Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott prepares to battle rising energy bills

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott talks to Adrian Pearson about tackling fuel bills and winning elections

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott
Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott

Imagine the traditional politician: thriving on the election battle field, pushing the attack line in the Commons and playing a role in the behind-the-scenes politics that forms the life blood of party political life.

The sad truth of British politics is that, for all those stereotypes, the first image of such a politician is often likely to be a man, not a mother of four grown up children.

Step forward, though, Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott. Forged in the battlefields of the Northern GMB union - a more pleasant atmosphere than the Commons on many occasions, she says - Ms Elliott is one of the new 2010 intake of MPs who are already advancing up the ladder.

First, the CV. Political officer for GMB, then off to parliament, then a parliamentary aide to Caroline Lucas, following her from shadow communities to shadow energy, a seat on the Business Select Committee and then, in the most recent reshuffle, a shadow ministerial posting with Labour’s energy team.

Along the way she’s helped get a few more MPs elected, and guided them through the new job.

Before that she fought industrial cases for the GMB, was an organiser for the Labour party and an agent for, for example, Tynemouth’s Alan Campbell.

A miner’s daughter, she was born outside of her constituency, although only by half a mile, but soon set that right and has been an active member since joining up with Labour during the miners’ strike.

Which almost begs the question, what took her so long to get there?

“My kids are all grown up, that was maybe why I waited so long for a seat,” Ms Elliott said. “I might have looked for one before I had four children, it’s a fair few to have. My own seat coming up unexpectedly was a wonderful opportunity. That insight you get from having lived in your constituency this long, it makes that added difference.”

Like many, her first experience of parliament was a bit more chaotic than had traditionally been the case. “We came in when there was a coalition being formed,” she said. “For five days no one knew what was going on. It was incredibly unsettling. Those first few days were difficult. No one knew what was going on. You would speak to people who have been here for years and they would tell you this hasn’t happened before, they don’t know what to tell you.

“Once we got past that we were still in a bit of uncertain territory. I was lucky that I had come in and out of parliament from previous jobs, I have real friends in the party who I could go to if I needed something or didn’t understand something, but there were many who came here without ever seeing what it was like before.

“There were some MPs who stood out for their help. Malcolm Wicks was very good, Jack Straw. Those who had been in Government but stepped back from it.”

Fast forward a few years and Ms Elliott is focusing on renewable energy, jobs and heavy industry in her role with the shadow energy team, a job which sees her at the centre of the debate over what should be one of the North East’s biggest employment opportunities.

“Right now we want to see what has stagnated things. I’m told there is complete uncertainty in the industry over Government support, and you can see how that hits the North East.

“We need stability. That is what brings investment. That means broad consensus on creating these jobs.”

Alongside that comes an active role in pushing Labour’s plan for a freeze in energy bills. But her worth to the party isn’t just on the green benches.

She was asked to be the political lead on the by-election in Middlesbrough, dealing with all the issues in the campaign, a role she says is most exhausting and exhilarating.

“I love elections. I absolutely love elections. I was asked to do the South Shields, which was the constituency I was born in, although it was Jarrow then.

“It was quite a complex by-election there, even for a seat with a big Labour following, but a lot of issues at play in the politics around it.

“I like to think I understand how an election works, how it ticks. Hopefully there will not be any more, we lost a few colleagues and there have been MPs stepping down.”

South Shields saw the first real attempt at a breakthrough in the region from the UK Independence Party, coming second in the by-election and certainly winning the battle for the headlines.

But that new arrival is, the MP said, a showdown opportunity for the party.

“We have 140,000 jobs in our region, a lot of them well-paid, good jobs, completely dependent on the EU.

“We have Nissan coming out and making the case here for that relationship. The problem is that you also have Ukip who are as much a party of protest as anything else, with the Lib Dem vote collapsing in the North.

“They come out with seemingly plausible phrases but then find the evidence is just not there to back up their arguments.

“And the upcoming European election campaign is an important opportunity to show the truth here. It’ll be interesting. A by-election is a snapshot in time, they’re very interesting but they are the events of the time, and quite different to what will happen in a bigger election, a General Election.”

Her role doesn’t end when the election is over. Ms Elliott was among those forming a proud team around newly elected Emma Lewell-Buck when she gave her maiden speech in the Commons.

”When you run a by-election you have to be there for people when they come in. Emma is my neighbouring MP, I do a lot of work with her, and it’s natural you get to know someone in a campaign like that.”

And of Ms Lewell-Buck’s predecessor David Miliband? Ms Elliott has known the former Foreign Secretary for some 20 years, the pair getting to know each other in the battle for Labour to scrap Clause 4.

“I think I miss him, he was a good friend and I still speak to him, but it was the right thing for him to go do something else, to go to a big organisation and take on that new challenge.

“But I’m a party loyalist. I voted for David but that was that and now I get on with being loyal to Ed.”

For now Ms Elliott remains on election footing. “The next election starts after the day after the last one.” she said. “You win an election the years before, with a sustained message, not just at a General Election.”

And with that, it’s back to the battle.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer