Politics is in the genes

Ahead of Father’s Day the Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland tells Chris Bond how his father has inspired him and his political career.

Greg Mulholland has been the Leeds North West MP for 10 years.

GREG Mulholland was just eight years old when he had his first taste of politics.

“My first political memory was from the 1979 General Election and I remember putting a poster up in my bedroom window,” he says. “From memory it was a Liberal Party poster that had Margaret Thatcher and Jim Callaghan about to have a duel and was having a go at the two party system.”

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The Mulhollands were very much a political family, with his father, John, a councillor who stood as the Liberal Party’s parliamentary candidate for Stockton-on-Tees at the 1962 by-election. “He lost to Bill Rodgers who was standing for Labour, although ironically a few years later they were in the same party,” says Mr Mulholland.

Greg with his father John, a former Liberal councillor.

Rodgers was one of the so-called “Gang of Four”, along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams, who famously left the Labour Party in the early 1980s to form the SDP which then joined forces with David Steel’s Liberal Party to create the SDP-Liberal Alliance. They later merged to become the Liberal Democrats.

Politics was part and parcel of family life as he was growing up and as a teenager he would post leaflets and newsletters for his dad as a way of earning extra pocket money. He studied A-Level politics and for his first assignment he replayed the Stockton by-election that his father had lost. “This time I was the one standing and I won. From then on I was hooked and I knew that I wanted to be an MP one day.”

This he achieved in 2005 when he became the Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West. He won again five years later and last month hung on to his seat, which turned out to be a rare bit of good news on a night of crushing defeat for the Lib Dems.

Although the seeds of political ambition had been sown while he was a teenager, it wasn’t until he reached 30 that he decided to embark on a political career and emulate his father. “When I sat down with my Dad and told him he was very pleased and perhaps a bit surprised,” he says. “I always remember that chat we had in a pub when I told him I wanted to go into politics. He said it would be a long, hard slog and as a Liberal Democrat it probably wouldn’t be easy, or happen quickly.”

As it turned out his rise was swift after he became a councillor in Headingley in 2002. It can take people decades to make the transition from councillor to MP, but Mr Mulholland did it in just over three years.

His victory was very much a family celebration, especially for his father. “He was so pleased when I won as it meant that a Mulholland was now a member of Parliament, and I couldn’t have been prouder that my Mum and Dad were there to see me win. I remember the Leeds Student paper had a big front page story with the words ‘we did it, Dad’, which is something I treasure.”

He says his father instilled into both him and his brother and sister the importance of fairness and equality. “He has a strong sense of social justice and he’s one of those people who tries to help others.”

It isn’t just his father’s interest in politics that has rubbed off on him, his passion for sport has too.

“Being a Stockton lad he saddled me with being a Middlesbrough fan,” he says. This has, at times, been a cross to bear although they did get to see the team win the Carling Cup in 2004 – the club’s first ever major trophy which ended a 128-year wait.

For generations of fathers and sons going to watch football or rugby matches has been a way of bonding and so it’s been for the Mulhollands.

“One of my favourite things has for years been going for a pint on the way to a game, especially in the Sun Inn in Bilsdale, run for so many years by William Ainsley, a farmer and a real character. I treasure our stops and chats there, which were always followed by fish and chips.”

Another familiar parental ritual is going to watch your child play sport. “I loved it when my Dad came to watch me play rugby league and I’m pleased that even now he still does – he came to watch the Politicians versus Journalists game we had in February, which we won.”

If sport offers a font of family memories then so, too, do family holidays and for the Mulhollands this involved numerous trips exploring the Yorkshire countryside. “My Dad has passed on his love for the Yorkshire coastline and in particular the North York Moors. We still go on family holidays and drive up there every summer. We like the same kind of simple holidays where we go walking on the moors and spend time in pub gardens.”

Mr Mulholland is chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Save the Pub group, reflecting his passion for real ale – something else he has inherited from his father. “I’ve got him to thank for my love of pubs and beer. I was brought up to appreciate real ale and many’s the time he would regale stories about Watneys Red Barrel, famed as one of the worst ever beers.

“He taught me that pubs are an important social part of the community and he took us to pub gardens when we were growing up and when I was old enough he would take me for a pint.”

Growing up he says his father could be strict when necessary. “I was on the wrong end of a few telling offs, you certainly knew not to do something twice. But he was always very fair.”

Their close relationship survived the dreaded teenage years unscathed. “When you’re younger you try to be a bit rebellious but it’s perhaps only later in life that you appreciate the influence your parents have had.”

He admits that as he’s grown older he’s started to see more of his father’s characteristics in himself. “We’re both strong willed characters and those who know me say I’ve inherited a lot of his traits. You don’t realise that as you’re growing up it’s only later that you start to see the similarities.”

His father enjoyed a varied career working for big companies like Proctor and Gamble before going on to work in further education and later as a conciliator with Acas. “He’s very determined and can be uncompromising, he was a professional adjudicator during his career and was highly skilled at bringing people together.”

At 82, Mr Mulholland’s father was still helping out with his recent election campaign. “He wasn’t delivering as many leaflets as he perhaps did in 2005 and 2010 but he was still out and about helping,” he says. “It’s a great pity that he didn’t get the chance to become an MP. He could have gone around the country trying to find a seat to contest, but he put his family first.

“He was very proud of me becoming an MP and that’s something we shared. When I won the Leeds North West seat I had a great sense of my dad being there and being able to embrace him and my mum. At the end of the day you want your parents to be proud of what you do and that’s a memory I will always treasure.”