I never had a musical awakening, all my rock stars were politicians (laughs). I was a weird kid, I was always into politics, sitting in front of the telly watching the news, my nana once said to my mam ‘There’s something not right about that bairn, you need to keep an eye on her’. Yeah I think I was destined to do this.
I met Terry Waite a few years ago, I remember watching on telly his situation as a prisoner years ago, he is Patron of a national homeless charity with a place in South Shields so he came and done a talk, I was sitting listening, fascinated, My god it’s Terry Waite (whispers). I was stuck to his side all night (laughs).
I’d watch documentaries where they had discovered new communities in far flung places of the world, always fascinated by the world around me, the planet and people – I just love people. I always had a dream from when I was young to be in politics but shelved it because I never thought it could happen to kids like me.
My Great Uncle Richard Ewart was MP for Sunderland after the Second World War, before that he was Union Organiser and local councillor in South Shields, when he left school he worked in Whitburn Pit, this was a time of working class politicians. I looked to find a similar voice so dropped in to Emma’s office on Westoe Road, South Shields…. I originally got involved in local politics, became a local councillor and thought I’d never get to be an MP, so I will work to change my little part of the world. It came from there because I don’t come from a political family at all, I’m the only one in the family that’s interested in politics. I believe in public service, that you can change things. Every single day people are in and out of this office and my amazing team here change things for them purely because I have two letters after my name. People can come in here and be rock bottom about being evicted, all kinds of mess and we can sort them out within hours or quicker, and that’s good isn’t it.
A lot of people get into modern politics because they like being on telly or they like being famous. I just want to be a really good public servant, give something back and do some good for the people that I’ve grown up with, my neighbours, friends, family, the town.
Within the last 10 years or so pop music entertainers from South Shields like David Ducasse, Joe McElderry and Little Mix have been successful, is there any reason behind this ? Firstly, representing your country at anything is a big deal, like David in Eurovision. Shields has talented people, it’s a creative place we have lots of artists and musicians. I think that is because of the environment here, you look out to the river Tyne and North Sea with their wide open spaces and you can just relax and think. That outward looking creativity and the impact of the people which makes the culture unique, that gets translated into art and music.
But I think in the past opportunities to get your stuff out there, get known or make a name for yourself have been limited and hard, but now with social media, 24/7 outlets and new avenues they are making it easier. You can put a song on twitter or you tube and there is constant exposure if you do it right. In the past singers or bands could of spent years going from club to club looking to get noticed, now with the resurgence of talent shows it gives people the opportunity to go on X Factor and the whole country could see you.
What music did you listen to when you were young ? (Emma was born in 1978) I listened to my Dad’s music mainly, my ma used to work nights in the pub so I used to sit with my dad listening to Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, I’d also like some Eurythmics and Madness. I never really followed any musical trends or fashion.
Did you play a musical instrument ? Once as a kid I tried to teach myself how to play flute. I went to Woolworths in Jarrow with my pocket money and bought a little plastic flute. I’ve a lot of friends who are musical, but not me (laughs).
The Customs House in the past 20 years has been very successful with Ray Spencer at the wheel, is there still a place for it with all the changes happening in South Shields ? Ray has been great nurturing the talent like we’ve talked about earlier. Arts and culture are an escape for people and we’ll always need it from the stresses of our daily life, so there’ll always be something like it in the town. Going back to an earlier point the world is so in your face now, people get overwhelmed and there’s a rise in mental health problems. That’s because everything is at you all the time, the world just doesn’t seem as big as it used to because you’re getting stuff thrown at you all the time. You need something comforting and nice like music and arts as opposed to being exposed to the horrors of the world. Listening or watching some things can move you in ways that some things just can’t.
With the austerity and cuts, arts and culture are the first to be hit because they are not seen as an essential service. People getting care is an essential service, do you cut money from a service which has a care package that people need to live, or do you cut it from arts and culture ? That’s the problem austerity has brought, people have had to make those decisions, which can lead to the enrichment of the area suffering.
Have you had to make those decisions ? When I was on the council I did because I had a budget but not now as I’m an MP in opposition. (Emma was lead member for social care) I have a lot more clout to help people but in terms of getting funding for things I have to fight twice as hard being in opposition. Like the money for the new Metro cars, I fought for that for three years in opposition, if we were in Government and I asked it probably would have been just given – that’s the difference.
What is the difference between being an MP living in the North East compared to living closer to the capital ? First time I set foot in parliament was the day I was MP for Shields, never set foot in it before in my life. There are other people who were in and out of there every day looking for work, and one day they become an MP. It depends how you’ve grown up, if you’ve spent your whole life working in places and networking to become an MP it’s not that big of a deal, if you’ve come from a normal job like me it is a big deal.
I imagine politics to be a hard profession, why do it ? I’ve had hard jobs before, this is hard but not harder than any other jobs I’ve done before. I’ve just grew up wanting to make a difference and politics is the way you can do that. I would look around and see my mam and dad, hard-working members of the family not being treated the same as others, they didn’t have much, just trying to get by and that massive level of inequality – it all used to make me angry. How some people are treated wrongly and have all the chances in the world but others don’t, there should be a level playing field.
Interview by Gary Alikivi January 2020.