"As someone who is openly gay and an MP, I have a duty to bring that experience into parliament": Margot James. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange
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Margot James on New Labour's "tragedy", rebellious schooldays, & being the first lesbian Tory MP

The Tory MP for Stourbridge discusses her business background, flirting with New Labour, breaking school rules, and being the first openly gay female Conservative MP.

“Having been ‘different’ for most of my life, Mr Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that being treated equal is very welcome indeed,” Margot James MP told the Commons during a blistering speech in the same-sex marriage debate last year. “And we still have some way to go, not just in the area of gay people but in other areas, and I believe my party should never flinch from the requirement that we must continue this progression.”

James is the Conservative party’s first openly gay female MP, but it’s testament to how much she’s been up to in parliament since being elected in 2010 that this fact has only really come to the fore during her fiery contribution to the gay marriage debate. She warned her party against the Republicans’ socially conservative mistakes in the US, arguing that it was their backwardness on such issues that lost them an election they could have won.

“I think, as someone who is openly gay and an MP, I have a duty to bring that experience into parliament just as I do any other experience I've got,” James explains to me. “So I don't mind too much [being labelled a ‘gay MP’]. I was able to sway some people in the debate on gay marriage, and I wouldn't have been able to do that had I not been a gay woman and had I not lived through the Seventies and Eighties and known what it was like.”

She has spoken before about her frustration at being pigeonholed “Conservative lesbian” by the press, so I am a little tentative at first about asking about her experience as a gay woman running to be a Tory MP. But she doesn’t mind in the slightest. Speaking breezily on parliament’s sun-washed Terrace – her blue eyes observing me amusedly through tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses – she recalls the journey to Westminster:

“Every time I got to a shortlist, the local papers were blazing across their pages: ‘Tories about to select a lesbian’ – it was terrible, I was so embarrassed! It's not exactly the best way to appeal to the local Conservatives in Worcestershire,” she chuckles, “do you know what I mean?

“Despite that, I take my hat off to my own association because they selected me knowing that. The Black Country is a very conservative area with a small c, most association members were all in their 60s and 70s. I think that says a lot about how much change David Cameron did bring about in the Conservative party when he was elected leader.”

Her loyalty to the Prime Minister is a recurrent theme during our interview. However, Cameron has repeatedly missed opportunities to promote James – widely thought as one of the Tories’ most impressive newcomers – to his government.

James, who is MP for Stourbridge in the West Midlands, attributes the increase in female talent in the Conservative party to Cameron’s changes to the culture of the party. However, she does admit that his propensity to promote old Etonians to his inner circle is a problem for women’s perception of politics.

“It’s so overdone, that story,” she dismisses of Labour’s criticism of the PM’s Etonian chumocracy. “It ignores people like Theresa May, Eric Pickles, Michael Gove, dozens of them who haven’t been anywhere near Eton. It's a very handy ruse for the Labour party to undermine us.

Yet she continues: “But as with all rumours and slurs, there is a grain of truth, there are a few people from Eton in the cabinet ­– Sir George Young [pre-reshuffle], the Prime Minister obviously, there are a few. That's why the narrative's taken hold, because there's a germ of truth in it. Most of the cabinet are not from a privileged background, so I think it's a really unfair slur. But there's no doubt that it has taken some hold on the public consciousness, there's no doubt about that, and I think that would put women off, yes.”

James, 56, who the party mentoring group Women2Win helped get nominated, is speaking to me before the Prime Minister’s dramatic reshuffle of his top team. Although she praises his promotion of women so far, she asserts: “We do need to see more women in government, there's no doubt about that.”

What about James herself? She has been beavering away as a PPS – the first, quasi-governmental, rung for a backbencher on the move – to two successive trade and investment ministers, and was appointed to the No 10 Policy Board, but has yet to be promoted further.

Would she like to be?

“Yeah, I would,” she grins, “but you know what it's like – so would a lot of other people! I would like to, I'd like to make progress.”

Following the PM’s recent reshuffle, widely reported as a “purging” of white middle-class males to make way for talented female 2010-intakers, there were a number of journalists and commentators on Twitter questioning why James had been overlooked.

James started out as an entrepreneur, building her own health PR business before eventually selling it 15 years ago. Her background in business has clearly affected her way of thinking about politics. She repeatedly refers to employment law tipping “too far” towards the individual employee’s rights and is sympathetic with the business world feeling restricted by government regulation.

“I did learn a lot from the business days,” she remarks, “which I brought here with me; an innate understanding of the pressures that business is up against, and also a knowledge of how sometimes you have to have a firm hand with business.”

It’s also due to her previous career that James believes it would be better for public engagement if politicians to had done a job outside of politics. She refers to a recent poll stating that the public’s most important trait in their MPs is to have had a different career prior to reaching Westminster:

“I think it is important, yes… I think it is important to have done something else in general. That shouldn't exclude people who come up through the political route, of course…”

Nevertheless, James decided quite young that she would pursue a life in politics. She joined the Conservative party at the age of 17, was inspired by her “brilliant” politics A-Level teacher, and it was when she worked at CCHQ during her gap year, followed by a stint as a researcher for a Tory MP, that she began to consider a future as an MP.

Her politics come from growing up in Coventry with a father who had left school at 14 and ended up starting a successful coal-delivering business. But then the Seventies rumbled along, and the trade unions nearly bankrupted him. Thus her Conservative leanings are from a deep admiration of Margaret Thatcher and her actions against the influence of the unions. In fact, James’ love for Thatcher stretched so far that she resigned her party membership in “outrage” the morning after she was ousted in 1990.

This then led her to a brief dalliance with New Labour, to the extent that she attended Labour party conference the last year John Smith was leader and found Tony Blair – who she watched speak at a fringe event – “very inspiring… he encapsulated everything I thought.”

Even now she describes it as a “tragedy” that the Blair/Brown relationship caused such damage to the New Labour government.

Although James rarely defies the whips, she hasn’t always been so well-behaved. She was expelled from school a number of times when growing up, although she attributes this more to rigorous rules than her waywardness as a schoolgirl.

“I never did anything really wrong,” she smiles slowly. “It's a very different era now. I notice because I'm a governor of a local school in my constituency, and you have to behave seriously badly to get excluded these days.

“But in those days, I was at girls' boarding schools. They were run by headmistresses who probably did their teaching training just after the war. And they had quite exacting expectations of behaviour and I just didn't meet them, basically, that's all. They're very strange environments, these small, all-girls, boarding schools in the Sixties and Seventies…

She continues: “Anyway, I did get expelled from my prep school, which was one of those types of school, my mother sensibly removed me from my primary school before things took a turn for the worse. Then I went to the prep school, after four terms I had to leave there.

“I eventually went to Millfield, which was a school with a little more of a liberal tendency, which suited me.” She pauses. “I did actually get expelled from there too – But I’d rather not dwell on that too much. I mean, that sounds awful!” she laughs, “I think I’ve told you enough about my schooldays…”

James has gone from a tearaway student via Thatcherism and business-building to one of parliament’s most promising prefects. Now all that’s left is for headmistress Cameron to recognise such a journey.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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