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What I can do, I ought to do

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The following was published in Together, a newsletter of Methodist women in Sheffield.

One of my earliest memories is as a 5 year old singing ‘Hark the Harold Angels sing’ during Christmas 1964. I sang ‘Harold’ partly because I’d never heard of a herald, but also because I thought it referred to Harold Wilson. With dad being a local councillor, and mum also politically active, names of political figures were regularly mentioned at home.

Memories also included many instances of elections being lots of fun. We delivered leaflets and then dad got elected - what’s not to like? Naturally as I grew older I started to question and pass judgements on political matters. But my parents encouraged me to think things through and make my own mind up.  This in an environment where if you believed in something, you did something about it.

On my 1970 school photo I’m proudly wearing a ‘Hooley for Heeley’ sticker, but then I had no thought to follow in the footsteps of Frank Hooley, Heeley’s MP. By the time I was 15 it seemed natural to join the Labour Party, I wanted to change the world.

Leaving school I knew I wanted to do something which would help people and trained as a social worker. Subsequently I also became a councillor in Nottingham, giving it up after four years to concentrate on my career. But approaching 40 politics began to feature more in my thinking and I started to apply to be selected as a candidate for Westminster. When Heeley’s MP announced in 2001 he was standing down I had to have a go to try and represent the area in which I grew up. I was delighted to be selected by the local party.  

The experience of being a social worker and a local councillor stood me in good stead. I wanted to use my professional experience but not be pigeon-holed as someone only interested in social work issues. Consequently I opted to go on the Education Select Committee, and I took an active interest in small business.

During my second term I became a minister; first as Minister for Women and Equality. I brought in the legislation on Civil Partnerships and set up the new Equality and Human Rights Commission. After two years I became a Minister at the Foreign Office. Key jobs here included managing the UK response to protests by Burmese monks and negotiating with Cuba about sanctions and release of political prisoners.

A common view in this country is that faith and politics are separate spheres, circulating and rarely meeting. This is not my experience. For me they are connected in so many ways; my faith helping me decide what to do and politics determining just what might be possible. Inevitably there are difficult issues to deal with, such as wars, and naturally I pray about them.

My faith gives me strength, comfort and direction. Of course there are occasions when there is no clear right or wrong. For instance last year I argued strongly for intervention in the Syrian crisis. Some worry that intervention would mean more deaths I point to the steadily rising death toll from our failure to intervene.

Taking a minority position can be difficult, but if I wasn’t prepared to stand up for what I believed in there would be no point being in politics. In most walks of life you do your best work when you’re doing something which is in tune with who you are as a person. However politics is inevitably about compromise - it’s what you can get done. This is not necessarily what you would like to see happen, but what can be done with the political will, means and resources available.

If you want to achieve change you have to engage with complex and controversial issues. Shouting from the sidelines is easy but it rarely leads to positive movement. My Sunday school motto included the words "I cannot do everything, but I can do something and what I can do, I ought to do." For me part of that doing has always included politics.

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