I understand your connection with Rotary goes back to your uncle.
Yes, my uncle Ian Wilson has been in Rotary for 42 years with the Rotary Club of Blyth in Northumberland. He has always played an active role there and was a Past President. Before I became an MP, I would go to some of the dinners and recognise people from around the town.It was clear to see the amount of good which Rotary does in the community.
Fundamentally, a lot of Rotary’s aims and objectives are fantastic helping people in the community. It got to the point in 2016 when I thought I really want to get involved in this, and applied to join Rotary.
The nature of your job as an MP, with living and working in London for most of the week, means you can’t be as involved in Rotary as much as you would like.
No, it isn’t. I tend to work in London on a Monday to a Wednesday when I attend the 1922 Committee, which is held at about 5pm. Sometimes there are other meetings which follow. I tend to travel back to Blyth on Thursday morning and our Rotary club meeting is held on a Thursday, lunchtime. So, I miss it by about an hour.
When Parliament is in recess, or if, for any reason, I finish earlier on a Wednesday and can get back that night, I try to attend the Rotary club meetings.
One of the good things about this job is meeting so many really interesting folk who are willing to come and speak at the Rotary club. That’s worked out really well, as we’ve had some good speakers at the club.
Once you know your stuff, if you believe and you’ve got a passion for what you do, then you can do it.”
Does being an MP help you with being a Rotarian by better understanding what’s happening in your community?
I am very, very clear that I want to keep politics out of it. A lot of people who attend the Rotary Club of Blyth will be constituents of mine. But I also understand that not everybody there voted for me. So, I’ve got to make sure I don’t cross the line by taking politics into the Rotary club. This is something I’ve discussed with the President and we’re both clear that politics stays out of Rotary because it could spoil it.
Your constituency is traditionally a fierce Labour stronghold. You broke that hold at the 2019 election.
Yes, Blyth Valley has never ever been Conservative, so I broke the mould.
I stood in 2017 at the snap election when Theresa May was Prime Minister. In 2017, I took the Conservative vote from 8,000 votes to 16,000 votes, so I doubled it. But I still didn’t get enough to win. But I took the seat in 2019 with a 712 majority.
Never mind being a Rotarian, it must be very difficult to balance being an MP and having a family life.
Yes, I’ve been married to Maureen for 25 years. We have a son Andrew, who is 25, and our daughter, Alice, who is 22.
Andrew works for the NHS and Alice is a youth worker at a voluntary organisation. As far as juggling work and family life, I try to keep Sundays free which tends to be family and friends’ time. Your holidays also become very precious.
And that’s an odd one, because I still want people to feel that they can stop me in the street or while I’m getting the shopping at the supermarket. My daughter actually won’t go shopping with us now because it takes so long to go around the supermarket. So many people want to chat.
Why did you decide to become an MP?
This reached a point in 2016 when people in Blyth felt let down. I believed they needed change; they needed jobs, better education and better public amenities. So, I’d been out for a pizza and a drink with my wife in Blyth. We were walking back when I said to Maureen: “We need to do something about this.” I was sick of it. I said I needed to do something. Maureen told me: “Either shut up or do something about it.” I woke up the next morning, took her a cup of tea and a slice of toast, and said I’ve had an idea: I’m going to be an MP!
I’ve always been a Conservative, but a very quiet Conservative. We had no branch in Blyth, so I didn’t know who to contact or what to do. I mean, if I wanted to apply to a shop or a factory for a job, I’d write to the boss. So I took it upon myself to write a four page letter to David Cameron, addressed to Number 10 Downing Street. I told him that we had a problem in Blyth, we needed to do something about it, and I was the man. I told the Prime Minister to put me forward, and I promised to win the seat, which was a bit of a brave thing to do.
I got a reply and was summoned to a five-hour interview in Cambridge. Now, put me in front 200 people and I am happy to talk. Once you know your stuff, if you believe and you’ve got a passion for what you do, then you can do it. But I am profoundly dyslexic. So, I was sat at this computer and asked to write an answer to the question: You’ve been selected as an MP to sit in the House of Commons, what’s your first question and why?
The other three candidates started typing away. I sat there and thought where is the door? In the end, the answer I put down was that I haven’t come to Parliament with a pre-conceived idea. If I was elected as a Member of Parliament, it was my job to take the views of the people of Blyth Valley to Westminster and take the answers back to the people of Blyth Valley.
I just do it from the heart. I’ve got no intention of changing, because I am the person I am. And I think because my family have lived in Blyth for generations, I think I am very grounded.
Work-wise, you come from a health background.
Yes, for nearly 30 years I was working as a mental health support worker, very much on the frontline. I started on the elderly wards, worked with eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, rehabilitation. You name it, I’ve seen it. In some ways I think that gives you a good understanding of how people work. How not everybody is the same.
You get to understand people from different backgrounds, you understand how the benefit system works. It gives you a good grip of reality. So, to come and do the job that I do now, these are all skills which are transferable.
One of the good things about this job is meeting so many really interesting folk who are willing to come and speak at the Rotary club.”
So what is Blyth like?
Blyth is the biggest town in Northumberland. It’s got the only deep water port, which is 9.5 metres deep. It was known for coal mining, and back in the 1960s, Blyth exported the largest amount of coal anywhere in Europe.
They built the second HMS Ark Royal at the Blyth shipyard. We had a coal-fired power station using fossil fuels. But all of that has gone, and for a long time Blyth became this sort of like no-man’s land where everybody talked about the great market-place and history we have, with the shipbuilding and coal mines. You never forget your past. If you didn’t have the past, you wouldn’t be the person you are now.
What’s it like being an MP?
It’s the best job in the world. I absolutely love it. And you know why? It’s because we’re making a difference. I have got into this for the right reasons. Although it is a lot of hard work. I’m actually doing it. If I felt I was just treading water, I wouldn’t feel I was getting the job satisfaction.
It’s probably harder for my family. A prime example was my wedding anniversary. Maureen and I had been married for 25 years last year. I had a lovely hotel booked in the Lake District for our wedding anniversary with flowers and all that sort of stuff. As I went to buy a bottle of champagne, I got a phone call to say that MPs had been recalled to Parliament over the evacuation of Afghanistan. I cancelled the hotel, called my wife to tell her to come to London with me where we had a fish and chip supper for our anniversary instead.
My son Andrew believes that I’m making a difference and doing it for the right reasons. My daughter, Alice, has stood as a councillor and she’s very much involved in a lot of community projects with organisations such as the Royal British Legion. I think she’ll follow in her father’s footsteps eventually. To do this job you’ve got to have the support of your family.
And I strongly believe I’ve got the support of Rotary, even though we come from a mixed bag. At the Rotary club there is one lady in particular, Eileen Carty, who is a Labour county councillor and also a town councillor.
We knew each other before we became Rotarians and before I got into politics. Even though we are from different sides of the political spectrum, Eileen and I have got a very good bond because we work together for a common goal. We put politics aside when politics has to be put aside, and we get on to do the job as Rotarians.
How big is your club?
I think there’s probably about 100 members. It’s quite a healthy club and we’ve got some quite young members, both male and female. We were once an all-male club, but we have amalgamated.
At Rotary, are there any projects that the club’s involved with?
There’s one project we are working on called ‘Caring for carers’, making sure young carers know how to cook a meal.
The job of an MP can be quite fragile. You are only as good as your next election. How do you prepare yourself for that uncertainty?
If you thought about the job like that you would worry about it too much. I’m very fortunate that after 30 years working for the NHS, I could take my pension tomorrow. I’m sure I would pick up something else.
Is there anything which you’ve not done that you’d like to achieve?
I’ve never had that question. To be honest, there is nothing that really springs to mind. I think if I could see these projects for the regeneration of Blyth, that would be my answer.
How would you describe yourself?
Unstoppable. Because I’ve got bags of energy and I am very driven.