Getting Elected as an MP - An interview with Sally Keeble MP, who has a degree in Sociology
Top tips from Sally: 'If you think being an MP is about making speeches, forget it! There's also no point doing it for money! Do it because you want to change society. You need to have a sense of public service and a strong commitment to the local community. Don't just say that you "want to be an MP". You need to develop skills of working with people, changing things, leadership, understanding society. You need to have experience of what happens in different people's lives. You could get experience in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in a trade union, in the private sector, organising the student union, running a local charity.'
Deborah: What degree did you read for at university and what subjects did you particularly enjoy studying?
Sally: I have two degrees. The first was from Oxford - I read Theology, full-time. Later, I did a part-time degree in Sociology. I did it while I was working; I had to study at weekends and at night, but I enjoyed Sociology. I was working as a reporter at the time, looking at social issues, and I found it interesting to be studying them as well as reporting them. Sociology has been very useful since. I've also done a law conversion course. I did it so that I would be able to understand the law, so that I'd be able to advise constituents about legal issues. It isn't something I'd say all MPs need to do. I did some of the work for it at weekends and some of the work for it when there were all night sittings. There was no point just sitting there!
D: You've mentioned that you were a journalist. What other roles did you have before becoming an MP? Were you a local councillor first?
S: After I was a journalist, I went into Public Relations work. I was a press officer for my Party. Then I was Head of Communications for a trade union. I was active in all sorts of different organisations. I was a local councillor. I stood for the local council while I was working full-time. While a councillor, I was a Committee Chair and a Chief Whip. Because I was working full-time I had to do the work at night, in the early mornings and at weekends. I enjoyed being a local councillor. It wasn't an easy time to be in local government - for instance I had to organise the management of poll tax riots, there was the militant tendency to deal with, there were massive budget deficits - but I loved it. (Although having been a local councillor is a help if you want to be an MP, I wouldn't say you need to have been a local councillor in order to stand as an MP. I think it's important to have lots of different people in parliament, for there to be lots of different routes into parliament.) Next I was the Council Leader. I didn't take up the role in order to prepare to stand for selection as an MP. I did it because the council was in a mess and it needed sorting out. I gave up my full-time job to do it, and received a salary of only £2,500. Luckily, my husband was able to support me while I did that. While being a local councillor had been difficult, being the leader was even tougher. But it was very enjoyable. You get close to people and start to understand how communities work.
D: Tell me about being selected as a parliamentary candidate? And about campaigning?
S: I got the first seat I went for. I had to organise childcare - I had a young child at the time. I had to come up to the constituency. I had to speak to as many people as possible. I had to find out about the community and what was going on. I had to work out how to win the nomination. I was selected, and I started campaigning straight away. You need to start as you mean to go on. You have to show what sort of an MP you would be. I did advice surgeries. I had done them as a local councillor. I met people. People working in local government were helpful in showing me services and exploring issues with me. I did phone canvassing and went door to door.
D: What was it like when you discovered you'd been elected as an MP?
S: I was elected in 1997. It was wonderful when I found out I'd been elected. I hadn't expected it. I hadn't expected the landslide that I got. I had to get an office, and staff, and get the show on the road!
D: What was it like entering parliament for the first time as an MP?
S: It was chaotic! 1997 was such a big change-over and there weren't so many offices then. All the new MPs were in one big room. On the first day they brought a huge bundle of post. The second and third days were just the same! Having had experience in managing paperwork was a big help. I had a laptop computer and I got stuck in straightaway. It took months to get offices. I had a good research assistant and we worked in one big room sorting paperwork, deciding which issues I would work on. I decided I wanted to work on Food Safety. Home Office/policing issues and economic/housing issues were important to the constituency so I wanted to work on them too. We waded through the correspondence that came in, deciding which organisations I wanted to build up links with. My maiden speech was just before the summer recess. There were so many of us who had to do maiden speeches that some people waited a long time. I decided to do mine in an adjournment debate, on mutuality. It was when carpet baggers were trying to de-mutualise building societies and we had a building society head office in the constituency. I was nervous about doing it. It should have been at 10pm. I'd arranged that my parents and my nephew would come up to watch. We'd arranged to go for dinner first. At 3pm the whips phoned up and said 'you'd better be ready soon' - it was likely that I'd be needed at 6pm rather than 10pm. I hadn't finished writing the speech! So instead of having a leisurely time writing the speech, seeing my family and going for dinner, I had to rush. My family missed hearing the speech. The then paymaster general responded to the speech and he bought me a drink afterwards.
D: People talk about parliament being a sexist place, is that your experience?
S: All the women are on our side, so we tend not to realise how many women there are in parliament because we're looking at the Tories and they're mostly men. I think it's important to encourage more women into politics. It is hugely rewarding. Other women appreciate women in politics. You can get a very warm reaction from women. Some issues women can particularly deal with, such as domestic violence. I have dealt with that a lot. I've been Vice-Chair of an all-party group on domestic violence. I have been doing work to get more money put into helping BME victims of domestic violence. It is difficult to get results - but that's not surprising as you're trying to get legislation introduced and you're trying to get money spent. You're not going to get it at the first time of asking.
D: How has your career developed since you first entered parliament?
S: I was on the agriculture Select Committee for 2 years, working on Food Safety. I enjoyed that very much. I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary for 2 years. I was a Minister for 2 years. I have been on a Treasury Select Committee for 4 years. I set up a small charity to look at support for HIV/AIDS. I've done a lot of campaigning - at the moment it's about binge drinking and around the Child Poverty Bill.
D: What advice would you give to students who are thinking they might like to be an MP in future? Are there particular skills you think they should look at developing, and particular ways in which they might develop them?
S: If you think being an MP is about making speeches, forget it! There's also no point doing it for money! Do it because you want to change society. You need to have a sense of public service and a strong commitment to the local community. Don't just say that you 'want to be an MP'. You need to develop skills of working with people, changing things, leadership, understanding society. You need to have experience of what happens in different people's lives. You could get experience in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in a trade union, in the private sector, organising the student union, running a local charity. You can learn about the process of legislation from shadowing an MP. Being an MP is a zillion different jobs. When you are one, you need to work out what you're going to do and what you want to change. Prepare to work very hard. Get your home life sorted.