This week is Parliament Week, a programme of events and activities that connects people across the UK with Parliament and democracy. To mark it, every day this week we are publishing a blog on ‘unlikely parliamentarians’ – the men and women across history who became parliamentarians only unexpectedly. We’re starting with a selection of stories taken from our MPs’ oral history project…
Our oral history project aims to interview all former MPs about their lives and experiences, and we make an effort to include a wide range of MPs from all sorts of parties and backgrounds. Some you could not class as ‘unlikely’, due perhaps to their family links with parliament, such as former Conservative MP Lady Olga Maitland, whose father was both an MP and sat in the House of Lords; or perhaps because of their burning desire to enter politics from a young age, such as former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey. There are others in our archive, however, who did not see themselves as MPs or had little prior involvement in politics before they arrived at Westminster.
For some, this was because they felt they did not have the ‘traditional’ background to enter politics. For example, former Labour MP Mildred Gordon was raised in London’s East End in the 1930s, and it took her many years to see herself as a possible MP:
Some other women we have interviewed also admitted to “shyness” or reluctance to stand for election. This includes some from a more privileged background, such as Helen Jackson, MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, who remembered being persuaded to put her name forward after impressing party colleagues as a councillor.
Whilst we often imagine MPs working for years on their political careers, the route to Westminster could come out of the blue for some. The journalist Martin Bell, who certainly had connections within the political world, had not planned to enter politics until he was talked in to running as an independent candidate against Neil Hamilton in 1997, as he describes:
Bell’s is a particular story, but there are several others who came into parliament without expecting to, even if they had been deeply involved in local politics. The former Conservative MP John Osborn told us that he was “forced” to become an MP, something he had “never set out to do”, by being persuaded to stand for Sheffield Hallam. Although he considered the seat “unwinnable”, he then held it for nearly 30 years. The Social Democrat Rosie Barnes remembers joining the SDP enthusiastically soon after the party was formed, but with no ambitions to enter parliament. Barnes agreed to stand, soon after giving birth to her son, for Greenwich. As she explains here, the party was intending to focus its campaigning resources elsewhere, until an unexpected by-election, and the help of the Liberal party, changed the situation:
Materials from our oral history project demonstrate that although there was, often, a common ‘route’ into parliament for those ambitious to become MPs in the post-war period, there were also opportunities for those who for a wide range of reasons never believed they could, or would, enter parliament.
Join us tomorrow for the next in our series on ‘Unlikely Parliamentarians’. For more about Parliament Week, visit their website.
We’re also running a Parliamentary History Q&A over on twitter tomorrow, Tuesday 15th November. So if there’s anything you’ve wanted to know about parliamentary history, here’s your chance to ask! Find out more here.