Former Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff: ‘I’m not afraid to talk truth to power, never have been.’

After a tough year, including a showdown with the Prime Minister, a lost election, and a breast cancer diagnosis, Paula Sherriff could be forgiven for stepping back. But Geraldine Scott reports how the former MP is determined to fight on.

By Geraldine Scott
Saturday, 21st March 2020, 5:45 am
Former Labour MP for Dewsbury Paula Sherriff. Photo: JPI Media
Former Labour MP for Dewsbury Paula Sherriff. Photo: JPI Media

It has not been an easy year for former Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff.

Before the General Election in December, she had faced months of abuse online, culminating in a tense showdown with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons where he dismissed her safety concerns amid Brexit as “humbug”.

And the impact of losing her seat left what she described as “crater-sized hole” in her life.

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Now a devastating breast cancer diagnosis has completed a trio of situations which require her to draw on her courage.

But although she might be temporarily down, she is not out, vowing to “kick cancer” and come back to politics fighting.

When a devolution deal was announced for West Yorkshire earlier this month, Ms Sherriff did not hesitate to put her name forward.

And speaking to The Yorkshire Post before her breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, Ms Sherriff said she hoped to carry on with the bid regardless

She said: “I’m determined to go ahead with that, I’m hoping to still be able to put myself forward for consideration to be the candidate.

“I’ve lived in this area for all of my adult life, I’m really fond of the area and I do recognise people around here did feel that the power should be devolved to local people.

“People were sick of all the decision-making happening in Whitehall.”

A champion for women’s issues, Ms Sherriff was recognised by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the Budget for campaigning for the scrapping of the tampon tax, a move which has now been taken.

But she said the announcement was bittersweet.

“It was quite ironic,” she said. “The day I found out (that it was likely she had cancer) was the day that the Chancellor gave the Budget and the announcement of the tampon tax being abolished.

“He credited me, which was kind, but it was a bittersweet day because I’m so pleased that has finally come to fruition, that we’ll finally get rid of the tampon tax.

“But on the same day, so much for women’s health, and then you find out you’ve potentially got breast cancer, it was just really strange.”

But Ms Sherriff, who was the first MP to say the word vagina in the House of Commons, said abolishing the tax – although welcome – was actually part of the periphery.

“I said it to deliberately shock,” she said. “To break down those barriers.

“It was about raising awareness, it was about talking about it in the House of Commons so people could see that we were leading by example and saying we can talk about furthering the conversation around statutory sex and relationship education, because it ensured that mental health is actually included in that syllabus.

“It was really trying to break down those barriers and what I’m most proud of is how (the tampon tax campaign) went global.

“It evoked this huge revolution around a period.”

Campaigning for women’s issues ties in with why she wants to run for mayor – all the current metro mayors from Dan Jarvis in South Yorkshire to Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley to Andy Burnham in Manchester, are men.

“It just feels like we do need that strong woman,” she said. “I think we need somebody who genuinely has got a track record of delivery and I think of some of the things I’ve done, not just the tampon tax but looking at period poverty, taking on some of the big boys such as WH Smith for their hospital charging policy.

“I’m not afraid to talk truth to power, never have been, and I think even those on the other benches would say I have an incredible work ethic.”

Another issue she has been vocal on is endometriosis.

This is a debilitating condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes

“With my own personal experience, I suffered for so long and have had such a frustrating time actually getting anyone to take me seriously.

“I was determined that we really had to do something because otherwise we are stuck in this vortex where girls and women will be expected to tolerate this terrible pain and terrible disorders

“It felt like nobody was going to do anything about it.

“But I’ve got a big mouth and I’m not embarrassed easily and I think that comes with working in the NHS, I’ve seen it all.

“So I thought, right, I’m going to go and shake this place up a bit.”

She said she would also look to other countries for inspiration and centre her campaign around well-being.

“Looking at what Jacinda Ardern has done in New Zealand, measuring the wellness of the region in terms of looking at some of the stats other than just looking at GDP.

“You can look at all sorts of things around culture, equality, diversity, mental health.

“Even transport links to it because we’ve seen particularly in West Yorkshire around the train situation how much stress that has actually brought to people’s lives when they’re not even able to get to work on time and not able to get home in time to put the kids to bed.”

The election of a metro mayor for West Yorkshire will not take place until next year, giving time for Ms Sherriff to focus on her health and hopefully come back stronger.

But she said she was a “political animal”, she wanted to make a difference.

“I’m not your typical politician, I didn’t go to university, but I’ve got all these skills from work.

“We need somebody who is prepared to give it their heart.”

'Check yourself and get checked'

The key message Paula Sherriff wanted to get across to other women was the importance of checking their breasts for any changes.

“Check yourself and obviously if you do find something go and get it checked out,” she said.

“We really need to still get that message out there because speaking to friends, since this happened to me.

“I’ve asked them if they examine themselves and some have been a bit wishy-washy about it.

“But that’s the message I want to get out.”

The NHS says one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, but if caught early the chances of recovery are high.

Experts say this is why checking for lumps and changes is key, as the earlier cancer is discovered the more chance of survival.