Thelma Walker interview: ‘When I won my seat I thought the job starts now’

Thelma Walker. Picture: Tony Johnson
Thelma Walker. Picture: Tony Johnson
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Former headteacher Thelma Walker is relishing her new role in Westminster. She tells Political Editor James Reed about the general election campaign, her moment of victory and getting used to being the MP for Colne Valley

“The World has changed, unbelievably really, on a personal and a political level.”

It is hard to argue with Thelma Walker as she sums up what has happened since the moment in the early hours of June 9 when she was declared the new MP for Colne Valley on a remarkable night in British politics.

She speaks to The Yorkshire Post in the middle of trying to organise her new constituency office in Slaithwaite and get to grips with life in Westminster.

Her success, overcoming her Conservative predecessor’s 5,000 vote majority on a night when Labour was expected to lose seats, was emblematic of the wider election.

For much of the campaign Labour’s focus in West Yorskhire had been defending seats rather than winning them but looking back at election night Mrs Walker maintains she was quietly confident about her chances.

“If I’m honest, I’ve kept it to myself, but I knew we could win. That last few weeks we did so much campaigning, we did street stalls in each ward, we knocked on doors, we talked to groups of people. There was a sea change.”

Mrs Walker points to the publication of the two major parties’ manifestos, which included the Conservatives’ controversial plans for elderly care, as the key moment.

“For the first time in a number of elections there was clear water between what it is if I vote for a Conservative government and what it will be like if I vote for Labour.”

She admits to surprising herself with her response when she learned she had taken the seat by just 915 votes.

“I didn’t react in the way that I thought I would, I didn’t punch the air and I didn’t cry. I didn’t laugh.

“I felt numb actually, it was almost like it was happening to someone else.

“Because my politics is so important to me and social justice is so important to me I had this overwhelming sense of responsibility straight away.

“I’m my MP, if that makes sense, it’s that sense that these are people I really care for, some of them are my friends some are my family, that responsibility is personal as well as political.

“It was ‘right, now the work starts, I’ve got to make this happen’.”

Winning the Colne Valley seat was the culmination of a process which began when Mrs Walker, then a headteacher, was motivated by her disillusionment with national education policy, particularly her concerns that the ‘Every Child Matters’ initiative started by Labour was being sidelined, to become a far more active political campaigner.

Having missed out on being a candidate two years earlier, the calling of a snap election presented a fresh opportunity.

And with her husband, Rob, also deeply involved in Labour politics as a Kirklees councillor there was a discussion over which of them would put their name forward to represent Labour in the Colne Valley race.

“We share the politics, our two boys do as well. It’s a family thing. There are some lively family discussions about some things.

“We had the discussion and he said ‘no I love my council work but I will support you to do this’.

“It’s a massive decision and when you realise what it involves, that you are essentially setting up two businesses in two different places and all the rest of it, it is massive.

“My professional background is helping me a lot, how people do it without having worked in a stressful role I’m not quite sure, I admire them tremendously.”

Her first weeks at Westminster have included challenging Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt over the future of accident and emergency services in the area and making a maiden speech which she used to celebrate her constituency while also railing against target culture in schools.

“Westminster, one of the funny things about it is the building itself and finding your way around. The staff are really helpful but you see all the new MPs getting lost.

“But the awe and wonder is there. The history is just incredible. But I am very much L-plates in Westminster,” she says.

“You do have to pinch yourself when you hear Big Ben chiming as you walk in.

“I was in a session in the chamber and Ed Miliband was just a few seats away and I was thinking about how I campaigned for him in 2015.

“You feel really overawed in some ways, it is such a privilege, but I’m a very grounded person.

“Local people know me very well and I think possibly on the campaign trail my authenticity of who I am and what I stand for came through and I remind myself when I am in Westminster that I have a job to do.

“I’m quite an informal person so I am having to get my head around quite a lot of the protocols and procedures and make sure I don’t make a gaffe.

“I’m learning quickly.”

A recurring theme in the conversation is Mrs Walker’s determination not to become a creature of the Westminster village and a firm desire to remain connected to the area where she has lived and worked for almost 30 years and now represents.

Amid the machinations and intrigure of the Palace of Westminster, she has made clear to her new colleagues where her priorities lie.

“Where it is things that I think are going to benefit local constituents I will get involved but I certainly don’t have an ambition to be on this, that and the other committee.

“I want to do a good job doing what I was elected to do.”