Gillian Keegan is MP for Chichester.
At an open meeting in my constituency last Friday, a man stood up and declared that “Conservative policies benefit the rich because all Tories are rich themselves and simply don’t understand how ordinary people live”. Whilst completely untrue, this false rhetoric, at times, seems to be gaining momentum, particularly as it is being peddled by, erm, Momentum.
But I agree with the core premise, which is that the Conservative Party must look and feel like the people it represents, which in practice means Conservative MPs should be a diverse group of individuals representing a wide range of experiences. This is increasingly true. We have MPs from all over the country. We represent a mix of educational experience from comprehensive schools to international schools and we come from a cross-section of social backgrounds. Conservative MPs enter Parliament with a huge variety of experience, having previously held jobs ranging from postman to paediatrician, farmer to fireman, businessman/woman to banker, lawyer to lecturer, soldier to singer, and a whole lot more besides.
I became an MP after a 30-year business career. If you had told me even five years ago that I would be a Conservative MP in 2017 I would have struggled to understand how that could possibly happen.
I have always been politically engaged. Growing up in Liverpool during the ’80s, with a grandfather who was a miner, you couldn’t fail to be. But there is a big difference between being politically active and deciding that politics is what you want to do every day of your life.
My political journey started quite simply with somebody asking me to stand – and not just anybody, Baroness Anne Jenkin, the co-founder of Women2Win. We’d been introduced at the theatre by a mutual friend who told her he thought I would make a great MP. We had a cup of tea to explore further. I have always relished a challenge and was curious to learn more. The more I learned, the more interested I became.
Following several conversations, it became clear to me that whilst there are many routes into politics there are very few shortcuts. Every candidate needs to demonstrate their commitment to public service and earn their stripes amongst Party colleagues. How you do this is up to you.
I’m a logical and pragmatic person. When I started my business career, I began as a 16-year-old apprentice in a car factory in Liverpool. This may not sound like the most promising start but it was a fantastic apprenticeship which gave me a ticket to social mobility. General Motors trained me in all aspects of the business, whilst sponsoring me to study one day a week up to degree level. By the age of 22, I had a degree in Business Studies, but more importantly six years’ worth of business experience including managing teams and negotiating contracts abroad. This propelled my career forward and I ended up in senior executive positions in multinational companies, living and working around the world for the next 25 years.
Faced with the challenge of entering a completely different world I decided to adopt the same approach. There isn’t an MP apprenticeship so I designed my own, with helpful advice from many people in the Party.
I had been a Party member for years so my first call was to the local association to register my interest in becoming a councillor and finding out more. The Chairman of the Association could not have been more helpful and due to an unexpected by-election I became a District Councillor a few months later. Being a councillor is a great way to learn how local government works plus gain real experience of helping local people with their problems.
Having previously worked in the manufacturing, banking and technology sectors there was a lot I didn’t know about public services, so I set about filling in some of the gaps in my experience. I joined the Board of Governors at my local hospital trust, to understand the NHS’s challenges better, and the Board of the local BID (Business Improvement District), to understand retail and the challenges facing our high streets.
But more needed to be done – I didn’t know any MPs and, as in the business world, a network of relationships is key. To overcome this, I volunteered to work one day a week in Parliament as a researcher.
I stood for Parliament in the 2015 election in Merseyside and caught the campaigning bug. This is essential if you want to be an MP and I spent many a weekend driving around the country to support colleagues in by-elections and to gain council seats.
I was very happily part way through my apprenticeship when the snap election was called. After the initial panic asking myself if I felt ready, I knew it was now or never. When my predecessor stood down in my home seat I just had to go for it. The process was truncated due to time, but I was lucky enough to secure a spot in the final three. There is nothing that can fully prepare you for the randomness of a selection process. You write and practice the speech of a lifetime and research questions on policy and moral issues, but as any MP will tell you there are many surprises during selection.
Five weeks later, after delivering thousands of leaflets, attending 12 open meetings and two hustings, I was elected to be the Member of Parliament for Chichester, an area that I love, have lived in for seven years and where I have been a councillor for several years.
There is a large amount of luck in every political journey. But it is also true that the harder you work the luckier you get. I did take a leap of faith when I stepped off the corporate ladder to start at the bottom of a new world as an “apprentice MP” and unlike my first apprenticeship there was no guarantee that I would get a job at the end.
Becoming an MP is like drinking water from a fire hydrant. Everything rushes at you at once. You run from meeting to meeting addressing a broad range of subjects from education, Brexit and health, to the UN sustainable development goals – and that’s just the morning. It is equal parts fascinating and terrifying and I’m ever thankful for the speed reading course I did whilst studying at London Business School in 2010.
Eight months into being an MP and I already know that it’s the best job I’ve ever had – and I’ve had a lot of jobs! I’m delighted with my second career and the everyday privilege of representing the people of Chichester in Parliament is unbelievably rewarding and never dull. The role we play is critical at this time as we are the thin blue line standing between economic prosperity for our country and the return to the failed policies of the 1970s.