The Pool of business at the House

Tuesday 27th September 2011

By Marcus Papadopoulos

The only Conservative MP on Merseyside, and the first since 1997, Esther McVey is one of the new intake of politicians from the 2010 general election.

Intelligent, forward-thinking and with a hands-on experience of ordinary people’s lives, this 43 year old politician from ‘The Pool’ has quickly established herself at Westminster. She is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of State for Employment at the Department for Work and Pensions, The Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP, and is at the forefront of numerous campaigns and organisations whose causes range from support for victims of crime to encouragement of young people to achieve their potential. At a time when politicians at Westminster are facing a wall of public antipathy over expenses and their motives for having entered politics, Esther is one of those MPs whose sincerity about wanting to “make a difference” to the lives of ordinary people cannot be questioned. Her roots remain entrenched in the community she was born into and grew up in, and her empathy and insight into the lives of her constituents is exemplary. Far from being a “career politician”, Esther is very much the lay person’s politician.

Speaking at Portcullis House, Esther explained how her interest in politics came about and how it gradually progressed into serving the interests of her community at Westminster. “Politics has to be a natural part of you; you have to want to be involved in it. My interest stems from how I was brought up and what I did at school (my school was certainly one that actively engaged in local community affairs). Plus, my Mum and Dad were always (somewhat vigorously!) discussing politics around the kitchen table. So you either have politics in you or you don’t.”

Unlike some MPs, Esther embarked on the road to Westminster with no family background in politics, which certainly makes the process all the tougher. “I am the first MP in the family. My parents had an opinion on everything, and they still do! But they never chose the path of becoming a politician.”

Arguably Esther’s main selling point is that she represents the community she grew up in; she was not simply “parachuted in” by Conservative head office. She knows the people, their needs and the challenges facing them-both locally and nationally-like the back of her hand. Prior to Esther’s election as an MP, she immersed herself in her community’s affairs. “It took me nearly ten years to
get elected having stood in Wirral West twice, first in 2005 and then in 2010. During this time, I was very much involved in the community. I helped set up the Anthony Walker Foundation which combats racism in schools through education, music and sport (Anthony Walker was a black boy brutally murdered 6 years ago in Huyton, Liverpool, on account of his colour); I worked with the Madeline McCann Fund (Kate McCann, Madeline’s Mum, I’ve known since my school days); and I work with the families of victims of crime, in particular families Fighting for Justice.”

After graduating from university with a degree in Law, Esther pursued a career in media. However, it was her entry into the world of business which not only demonstrated her talent and zeal for entrepreneurship-and which serves her well today at Parliamentbut it also enabled her to utilise this for the benefit of her local community. “I set up the biggest businesswomen’s network in the north-west of England. In addition to this, I established a co-operatively run office and incubator space for women setting up in business in Liverpool while also working on the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission which focuses on increasing economic growth in the region.”

Encouraging girls to have high aspirations in life and to pursue these accordingly has been a focal point for Esther. So much so that she recently wrote a career book for school girls, then had it converted into a magazine called If Chloe Can, which she got sponsored and is personally delivering, for free, to 7,000 13 year old school girls across Merseyside-no mean feat!

The magazine highlights to girls successful females in society, such as businesswomen, lawyers, gymnasts, astronauts, writers, singers and scientists, and tells them that if these women can be successful, they can, too. If ‘a week is a long time in politics’, then a year can only be described as an eternity. Esther was asked about how her first year at Parliament has been and how she has met the challenges posed to a new MP.

“My first year has been a very positive experience. After having taken ten years to get elected while at the same time running a business and holding down a life, to finally be here is an achievement. Of course there are challenges like moving into an office and getting organised but I see this as practical day-to-day things which you have to take in your stride. But it should be stressed that there
is a steep learning curve at Parliament-there is etiquette, there is protocol, there is lifestyle; there are lots of things a new MP has to learn.”

Given Esther’s successful business background-she founded Making It (UK) Ltd, which offers training to small and medium enterprises-the obvious question to ask was whether this has given her a head-start at Parliament. “I believe it has because I have come here armed with focus, determination and time management, and these are crucial skills an MP requires because there are so many things you can be doing here that you need to be regimental; you need to be organised otherwise you could end up trying to do everything and, as a result, become ineffectual. Being an MP is a 24/7 job; there is a constant supply of new information coming in, either from your constituency or from around the world.” Asked how she deals with absorbing “new information”, Esther replied in typically business language: “It’s all about balancing input and output. This is the key to being productive.”

And are there similarities between business and politics? “Without a doubt, yes. I have a natural empathy for people who come to me who have small businesses. Then there is the fundamental understanding in business that you cannot spend what you do not have-and this can be equally applied to running an economy or a council budget. Additionally, you have to be a negotiator, a forensic accountant, pragmatic, practical and you have to be able to set yourself a timetable-and keep to it! Business is all about survival and looking after people; you have commitments to your staff, your business colleagues and your customers, each of which you must respect and do the very best for. And this translates equally into politics, too. You have to be able to identify a problem, formulate a solution and effectively implement it.”

So what work has Esther been involved in since arriving at Parliament? “I am the chair of the Chemical Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group which looks at every aspect affecting the Chemical Industry-from the education to investigating what the UK can do about its lack of engineers and technicians to ensuring an environmentally-friendly industry, as well as looking at ways to support and enhance our big chemical industries, which are worth £60 billion to the British economy and which employs a workforce of 600,000.

“On top of this, I led the debate in the Commons on careers advice and how desperately important it is, particularly at a time when the Coalition has inherited such huge numbers of youth unemployment. I support victims of crime, recently handing a petition to Parliament to prevent any decrease in the sentences for murder, and also continue to support
women in business.

“I was also the first person in Parliament to employ an apprentice, and got the rules changed with IPSA so that now any MP can employ an apprentice. Every MP is like a small business and needs to be run as such with a focus on its ‘engines of productivity’, by which I mean my wonderful staff, all whirling, buzzing individuals. I like everyone to have a say. A great idea is a great idea irrespective of who thinks of it. We all work hard to support our constituents and are committed to bring about a positive conclusion and resolution of their matter-working hard on case work, surgeries, organising community events, preparing and researching speeches to high light issues
in parliament.

“A key activity of mine is working in the Department for Work and Pensions and as PPS to Chris Grayling, from which I have been able to look specifically at youth unemployment, reasons for this, and what we can do to counter this.”

Esther’s level of work at Parliament has been matched by her work back home in the Wirral. “I am constantly engaged in local issues, from mobile phone masts to wind turbines to local schools and buses. Working with our Council leader last year, who led the biggest public consultation ever on Wirral to discover how people wanted their money spent, I was successful in achieving an extra £1 million investment to keep libraries open, as well as securing more money for Sure Start programmes. I led the way in rebuilding a local park, Meols Park, which is now used by families throughout the year and is devoid of anti-social behaviour, which had plagued it before.”

With Esther’s knowledge of good accounting practices, the issue of an MP’s expenses was raised with her. What is her system of handling the controversial issue of expenses? “I have always worked within tight guidelines for expenses in business. My premise is that you spend only what is permitted, live within your means and spend other people’s money very wisely and, as such, we are accountable to the public and the public purse’.

After a productive first year at Parliament, what can we expect from Esther over the course of the next year? “I will be continuing with the things which I have embarked upon over the last year such as youth unemployment, women in business and careers and apprenticeships. So in essence, building on the foundations I have set. I will also be highlighting the dangerous effects that modern technology is having on our legal system with specific reference to Facebook and other social media sites.”

Esther McVey’s way is to convey a businesslike approach to being an MP and to utilise her intimate knowledge and understanding of the community she represents for its overall benefit. At a time of deep public ostility towards politicians, Esther’s business mentality and her applied business ways may well be refreshing to a large section of the public, much of which believes that Parliament should be run like how well-established businesses are. One thing is for sure: this animated and clued up politician from ‘The Pool’ is moving in the right direction for a successful and effective career at Westminster.