Alison McGovern takes on her latest challenge as chair of Progress
—Alison McGovern is a tough cookie. At the age of only 29 she won the seat of Wirral South when everyone said she couldn’t. Five years later – having turned a 531 majority into a strong four-figure lead in a year when Labour was losing seats – she is taking on another challenging job as chair of Progress. ‘I have never thought of myself as anything rather than just Labour,’ says Alison. ‘I didn’t belong to any gang or clique in the Labour party but [when first elected] Progress said come and write things, and sit on panels.’ She will be the first woman to front up the organisation.
Alison is from Wirral but studied philosophy at University College London and then worked as a parliamentary researcher and for Network Rail. She was also a councillor, and deputy group leader, in Southwark before she became a member of parliament.
After her election in her home seat she sat on the international development select committee. She joined the whips’ office, then becoming a shadow minister for international development and was later made shadow minister for children and childcare.
She says that because of all the things Progress did to encourage her she wants do the same for others and to use her position to encourage voices which are not heard enough within the Labour party. ‘The problem now for young people is: how do you cope in a world where you need lots of skills and you cannot get a job if you don’t have them? I want to be behind [young people], to be their champion.’ As well as more women – ‘No one can sit on their laurels about this’ – she wants ‘a diverse Labour party’. She wants to encourage ‘people with disabilities having a stronger voice, people who are not white having a stronger voice.’
She is clear too that Progress needs to support councillors, in places where Labour is in power and having to do ‘very, very difficult things’.
Everyone agrees that Corbyn’s victory should bring to an end the factionalism that tainted the last government. The TBGBs – feuding of the supporters of the two former prime ministers – should end. So I asked the former parliamentary private secretary to Gordon Brown, how does Progress get away from New Labour and its close association with Tony Blair? ‘We should be proud of every Labour prime minister from Clement Attlee through to Gordon Brown’ but the Labour party has to be a ‘party of the future’ and cannot ‘hark back to the past’. ‘I was 16 in 1997 and I was very conscious when I did an event at the Labour party conference for young members that they are the same age I was when that government [of Tony Blair] was elected … They are the people we should be focused on.’
Progress backed Liz Kendall, considered to be the ideological heir to Blair, and Alison did too. Kendall only got 4.5 per cent of the vote. ‘I am immensely proud of Liz. She demonstrated she had guts like few other politicians. I was hugely proud to support her,’ says Alison. The fact she lost so badly, however, was ‘humbling’.
And how will Progress get on with Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, including new organisations like Momentum? ‘Jeremy Corbyn wants everyone to contribute in the best way they can,’ she says. ‘He’s said he wants everyone to play their part … I want to campaign for Labour values. That means all organisations doing their bit and not wasting their time focusing on internal Labour party things.’
Listening to people on the doorstep has been something Progress has always done a lot of, she says. It is a way to understand British people’s issues and what worries them. ‘Even in a world with technology and social media, there is no replacement for a face-to-face “Hello” from the party … I can’t see why anyone in the Labour movement would see that as anything but a positive thing.’
She is the granddaughter of the Liverpool trade union activist and song-writer Peter McGovern who wrote the anthem made famous by The Spinners, In My Liverpool Home. Both her father and grandfather worked for the railways too. I ask her about her relationship with trade unions. The general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, famously described Progress in 2012 as ‘a party within a party, funded by external interests. An influence we will not support.’
Alison said she worked with Unison representatives locally in Wirral to get the council to sign the ethical care charter for low paid care workers. The neighbouring council, Cheshire West and Chester – the only council which Labour won from the Tories in May – has just signed up too.
Alison is interested in fighting for justice. Her favourite film is On the Waterfront, the 1954 Marlon Brando movie about trade union violence and corruption among longshoremen on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. Not surprising either for a woman from an area where the docks have been so important.
But she is fun too and uses her Twitter account to hold sexist men to account for their ‘silliness’.
This was her tweet in reply to a Spectator blog by the Tory biographer of Margaret Thatcher, Charles Moore, musing on whether Kendall or Yvette Cooper looked like a leader: ‘Bought new frock recently. Does anyone know if Charles Moore is available to sanction its wearing for the finance bill debate?’
In another tweet she published a letter from a Channel 4 viewer saying she had shown too much cleavage on the news, with the comment: ‘trying to laugh, rather than cry at the same old, same old’.
Alison McGovern gives as good as she gets, and what more could you want from the chair of Progress?
Sally Gimson is a journalist and a councillor in the London borough of Camden
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