I am the eldest of four children. Both my parents were schoolteachers, with my father ending his teaching career at the now demolished Slatyford Comprehensive School in Newcastle. My paternal grandfather from Gateshead was a train driver, including on the east coast mainline where he occasionally drove the Flying Scotsman, and my maternal grandfather was a bus driver in Carlisle.
I spent my early years in North Shields attending Murton School, the same school as my grandmother had attended 60 years earlier. The annual highlight was the Shiremoor Treat, paid for by the local miners. I completed one year at Norham High School, North Shields before the family moved to Newcastle.
The next six years were spent living on Chapel House Estate near Westerhope, attending Walbottle High School. It was here that were I first got into debating wining the Northumbria Police Debating Competition in the 6th Form.
A degree in theology and religious studies was what I was meant to be doing but most of my time was spent on student politics including active engagement in the Anti-Apartheid Society, the Labour Club and the Amnesty Group. Notable episodes included being arrested for obstruction when picketing Barclays Bank over their support for apartheid, winning the Yorkshire Post Debating Competition and being elected President of the Students’ Union. My dissertation on the role of the Anglican Church in the struggle against apartheid was deemed to be “too journalistic and not academic enough”.
Nelson Mandela Freedom March
Not long after leaving University I was one of the 25 Nelson Mandela freedom marchers (one for each year of his imprisonment) who walked 500 miles from Glasgow to London to highlight the appalling situation in apartheid South Africa. At the time this was the longest protest march in British political history. I didn’t know it at the time but I was to go onto work at Christian Aid were I would organise the 1,000 mile ‘Cut the carbon’ march from Northern Ireland to London. It is this march, highlighting the need to tackle climate change, which holds the record as the UK’s longest ever protest march.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. When I began working at the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) the apartheid regime was executing political prisoners, refusing to unban the ANC and continuing to imprison Mandela and thousands of other political prisoners. By the time I left, Mandela had been released and a date had been set for the first ever multi-racial one-person one vote general election. It was an extraordinary 4 year period with personal highlights including disrupting the press conference of the rebel cricket tour led by Mike Gatting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYszwBV7oMo and being arrested at Downing Street for throwing white paint over de Klerk’s car as he arrived for talks with Mrs Thatcher.
A curious footnote to my time at the AAM is that I have been asked if I would be willing to request by police record for this period as part of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to see if the AAM was infiltrated and impacted by undercover policing https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/undercover-with-paul-lewis-and-rob-evans/2013/dec/10/undercover-police-and-policing-nelsonmandela?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail
The Mike Gatting campaign action in more detail:
January 1990 – Someone rang the AAM office in Mandela Street and tipped us off that the rebel cricket party, led by Mike Gatting, were gathering at a hotel outside London ready for their flight to South Africa. Karen Talbot rang a friend of hers who had a car and the three of us shot off.
When we arrived we discovered there was no security present. As a result Karen and I were able to walk in on the team photograph and start haranguing Mike Gatting and the other players while the media happily snapped away. Our surprise at such good campaigning fortune turned to disbelief when we realised that we were going to be able to do the same all over again at the actual press conference.
Politics and sport have always made for a heady media mix as we quickly discovered; 6 o’clock BBC news, 9 o’clock BBC news, 10 o’clock ITV news and then all over the newspapers the next day – and no one arrested!
The campaign years 1991/2014
My years with the Anti-Apartheid Movement meant I was well placed to move on and work over the next 25 years for a range of progressive organisations where my campaign skills were put to good use and further developed.
All good campaigns need a media strategy and where better to learn this skill than as part of the Labour Party media operation created by Peter Mandelson during Neil Kinnock’s leadership. Working out of the Party’s headquarters at Walworth Road I was Labour’s London Press Officer up to and including the 1992 general election.
Election defeat meant redundancy so it was off to be Christian Aid’s first head of campaigns in charge of their work on what was called at the time Third World Debt. I also prepared and then launched their Trade for Change campaign, which led the development sector charge for fairly traded goods from the developing world to be sold in all the major supermarkets. Cafedirect was the initial campaign success as fair trade moved from the margins into the mainstream, where I’m pleased to say it remains to this day and not just in the UK.
Keen to have a crack at fighting a parliamentary seat for Labour I transferred from working for Christian Aid in London to working for them back to the North East. During the day I campaigned for fair trade and in the evenings and weekends I campaigned for Labour as the parliamentary candidate for Berwick-upon-Tweed, geographically one of the largest constituencies in the UK, stretching from Berwick on the Scottish border to Lynemouth just north of Ashington.
Despite our best endeavors we failed to unseat Lib Dem Alan Beith MP but we did have the satisfaction of pushing the Tories into third place in the glorious 1997 Labour election victory.
Having done 5 years with Christian Aid I was keen for a new challenge and took up the offer from my former colleague at the Labour Party, Julia Hobsbawm, to go and work with her and Sarah Macaulay (now Sarah Brown) at their fledging PR company in Soho, London. Here I organised an international conference for university vice chancellors and undertook the promotion of each weekly edition of the New Statesman.
Then it was back again to the North East to help Labour’s four candidates in the 1999 European elections. Working closely with Alan Donnelly, Stephen Hughes, Mo O’Toole and Gordon Adam I got my initial understanding of the role of a member of the European Parliament, little realising that fifteen years later I’d be elected as an MEP.
My next role was working for Common Purpose who run leadership development programmes for senior managers from the public, private and voluntary sectors. The thinking behind Common Purpose is that towns, cities, regions work better if the key players have an understanding and appreciation of what is going on beyond their specific area of work, beyond their sector. I ran the programme that covered Sunderland and County Durham and by the end of my six year stint I new the key players, the geography and the organisations on my patch extremely well, a representative sub set of the wider North East region.
When the next general began to hove into view I threw my hat in the ring and was selected to fight the Hexham seat for Labour, building on the experience of having fought Berwick. It was a hard fought campaign, with our chances not helped by the out break of foot and mouth disease which both began and ended in the constituency and delaying the date of the election. Campaign highlights including raising enough money to have a campaign shop in the centre of Hexham for over a year, kindly opened by Mo Mowlam MP.
To help recover from my second defeat as a parliamentary candidate and to keep me busy while still working for Common Purpose I undertook the two year part-time MBA at Durham Business School. While at the university I began to explore the possibility of setting up a business to build wooden houses as a contribution to tackling climate change (wood sequestrates carbon). The business didn’t come off, I lacked the start up capital, but it sowed the seeds for my work on forestry and timber once I became an MEP and was asked to sit on the Agriculture Committee and the Environment Committee of the parliament.
My MBA successfully completed a phone call from an old university friend resulted in taking on a role which surprised many who knew me. It wasn’t what I ended up actually doing, press work and training staff in public speaking, rather who it was for, HSBC. Based out of Canary Wharf in London I travelled all over the world including New York, Hong Kong and Mumbai teaching communication skills. To its credit HSBC was starting to think about climate change and they co-hosted Al Gore to give his famous ‘Inconvenient Truth’ presentation on the unfolding challenge of a warming world. For me it was a Damascus Road moment, I knew immediately what I wanted to work on next – climate change, I just needed someone to employ me.
Fortuitously my old employer Christian Aid were set to become the first UK development charity to launch a campaign on climate change, as they were already starting to witness the devastating impact it was having on the communities it worked with in the global south. After successfully re-applying for my old it was back to Christian Aid to prepare and launch a major campaign on climate change, ‘Cut the Carbon’.
As with Fair Trade, where Christian Aid travelled, others followed and in due course a major coalition was assembled bringing together for the first time the UK’s development and environment organisations, under the banner Stop Climate Chaos. Together we prepared the campaign road to the 2009 UN climate change talks in Copenhagen, with events that included a national demonstration in London on the eve of the talks. The coalition had its ups and downs but it did score a noticeable success when it forced E.On, the energy company, to withdraw its plans to build a new unabated coal fired power station at Kingsnorth on the Thames estuary.
For me the campaign highlights of this period were many and varied and included the 1,000 mile ‘Cut the Carbon’ march from Belfast to London via Edinburgh, Cardiff and the Labour Party Conference in Brighton – the longest protest march in British history. The ‘Mass Visual Trespass’ was also a favourite which saw the charity sailing close to the wind when we projected climate change messages without permission onto the House of Parliament and a coal fired power station in Shropshire.
In addition to running a major campaign on climate change we decided to also launch a tax justice campaign during this period. Again we ploughed a furrow that others would soon follow, as it became clear we had identified a major cause of poverty that was relevant to the UK as well as the developing world. To launch the tax justice campaign we teamed up with Church Action on Poverty and took an old red double decker bus on the road the length and breadth of the UK to spread the message that tax dodging was (and still is) hurting the poor – both home and abroad.
After five years of working in London and living in Surrey the North East was again starting to exert its inevitable ‘time to return’ pull. An opening arose as Head of the North of England for Christian Aid so back I came. Following a discussion with my trade union the GMB I put my name forward for selection as a candidate for the 2014 European Elections.
On coming top of the male selection list I was teamed up with Jude Kirton-Darling and Jayne Shotten and we campaigned our way around the North East managing to win two of the three seats for Labour.
Arriving in Brussels as one of Labour’s 20 MEPs, our chief whip Catherine Stiller MEP asked me to lead for Labour on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and serve on the Environment Committee. It has been a fascinating last four years, hugely interesting, challenging and stimulating.
At Walbottle School
With my Dad at Newcastle Quayside
Leading the campaign at Leeds University to boycott Barclays
Disrupting the Mike Gatting rebel cricket tour to apartheid South Africa
Meeting Mandela while working for the Anti-Apartheid Movement
Doing my bit to help demolish the Berlin Wall in 1989