Almost two years ago, I joined and attended my first constituency meeting of Stoke-on-Trent Central Labour Party. Little did I then know that my membership application would change my life to the degree it has. It was Labour for me because it is the only party interested in working people.
For the first 17 months, I was active but in the background. I had my first taste of "proper" political campaigning during the Trent Vale by-election in Summer 2012. I also served on the constituency executive committee as membership officer and, as of last year, the constituency secretary. But it was a decision I made back in October that changed my relationship to the party.
A by-election vacancy came up in Baddeley, Milton and Norton. I put myself forward, knowing that Labour hadn't won a contest between elections in Stoke for over a decade and that the odds were stacked against us. And what I volunteered for was the most hectic, energy consuming but exhilarating time of my life so far. It's difficult not to speak in cliches, but I was entirely living in the moment. From the first minute I woke in the morning until the second I fell asleep at night, I gave every waking hour to fighting for the party. I fought with all my might. I walked, jogged, ran, skipped, sprinted, telephoned, emailed, texted, took unpaid time off work, knocked on doors, talked to hundreds and hundreds of local people and gave speeches. I ate too many biscuits and drank gallons of tea to get me to the finish line. It was all worth it to fly the flag. If so much effort was not put in, the result may have been a lot more painful. Local people responded to our message and 444 of them turned up to make their vote of confidence real at the ballot box.
It was a crash course in sharpening up my politics. It made demands of my character. You got to understand the true meaning of comradeship - not just those who were there day after day (thanks Steve and Glen!) but other members who were able to give our campaign time whenever they could. In times like these you really get to know who is for the party and is on your side to win. Not winning a by-election can be a demoralising experience, but what did matter was that a group of comrades came together and did the best we could. It was a life-changing experience and it's something I will never forget.
Shortly after the by-election, Joan Walley - the long-standing MP for Stoke North (and Kidsgrove) announced her decision to retire at the next election. I therefore decided to put myself forward for consideration as her successor. I did not think I was going "above my station". Instead, it was an opportunity to learn more about the party, to understand the demands it makes of its senior elected representatives. I could not let this go by without throwing my ambitious hat into the ring. It was a competition and one that would be even tougher than the by-election. This is because the opposition had changed. I was now making elbow room amongst my fellow female party members, one of which I class as a good friend. This was hard. I kept my campaign material and strategy person-specific. There were no attack leaflets or bad-mouthing of others. But what stunned me the most was that only eight women put their name forward. I was stunned. Why so few? Surely I could talk at least that many women into giving themselves a chance in politics by just standing in a line at a checkout!? Why was there such a lack of willing and confident women aspiring to be leaders? I want more women to make a stand and get involved - our democracy suffers if large numbers of us don't participate.
Labour Party selection procedures have a reputation for being mysterious and foreboding. But I found it to be nothing of the sort. You submit your application to the local secretary and then go chasing nominations by speaking to as many local party members as possible. I produced an A4 overview of why I was standing and distributed the document to voting members in the constituency. But most importantly, I think, I listened to what they had to say on the kind of MP they wanted representing them in Westminster. Much to my delight, I received two nominations from individual branches and that saw me placed on the long list. All that remained was even more canvassing of members while preparing myself for the ominous short list interview date.
Saturday 15th March was it. Walking into the room where the decisions for the final short listing for hustings were to be made must be similar to how talent show contestants feel as they meet the judges face to face for the first time. There were 10 interviewers dotted around the room, and they could field any question at me. It was exciting and, if I'm honest, I felt confident - not nervous. Considering the political gravity of the situation and how many futures turn on the decisions made there, I truly enjoyed the challenge. I was honest, I was myself.
In the end, I wasn't successful. I missed out on being shortlisted by a smidgen. But the experience was fun, eye-opening and horizon widening. I recommend it to anyone who wants to make a difference via conventional politics. It's not terrifying, it's character-forming! I also wish the three remaining candidates well and will be celebrating with the winner! My priority now is to work extremely hard to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent keeps its Labour majority in 2015 and I look forward to contesting a City Council seat then. Never a dull moment in politics, and that is one of the reasons I love it so much!