I failed the 11+.
To say that it was a blow would be a bit of an understatement.
I was born and brought up in Small Heath. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city of Birmingham and it’s where I still live today. Birmingham then, as now, operates a grammar school system.
My parents are first generation immigrants from Kashmir who ran a corner shop in Small Heath. With four children at home my Dad also worked a day job. Despite the challenges we faced, my parents always encouraged us to aim high and that meant university. As a teenager my heart was completely and utterly set on one thing. I was going to be Kavanagh QC. Well a Muslim, female version at any rate.
To fulfil this dream I thought I needed to win a place at Oxford and for that I thought I needed a place at the grammar school. But I had failed, which is a pretty crushing blow for any 11 year old.
I eventually made it to Oxford where I studied law and became a barrister. The point is that things don’t always work out quite the way we plan and failure is not always indicative of total disaster.
The Labour Party did not plan to lose the election. We certainly did not think that the Conservatives would form a majority government.
But we did, and they have.
Sure there are challenges and I don’t underestimate the scale of the task ahead. We have big questions to ask about our approach to the economy and our relationship with business.
But the narrative that is taking a hold is that the Labour Party is in chaos. Let’s learn one lesson from the summer of 2010; if we allow ourselves to be defined before we define ourselves then it will stick however far from the truth it is.
We are not in trouble. Nor are we in chaos. We are having a perfectly reasonable leadership contest. If we are to be in the race in 2020 it’s important we face up to our failings in an open, transparent and inclusive way. Quite frankly, the next leader of the Labour Party should be up to this level of scrutiny.
Whilst there is no shortage of opinions about why we lost and where to go from here, what we are already seeing is the emergence of some consensus on our approach to the economy and business. Differences between candidates exist on a myriad of other issues from free schools through to Labour’s involvement in the EU campaign. But, on the economy, what is increasingly evident is a collective realisation that our relationship with the business community – big, medium and small – needs to be reset.
Our economic offer was too narrow. Do I disagree that the minimum wage should be raised or that exploitative zero-hour contracts should be banned? No of course not, these measures should always be part of a Labour manifesto. But should they have been all we spoke about? The Tories cut the 50p rate of tax but they didn’t spend all their time talking about it.
If we want to be the workers party for now, then we have to be the workers party for the 4.5 million self-employed, the business owner, the public sector worker and the low paid. Our policies have to reflect the fact that there are 31 million people employed in this country and most of those jobs are in the private sector. And what do most people actually want? At its most basic, most of us want a good job (for ourselves and our family members), then the opportunity to get a better job and a helping hand or a second chance if things go wrong.
That means as a party we need to push relentlessly policies that focus on economic growth, productivity and the high-tech, high-skill jobs of the future – something we’ve been hearing a lot about as we choose our new leader.
Our policies also have to show an understanding of what it means to live these lives. And why shouldn’t they? For many us in the Labour movement these lives are our lives. My first experience of work was helping in our corner shop; going to the cash and carry, helping with the stock checks and serving behind the till. At home, watching my dad working two jobs and every hour God sent to provide for me, my mum and my brothers and sisters.
The lessons I learnt then are still with me now. I learnt about budgeting and money, about the value of hard work, about the importance of determination and graft. I learnt the importance of obligation and loyalty. These are the values I share and understand. These must be the values of Labour.
Shabana Mahmood is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury