Finding My Voice

Holly (third from right) with the rugby team
Holly (third from right) with the rugby team

Holly Lynch (Politics and History, 2009, Cartmel) tells how the confidence gained through her time at Lancaster led to her current roles as Labour MP for Halifax and Shadow Minister for Immigration.

The most life-changing decision Holly Lynch ever made was to join the women’s rugby team in Freshers' week at Lancaster University - a move which she maintains allowed her shy, home-loving teenage self to transform herself into a young woman able to fight her corner as a Labour politician and to make the swift trajectory from back bencher to Shadow Home Office Minister in just five years.

“It really did set me up for life”, explains Holly, now MP for her home town of Halifax. “It brought me out of my shell and gave me all the skills for the political life I am leading now - which I would never have predicted. It was about using your voice, not being afraid to stand up for yourself, coordinating people on a pitch and making the most of what you had got, and not focusing on what you didn’t have.”

It was an unlikely move for a timid teenager, who had never played rugby in her life and did not drink alcohol. Even as she signed up she agonised about whether her non-drinking would lose her friends, but she was surprised to find she was not alone among a group of girls who were looking to do ’something different’. During her school days she had worked in a bar where the Six Nations championship was a highlight. Here in Freshers’ Week was a chance to try the sport.

Her early qualms about the cold and mud, and being forced into being vocal (against her nature) soon gave way to a commitment to two-hour training sessions five times a week, a sense of involvement in the team and from winning matches. By the end of her first year she was social secretary and for her final year she was president - and remained a complete non-drinker.

Working together for a common goal, public speaking, plus opportunities for leadership, and of setting up contracts with coaches and sponsors, proved invaluable for her working life and in supporting her early career in politics.

A life in politics had not even entered Holly’s mind when she arrived at Lancaster University - far enough from home to have a proper university life, but near enough to go home regularly - in fact, she remembers feeling very offended when an acquaintance hearing she was studying History and Politics, asked her whether she intended to be a politician.

The reality was that she loved history - particularly ancient civilisations and applied for the joint course because it required lower grades than single-honours History. Only when she arrived at university did she discover that she was grabbed by modern history, which made even more sense when backed up by politics. She realised that understanding modern events was crucial to making changes to society.

She loved university. She admits that rugby took up a disproportionate amount of time, but she also tapped into life at Cartmel, where flatmates became friends for life. One of them, Louise Lister was a competent cook and prepared hot meals for her when she came back from rugby training: ‘I was very well looked after,” laughs Holly. “We still see each other regularly and she is a wonderful friend.”

So what politicised her? “I was in something of a panic when I left Lancaster and went back home to Halifax. It was a bit of a cliff edge leaving the rugby team and my tight group of friends. You become institutionalised .We were never alone. Leaving it was really daunting. I was in a panic about what the future would look like.”

She was lucky to have a job in Halifax with a small company where she had been employed the previous summer and worked her way up from helping out in the warehouse to a substantial job in export trade. She needed something compelling to do and her cousin was involved in the Labour party, so she joined too, and discovered she loved campaigning.

“It was going really well, but you could see that small businesses like the one where I worked needed some support from the government and I felt really frustrated that it was not getting it.” She saw Labour party members doing good work in the community and fighting for the interests of Halifax, and was inspired to do the same.

A job came up with MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, Linda McAvan. “She was a real inspiration to me, “ enthuses Holly. “Seeing up close what a good Northern woman can achieve when you really apply yourself, was inspirational.”

So when her predecessor as Halifax member of parliament, Linda Riordan resigned only six weeks before the general election, Holly threw her hat into the ring at the tender age of 27, and was elected as the party's candidate only at the end of March 2015. She won the very marginal Halifax seat by only 428 votes over the Conservatives.

It has been in her words “a very steep learning curve”. She was appointed to the front bench by Corbyn as Shadow Flooding and Coastal Communities minister in July 2017 and was appointed to her current role as Shadow Immigration Minister by Keir Starmer in April 2020.

Holly is amused to recount that on her first day in parliament, she realised that fellow ‘new girl’ was Lancaster MP Cat Smith, who had also been at university there at the same time as her but they had never met. They bonded that first day, trying to make their way round the labyrinthine Palace of Westminster.

Her key priorities - detailed in her Maiden speech in 2015 in the House of Commons - are Human rights, UK relations with Europe and the protection of services at Calderdale hospital. All of these have been challenged by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, both of which she jokes have happened since she entered the political arena.

Keeping scrap books, is one of Holly’s means of keeping a perspective on events and also acknowledging her achievements, started when she went to university. “It’s one for the ways I stay sane,” she jokes. “These last six years of being an MP - each year the pages become more chaotic. It looks like the inside of my brain has exploded onto the page!”

Rugby is no longer part of her life. She played for Halifax Vandals for a while after leaving Lancaster, but as a mother of a two year old, and a front-bench politician, she jokes that she does not think it appropriate to turn up to make a speech in the Commons with a black eye or a broken nose!

The past pandemic year has brought about many changes to her working life - not least the reduction in the amount of travelling between London and Halifax, since the introduction of voting by proxy. She has been inundated with concerns from her constituents about its impact on their health, businesses and communities.

Her pressing priorities will be speaking up for northern towns and advocating for a better asylum system as part of her front bench responsibilities. In this she says she is daily thankful for her three years as an undergraduate: “It may sound cheesy but I found my voice at Lancaster - in every possible way, and how to use it and how both to lead and to be part of a team and how important those are when they to come together.”

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