Paula Sheriff wants to anchor values of tolerance and acceptance in the community
Labour’s MP for Dewsbury, Mirfield, Denby Dale and Kirkburton, Paula Sherriff, certainly has had an eventful year.
In June, she received death threats from far-right activists on Facebook when she asked her local community to unite in the wake of Dewsbury teenager Talha Asmal’s suicide bombing in Iraq.
“The initial shock has perhaps dissipated but people are conscious that we are living in a changing world and there are many different threats out there now,” she said.
“However, I don’t think it has been forgotten in the community. People are still very aware of what went on. To be honest, I think what it has done has made people rethink how we can actively work in the community, particularly with our young people.
“It has made parents sit up and take notice because Talha was very much an ordinary teenager. In terms of cohesion, there is more awareness now.”
With 46 per cent of people in Dewsbury West being of a Muslim faith, and a 43 per cent Asian population in Dewsbury South, her constituency is certainly a diverse one.
It is just another reason why the Scotland-born MP loves her job.
“I love being the MP for Dewsbury, obviously,” she said. “It’s very diverse. I love my constituency. I’ve got some very close friends now who are Muslim. We go out together and it’s fantastic. I’ve learnt so much about Islam and the Muslim faith.
“My mother is of Polish descent, so I was brought up in a family where we all embraced diversity and were taught not to feel threatened when people were different.
“It’s absolutely wonderful being the MP for Dewsbury, I get the best of every world.
“When I’m out representing the town and sometimes find people saying that Islam is dangerous, I can say that it isn’t the case.”
Paula has been politically-minded from the age of seven. She described her parents as ‘news junkies’.
“I wasn’t necessarily brought up in a family that was pro-Labour but it was certainly anti-Conservative,” she added.
“I remember asking questions when I was a child. As I got older, I developed a strong social conscience and became increasingly frustrated at the growing inequality that’s out there.
“I worked in the Police for ten years and then I worked in the NHS. They’re perhaps two professions that are dominated by what is happening politically.
“Then I became a union shop steward for the Trade Union and I really enjoyed helping people and stood up for vulnerable people. My political career kind of bounced off from there. I became a councillor for Wakefield and then decided to stand for Parliament and the rest is history.”
Paula is currently working with MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development).
She is aware that Islamophobia is on the rise, so she often goes into schools to educate young people about hate crime and how it is unacceptable.
“That means any kind of hate crime,” Paula continued, “Whether it’s Islamophobia, homophobia or anti-Semitism. I also want to teach kids about tolerance and respect. For me that’s the key. For everyone out there to learn about diversity.
“I’ve been taking part in plenty of school assemblies about British values and obviously at this time of year I’ve been talking about Christmas. Children in the school might not celebrate Christmas so I talk about how they might celebrate Eid.
“I talk about the similarities between Eid and Christmas, about how it’s a time for family and for giving and sharing. I emphasise that life is about the things that bring us together, rather than what divides us.”
Paula says she is not a career politician. “I haven’t even been to university, which is unusual for an MP, so for me it’s a shock to see how far I’ve travelled.
“I feel like I’m on the crest of a wave right now. As an MP you can help people and see it through – knowing that you can make people’s lives better makes me feel so happy.”