Tomorrow I will hand over the baton as PPC for Gloucester to somebody new. I’m planning to attend the hustings although I may bottle it at the last moment, because letting go can be hard.
But it was my choice. Whether it’s time over or time out from the political frontline for me I simply don’t know. But I do miss it. I’ll try to get along tomorrow and wish my successor the very best of luck. We have to win this seat – we needed it for a majority of 1 back in 1997.
Tonight my mind inevitably harks back to a night in July of 2000 when, as a fresh-faced 28 year old I attended the Gloucester hustings as a naïve candidate in his first parliamentary selection. The Party hierarchy had discouraged my candidature because they didn’t see it as the right ‘fit’ for me. But I think they were more irritated than concerned about me, after all what chance did I have? A few weeks earlier I would have struggled to find Gloucester on a map, I was a Londoner and one of over 80 candidates who applied. These were the days when every available Labour seat already had a MP; we had a Parliamentary majority of around 170.
Jan Royall (now my pal Baroness Royall) was the leadership’s favoured candidate with good local credentials. Kevin Stephens was the Leader of the Council and had been the Candidate before and had a formidable reputation. And Sue Hayman was the PA to the retiring MP Tess Kingham, so the shortlist of six couldn’t have been any stronger and included Keir Dhillon who is now a good friend and on the shortlist of 3 for tomorrow.
I remember talking to Ruth Stoney of Usdaw before the hustings meeting. She had her fingers crossed for me and hoped I’d be drawn early or towards the end of the list of speakers to either make an impact at the start or be remembered at the end. She said as long as I wasn’t say, fourth, I shouldn’t worry and just enjoy the occasion – I’d already performed above expectations by picking up more ward nominations than the other candidates. So inevitably I was drawn fourth in the running order. I hid away in the corner of the member’s room of Shire Hall, just relieved to be there because I’d actually got lost walking to the venue and feared I’d miss the whole event. Years later I canvassed the man who had guided me in the right direction and he warmly reminded me of the major role he had played in my life.
I had borrowed my brother’s mini-diskman (remember them?) and listened to Reef and Catatonia whilst waiting anxiously for my turn. When it was my turn, Councillor Stephens put me at ease before I entered the council chamber to deliver the most important speech of my life, “They don’t want any of us to fail in there tonight,” he said. I walked up to the lectern of this grand old arena, it looked as if there were around 200 people there, squashed around the hemisphere and over-spilling in to seating around it. I was discomforted by the fact that there were only two non-white faces in the whole audience. But this was Gloucester, not West London. Maybe the Party were right to discourage me. As I would find in subsequent weeks though, when the local newspaper stated in response to my selection that: “the people of Gloucester haven’t the advanced state of consciousness to accept a ‘foreigner’ as the local MP” the people of Gloucester are actually far more broad-minded than that.
In the traditional looking stage at the front of the chamber, the Regional Officer Roger Hutchison sat in the raised dais alongside where I stood and the Party’s Constituency Secretary Richard Price sat in front of me. A light came on before me to indicate my 5 minutes had begun. At that moment I can recall feeling bizarrely at home. Looking out at familiar faces as I spoke. People I’d met and had been warmly received by in recent weeks. I began by thanking them for that. I remember thinking I don’t want this to be over. Don’t send me home. Let me stay.
I’m a lucky man in that I’ve always been able to perform from a podium and that night I let rip and felt the mood of the meeting warming to my story and my vision. I recall ending with the words, “I want you to be my strength here in the constituency and my conscience when I vote in Westminster. Together, let’s keep Gloucester Labour. For good.”
But I couldn’t. And I felt that hard when we lost in 2010, as much as that love and warmth in the constituency party never dissipated. The seat has historically swung with the party of power and is always on the cusp. I desperately wanted to hold back that tide and thought we’d done enough to achieve that but we couldn’t. The pain of that is as much a part of my decision to stand aside as anything else. But when I think back to that night when I was 28, in the summer of 2000, I made some pledges in that podium speech. I wanted to unlock regeneration for the people of Gloucester. The Docks had laid derelict for half a century or more. In the nine years that I served the City we regenerated those Docks, built a new FE College there, a shopping centre, attracted nearly a £1 billion in investment and created a thousand jobs. We built a new hospital, a university campus and a police headquarters. It’s more than I ever dreamed we would achieve when I penned that hustings speech with Reef and Catatonia playing in the background.
For people who ask me whether I’ll be back on the political frontline or not, I honestly don’t know. But I’d be a liar to say that I don’t miss it. But tomorrow in Gloucester will be Keir Dhillon, David Purchase or Sophy Gardner’s day. I wish them all the very best of luck and pray they win the seat back. For good.