By Maisie Marston
Labour MP Jo Stevens has represented Cardiff Central, the constituency encompassing Cardiff University, since 2015. Previously, Jo has served as Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Justice Minister, and Shadow Secretary of State for Wales.
Currently she is a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and a number of All Party Parliamentary Groups including those for students and universities. In addition, Jo has worked on the bill to ban letting agency fees in England which was later adopted by the Welsh Government, and had a leading role in changing planning laws to protect live music venues.
Read our interview with Jo below:
What is your party currently doing at the national level to help students?
At a national level, the first thing we’re doing, which I think is the most critical thing at the moment, is making sure that students understand their rights to register to vote both at home and in their university constituencies. It’s almost inevitable that we’re going to have an early general election, so we’re making sure that students understand the power that they have, particularly for example in Cardiff Central where you are the vast majority of the electorate, or can be the vast majority of the electorate if you register to vote here. Your voice is incredibly powerful.
The other couple of things I’ll mention are the work on the climate emergency and making sure that we keep the planet safe for future generations, so you might have seen in the Labour Party conference that we have passed a really groundbreaking policy about becoming zero-carbon or carbon neutral by 2030. We’ve got the most radical policy of any of the parties on green energy and climate emergency at the moment.
And then just one other thing on Brexit obviously; our universities will suffer so badly if we leave the European Union so a crash-out Brexit, a no-deal Brexit, will be catastrophic. Even if we leave with a deal, there are three universities in this constituency, we already know that numbers of students from the EU are declining, will we be able to sustain three universities in the future? I really worry that we might not be able to, and that’s the same across the country.
So, making sure that universities in the UK are globally attractive, that we give students the best experience and that when people graduate they can stay and work and bring their families up here, is very important. I’m really worried that we’re ending the really successful period we’ve had and cancel the collaboration that we have with universities across the world and particularly in Europe.
What are you currently doing for your constituents who are not students?
I worked on the bill that applies to England that the Welsh Government have recently followed suit, the bill banning letting agency fees and all of the hidden fees that you get when you privately rent.
Last year I played a leading role in changing planning law to protect live music venues because we had a grassroots campaign here in Cardiff Central centred on Womanby Street where small independent live music venues were under threat, and we got a change in the law in Wales. I helped colleagues from England draft legislation to change the law in England which was successful. I’ve also helped Scottish colleagues do the same in the Scottish Parliament. Live music is one of my big campaigning issues and together with Daniel Minty of Minty’s Gig Guide, the campaign here really led the way and we should be really proud that a little grassroots campaign that started here in Cardiff that has changed the law nationally.
As a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, what have you done so far to tackle disinformation, and what do you intend to do to safeguard the spread of disinformation in a possible general election or a second Brexit referendum?
This has been the best part of eighteen months, an inquiry on the DCMS select committee, where together with outstanding journalists like Carole Cadwalladr from the Observer, we exposed what had gone on in the European referendum and the Cambridge Analytica scandal about data breaches and how people’s data was stolen and used.
It was a really strange experience because when we started off we didn’t know any of this was going to happen, we were just looking generally at digital technology and how it has changed society. However, the stuff we found out, including electoral law breaches by several of the Leave campaigns who were then subsequently found to have broken the law by the electoral commission and the information commissioner, was shocking.
The Cambridge Analytica issue, the foreign interference in the referendum and potentially in elections through channeling money from overseas; and the fact that our electoral laws are completely unfit for purpose was astounding. One of the things we’re pushing for is urgent electoral law reform and we think that’s absolutely vital ahead of a second Brexit referendum which I hope we will secure, as well as a general election.
You might have heard recently that there are millions of people who are not on the electoral register that should be and of people who are on the electoral register, there are lots of inaccuracies. We need to sort this out.
I had a Private Members’ Bill to make electoral registration automatic so on receipt of a National Insurance number you’d automatically be put on the electoral register. I thought it had fallen when Boris Johnson suspended parliament but because it has been declared unlawful, I hope it will now continue. I need to get the Government’s support to get it through, but I’m pushing to make people aware of the fact that democracy is under threat because people’s right to vote is being suppressed, and we cannot be sure at the moment that our electoral system is fair and democratic.
An issue that students are particularly interested in at the moment is the rhetoric used in parliament, what do you think needs to be done on both sides to rectify the issue?
The word ‘surrender’ used inside parliament and ‘betrayal’ by the Prime Minister and uses of words like ‘traitor’ by other hard-right MPs, is a deliberate electoral strategy. This is not just about abuse and language, this is a deliberate strategy to divide the country ahead of a general election and I’m very determined that we mustn’t fall into the trap of just talking about that because it takes away the focus on scrutinising what the Government is doing or not doing.
It falls into their trap of just being shocked at what they say and what they do and the more shocked we become, the more outrageous they get. I’m very keen that we should just have a laser focus on what Boris Johnson is doing and what the Government is doing, particularly around Brexit and the lies that are being told.
Aside from that, the whole of political discourse has become very difficult and social media has amplified abusive voices. Those voices are a tiny minority of the country so it’s very easy to think that everybody is behaving like this, they’re not. The vast majority of people in this country are decent, respectful people who want to get their voice heard but do it in a respectful way.
We have to call out criminal activity when there are threats of violence, threats of sexual violence, attacks on MPs’ offices. That has to be dealt with and there are several people in prison at the moment for doing that. I think all of them men, I’m afraid to say. And there is a definite problem about the approach and attitude towards female elected representatives.
Is it something you have experienced personally here in Cardiff?
Are you allowed to explain any more about those type of threats?
I could but I don’t want to give the people who are doing this the publicity. Something happened recently, we had our office vandalised, there are threats online. In a way, it’s a ridiculous thing to say, but I consider myself quite lucky that I have had much less than my female colleagues. I haven’t had people; charged, convicted and put in prison as a result of things that they’ve done and things they’ve said as other colleagues have.
When you go abroad and talk to parliamentarians abroad they are astonished at what is happening. We’re supposed to be the mother of Parliaments here in the UK and I’m really worried and it’s not just causing problems here for us but it’s damaging the reputation of the country. What that means for people coming here as tourists, coming here as students is really really sad.
Despite what is happening in Westminster, Labour are often either below, or on par with the Conservatives in the polls, why do you think this is?
I think polling at the moment is really volatile so obviously I am a careful watcher of polls, but you can see that things are changing and there are quite significant changes when polls are taking place during the same period. So they are only a snapshot.
The polls in 2017 when we had the snap general election put Labour twenty points behind and in the end we came very, very close to the Conservatives. I think all that we can do, all of us who want to see Britain stay in the European Union and want to see a more progressive, radical, transformative government, is just keep making the arguments and keep trying to persuade people. Shouting at people is not the answer, that doesn’t persuade people and doesn’t make them change their minds. It’s about respectful discussion and trying to find ways through what is a really difficult and quite frightening situation for the country.
Why hasn’t Jeremy Corbyn put down a motion of no confidence in the Government?
We’re not going to do that before October 31 because what we’ve seen so far is a Prime Minister who is incapable of telling the truth. We cannot trust him to do what is in the Benn Act which is to go to the European Council and to ask for an extension past October 31 unless Parliament has passed a deal or agreed to no-deal.
We cannot let him have any leeway at all up to and including October 31 because he is determined to take us out without a deal. One of the great things about the last few weeks is seeing all the opposition parties united and holding together to stop him doing that and we will continue with that until we are absolutely certain that the danger of no- deal has gone.
It’s frustrating because obviously i’d love to have a Labour Government but actually the national interest requires us to hold back at the moment and that is what we will do.
Is a no-deal something that you can categorically rule out despite MPs voting to trigger Article 50?
Well I didn’t vote to trigger Article 50. I resigned from the shadow cabinet, I was shadow Welsh Secretary at the time and I felt that triggering Article 50 when it happened was the wrong thing to do. I’m not going to go around saying ‘I told you so’ to any of my colleagues but the fact is there was no plan, it was a mistake. We now know, because of where we are, that it was a mistake.
We’ve got to make sure that we do not crash out and from my perspective I want us to stay in. The route to do that is to give everybody a say on the situation through a referendum on either a deal that’s been negotiated or no deal, if no deal is negotiated, against remaining.
This means all of those people who didn’t get to vote in 2016 would be able to vote. I think 16 and 17 year olds should be able to vote, I think EU nationals living in the UK should be able to vote and that’s what I’ll be arguing for and I hope that happens and I hope that we get a remain vote that wins.
When the next election happens do you think that a lot of that support will shift to the Brexit party given that in South Wales there are a lot of traditional Labour voters who voted to leave the EU?
I would hope that we have a referendum before a general election because I think if we have a referendum it’s not going to clear everything about Brexit away from the discussion, but it means that when we have a general election we can focus on all the other issues that are so important which have been stagnant and untouched for the last three and a half years.
I think that people who have voted Labour in the past, particularly in what are described as Labour heartlands, also concerned about the NHS, austerity, the way people are treated when they are on social security benefits,climate change and all the other issues in politics. I think at that point people will stay with us, we may lose some votes to the Brexit Party but I think the vast majority of Labour voters will stay.
Labour is moving towards supporting a second referendum, negotiating a deal and then campaigning for remain during that second referendum. What type of deal would you be looking to negotiate?
Well I think that policy is still something of a mess if I’m perfectly honest. It’s not a policy I would have voted for if I’d been a delegate at our conference a couple of weeks ago but what is very clear is that we are offering a referendum in which one of the choices will be to remain.
What the other choice will be, we don’t know at the moment as there isn’t a deal other than the one Theresa May negotiated which was voted down several times including by the current Prime Minister. I don’t know what that deal will be, we’ll know hopefully in the next few weeks if a deal is possible. If it isn’t we will have to find a way of making sure that no deal doesn’t happen which is what the Benn Act does, you need an extension to try and get through this problem. During that period of extension I think we should have a referendum.
How do you think a General Election will come about because Boris Johnson’s proposal has been rejected and nobody is putting forward a motion of no confidence. How do you realistically get an election?
Once we get past October 31, potentially there could be a vote of no confidence which we have to win. It is also possible that Boris Johnson will call for a general election and we have another vote under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
It’s funny, be careful what you wish for because when we had the coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who brought in this Act, this is not what they envisaged would happen. Any legislation that you champion, you have to think about the unintended consequences as well as the intended consequences and that’s why scrutiny of government is so important and that’s why the suspension of Parliament was so outrageous and as the Supreme Court said, unlawful.
If there is a second referendum and the electorate vote to remain, what is to stop the Brexiters from saying best out of three?
In the legislation that would set up and commit the second referendum would be a clause that would say the result would be legally implemented.
The first referendum was an advisory referendum but has now become a thing we absolutely must implement, it is the quote ‘the will of the people’ but it’s not the will of all people. We need to get around that problem and the way of doing that, which is what should have happened last time, is to make it a statutory referendum which then legally has to be implemented with legislation that covers it.
Because the referendum was an advisory referendum in 2016, normally if you cheat in an election or referendum it has to be rerun and the outcome is void under legislation, but the advisory referendum didn’t come under that legislation so that’s why we couldn’t have that a rerun. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing but this time we have every single angle covered.