GENERAL ELECTION INTERVIEW: Hitchin and Harpenden Labour candidate John Hayes
- Credit: Archant
Read Layth Yousif’s exclusive hard-hitting in-depth interview with Hitchin and Harpenden’s Labour candidate John Hayes.
Let’s get the big issues out of the way first. What’s your favourite coffee shop in Hitchin?
Groundworks, and The Coffee Lab. I quite like that kind of environment. They’re nice places.
And favourite pub?
The Half Moon – for the beer. They do a pretty good job. They know how to keep beer properly. They have a great selection they change quite frequently.
Tell me about yourself?
I brought up in Pinner in Harrow. I was born in Wandsworth. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. I went to school in North Harrow, comprehensive education all the way through. Then I decided to go into teacher training. I got a place at what was then Hertfordshire College of Higher Education at Radlett, and started a four-year honours degree. Then I stayed on for a sabbatical year when I was elected president of the student union.
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I was a member of the Labour Party but it lapsed, as I wanted to be actively campaigning but the branch I was in wasn’t about that. This was in the 1980s. They were all right, they were earnest people but we went month from month sitting in someone’s living room drinking coffee and I wanted to get out and do something.
They were just solely involved in when the next election date was, but in-between there wasn’t a huge amount that I could get involved in. I stayed a Labour supporter all the way through, then joined the National Union of Teachers and channelled all my political energies into the NUT, including the anti-SATS campaign.
Then I got my first headship in Stevenage – Fairlands [Primary School and Nursery]. We lived in the town at the time. Then I got a job in Islington, working for the local authority. I did eight years there, having only anticipated a short time there to try something different. Then, as head of primary school improvement, I decided to get back into school – so five years ago the head at Gospel Oak Primary School came up and I loved the place from the moment I went to visit. They were very kind and appointed me, and I’ve been there ever since.
OK, in terms of education you must have seen our Comet exclusive about the six heads of local schools bravely putting their names to an open letter to parents, urging them to challenge cuts in funding and protect their schools and pupils. As a head, have you ever done something similar?
I write to the parents all the time now – they are getting quite used to my commentaries on my newsletter. Across Camden the NUT has organised the Big Assembly, which is taking place next Tuesday.
Many schools are going to be represented. Many parents are very vocal and well informed. We’ve had a public meeting and it was funding and ‘academisation’ that we thought was going to head our way – and I’ve got a vigorous parent group who are keen to defend our school.
In terms of Hitchin and Harpenden, if you were elected as MP how would you seek to defend schools in our area from budget cuts?
We’re talking cuts of millions and that amounts to people losing their jobs. If you look at the statistics around that, it’s not actually to be the teachers losing their jobs – especially at primary level, as there are only so many you can lose as you need a teacher in front of every class. It’s the support staff which will be targeted, the most vulnerable members of staff, who – if effectively deployed – actually keep schools running. That’s where the real threat is.
So what would you do to try and alleviate that threat then?
This is on the basis that we get a Labour government elected. We’ve got to look at a variety of taxation – and I have to say I am in favour of a higher rate of tax on the top rate or over.
What would the rate be? How much tax would you be talking about?
I couldn’t tell you the rate it would be.
But obviously if you’re going to say you want a strand of higher taxation, people are entitled to know what the figures would be, surely?
Yes, a costed proposal – the manifesto has an addendum to it with a series of costed proposals – but I haven’t memorised those.
But if you’re knocking on someone’s door and they happen to earn more than £80,000 – and you can’t tell them how much tax they are going to pay...
It’s going to be a sliding scale...
If you’re bang on £80k a year, how much tax will you pay?
I don’t know, but I am above that – and I would be happy to do so if I felt that was going to go to helping the public services which we all need and which are being decimated at the moment.
Do you think that message has been properly communicated to the country? The message that if you do earn a bit more, then maybe you should pay a bit more to help society?
I think the Labour Party is communicating that message.
But in terms of communicating that message to the voting public – do you think the public are amenable to that view?
I don’t know – but that’s what we’re campaigning about.
In terms of Hitchin and Harpenden, has that message got across?
With the manifesto only recently out that hasn’t been a question I’ve been asked.
Have you raised that issue on the doorstep?
No. I’ve been asking voters what their intentions are, what their views are. I have to say that what’s come back to us from door-knocking in Hitchin town centre has been around Brexit and the leadership.
OK – in terms of Brexit, how did you vote?
I voted Remain. I felt we would be far better off staying inside the EU than leaving it. And I have to say I think on both sides the clarity of information provided was difficult to understand for most people. But it seemed to me on the balance of probabilities we were going to struggle outside the EU compared to how we are doing inside it. I was very much of the view that there were certain things we had to reform.
Let’s say for example if we chose to re-nationalise the railways. My understanding is that would be prevented if we stayed in the EU. It’s a key proposal in our manifesto and it’s something we seriously need to look at. It’s something we need to understand the logistics of and how it will work financially. So there are certain things I think that have constrained people. On protection of workers’ rights, there is a lot of European law that allows us to continue to do what we’re doing. And my fear was that by walking away from that I couldn’t see a good enough argument to persuade me that voting Leave was better than the status quo.
Do you believe in a second referendum?
I don’t. Because we’ve been through this, we’ve done this. We lost – and we didn’t lose by much – but we did lose. I’m a democrat. No matter how watertight the arguments, the fact is it was put to the country and the country made a decision. If the vote had gone the other way and the Leavers had lost, would they be coming back a few years later to say ‘we’re in a worse mess we need to do this again’? The Remainers would criticise them. I think you just have to say: ‘We lost, let’s move on and get the best possible deal we can’.
What do you think of Theresa May campaigning for Remain?
She did. It does seem to have been a little bit overlooked, that fact. There’s not an awful lot made of that. The fact an unelected leader voted Remain, but since then she has become a very keen Brexiteer.
That’s an issue I feel hasn’t been properly exploited. With David Cameron steeping down after saying ‘that’s my policy but you voted against it so I’m leaving’, she then stepped in, having had the same view and is prepared to lead the party through that. I think you’ve got be, shall we say, pretty ‘resilient’ to do that...
But there’s not a huge amount of people pointing that out, or asking that question. I think it’s the same misinformation we saw throughout the EU campaign.
Changing your mind is one thing but vociferously campaigning for a direction for the country and then saying ‘OK, I’ll now vociferously campaign in the other direction...’? That just doesn’t impress me.
It can be packaged any way you want it, but it seems to be she’s cutting 900,000 free meals to disadvantaged children...
Some of that policy and the way that’s been publicised has stopped people talking about the real cuts to education. Everybody’s talking about whether ‘lunch is better than breakfast’. That’s not the issue. The issue is under fairer funding as they like to call it – schools are going to lose out across the board. I think that for Key Stage 1 children the lack of free school meals is beginning to show an impact. The issue of means-testing to prove that you’re not well enough off to pay for your own school meal is a divisive issue, and it’s always been a divisive issue. No matter how community-focused the school is, when you’ve got a core of children whose families are not well enough off to pay for their meals, then there inevitably going to be some stigma put against those children.
To say you’re going to replace a lunch meal with breakfast is nonsense – and it’s nonsense for a number of reasons. Much of the criticism is that they’re going to get a bowl of sugary cereal – not in my school. We don’t ‘do sugar’. We provide fruit, low fat yoghurt, and water, and low sugar drinks, and toast, and bagel. We get about 60 children every day for breakfast every day at 8am. I’ve got 471 children in school. So if we’re replacing free lunch with free breakfast, we have to get 471 children through breakfast from 8am or 9am to lunch? It’s nonsense. It’s soundbite politics. It’s also detracting from what the real issue is.
What I struggle to understand is that it is ‘nonsense’ as you say – and that there are a lot of other policies in the Conservative manifesto that are arguably lacking in social justice and appear to lack a social conscience – so why on earth are Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party 11 points behind in the polls?
[Thinks.] A genuine answer to that question is that his style has not been sufficiently ‘media-friendly’.
That the national media don’t like him.
Because I don’t think he fits what a politician should say and do.
And what should a politician say and do?
I think he needs to get a fair hearing.
Do you think he’s a leader?
I think he is a leader. I support the leader of the Labour Party.
But do you think he is a ‘leader’?
Yes I do.
In which way?
He’s got ideas that fit – they’re ideas the country needs. And he sticks with them, and he’s fantastically resilient, and he sticks to his values. He was given a mandate twice by the membership. What depresses me is that people can’t accept that in a democracy if you’re put up to be elected and you get elected then that’s how it works. You are now the leader of the party. And for my part, now that I’m back in the Labour Party, whoever is the democratically-elected leader of the Labour Party I will support, because he has to have strength in that kind of unity.
It is an important point, because a lot of people are talking about it – you haven’t answered if you think he is a good leader...
OK. I think he has vision he shares with people. I think he’s got the right idea. I think he puts them across with passion and determination. And that’s what I’m looking for in a leader.
So why on earth is he 11 points behind in the polls – it can’t all be the ‘media’s fault’...?
Perhaps he hasn’t yet found resonance with the general public. But it is improving. Why? I don’t know. But I do think there are people who are very quick to dismiss him on things they have read rather than judge him for themselves.
Is Jeremy Corbyn an IRA sympathiser?
Why don’t I think he is an IRA sympathiser? Because I have seen nothing to indicate he is.
Has he come out and explicitly criticised the IRA for violence?
I don’t know what his record is on that. But what I would say is that lots of people talked to the IRA ‘back in the day’.
I completely understand your point. For what it’s worth I do think you have to talk to ‘both sides’ in a conflict in order to achieve peace. You can’t just impose ‘peace’. But why hasn’t he come out and explicitly condemned the IRA – just as he should explicitly condemn loyalist militants for violence as well?
I’m not going to answer for Jeremy Corbyn.
OK. Do you believe in Diane Abbott?
Do I believe in Diane Abbott? I think she’s a very passionate politician. I think she works hard to put across the message the party has...
But she didn’t – not in that infamous interview with LBC she didn’t?
OK, so that ‘infamous’ interview – and in what I read afterwards was that on particular day she had eight interviews...
So surely she should have improved as the day went on?
She got it absolutely spot on in six of them. That was the seventh. And it went badly wrong.
She simply refused to admit she’d made a mistake. Is that how politicians should act?
I don’t think politicians should act in that way. If you don’t know you should say you don’t know.
Is that what you would have done?
There’s no point trying to flim-flam if you don’t know an answer. You asked me exactly how much tax someone on £80,000 would pay. I didn’t know so I said I’d look it up. I’m not going to fob you off with something else.
So why didn’t she do that then?
I don’t know.
OK. What’s the reaction to you been on the doorsteps of Hitchin and Harpenden?
Pretty good. In terms of the door-knocking we did for the local elections it’s been pretty good. I think what was interesting was in those terms people identified with Judi Billing [Hitchin North county councillor who was re-elected earlier this month]. Judi was a good brand. It’s about connecting with real people with real issues. And I think she does that very well. It’s still early days for me, I’ve only been at this for a couple of weeks...
Yes, but there’s only a couple of weeks to go...
That’s right. It’s a real snap thing isn’t it?
What would you say to those who say you need to commit every second of every day in campaigning to win a seat in Parliament?
I can’t do that because I’ve got a job.
So why not let someone else do it who could do that?
Because I put myself forward, I filled in my form to say why I thought I would be a good candidate for this constituency. And the Labour Party selected me to do that.
What would you do if you were elected on June 8 – would you walk away from your job?
No. I’ve talked about that with colleagues. The feeling is no I couldn’t just walk away. There would have to be a transition period where I would have to give my school the opportunity to recruit someone else to do my job.
How long would that be?
I don’t know. A couple of months probably.
Until the end of the summer term?
No, it would probably need to be longer than that. It would have to go into the autumn to give them the best chance.
Until the October half term?
Yes, but I don’t think I would do either thing full-time.
How many hours would you devote to being an MP Hitchin and Harpenden during that time?
The problem with this is that if that’s the way democracy is working then nobody with a full-time job would be able to run for Parliament, particularly if they worked in the public sector.
What about taking a sabbatical to campaign?
It wouldn’t work. The short time-scale means there was no way to negotiate that or to replace me.
Does that make you feel guilty towards the electorate?
No. Because if I could take leave, unpaid or otherwise, or just quit my job, it would still mean there’s a whole load of other occupations where people couldn’t commit to that in terms of leaving their job – and I think that would be anti-democratic. I am working very hard to do both things.
As a journalist juggling news and sport I work 100 hours a week – just out of interest how many hours have you spent on the campaign trail?
I haven’t counted the hours. But I do evenings, weekends. I get off the train at Hitchin railway station, which is usually about 6pm. With others I do leafleting, we do canvassing, we’ve got people all over the place. There’s a lot of members coming forward to help. We’ve had more people come forward and be active in our campaign than we have in the last two years. We printed 40,000 leaflets, and the latest from my campaign manager Malcolm is that we’ve only got a thousand or two left.
And do you have a picture of Jeremy Corbyn on your campaign leaflet?
Why not? He’s the leader of the Labour Party?
I’m standing in this constituency, not Jeremy Corbyn. But this is about electing a Member of Parliament for Hitchin and Harpenden.
I saw Corbyn was at the Libertines last weekend. The reaction was tremendous. But isn’t he preaching to the converted? Why isn’t he spending as much of his time as possible in key marginals?
He’s doing that as well.
The gig was at Prenton Park – Tranmere Rovers’ home ground. I’d say Merseyside is as staunch a Labour heartland as anywhere in the country...
But you’ve got to make sure you’ve got to get votes everywhere.
He also spent time in Bethnal Green. I’ve lived in Bethnal Green, it’s staunch Labour. It’s currently got a 24,000 majority. Why would you spend time there when you need to be focusing on winning key marginals?
I don’t know. I’m not part of his campaign team.
Do you think he is interested in winning? Isn’t he more concerned with consolidating his position and making sure he still controls the party in the event of a 1983-style level of defeat?
We’ll have to wait and see what happens on election day. At the moment 62 per cent of the membership voted back in when he was challenged a year ago. i have no reason to suspect that level of support isn’t still there.
What do you think about Momentum?
I think at the time of his first election there was a great sense of concern that despite the fact he got in as the resounding winner as the choice of the Labour Party and its supporters, that his leadership wasn’t going to be secure because immediately certain sections of the membership and in Parliament took against him. And in order to shore him up, that organisation came about to try and shore him up – as I understand it.
Completely anecdotally, how many Momentum supporters help you during your canvassing?
No idea. I haven’t asked them. I genuinely don’t know.
You wouldn’t ask them what their politics are?
No, because what I’ve found in this constituency is that people may have differing views of the conduct of the leader and the policies and the party – but you wouldn’t know it because we are united. I’ve not come across anybody at all where I’ve found any antipathy or animosity. In party meetings people just want to get active, and want to get Labour elected. And I’m finding that inspiring.
Would you describe yourself as a Corbynista?
There’s an obsession with Jeremy Corbyn.
But he’s the leader of the Labour Party. He’s effectively your boss. People are interested in him.
At the point that when they were looking at the leadership election, MPs looked at who was standing and they said: ‘We need to be fair. We’re talking about a broad church. We need to have somebody from the left to stand as part of this to show how democratic we truly are. And at that point Jeremy Corbyn came forward. It didn’t necessarily need to be him, it could have been others. I think what came as a shock to the Parliamentary Labour Party was that by bringing him into the Labour Party, something needs to be recognised – and that was that there were a large proportion of Labour Party members were looking for a completely different style of leadership, and I think that came as a big surprise.
I grew up in council estates, to immigrant parents. I’m of working-class stock. I still keep in touch with people like me from school, people I’ve played football with, people I still go to the football with now. Why are so many like them completely turned off by him? Labour should be their natural constituency – they would be classed as traditional Labour Party supporters in the past, so why isn’t that the case at the moment?
I think generally what people want to see from a politician is an ease in front of the camera and a particular way of putting themselves across that they’ve been used to over the years. I’m not old enough to remember the old-stager Labour politicians before everyone was filmed and videoed – but I don’t know if they would come across as glossy, and shiny and word-perfect. I doubt it.
So it’s just a question of style over substance that the message isn’t getting through?
I think people want both of those things, I think that there are a good proportion of people who understand that style only takes you so far, and that substance will eventually have resonance with the electorate.
Talking about style over substance, did you vote for Tony Blair?
I’ve always voted Labour.
And what do you think of Tony Blair?
I think he was very polished and professional. I think that he found ways to make the Labour Party incredibly popular. I was disappointed at the direction the Labour Party took at that time, for example on education – continuing to support SATS. There were periods when other politicians from the Lib Dems sounded more left-wing than he did. I was disappointed that with that level of support within the country they invented academies, for example. That’s why I stayed out of the party for so long, instead working with the NUT.
You’re obviously a very passionate and knowledgeable teacher who cares deeply about his profession and the children under your care, but just as a wider point on Tony Blair – were you disappointed by Tony Blair’s success?
No. But I had hoped that with his success it would have brought greater freedoms in education and not as I saw it propping up what the Tories had done before them.
What did you think about the 2003 Iraq War?
I thought it was a mistake.
But you voted Labour in 2005?
I’ve always voted Labour. But I was on the demonstration that was opposing the Iraq War and I think we all pretty much knew there were no WMDs. The evidence was so flimsy. Nobody went for that. And it’s been proved that was a war based on a set of untruths.
But how could you then reconcile voting for that same party and that same leader in 2005?
Because there were no other parties that I wanted to vote for.
Why not abstain?
I don’t think people should abstain in a democracy. People died for the vote and I think it’s wrong when people say they’re not interested. I really think people ought to be interested in voting.
What do you think about making voting compulsory?
I don’t think anything should be compulsory. If you absolutely choose that you don’t want to do it, I don’t think you should have a law. I don’t know how you’d enforce it either.
I’ve written lots of articles about encouraging people to vote, about encouraging young people to vote – you’re a teacher, you see young children everyday. What’s the secret? how on earth do you get young people to vote?
You have to engage with them.
You have to go out and talk to them.
And say what?
Talk to them about what matters to their lives.
You’ve obviously done that. I’ve done it too, I’ve even had discussions with youngsters when I’ve reported from the House of Commons - but what did you say to them?
The feedback is when you talk to them they’re interested. I’m now 51, my daughter has recently joined the Labour Party. She wants something more angled to her. She wants to know if there’s something that’s going to really interest and connect with her. She has a tremendous sense of social justice. She wants a career in either child protection or social care. We talk about current affairs a lot at home. And that’s where her enthusiasm has come. But I’m a bit old in the tooth to pretend I could connect with teenagers. That would just be patronising. But we’ve got to find a way to do it.
Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of politicians about this. In Westminster, in Hitchin, in London. No-one’s got an answer apart from ‘talking’. But what do you say to get someone who’s never voted before to vote?
I think it’s difficult for youngsters to relate. When I was younger and people talked to me about pensions I thought ‘for goodness sake, that’s never going to happen’! And now I’m thinking about my pension. It’s trying to get it through that you might think politics might not have an impact on you, but it will one day. It’s interesting. I had a conversation with one of my governors, who said: ‘Well done for not talking too much about your campaign in school – but will you talk to the children about it afterwards’? Yes, I will.
What would you say if you had to give that speech today?
About what I’ve learned so far? I would say I’ve learned a lot about resilience. I’ve learned a lot about not taking everything I hear and read as personal. I’ve learnt that if you believe in something and you stick with those beliefs you can be strong.
Fair enough. In terms of Hitchin and Harpenden what are the three main issues you’ve come across on the doorstep?
Schools, Brexit, Labour Party leadership – but also health. That’s more than three!
In terms of health, I think most people want to pump more money into the NHS. But where’s it coming from?
What I’m really pleased about is that in our manifesto we are really clear. It has to come from taxes. We can’t keep borrowing money. If we value these services then we have to pay for them. And I genuinely believe that the highest earners should contribute more, and then these services are available to all of us. The fact there are people I work with who absolutely rely on those services every day. The crisis we are going to have in general practice that is heading our way is going to hit people quite dramatically. And we have to be honest about raising taxes from income tax. We have to close the loopholes that multinational corporations are exploiting, who are not paying their way while making huge profits in this country. I think we have to look at that.
I don’t think you’d find many people who would disagree with that.
If you say to anybody: ‘These massive companies who make an awful lot of money from you, who don’t pay their way – is that fair’? Then they’d say no.
So why isn’t it translated into more votes then? I really don’t understand...
It’s a very good question. It’s one I wonder about too. I’ve seen those stories where people have been shown policies and they agree with them – then they’re shown that they’re Labour Party policies and then they say ‘Oh no. I won’t vote for them’. I don’t understand either, I don’t understand their logic. But that doesn’t stop us looking to push those polices.
In your heart of hearts, with your first thought in the morning and your last at night – and everything in between – do you really think you can get enough votes to become MP for Hitchin and Harpenden?
Because of the feedback I’m getting online, and the enthusiasm of the people taking those leaflets from me and my team on the doorstep. The messages of support I’m getting from people I’ve never met before is quite inspiring.
In 1997 – which was Tony Blair’s annus mirabilis, where the party absolutely routed the Tories everywhere, with people who’d simply had enough of them over the previous 18 years, from being sick of Thatcher and Major and their attacks on the working class, on unions, their sleaze, and a whole load of other things in between – the Labour Party in this constituency were still 4,000 south of what was needed to win the seat... If they’re not going to win the seat during the party’s best showing in modern times, how on earth can you win this time around?
I’m making a really sterling effort to do it. I know we’ve got a massive mountain to climb. I know there are people who will always vote Tory. There will be people who always vote Labour. But then you’ve got that gap where people will be thinking about it – and there’s a lot of conversations I’ve had both electronically and face-to-face where people say: ‘Sometimes I vote this way, sometimes I vote that way’. There are people who say: ‘In the locals I’m going to vote Labour and in the General Election I’m going to vote Tory.’ People really do think this stuff through. I don’t think it’s a question that we’ve got these two fixed camps, one big and one small.
Have you noticed a distinction between different areas in this constituency?
I haven’t seen the data on that yet.
Anecdotally then? You’ve been out in Hitchin, you’ve been out in Harpenden. Have you noticed any particular areas favouring one party or the other?
I couldn’t say I’ve got enough of a poll to tell you even anecdotally whether there are distinctly Tory or Labour areas.
“In fact some of the things that have most surprised me is you knock on doors and you start to think whether that person will vote one way or another. Some of the messages I’ve been picking up have quite surprised me. People you’d look at and think ‘I bet you’re a Tory’.
“Then they say: ‘No, don’t spend any time with me, I’m Labour – you go and spend time with someone you need to convince’. And vice versa.
“Twenty years ago you could pretty much look at someone and guess who’d they vote for and probably be right. Now it’s much harder to guess.
“People are much more nuanced in their approach. They’re looking at policies.
“If I thought the area was totally entrenched, then you’re right – I don’t think we’d have a case. But it’s not.”
Do you think the Lib Dems have given up in Hitchin and Harpenden?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen an awful lot of them. I don’t know much about the candidate. I think he lives in Welywn and works out of the country in Brussels.
Are you looking forward to the hustings?
Very much! I think it will be a real challenge. I think as a party we have answers to a lot of questions, and I’m looking forward to telling people what we could and should be doing.
Excellent. I have to say you’re clearly an inspiring educator – why waste a brilliant career by going into politics?
I don’t think it’s a waste.
I’m very passionate about defending state education.
What do you think about grammar schools?
I don’t like the idea of selecting a child based on the ability they show at a moment in time. In my school that we have a broad and balanced curriculum, and not all children excel at the things that the government want us to test them in. They excel in sports, in music and art. And we need to ensure that is valued as much as English and maths. Don’t get me wrong – English and maths are vital life skills. There’s no passport through secondary school without it unless you can access the curriculum. So we have a duty to get them to access the curriculum – but once they can, we have a duty to make sure that they thrive. And that’s why I want a state education that enables every child to do that, and not a selective one where those who pass go to grammar schools, and those who don’t then go to secondary modern. That’s not an approach I’d like to see our country take. I don’t see that there’s a particular hunger for grammar schools. Nobody talked about grammar schools until Theresa May brought it up. Even Tories were saying ‘we don’t want those’.
You touched on Theresa May. Purely as a personal opinion, I was invited to a journalists’ conference where she gave a speech and I found her incredibly cold and hectoring. That’s not important though – I’m interested in what you think of her...
I’ve only seen her on the TV. It’s difficult to be completely objective as she’s leader of the Tory party. But I would find it difficult to warm to her. She doesn’t come across as someone you’d want to have a dinner party with.
I don’t want negative campaigning. I want to explain why people should vote for the Labour Party – for our good policies that are costed. I don’t want to say ‘you’re awful’, but it’s difficult because some of the stuff they say is so awful that you feel you have to comment on it. But I don’t want this to be a personality campaign. I want this to be a campaign that will find the best MP for this constituency.
Why do you think you’d be the best constituency MP?
With the passion I have for becoming a MP, with the policies of the party I’m a member of, I think that’s the best deal for people in this constituency – all of them. Not just some of them.
What do you think about Trident?
[Thinks.] I understand the idea that a deterrent is necessary to act as a deterrent. But the amount of billions required to invest in that system to renew it – if you could take that money and invest it into schools and hospitals and social care and pensions and housing, then it could transform lots of things. I also don’t understand that there are quite forward-thinking, prosperous first-world countries that don’t have a nuclear deterrent, and yet we feel that we have to. And so I have to say is that I’m between views on this. What I can’t understand is how you’d ever use it.
Corbyn’s equivocated on whether he would press the button. Would you press the button if you were leader?
I’m not sure I would.
But you’d have Trident?
This is why I’m conflicted – because if you don’t have it, do you lay yourself open to attack? But if you do have it, the point at which you need to use it you think: ‘Would you do that?’ Say for example for an enemy decided to launch an attack on us - do we say ‘right, millions of innocent people are about to die, so do we then decide to also kill millions of people on the other side’? In death, do I kill everyone else ‘over there’ – wherever that is. That’s a really interesting philosophical debate to have. It’s almost as if you need to have it but you don’t ever want to use it. Is that sufficient enough to spend billions of pounds on? I don’t know. And that’s me being honest – I could say this or that, but it wouldn’t be an honest answer. I’ll give you an example. A man came up to me in Hitchin the other week and asked the same question. I said the same answer. And he said: ‘Good, because I don’t know either’, and promptly walked off. And I just thought there’s no point trying to second-guess people. There’s no point trying to look behind the reasons they are asking a particular question. It’s just better to be honest and stick to your principles. Then if you want to vote for me, great, and if you don’t, OK – but at least I’ll have always been truthful.
Is honesty a positive in politics?
Because without honesty you can’t trust people.
But Jeremy Corbyn comes across as an honest bloke – why don’t people trust him?
I don’t know. This is a real issue. I value someone who tells me what they genuinely think, who listens, who is open, who thinks things through, and then says what view they have and sticks with that view – and doesn’t try to alter that view to say: ‘Well what view would you like me to have and then you’ll vote for me – so I’ll give you some kind of woolly answer to everything so that I never say anything wrong.’ No – I want someone who has thought things through and shown justification for their position, because that’s who I’ll believe.
What about trade unions? One of my best mates from school is a shop steward for Unite in London. He tells me managers constantly pay him lip service. Are trade unions relevant in the 21st century?
I would happen to agree with that. But tell me why you think so?
They’re relevant – particularly in the public sector – because we’re facing the onslaight of cuts and it is absolutely right that people get proper representation to ensure they get whatever the best deal is for them and that they’re protected. Because for all the best will in the world there will be laws and companies that conspire against working people, and I think the trade union movement will be respected and valued like I did.
Would you go on strike?
Have or would you ever cross a picket line?
I respect your principles.
What would you say to those who’d say you would be abandoning the children in your school?
I would say no. I’m protecting my school and the children and the teachers and the support staff and everyone from government cuts. Sometimes you just have to say to the government: ‘Look, I’m the professional here, and you’re not listening to me. I need to take action’.
But it doesn’t seem to have made any difference. We’ve had austerity for 10 years and apparently the end date has been pushed back 10 years – yet still the government rides roughshod over unions. And still the Tories are leading the polls? Unions don’t make a difference in terms of influence any more, do they?
Extending maternity pay, paternity pay, sick leave – there have been hard-fought battles putting these things into law. And much of that is from the Labour movement putting pressure on for years. Immediately you go on strike over workloads or SATS and the government say: ‘We’ve seen the error of our ways, we’ll change our views and fix it.’ No, but over time you build up levels of support and you put the pressure on and it starts to have an effect.
Why isn’t Labour seen as the party of the working man, the working class anymore?
Is it not?
Not with people I know who are tradesmen, who run their own blue-collar businesses – who, like me, grew up on council estates. They don’t see it like that.
Was it seen as that under Tony Blair? His appeal was that he appealed to a variety of people. I don’t think he particularly appealed to what you describe as ‘the working man’. I think it’s about the way we’re putting the polices across and the way we’ve been portrayed in the media. I really do think it’s a big factor at the moment.
What would you do to change it then?
We know the proprietors of the big newspapers...
Tony Blair sucked up to Rupert Murdoch something chronic. As PM, and before that as Labour leader. Is that the ‘media’s fault’ too?
That’s not the media’s fault. But he did. If you don’t then it looks as though they take against you – then you’re going to get criticised unfairly. I want this to be about policies, not whether their tie is done up correctly or they’re wearing the right suit. I’m not interested in that in either side. If the leader of the Tories was scruffy I don’t think that would be an excuse to have a go at them.
Do your kids at your school wear a school uniform?
No. That’s what I inherited when I got there – and they call us by their first names.
Yes. I think it’s fantastic. As did Ofsted 18 months ago when they judged us outstanding.
Have you ever kept on a disruptive child just to keep on receiving your government funding?
There’s an interesting question. I will only exclude children for extreme behaviour issues where I feel that we can’t keep them safe. No, I won’t exclude anybody for less than that. I keep children on because they’re children and because we’re a community school. Anyone who’s eligible to be there is there. We’re full.
OK. Finally, tell me about what makes you tick? You’ve obviously got a wife but if you were single and at a speed-dating evening and you had to describe yourself in 30 seconds, what would you say?
That I have a goof sense of humour. That I am a generally friendly sort of bloke – although speed-dating won’t be happening as I’m happily married, thank you very much! I’ve got two grown children, both looking to work in the public sector. My wife’s a headteacher, and in my spare time I go running as much as I can.
What music do you listen to?
I quite like Madness. There’s a band called the Rifles who knock around Camden from time to time, I quite like them. I have fairly broad, eclectic tastes.
What would be the first thing you will do on June 9 if elected?
Sleep. Then I would talk to my school governors and my staff to come up with a plan as to how we would manage that. And then I would throw myself in as quickly as I could – given that I’ve got to be as fair as I could to my school – to represent everybody in this constituency in the best way that I could.
One final message for the voters of Hitchin and Harpenden?
I think that the Labour Party manifesto is one that will strengthen this country and one that will bring a better and fairer society for the vast number of people who live here. They should consider voting for me because of me – and not simply put a tick in a box marked Labour. This is for their representative in Parliament to do the job the best they can for all the right reasons.
If you weren’t elected, would you try again?
Yes, I would try again. But let’s see what happens over the next two weeks.
Thanks for your time John.
No, thank you.