The Honourable Member

It’s become a national sport to trash politicians but Kerry McCarthy shows that conscience and concern are still alive and that honour is not dead.

Tony Wardle talks to Kerry McCarthy, vegan Labour MP for Bristol East

My abiding memory of Kerry McCarthy will always be of her standing in the House of Commons late one evening – in fact, getting close to midnight – outlining the appalling effects of livestock production on animal suffering, the environment and human health.

It was a parliamentary first for World Vegan Day and her words echoed around the chamber, empty except for three likeminded MPs who had turned up to support her and half-a-dozen Conservative farmers, there to heckle “because they felt threatened by the whole idea!” Now that’s dedication! Kerry has gone on record as being the first MP ever to advocate a vegan diet. And to prove she’s no Luddite, she is also believed to have been the first MP to use an iPad when making a speech. Elected in 2005, she has already clocked up a long list of junior ministerial and shadow posts and an even longer list of PPS appointments and committee and select committee memberships.

I don’t want to be silent, I want to have a voice

Currently, Kerry is at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, its crisp formality at odds with her very down to Earth character – and therein lies a dilemma. Should she hold any ministerial responsibility after the forthcoming election, will she be able to keep her mouth shut? “I don’t want to be silent, I want to have a voice and maybe freedom is the more powerful of the two."

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Luton to Liverpool

Born in Luton, she is one of eight children – six girls and two boys – and Kerry describes a house in which there were no books, an atmosphere that was totally un-PC and a step father who was “a working class Tory”. She was obsessed with music and says, maybe surprisingly, that from the age of 14 onwards her politics grew from reading the NME (New Musical Express), in the days when it was very political.

The power of punk

Punk had a powerful effect, too, particularly The Clash and the Jam and it was Joy Division’s influence that persuaded her to read Russian literature at Liverpool University.

Political theory was fine but it wasn’t enough and it was an advert in the Guardian that led Kerry into local Luton politics and a speedy rise through the committee structure to become a councillor.

Kerry also qualified as a solicitor before moving to Merill Lynch in the City and then Europe. Through it all, there was never any thought in Kerry’s mind of entering parliament:

“I always thought I would be in the background but when Jean Corston (now Baroness Corston) stood down it was suggested I should stand and so I did – and I can’t tell you how horrible it is putting yourself forward for the intrusive selection process.”

“Why cause harm and suffering to others if it is entirely unnecessary?”

Enthusiasm and local elections

I’m talking to Kerry McCarthy in a Bristol vegan café and as ever, I’m entranced by her demeanour. The questions I’m asking must have been put to her a hundred times before but she talks quickly, at length and enthusiastically, her words enlivened by little giggles and personal asides as if it’s all new and exciting. Perhaps it was this attitude that ensured her election by Bristol East Labour Constituency Party (which used to make up part of Tony Benn’s constituency) was a walkover and she made it on the first ballot. She was subsequently returned to parliament with an 8,000 majority – cut to 3,722 in the 2010 election, making Kerry’s seat now a marginal.

Why vegan

The whole concept of vegetarianism, awareness of life and death, was not alien to punk philosophy so perhaps the first seeds were sown to the discordant sounds (sorry Kerry) of “I don’t want to go to f-----g university.” Whatever, when her little sister went veggie, Kerry wasn’t far behind. She was then 16. Eleven years later, her sister had become a completely classic crusty, according to Kerry, and was vegan. This time, rather than following in her footsteps, Kerry took the Mick but …. Not long after she became aware of the cruelty of the dairy industry and the fate of pregnant cows and their calves and the inevitable happened – she became vegan. It was bolstered by her passion about health and the environment and the negative impact that milk and meat have on both.

My reaction wasn’t emotional or sentimental, rather it was entirely rational, logical

I’ve interviewed many people over the years about their motivation for becoming veggie or vegan and none has answered in quite the way Kerry McCarthy did.

“I was shocked by the cruelty I discovered but my reaction wasn’t emotional or sentimental, rather it was entirely rational, logical. Why cause harm and suffering to others if it is entirely unnecessary?”

Not an emotional 'bunny hugger'

So, a ‘bunny hugger’ she isn’t but a practical, material being. What I find extraordinary is the number of people who are emotional about animals and will scream at you: “No, don’t show me that, I can’t bear it!” and yet still they refuse to change their diet. So, rational is entirely okay by me, particularly as it has, through Kerry McCarthy, put veganism firmly on the agenda in parliament.

I suspect that her attitude is partly formed by her belief that emotion doesn’t do it for parliamentarians and what she would like is for other, non-vegan MPs to join her in fighting to end animal abuse. When it is someone else other than Kerry demanding changes to the appalling intensive farming systems, they won’t be able to dismiss them with the old Mandy Rice-Davies phrase: “Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?”

Meeting her biological father

Kerry is Irish born and her biological father left home when she was very little and although she didn’t obviously appear to, I found it painful when she talked about meeting him again when she was in her 20s. It was carefully organised to make it less stressful and the agreed meeting place was a pub.

She had no idea what he looked like but recognised him immediately, amazed at how much he resembled her.

I find treading through memories such as Kerry’s unsatisfactory – intrusive – for all you are likely to come away with are the simple facts: yes, he wished he had seen her while the family was still in Ireland, he had become a book reader to educate himself and was an organiser with the T&G union (now Unite).

I am the perfect aunt.

Perhaps it’s impossible to describe the emotions that swirl around in you at a time like that because they are too personal or perhaps they are just too amorphous to even identify exactly their constituent parts. Either way, Kerry stayed in touch until he died.

She has not married, has a long-term relationship and no children – which is the way she wanted it. “But I see my brothers and sisters regularly and have lots and lots of nieces and nephews. I am the perfect aunt – in fact, I have a niece doing work experience with me at the moment.”

Supply and demand for milk

There are two things that particularly incense me and one is the bleeding of hearts in the media over the fate of dairy farmers – selling milk to the supermarkets at often less than it costs to produce, it is claimed.

It’s a supply and demand thing. Far too much milk is being produced.

Funny, I don’t recall similar expressions of concern over steel workers or ship builders or miners when their industries were almost wiped out.

But it isn’t just the cruelty inherent in the industry that gets me going. Fortunately, I’m not on my own:

“It’s a supply and demand thing. Far too much milk is being produced and if you live by the market you have to risk dying by the market,” says Kerry.

Realistic changes

My other beef is that, despite overwhelming evidence of meat and dairy damaging our health and environment, it is still hugely subsidised through CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) payments, essentially encouraging its consumption. It’s crazy – and again I’m not on my own. Kerry McCarthy agrees but as a politician has to make realistic assessments of where change can be made.

“Progress on animal welfare is being made at the EU level and I feel it is best left to those campaigning groups working there but in the end it comes down to not eating meat or dairy. I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Sadly, I don’t anticipate that being in anyone’s manifesto at the election.

“Viva!… doing absolutely great work in making it easy for people to change”

The local and global environment

“The environment is very difficult to make headway on because there are just too many vested interests involved but in Latin America there is now a growing awareness of the damage being done.

But here, the constant challenging of the environmental impact of livestock farming is making me more and more militant, not least that CAP payments are available for grouse shooting, controlling buzzards and forestry.

Health and the food industry

If you seriously want to control obesity you don’t allow fast food joints such as McDonalds to open up near schools!

“Progress on health is being made and the number of celebrities who are going vegan is evidence of this. But much more needs to be done. The food industry isn’t serious about becoming healthier and actions such as reducing salt are simply designed to make them look good – a bit like a car wash. For a start, if you seriously want to control obesity you don’t allow fast food joints such as McDonalds to open up near schools!”

Over the years we’ve built up a friendly relationship with Kerry McCarthy and I wondered what she thought of Viva!.

Governments will only act when the public demand change

“Viva! is all about the vegan diet, raising awareness with its vital campaigns and doing absolutely great work in making it easy for people to change. But it’s more than that! The bunch of people you have there and their sensible approach, defy all the stereotypes.

Governments will only act when the public demand change and that’s what Viva! does, helps to change minds and cultural change is essential.”

It’s become a national sport to trash politicians but Kerry McCarthy shows that conscience and concern are still alive and that honour is not dead.