’. About four days later I was selected, and four and a half weeks after that I was elected as MP”
“I’m getting all these texts at 4pm, and the deadline for putting your application in was 9am the following morning, so I literally I spent a couple of hours that evening like, logistically, could I make this work? I’m in a fairly new relationship, and he’s a civil servant, so we had to see if that department had an office in Warrington, which they do, and things like how quickly could I get to synagogue from there? How long would it take me to get to my sister’s house, who lives nearby? Who do I know locally? Who have I worked with previously?
“I was just like, fuck it, I’m going to go for it. I mean, I wasn’t even doing political work for the union, I did industrial work, so it was one of those things that came out of nowhere and then you know, about four days after that I was selected as the candidate. And then, four and a half weeks after that I was elected as an MP.”
She seems happy with her decision when we meet, even though she is still in the process of hiring staff, so “doing the jobs of seven people” and running around the parliamentary estate all day.
She is also still reckoning with the fact that she is now a person in the public eye, with everything that entails. “It’s knowing that previously, you could make jokes about having a big bag of cans with the lads on Twitter”, she jokingly complains, “and if someone was being rude to you you could be rude back. Whereas now, I have a responsibility that I take very seriously, not only to people locally, but also to Parliament as an institution, not to make people think that it’s totally overrun with idiots and people that are fundamentally incapable of doing the job.”
This is a tough balancing act for all young parliamentarians; if you were elected in your twenties, how much of your old life can you keep? It is never clear how accepting the electorate may be of politicians acting their age, and the line between understandably letting your hair down and attracting bad headlines is a thin one.
Having spent the entirety of her twenties so far as a political candidate, Davison has had to spend a lot of time keeping these concerns in mind: “I think most people starting out so young are concerned about that loss of private life”, she admits.
“Some people said ‘you’re going to certainly lose your “you”’. And sure, I wasn’t going out getting smashed and ending up in shopping trolleys, which my friends did do, but it’s not as though I totally sacrificed my life. I just had to be a little bit more cautious about being in the public eye.
“Are you willing to make that sacrifice with regards to your personal life and also your personal relationships? Because you do put an awful lot into being a candidate and being an MP and it can be quite difficult for people who don’t understand that.”
These are big things to ask of people who are still at an age when most are only just figuring out who they want to be, but their presence in Parliament is refreshing – and needed. Not everyone in their twenties could bear the pressure of being a member of Parliament, but it is undeniably positive to see so many young MPs having been elected this time around.
“You have all these political decisions that have been taken that affect people in our generation, around housing and tuition fees and the climate crisis and all these things that we’re going to have to live with, but without our generation having had a voice in that debate and in those political institutions”, argues Nichols.
“So actually, shouldn’t Parliament look like the country that it represents? Shouldn’t there be young people?”