The People’s Politician? Gavin Shuker

Q:How did you become an MP after studying for your degree at Cambridge?
Oh my goodness, so let’s go back to when I was your age, so, grew up in Luton and went to school here – Icknield – and went to Sixth form, studied Politics and thought it was quite interesting and really enjoyed it at A-Level. I thought I’d go on to study it at degree, not because I wanted to become a politician actually, which I know sounds strange, but genuinely I really enjoyed it and through a weird twist of nature I managed to get a place in Cambridge. I think if I were to apply now I don’t think I would get in, it is so much harder for you guys.

Aysegul: Yeah, these two are Oxbridge rejects.
Oh wow, well if it’s any consolation, I wouldn’t now either. Do you know where you want to go?
Ellie: Well I’m planning to go to Kings in London.
Lisa: York.
Aysegul: Warwick.
I applied to Warwick as well – didn’t get in but yes, sorry I need to answer the questions don’t I? – I moved to Cambridge and worked for a local church for three years and then moved back here in 2006. When I moved back lots of my friends went off to be consultants and bankers and work in big business. That’s a great thing to do, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to move back to Luton and I think one of the biggest problems we have is a lot of our talented people move away and we never seem them again and I would like to see more people come back here. I moved back here, I worked for a local church and joined the Labour party on the same day I moved back.

Again, that wasn’t to become a politician. That was because I think if you’re going to live in a place you should get involved in the decision-making. Very small groups of people make very big decisions and if you don’t get people involved you get abnormal people making those decisions and it’s a nightmare.
I was probably the youngest person going to any meetings for years and then in 2009, you know what happened, the expenses scandal broke. My predecessor was Margaret Moran and she was quite rightfully told she couldn’t stand again because what she did was indefensible and then the hunt was on to find someone to stand for us. People don’t remember this now but it was perceived there was no chance of Labour winning the seat, the national party even pulled all of their resources as it was seen as un-winnable but I just had this sense that we could win it if we had someone local and that we could win it if we had someone who had learned from what had happened before. I was like “oh crap, I wonder if I should put my name forward” and I did. So there were 44 people that went to become the new Labour candidate which went down to a long-list of 8, a short-list of 6 and finally between me and one other and then I won that selection by two votes, it was incredibly tight.

Aysegul: How old were you then?
Twenty-eight, and then we had six months ‘til the election and the Labour party had odds of 5/1 that we would win the seat and in the end we did win it. There were 12 candidates in my election which was the most out of all the seats in that General Election one of which was quite high profile – Esther Ransan but at 28 I became the fifth youngest MP in this parliament. It really is surreal, you win on the Thursday night or the Friday morning and you go into Westminster on the Monday morning and you’re an MP.

Q: Would you say then that you’re not a career politician as you didn’t do it the ‘Cameron Way’ and go straight into a party office?
There is a perceived way, you know if you want to be an MP or you want to be a high flyer. You go to university, you study PPE at Oxford, first job out you work for an MP you become a special adviser, you become a Councillor  You stand in your lose-able seat, so you go stand somewhere there’s no chance and then at age 35 you pop up, get your winnable seat and work your way to the top and in that sense I’ve done everything wrong. I’ve done the opposite, you know, I haven’t even stood as a local Councillor before and I’m very young. I think different people will look at me in different ways. Some might say “oh well he’s never had a real job” because I’ve only worked in churches but other people will say hang on a minute if he wasn’t an MP he’d still be in Luton doing what he’s doing and, if he loses the next election he’ll still be here doing what’s important. I think it’s rare that you get to represent the seat that you’re born in and that you’re committed to and for me, it’s gone a long way for building up trust with people. When they talked about Luton they know I’ve grown up with that and I’ve got a sense of that and you can’t really fake it, so I would say I’m not a career politician because I don’t even know if politics is my career –  but I do know that I love this job and I want to carry on doing it for as long as I can and that I wouldn’t do it any worse so it’s a mix of both really.

Q: How far do you respond to the fact that when we told people we were meeting Gavin Shuker today, while all the politics students knew who you were, some people didn’t know who you were? Do you believe the youth are disconnected?
Aysegul: Yeah, we noticed when you were getting served they didn’t recognise you?
A lot of it really is down to the fact that I’m not wearing a suit today. It makes a massive difference to people and…
Ellie: How they gauge you?
Yeah, I’m 31 now and I probably look quite young- maybe not to you guys- but I look quite young. I don’t think I’m the classic look of a politician in some ways and so it’s hard to make that leap. Having said that, when I pop to Sainsburys to buy a pint of milk people come up to me with casework saying “can you sign my immigration?” or “help me with my son’s school?” so it’s a funny mix. This session of parliament, these 5 years I’ve only really got one ambition. There’s lots of things I want to do, and lots of things I have done, but I really want to restore some sense of faith or trust in politics locally because that was really badly broken when I came in and I think, I feel like people are very generous to me by and large. They’ve given me an opportunity to prove myself on that level and so I’m not that worried if people are like “we absolutely know who he is” or “we know he’ll pick up the phone when I give him a call”. I’m there to be that base line of people.

Aysegul: Yeah, because I remember when there was the scandal with Margaret Moran my dad said “Labour is finished in this town.” Then we had a guy come to the door and ask who we were voting for and he said “we’re not voting for you again after what you’ve done to this place”  and then we couldn’t believe people could trust a Labour candidate – especially after Margaret Moran was let off. I just wanted to know, because I live in Farley Hill which is one of the worst areas and there’s a church up there and there’s always an old lady there weeping about how the church is falling apart, and nobody’s doing anything about it. She was begging me to tell you because her son’s ashes are buried there. You have to respect different places of worship and it’s not fair that this is being left to fall to rubble. Nobody’s ever come to us asking you know “what do you guys want developed?” because I was asking Ellie and Lisa, “how well does Gavin knows his constituents?” How often have you visited to college and spoken to the students? I think that’s the thing about politicians, you’re there to push forward your own views but you’re representing us in parliament and the fact you –not that I’m especially criticising – like, I would want to be able to walk up to my own MP  like “oh hiya Gav, you alright?” and have that kind of relationship. A lot of people see MPs as above us.
So what do you think would be the mark of a good politician?
If I was an MP, if I saw these girls I would want to come along and say, “hello girls, you alright?” and sit and have a chat with them.
Lisa: Yeah, an MP you see on public transport
So an MP on public transport, who drinks coffee with girls in Costa [indicating himself] I have no idea where you could find such a person(!)
Lisa: I think what it is, is unless you do a google search on Gavin Shuker you don’t know that he’s the guy who came from Luton, and lives in Luton. You just see another guy in a suit.
Yeah, what I would say is two things. I actually know Farley really well, I was up at that Church ten days ago and I’m often up in Farley. I know many of the issues and when people get in touch with me I try and sort out their problem. In the last three years I’ve done 4,500 pieces of complex casework for people. Not a lot of people realise we do 4,500 pieces of work but how do you get that message out? What would I want from an MP and I say this because I honestly asked this question before I stood. I wanted someone who lived here, who commuted into Westminster, who was back on the train. Who was as comfortable in the town centre as they were before. Where people would come up to him and he’d be accessible and I think I’ve made choices to try and do that. I live 5 minutes up the road from here in the same house I lived in 6 years ago. I live with two housemates and my wife and we’re about to have a child and the reason we haven’t changed our lifestyle is because that only makes it more easier to become detatched.
Aysegul: yeah well people have got to know what their MP is doing!
But how do you get that across because if I started parading around my family, “isn’t he a nice, normal guy” immediately people would go “ohhh well.” – it’s cynical isn’t it? I don’t think you can win this quickly. I think it’s about showing you have a long term commitment to a place and it’s about showing you care about the issues. Where politics has done it’s worst is where people have shown they can’t handle that type of commitment but I’m in it for the long run and I’ll do what I can to make it a better place. If you give me the old lady’s details then I’ll go to her.

Q: Coming back to remaining the same person you were, would you send your child to a local Luton school or would you send them somewhere better like Bedford Modern and do a “Dianne Abbot”?
Erm, I have to be careful in terms of, you know, I don’t want to upset people over the decisions they make for their kids. I’m about to have a child in four weeks time [congratulations!] yep the role I played was very small but ultimately successful. I just think when you take people out of the state school system all you’re doing is removing the opportunity to make it better. I am the product of my comprehensive education.
Lisa: How would you feel about your child going to one of the new Barnfield Academies?
Well you know there’s lots of good schools in Luton – Icknield for example…
Lisa: There’s lots of bad schools too.
Sure, but I want to make them better and actually If you look what’s happened in the last decade, the school’s in Luton have actually got measurably better actually.
Lisa: Is that true or is that Barnfield manipulating their statistics?
If you look across all of the comprehensive schools across Luton we now punch above our wait in terms of the national average and one of the reasons is that we put in an investment over a long period of time. One of the worst things that happened when this government came in actually is they cancelled the Building Schools for the Future project which would aid capacity. When I went to Icknield ten or fifteen years ago you had a much bigger catchment and a much more muti-cultural catchment. Now because of over-subscription those catchments are become smaller and smaller and more monocultural and I have a problem with that. I think that one of the things that gave me an insight into how Luton is actually was. I grew up in a school where there was a real mix of backgrounds and cultures and that’s becoming less and less so which worries me. I’ve gone and seen ministers and said this isn’t just an issue about school place, this is about community cohesion and I’ve met a brick wall and I don’t think you understand that importance unless you grow up here – another reason I believe politicians should be local.

Q: Coming back to schools, this is an issue which is personal to me. I went to Cardinal Newman and the Labour council which came in on a promise to maintain the free school buses has come in and has taken them away. My brother is still in Cardinal Newman and it’s going to become increasingly hard for families to get their kids to school. I just wondered what your take on it was? Especially as next election with the Lib Dems I know they’ll struggle to get in because they’ve broken their promises. You’ve said Labour need to rebuild the trust in Luton, but all over again they’ve alienated their voters.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of awful cuts, of which the cuts to Cardinal Newman is one but there’s going to be more and they’re going to be harder until 2015. The local authority is going to have to get by on 52% of what it started on in 2011. There are two types of services which are: Statutory i.e. those you have to provide by law and the ones which are discretionary  which are the ones that you’d want to do, and that make a big difference. That 52% level just covers he statutory ones so the sad reality is there isn’t going to be money for that. While I have a preference for putting money into education, if the money isn’t there you can’t do it. My problem is, the Lib Dems who would say “we’d never have made these cuts even though they did try to”
Ellie: Yes, back in 2006.
Yeah, my issue is they are propping up a government which think its acceptable for us to get by on 52% of what we had before. Opportunistically they’re then saying “we wouldn’t have made these cuts” but if you look at where the government is – to make it really simple – instead of talking about the size of the pie they take individual chunks and let small groups of people fight each other for those sections. We’ve got to live with that politically. Nobody came to politics to cut away services… in the Labour party but we can’t do it any other way. If we take a hit on that then we’ve got to take a hit but we’ve got to be responsible. You can’t set a budget that doesn’t balance. I’d rather be talking about the fact that those on benefits and “so-called scroungers” fight it out with different groups. There’s all these different interest groups the government would like to see us fighting over. I’d rather ask the question of why is it acceptable to put these cuts through when we know because of the economic climate the cuts are just getting deeper and deeper. It’s a very hard argument to make and I don’t think you can divorce the two. You know, I backed the council on their decision because I don’t see any other route through for them but is it a really harsh decision to make? Absolutely, and will the council suffer election-wise? Possibly. I’d rather talk about the fact that these are Tory and Lib Dem cuts and the Lib Dems do not get off scot-free. They are propping up a government which think it’s acceptable to do this and I think it’s outrageous.

PART TWO TO FOLLOW FRIDAY

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