THE NEWS WITH NOKES, by Tom Hulme
Our Deputy Comms Lead Tom Hulme sat down with Caroline Nokes MP to find out more about life as the Chair of the Women & Equalities Committee, exotic biscuits, and her reflections on voting against equal marriage..
Hi Caroline! Thanks for taking time to talk to us today! Tell me a bit about your early life and where you grew up.
I am very lucky - I grew up in the same village I live in now, went to school in Romsey, am really rooted in the constituency. I think that helps, it gives a very instinctive feel for issues that will be of concern to constituents.
Now politics runs in your family doesn’t it? Your father Roy was elected to Test Valley Borough Council when you were 7 and became its leader 6 years later, then in 1994 he became the MEP for Wight and Hampshire South; most recently he served as leader of Hampshire County Council for 6 years until 2019. Was it seeing your dad out on the campaign trail and in the council chamber that first gave you the taste for politics?
No not really - I vividly remember election campaigns during my childhood, but I can honestly say it is to Dad's credit that it wasn't him that turned me into a Tory!
You yourself were elected to Test Valley Council in 1999 and served for over a decade, including a period as cabinet member for leisure. Do you think it’s important for MPs to do a stint in local government? What did you learn from it?
I enjoyed the representative role on TVBC, getting to know residents and the issues they were worried about. Romsey Extra ward was a donut shaped ward surrounding the town of Romsey and therefore always under enormous pressure for house building. So I think first and foremost I discovered there was nothing quite as vexed in the world of politics as the Southern Area Planning Committee! I loved the Leisure role, took massive pride in our repeated Green Flag awards for our parks, and the immense joy the public open spaces gave to communities.
You first stood for Parliament at the 2001 General Election in Southampton Itchen. Have the dynamics of election campaigning changed a lot since then?
Not really - social media was in its infancy then, now it is a much bigger part of elections, but there is no substitute for good old fashioned knocking on doors and talking to voters.
After standing for the old Romsey seat in 2005 and missing out by just 125 votes behind the Lib Dems, you were finally elected in 2010 as the MP for the new seat of Romsey and Southampton North with a majority of 4,156. Do you remember the moment you realised you’d won?
Wow - that’s a good question and the honest answer to that is no. In 2005 it went right down to the wire, the tables on which the bundles were stacked were neck and neck right to the end. I think in 2010 we knew it "felt" better than 2005 had all the way through the campaign, and it only needed to feel a tiny bit better to win. The big difference was David Cameron, he was my sort of Tory, and it turned out also the sort of Tory the voters of Romsey and Southampton North liked.
Prior to your election you were Chief Executive of the National Pony Club. Is animal welfare something you’re still passionate about and in what way do you think legislation can be strengthened to protect animals?
National Pony Society not the Pony Club - two very different organisations. One has a focus on children the other on ponies. I best not tell you which one I prefer. I really enjoyed my time working to promote the welfare of the British native ponies and the riding pony, and I am a trustee of World Horse Welfare now. I love animals, and recognise one of the possible benefits of Brexit is that we will be able to have higher standards on animal welfare than when we were in the EU. I hope the Government delivers on that.
Tell me a bit about your constituency, what’s it like to live and work in Romsey and Southampton North? Where should everyone go and visit?
Obviously I love it - perfect mix of small market town, gorgeous villages, the river Test and the northern edge of the New Forest. First and foremost, Kimbridge Barn, located right on the Test, perfect for brunch. Mottisfont Abbey, especially the Rose Garden, is beautiful, and somewhere to go and just sit and forget the world exists. But for me, Canada Common, especially on a grey November day. I revel in the wildness, a vast open space with New Forest ponies roaming wild, donkeys, cattle, the occasional pig. It is where I go to escape everything. Apart from that, Thyme and Tide in Stockbridge, fabulous hot chocolate and bacon rolls, I go there the occasional Friday to catch up with a group of constituents for breakfast (my mini focus group). Stockbridge is the heart of the Test Valley and where George Bush liked to go trout fishing.
Your seat and it’s predecessor seat have always been a battle between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Do you think you have to approach campaigning in a different way to your colleagues who’s majorities are over Labour?
Yes - it is ultra local, issue driven, harder to rely on a national campaign to carry you over the line.
Who did you make friends with in those early days in the Commons? Did you meet any of your political idols?
I came into Parliament already firm friends with Caroline Dinenage, and of course with lots of others who had done the long slog of fighting the same seat in 2005 and sticking around for another 5 years. It was daunting to find myself sitting alongside people like Ken Clarke.
In 2018 you were invited to attend Cabinet as Minister of State for Immigration. What was it like sitting round that table for the first time?
Fairly daunting - important to reflect it is an enormous privilege but a huge responsibility. I was always shocked at the way so many colleagues leaked relentlessly from cabinet.
In March 2019 you took part in a short video with other female Conservative colleagues such as Amber Rudd and Dame Caroline Dinenage in which you all read out abusive comments you’d received online; you’d been called ‘a self-centred, arrogant bitch’. Do you think abuse, both online and offline, is a significant reason why so many women are put off from standing for Parliament?
I have probably had a lot worse since! I know it acts as a deterrent and really it is incumbent upon all of us to raise the tone. So individual MPs resorting to abuse of each other emboldens those who send abusive and harassing messages. I think specifically of Angela Rayner, who most of all lets herself down with her repeated use of the phrase “Tory scum”. She cannot be surprised when MPs are attacked physically and verbally when she acts as such a role model in that respect.
Within a few months of you leaving government in July 2019 you had the Conservative whip withdrawn for voting to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Given that Conservative MPs were pre-warned that this would be the consequence for voting to extend the exit deadline, did you ever have second thoughts about your actions and would you do the same thing again?
No - not for a minute and if I could turn back the clock I would do it again. Integrity and doing what you believe is right matters. Your own career is secondary to doing what is right for your constituents.
Following the restoration of the whip, you stood for and won the election for Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. What attracted you to this role?
Oh it is varied, fascinating, and as a cross cutting committee it means there is not a single part of Government business I cannot go and scrutinise. I have discovered I am a much better poacher than gamekeeper. I love it - 10 years into my parliamentary career I finally found my niche.
Despite your current strong support for LGBT rights, particularly trans rights, you voted against equal marriage in 2013. What led you to that decision and do you regret it?
First and foremost I don’t think the newly divorced should ever be allowed to opine on the subject of marriage. At that time I could not comprehend why marriage mattered, and was very heavily swayed by the volume of correspondence I received from constituents. I would not make the same mistake again.
A number of your colleagues such as Nadine Dorries, Alun Cairns and Colonel Bob Stewart have also spoken of how they regret voting against equal marriage. Do you think it’s important to be forgiving of those who admit they were wrong and apologise in order to achieve equality?
Yes - and we need to recognise that people’s views change - we learn more, understand more.
As previously mentioned, you’re an incredibly strong supporter of trans rights and last year your committee published a report on reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Talk me through some of the key findings in the report.
I always knew it would be a contentious report and we received a massive volume of evidence as part of the inquiry. The evidence from those with lived experience was phenomenally compelling, especially younger people. But there were some interesting areas where there was strong consensus, around the gender recognition panel and whether people should be judged as to whether they were feminine or masculine enough - really playing into very outdated gender stereotypes. I think the arbitrary time requirement of living in an acquired gender was also something we wanted to highlight.
When did you first start to take an interest in trans rights and what do you think encouraged you to become such an outspoken and fearless supporter?
Listening to the voices of trans people, who all too often are the most marginalised, the most likely to be abused, the most likely to be discriminated against at work, bullied at school. I can remember a trans activist in my constituency, Andi, coming to see me absolutely years ago and listening to their story and the stories of the people they represented. I simply don’t comprehend why people are so hostile and so unaccepting. I am always very honest about my own knowledge gaps, and owe a huge debt to organisations like Mermaids and Stonewall, who have been incredibly helpful and allowed me to ask lots of questions without judgment.
Something you also have a deep passion for is awareness around eating disorders. Some studies suggest that around 20% of young LGBT people are either currently suffering from an eating disorder or have suffered from an eating disorder in the past, compared to 7% of non-LGBT young people. What do you think some of the causes for these alarming rates could be?
I think there are massive and increasing pressures around conforming to current stereotypes of beauty - and we all digest social media through photoshop and filters. I don’t have any answers around why young LGBT people are more likely to be susceptible to eating disorders, but we have to work out how we can stem this epidemic of eating disorders. Lockdown has clearly not helped, with restricted access to services but there is such a spike in all sorts of mental health conditions that it is going to be a real struggle to start to reduce the backlog.
Back in February 2021 at our event on ending HIV transmissions by 2030 in partnership with the Terrence Higgins Trust, you spoke passionately about watching “It’s A Sin” with your daughter. Tell me a bit about how the show affected you and what you learned from it.
Oh - god - this could be the longest answer. I had picked up a bit about It’s a Sin on twitter and decided it was important to watch - and Tabby and I ended up binge watching the whole series in 2 nights. She had not liked the first episode, and didn’t want to watch the second, but persevered (she had no choice - I had the remote) and by the end we were both crying. Not sure if this is a common reaction, but in many ways it was Colin’s story that impacted us most. It provoked some interesting conversations, Tabby assuming that HIV was something only men could get! There is one giant parenting fail right there. So it enabled us to have some quite open conversations about HIV about how important it is for women to get tested, about some of the taboos that still exist around HIV that makes women reluctant to come forward to get tested.
You’ve now been in Parliament for nearly 12 years. What’s been your proudest moment and what would you like to achieve before you leave?
Biggest achievement is definitely the suffrage artwork New Dawn which was unveiled when I was Chair of the Works of Art Committee (oh, and getting the EU Settled Status scheme in place and running with so few problems enabling 5 million EU citizens to secure their right to live in the UK post Brexit).
What day in Parliament do you look back on as being your toughest day and how do you switch off after days like that?
Toughest day - too many to count. Chablis, lasagne and Call the Midwife - nice people being nice to each other.
Finally and most importantly, what’s your favourite biscuit?
Bourbon - got it all hasn’t it? Chocolate, cream and a name that makes it sound a bit exotic.