"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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.