Anne Milton is Minister of State at the Department for Education, and MP for Guildford.
It was whilst making steak and kidney pudding, about 25 years ago, that I uttered the words “I think I would quite like to be an MP”. Where on earth did that come from, for goodness’ sake? I knew no one in political life except a distant cousin, the nearest I had got to politics was an interest in what was in those days called ‘current affairs’ and t I knew nothing about party politics and almost nothing about Parliament.
So what was it that sparked my interest? Looking back, it was that I was irritated that there weren’t enough MPs who were like me and my friends; there weren’t enough women; and it felt as if there weren’t enough MPs who understood the lives of people like me. I wanted to change things, and show that people like me could get elected, and lead the way to make Parliament more representative.
I had trained as a nurse, worked in hospitals – as a district nurse, and in end-of-life care – and had been medical advisor to social housing providers for the previous ten years (all in Hackney and the City of London). Perhaps I knew more about politics than I realised. I had seen it played out on the front line of the NHS, and I had seen at close quarters the fierce battles of the London town halls duing the 1970s and 1080s. And I had passion and determination: it had to be possible for people like me to become an MP and change things.
The hand of fate passed over me later that same week during a shopping trip to Next. An article in their lifestyle magazine, written by a Conservative candidate (who went on to become an MP), began: “If you want to become an MP, the first question to ask yourself is: Do you want it badly enough to devote most of your life to it? If you don’t, far better to abandon the idea now.” I must have skimmed that bit or else I would never had gone any further!
But what that pieve did give me was a step-by-step guide. Devoting “most of my life to it” was not an option. I was incredibly busy: recently divorced, with two young children, about to be pregnant with my third, and I had a part time job. However, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I none the less gave it a go, and what a wonderful distraction it was from school runs, nappies and children (I had a fourth child as well at some point during all this).
The list of things that got done included:
- Join the Party (the Party agent in question nearly fell off his chair when I walked into his office asking to join – in 1992 there weren’t many of us under 40 joining up!)
- Go out canvassing in local elections (bruising if you have never col- called anyone, but in true Bart’s nurse tradition – hey – I could handle anything)
- Then the request (many people get one of these at some point) about whether I would stand for the council due to the death of a councillor (I was saved at the last minute, as my partner’s job meant we had to move house).
The rest came relatively easily, albeit with much learning on the job. I joined the Party in Surrey, and then challenged a local political heavyweight for the role of Deputy Chairman. I still remember reciting my ‘why I would make a good Deputy Chairman’ speech to myself in the car as I drove back from my job in Hackney to Surrey. Yikes – I had never spoken in public in my life, let alone to a Conservative Association who were lovely, but traditional in all their views. I put on a fair showing, many arms round the shoulder afterwards – ‘you know you did terribly well for someone new’.
Next up was finally to stand in the next local elections. I fought a sitting Liberal Dem councillor – and lost, but narrowed the margin significantly. I stood again the following year, and defeated another Lib Dem by 25 votes. I then applied for the candidates list. Phew – progress at last, but the gaps in my political knowledge now became horribly clear to me. I really knew nothing at all about politics and Parliament, and knew no-one on the inside to give me a hand.
Fortunately, my partner generally absorbs far more of the technical details than I ever could, so frantic coaching sessions followed. And hurray – following two days of candidate assessment I passed that hurdle. I spoke at Party Conference that year, and boarded the well-known rollercoaster of applying for seats, in this case for the 2001 general election.
I was always guided by my original motivation that people like me weren’t well represented in Parliamen,t and finding a seat that I had some connection with mattered to me. I was also 44 with four children, so if it was going to happen, it needed to happen soon. I applied for lots of seats, but only marginal and safe ones: it may sound presumptuous, but I was a woman in a rush. My hit rate wasn’t bad. I got interviewed for about half those I applied for, got to second round in about half of those, and got to three finals in so-called safe seats.
I felt I had done well: but in the days of no reliable internet it meant a lot of travelling, – plus searching libraries, reading the letters pages in the local papers, and driving round the streets looking for relevant facts for my speech. But it was fun and I learnt a lot. I will be forever grateful to those people who I still remember writing to me after the unsuccessful interviews encouraging me to carry on. I hope they remember who they are; their words meant so much to me. I didn’t get a seat in the 2001 general election, but worked with a dear friend setting up the Geneva Call Centre in Smith Square. A fantastic experience with some very fond memories of the people I worked with.
Selections for the 2005 general election started in due course and along with them came Guildford, which we had lost in 2001 to the Lib Dems. I had to give it a go: it was only 20 miles from home, and I had honed my skills fighting Lib Dems in the past. I was selected, then won the seat by the skin of my teeth with a majority of 538 (now 17,040)…and the rest is a matter of public record. I still remember a friend of mine leaving a voicemail message that night saying: “Bloody hell you did it (pause) – bloody hell what have you done?”
What I had done of course was to become an MP. I now had the incredible honour and privilege of representing the people of Guildford, and a chance to show that people like me could become MPs and change the face of Parliament. Busy – yes. Good weeks and bad weeks – yes. A flexible and adaptable working life, for sure – it can work well around children. But, most importantly, it’s the best job in the world. I have met some incredible people from all walks of life inside and outside Parliament and, slowly but surely, we are changing things for the better.