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By Edwina Langley
Name: Olivia Blake
Constituency: Sheffield Hallam (since 2019)
hile Olivia has politics in her blood – her mother was the first female leader of Leeds City Council – she was adamant she would not follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“I always used to say to my mum when I was growing up, ‘I will never be a politician’. Seeing the kind of commitment and dedication and passion that she had for politics, it was so draining to watch… So I was like, ‘Oh, no thank you, I’m going to go off and do my research and do my bit for the world that way’.”
She studied Biomedical Science at University of Sheffield with the full intention of going into research. However, having been an active campaigner throughout her younger years – she joined the Labour Party in her teens – two “political awakenings” got her thinking more seriously about politics.
“One was really around the Iraq War,” she says. “I was really upset about the Labour government’s decision to take part in that and was very active in campaigns to try to alleviate that, and stop that… I just thought, this is a meaningless loss of life and it was very, very concerning for me as a young person.”
Her second “awakening” arose as a result of the failure of former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to stick to a pre-election pledge. In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, he promised to vote against a rise in university tuition fees – but went back on his word during coalition negotiations with the Conservative Party.
“I felt a big betrayal for a lot of the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats – a lot of my friends did,” Olivia says.
“And [I was] just thinking, ‘This isn’t right. [MPs] shouldn’t tell lies, essentially’… So I got involved with my trade union at that point,” she explains.
While at university – and to help pay for her course – Olivia worked at the Student Union and was initially on a fixed hours contract. But when that changed to a zero hours contract and wages were cut, she saw it as a “big issue” that needed addressing.
So she set up and ran the Living Wage Campaign at Sheffield University – and won. In 2014, Sheffield University announced it would pay the living wage – then, £7.65 per hour – to its staff.
And her work didn’t stop there.
“We were also putting pressure across Sheffield for employers to become Living Wage employers,” Olivia remembers. “And Sheffield City Council did that and adopted it, as part of that campaign. And they were really impressed at, I guess, my tenacity.”
Because of it, they asked if she would stand for Fulwood at the 2013 by-election. That she did, and although unsuccessful, managed to manoeuver Labour into second place.
The following year, she was elected as a local councillor for Walkley – a position she held until 2020.
“I was the youngest female when I got elected,” she says. “Which I remedied by encouraging more young women to stand for the council.”
While she “really enjoyed” her experience, when the council’s deputy leader stood down she saw an opportunity to step up.
“I suddenly realised no woman was standing [to replace him]. And I was like, ‘Well, that is just not OK.’”
At 27 years old, Olivia became one of the youngest female deputy council leaders in the country. A few years later, she opted to run as the Labour Party candidate for Sheffield Hallam in the 2019 General Election.
“I wanted to show that someone who had six years’ experience of representing people in Sheffield was going to stand,” she says.
“I was really proud to do that – and I was really proud to win,” she adds.
How she voted
Olivia has voted against a stricter asylum system and in favour of measures to prevent climate change. This month, she wrote to the Chancellor calling for eating disorder services to be given more support during the pandemic and into the future.
What’s she working on
Olivia is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) – an initiative that brings MPs from all parties together to host meetings and inquiries on a variety of issues relating to children and young people with SEND.
“SEND is really, really important,” Olivia says. “I have a disability myself, and it wasn’t picked up when I was at school. So I had to fight for everything… I’ve always had to work harder than everyone else.”
She continues, “[I] know how broken the system is. People can go through school, go through university [and] not have an educational issue picked up. That is just so wrong. But [for] those who are going through the system, it’s even worse. It’s so complicated, it takes years to get anything put in place.”
The APPG recently ran an inquiry looking into how children and young people with SEND were experiencing education during the pandemic. The inquiry’s findings were released in March 2021. “[It] is quite a hard-hitting read,” Olivia says.
She hopes it will draw attention from the decision makers.
“Although we don’t have any hard power in decision-making… this is a way for us to say, as a group of MPs, regardless of party lines, there’s an issue: this is what we think [the] government should be doing about it.”
‘You don’t need a degree in politics; you just need that passion and understanding about political change.’
Advice for aspiring women MPs
All you need is passion.
“You don’t need a degree in politics, you just need that passion and understanding about political change,” Olivia says.
Olivia says she is a “conviction politician”. “I don't ever want to put my position before my values,” she says.
She recently resigned from Keir Starmer’s front bench because she wanted to vote against two Bills: the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill.
“I’ve always not been afraid to stand for what I believe in and take those positions,” she says. “And I’m not sure if that should be seen as ‘rebellious’.
“I think [it] would be healthier for more MPs to be allowed to take those stands on those issues, which I believe are about integrity and core beliefs.”
Olivia Blake is passionate about supporting children and young people with special needs and disabilities, and had to deal with an undiagnosed disability when she was at school.
By Edwina Langley