"It is different from Westminster, where people have a view of blackmail"
What Steven asked Cllr Gareth Myton, Group Whip for the Medway Labour Group and councillor for Fort Pitt
Gareth Myton is a new Medway councillor, first elected in May of last year, and immediately given the role of group whip. Steven met Cllr Myton at the Eagle Tavern on Rochester High Street. They discussed how he started working in Parliament, how the Group Whip may deal with problematic councillor behaviour and finally, after a year of interviews, Doctor Who.
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Where were you born? How did you end up in the Medway Towns?
Wakefield. A friend and a colleague who worked here for Jonathan Shaw at one point was quite keen to come and do some campaigning. It might have been for the Rochester and Strood by-election. He nobbled me and said do you want to come down and do some campaigning? I came down a couple of times and so I knew Vince and Naushabah. Inevitably, as people do, we were finding it too difficult to live in London because the rent is so high. We started thinking about scraping a deposit together and we kept finding ourselves priced out. We both liked Medway and we started coming out every weekend for months on end, going to various places, looking for a house and we ended up in Rochester.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My dad was a teacher at the school that I ended up going to secondary school. My mum before I was born had worked for the local council, and then after I was born was a stay-at-home mum.
How did you find school and university?
(laughs) When I read this question, I always raise a wry smile and wonder how I would answer it. Infants and juniors, I really enjoyed. When I got to secondary, I ended up hating it. Partly because of bullying, didn’t like some of the teachers, I only really enjoyed it when I got into sixth form.
What subjects did you focus on in sixth form?
Funnily enough, considering where I am now in the world, I did English Literature, History, and Politics. My best mark was in Politics.
What did you specialise in at university?
Politics. I must have been 12/13 around the ’92 election. I remember my mum crying the morning Labour lost. I got more involved in politics. I started to get involved with the Labour Party. I studied Politics and had a really good teacher. Studying it at uni seemed a natural step.
At what point did it change into working in politics?
That was a total fluke. At one point I fancied working for an MP, and read up on it. People who worked for MPs tended to do PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford and Cambridge. I thought I was certainly not going to Oxford or Cambridge. What got me into it was that after I graduated, I stayed on in Newcastle working in an outdoor equipment shop. During the 2001 election, I went to a husting. All the candidates were there, I went to speak to the Labour candidate, and said ‘If you need any help on your campaign, I have free time.’ He rang me up, and I expected to be put with a load of people to go leafleting. We met up and he said ‘We are going out’, and it was me, him and one other person. This happened a couple of times. Off the back of that, I would go to the count and got to go to his victory party after he had won. In a slightly inebriated state, I said that if he needed a hand ‘I might have spare time on a Friday.’ I got called into the constituency office and he asked if five quid an hour was alright. I was surprised they were going to pay me. The hours in my other work went down, I mentioned this, and they offered to take me on five days a week. I did that until September, then went home and went on the dole. I did part-time jobs up to Christmas and then he called me: ‘I’m thinking of employing somebody at Westminster, would you be interested?’
Was that your first full-time job?
My first proper full-time job was for Jim Cousins, who was the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. I’ve worked in Parliament ever since. I’m what is called a lifer.
When did you officially join the Labour Party?
I can tell you the day: 12 September 1995.
Has there been any breaks in that time?
I was convinced that I had left. I was annoyed with Blair due to the tuition fees in 2001. I went and looked, and I had continued paying. It was a quid at the time as a student member. So even though I was annoyed I had continued paying.
And that’s how they win.
That’s how they keep you (laughs).
What is your official occupation?
If you were to give it a title, I am now an office manager for an MP. Some people silo the jobs within an MP’s office between parliament and constituency. It is an effective jack of all trades and a master of none. I now work for John Cryer, who is the Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Who has been on a political journey of his own.
(laughs) Yeah. He used to be a member of the Socialist Campaign Group. He started as a rebel and is now a part of the establishment.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
Councillor. Whip, which is not paid. It can be paid but you only get one Special Responsibility Allowance, and I am the Vice Chair of Business Support.
Does it pay the same?
Does Vice Chair pay more or less than Whip?
So, you haven’t lost out.
No, but let me assure your readers, I don’t want to be accused of being greedy. I am, like a lot of councillors are, on a lot of outside bodies. Me and (Conservative Leader of the Opposition Cllr) Adrian Gulvin are on the board of the Medway Queen Preservation Society. I am also a school governor, and I am also on the board of Rochester Airport.
The Business scrutiny committee you co-chair also has Digital overview. What does that mean?
That is all about the move to Medway 2.0, which is about making use of technology to make life easier for residents in terms of reporting, but also linking that up behind the scenes so that things interact. There is an example that has been piloted, there will be a device on bin lorries that will drive around and the device will be able to see what is a significant pothole and feedback. Instead of somebody reporting it, and somebody having to come out and record it, this device will capture it. It works out what is a bad pothole, where it is, and reports it back. There is all sort of things like that.
What does being Group Whip entail?
Effectively it is different from Westminster, where people have a view of blackmail and grabbing people by the short and curlies.
Maybe you just aren’t doing it right.
The Whip is basically there to work with people to say who will be at committee, and if they can’t be at committee, getting a substitute. Making sure that people turn up and vote is the short answer. Also, you have a pastoral care element. A good Whip checks how people are getting on and if they are struggling. Also checking where people want to be in four years. Do they want to stand again? Do they want to be in Cabinet? We have a bigger group and people who are new to being a councillor, but they have all sorts of other skills, and that is what is great about our group. Lots of people who bring shared skills and experience to the table.
If there are issues in the administration, who decides if somebody loses the whip? Is that a decision for you or the leadership?
It’s a mixture. Depending on what it was, it might be out of my hands. It could be a matter that gets referred to the national party. You might have an issue that is above your pay grade. It is usually a decision made between the Leader and the Whip.
Often, these days when an issue occurs, social media is involved. If a councillor was found to have a social media issue, is that something you wait to be reported on? Is there somebody policing social media to make sure people aren’t doing what they shouldn’t do?
Normally with these sorts of things, colleagues would see somebody’s social media and might go ‘I think you should take that down’ or ‘I think that was unwise to have done.’ You get an element of self-policing. If somebody was to report something like that to the Labour Group, that might find its way to somebody like me, and I might have a conversation. Some people report to the Monitoring Officer at the council, and so it goes to them before it comes to us. (pause) That is. (pause) That is all we will say about that right now.
I am going to ask without any expectation of an answer, but which member of the Labour administration is most likely to lose the party whip?