"I had my appraisal with the electorate, I hadn’t met my objectives, and that was it"
What Steven asked the former Labour MP for Chatham and Aylesford, Jonathan Shaw.
For our Sunday interview series, Steven went back to MidKent College to meet Jonathan Shaw, the former Labour MP for Chatham and Aylesford. Jonathan is now the Strategic Director for Kent Further Education. They discussed being a government minister, his thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn, and what advice he has for future Labour parliamentary candidates in Medway.
Where were you born?
I was born in Aylesford in 1966, which is a good year. We won the World Cup, and the Labour Party won the General Election.
What brought you to the Medway towns?
We lived in Maidstone as a family, then when my partner, now wife, we came together. We looked for somewhere where we could afford to live, that was convenient, and we moved into the former naval estate in the Lordswood/Walderslade area.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My dad had an assortment of jobs, from being a grocer to being a social worker. He worked in children's homes. My mother was a secretary for St John’s Ambulance in Kent.
How did you find school and university?
School was fine. I went to Vinters Boys’ School, which is now called Valley Park, in Maidstone. I enjoyed school. I don't think that I was an academic highflyer, so after school, I went to further education and completed a two-year care course. So, my first job was as a care worker and then some years later I went back to college to study to be a social worker. It was FE rather than university that was my education pathway.
What is your official occupation?
I am the Strategic Director for Kent Further Education.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
I am the chair of Platform Trust, which is a mental health charity in Maidstone. I'm also the coordinator of a Medway leadership programme that started about 11 years ago. It brings together key senior leaders in the public sector in Medway to understand the big picture, develop relationships across the different agencies and form those informal, as well as formal, partnerships, which are essential to deliver public services.
What political parties have you been a member of?
Only the Labour Party.
And are you still a member?
When has your name appeared on a ballot?
The first time was in the Weeds Wood ward in the 1991 Rochester City Council elections and I came to last and then after that, it was as a councillor again for Luton ward. Again in the early 90s and I became a councillor. There were other council elections and then four times, to stand as a member of Parliament. Three times successful, the fourth time not so.
For that 91 election, was that as a paper candidate or were you expected to win?
I was surprised to be a candidate. Very much a paper candidate. I think probably I took the opportunity to immerse myself and campaign reasonably rigorously in the ward. I was in my mid-20s. My first exposure to knocking on doors to any great extent and found that I loved it and fortunately a couple of years later, I became a member of what was then a minority group on Rochester City Council. Subsequently in 95 where I sort of led the election campaign along with a couple of other people, we had a historic win, where we won nearly all the seats in that year. Tony Blair was becoming very popular, and I think we run a good administration in a minority, and we were rewarded with that quite emphatic win.
How confident did you feel going into the 1997 General Election?
Well, we thought that Labour would win. I was proud to be the standard bearer for the party. I hadn't had my 30th birthday yet, and I'd been to the House of Commons once before in my life, and that was during our honeymoon. We had hired a flat in London, to go to the shows, to go to the galleries. So we went to the House of Commons and watched the proceedings for about 40 minutes. There weren’t many people in the chamber. It wasn't exactly electrifying, and that was in 1990 and seven years later, the second time I entered parliament was as a Member of Parliament, and I had to show my election address. That was the security level at the time, and they let me in. We hoped that we would win, but it was a tall order.
How did your experience as a social worker affect your experiences as an MP?
I remember vividly, MP colleagues, when they had their first advice surgery, really being quite profoundly affected by some of the issues that were brought to them, by their constituents. They'd not encountered people with multiple issues in difficult circumstances and a whole range of different issues, but of course, having worked as a child protection social worker, these weren’t so unfamiliar to me. I had much more authority to be able to resolve matters, so I gave my colleagues quite a lot of advice about how they should conduct their surgery, particularly in terms of style and giving them some counselling, basic counselling tips, about how they should go about listening importantly and responding to their constituents’ issues, particularly when they were very of a sensitive nature. Anyone who's been an MP or indeed a councillor will tell you, you do find yourself involved in some very difficult circumstances, trying to assist people.
You would have been an MP at the height of kind of Labour's success. What are your thoughts on why Medway council went Conservative in 2001?
Well, I think that very often there is a cycle when the national government are in, there can be a backlash at a local level until people see the sort of the fruits of the policy coming to fruition. People will take a closer look at the leaders and their agendas. Quite often there will be a backlash and we got that, so I think that it was in the normal cycle. That hasn't been the case since 2010. I think that some of that is about the direction of the Labour Party. I think that what we've seen most recently is a reflection of change. The way Keir Starmer has brought the party more into the centre ground and that has paid dividends.
What was your working relationship like with Medway's other Labour MPs?
Good. We were very focused collectively on the big issues, whether that was getting additional regeneration money for universities or Rochester Riverside. I guess that's my second thing. That's still coming to fruition, but these long-term plans do take, by their nature, quite a while. We were very determined to see in particular the NHS waiting lists fall. When we got in people waited 18 months for a hip operation and when we left the average wait was 18 weeks. Now we're back to 18 months if we're lucky. On the big issues, getting more money for police, working with the hospitals seeing investment and as well important projects like Sure Start, which as a former social worker, I knew the benefits.
Do you remember hearing that Bob Marshall Andrews had joined the Lib Dems? Did you have any reaction at the time?
I was a bit surprised and disappointed. Bob was and will always be a maverick and I would never want to try and second-guess him. I spent a period when I was his Whip, for about a year. He was a colourful character, so nothing surprises me about Bob.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on supporting the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Oh, I think that, if we had our time again, we wouldn't have gone ahead and so it was a mistake and I regret that. At the time I remember very well meeting widows from Halabja, who had been mustard gassed by Saddam Hussein. It was a day or two before the vote, and their stories were compelling, and what they were most fearful of was actually not Saddam Hussein, but Saddam Hussein's sons, who I think were even more deranged than Saddam himself. They just explained what had happened and the deaths that the regime had meted on their husbands and sons and the prospect of not being removed would have led to greater deaths, but there were a series of mistakes that were made, not least of all disbanding the whole of the security system, which then led to the factional explosion and the chaos. Gladly things are returning to a more peaceful, but it's far from a settled country. I supported the Prime Minister on that, I was clear at the time why I thought that was right, but certainly on reflection, it was a mistake.