A couple of months ago, we caught up with Fleur Anderson to hear about her time at York and life since leaving university. This interview was conducted in February 2020, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Tell us a bit about your time at York and what you studied
I was in Goodricke College and I studied Politics between 1990-1993. Then I stayed on for a year to be President of the Students’ Union. My degree opened my eyes to all sorts of thinking about different issues. Politics is really wide ranging, from philosophy to American politics, to the politics of fiction. It was a really varied degree and I really enjoyed that.
I was very inspired by Harriet Harman, who is an alum herself. Her writing about the numbers of women in politics really inspired me then. Not that I wanted to be an MP particularly, but I was just very interested in politics. It’s not as if I was sat there thinking about being an MP, things happened along the way and now I am!
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
Great parties! Apart from that, one interesting memory was when I was President, it was Professor Cooks first year and we wanted to demonstrate against student fees being introduced. So we had a demonstration in Central Hall, which was overtaken by others and became an all night sit in (he wasn’t happy at all!) It became a big protest – quite a few demonstrations were held in Central Hall back then.
There was also quite a big issue at the time with fascism, especially at Cliffords Tower every year. Fascists used to assemble there and we organised anti fascist demonstrations to say no, this is not acceptable, and we stopped them – they don’t happen anymore. My year as President was also James Colleges’ first year, so I was really proud of setting that up and setting up some of the traditions of the college – I have fond memories of that time.
What did you enjoy about being President of the Student’s Union and what did you get out of that year?
Having so much practice at public speaking was fantastic. Even now, I show children around parliament and they ask me ‘do you get scared speaking in public?’ and I say ‘I used to but it’s all about practice’ – and that was a fantastic year of practice. It was also a great year of management – I was managing the Executive, so I learnt a huge amount in one year.
Also I really felt we made lives better for students. I was signing off small student loans right through to enabling people to get home at the end of term by starting a mini bus service. There is a much better bus service now but there wasn’t back then!
Back then the student union was in a tiny little office next to the maths department at the back of a college and we got this moved and the Student’s Union had more of a centre and an identity which it didn’t have before. So it was a combination of some of those bigger ways that I could represent students at the university level combined with making individual student lives better that I enjoyed the most.
How did the University of York help you with your career?
It’s probably a lot of what I did outside my degree as much as the degree itself. While I was here I was very involved with a group called Third World First, which then became People and Planet. This led to me working at Christian Aid, where I continued to campaign on things like fair trade and third world debt and this lasted for many years. So it was a combination of my academic studies and what I did outside of my degree, plus the campaigns I got involved with.
I was very lucky to work in that field. That first job you get when you come out of university could be so many different things, but for me, I was lucky that the Christian Aid office was opening in York and I was able to work for them. They then opened their campaigns team in London so I was able to do that – so everything worked out well.
How did you make the transition from campaigning and charity work to becoming an MP?
The two went hand in hand for me – I had been campaigning internationally for Christian Aid, then went on to CAFOD, Methodist Church and WaterAid, living in Kenya for a few years as well. Alongside that I was taking action on campaigns locally. So for example, my local children’s centre was closed by the council and I was one of the leaders of the campaign to keep it open. My pub! Tesco wanted to take over my pub! – so I was campaigning on that. So I think campaigning was always part of my life.
When I came to a stage in my career when my children had grown up a bit and I could take part time work, someone suggested to me and encouraged me to become a local councillor, and that’s what I did first. So I got involved locally and found out more and more about things I was passionate about. Then one thing led to another and here I am!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy making a difference in people’s lives. From small to big. A grandfather recently came to me in surgery to say a crossing, which he crosses every day with his grandchildren, is really unsafe, so being able to gather people together, go to that crossing and stand up for them is great.
I love working on the big issues as well. For example, we wanted our local station to have step free access, so I had my own debate on that in the House of Commons. I also really enjoy being able to talk about very big issues such as benefits and housing and bring those things I have seen in my community to parliament and national attention. That is a really big honour for me.
So you have said what you like about your job, but what do you find the hardest thing about it?
The hardest part is when there are divisions within the party – I find that the most disappointing. I want to be a Labour family where we all work together and sometimes we don’t. But I also find it most inspiring when we do pull together, which is what we did in my election campaign. The election for many people was very disappointing and it was for me ultimately, but my campaign in Putney was a really positive campaign working together – so I think when we get that right it’s great, but when we are not working together that’s really hard.
It’s also really hard walking into the House of Commons and seeing lots and lots of Conservatives – being in opposition is hard. And for me now, I am figuring out where I can have influence in Parliament and stand up for my community and I am trying really hard to do that.
Who is the biggest inspiration in your work?
It’s really hard! Harriet Harman was a real inspiration to me – I’m not sure I realised at the time that she was a York Alum, maybe I did. But now I sit on the benches next to her, and try to act normal! ‘Hi Harriet!’
There was an economist called Susan George who was also a real inspiration to me. I read her works while at Uni – I don’t think she was on the syllabus, but I read them while I was here. I started thinking about global problems and putting that together with the politics that I was grappling with. She was very influential on my thinking about a radical approach to the economy – which also had climate and the environment threading through it. She wrote a book in 1988 all about that which is just as relevant now as it was back then.
I have been around the world and worked for places like WaterAid and Christian Aid and it is the women I met in local communities who inspire me the most actually. They are the ones I think back to a lot. I’ve sat down in Bangladesh and spoken with women who have been affected already by climate change. Sometimes climate change can seem quite academic,only in the most pejorative way, and that it’s not really happening yet. In Bangladesh I sat down with a group of women in a community where all of their farmland is now saline water and you can’t farm it. And all of their water wells are sea water now. They are already experiencing climate change – they are on the sharp end of it. And to see them and their amazing fortitude and resilience in the face of that is very inspiring. I have met farmers in Zambia and women who are the leaders in that community who get very little credit – they are inspirational and they are who inspire me.
One of the big challenges of today is climate change and looking after our natural environment, which you are passionate about. What do you see the role of universities as being in helping to tackle climate change?
Universities are in a unique position in what they can do and influence within their student population and on campus. But they are also able to influence the wider world and can provide the research we need to make evidence based decisions, which politicians often don’t have enough of. So being able to translate the research into policy change is really important and I can see throughout my time as an MP how important that is.
I’m also on the education select committee so I can see the role of universities and I want to be able to champion them. By putting those things together we should have climate change running through everything, all decisions we make, from small to big. Universities can influence that on a really big scale.
What advice would you give to someone finding their way in a career? And any specific advice about the charity sector and getting into politics?
For a start my career was not linear – each stage fitted with my family and circumstances at the time. I have worked in all sorts of ways from job shares, full time and part time work. I would say don’t write yourself off from any sort of future – I thought having four children and a husband who works abroad may mean I would never be able to be a politician or an MP, but things can happen!
So getting into the charity sector – it can be really hard to get your foot in the door, but I would advise contacting people at a charity that interests you and ask for advice and if you can meet up with them. Get into their shoes and think ‘what are they looking for?’ You can also see in jobs that are advertised what they want and how you can build up what you need. I’d say just go and talk to people and find out if they have any opportunities for you.
If you are looking at international development, getting international experience is really important to your whole career and helps in many ways. It can be a bit of a leap of faith as getting jobs abroad from here can be difficult. Once you go abroad you can find opportunities though.
In terms of politics – work in something else first, don’t go straight into politics! It is just so valuable to have some particular expertise or experience or life experience – something you really want to change. If you have a passion for a campaign, go for that campaign and use that too to help you get into politics. But it is hard work, there’s no doubt about it!