From man on the street to man in the street: Anne Spackman on the head of Shelter's move to the Consumers' Association

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S PARTLY the voice. Sheila McKechnie's is that of the indignant Scot fighting the mood of the modern political world. It is a dour, anti-government, beer and sandwiches voice - difficult to imagine it being deployed on behalf of the latest jolly gadgetry advice from the Consumers' Association.

Or maybe not. Sheila McKechnie comes from the first generation of career women. They took up the reins of feminism at university in the Sixties and rode on into the political world of trade unions, campaigning charities and the media.

There is no traditional career structure for women like these. Some, like Harriet Harman, who cut her teeth at the National Council for Civil Liberties, have gone on to Westminster. But for women like Ms McKechnie, who has no party political ambition, there is no obvious next move.

She has been nearly 10 years at Shelter - as she puts it, 'a long time for both myself and the organisation'. It is a high profile, high responsibility, low pay job, like many others in the voluntary sector. By crossing to a more commercial organisation like the Consumers' Association, she has a chance to retain that profile, but on a more man-size salary.

From the outside, Shelter and the Consumers' Association appear very different beasts.

The former is a charity rooted in the spirit of the Sixties. It stands completely outside the Establishment. As Ms McKechnie says: 'We have managed to get everyone to agree to a widespread consensus on housing - everyone except the Government, that is.'

The Consumers' Association is a less antagonistic animal, best known for its Which? publications. Its director might equally expect to attend drinks parties with politicians as well as lobby them.

It is a membership organisation, whose members are predominantly Middle Englanders, with a slight anorak tendency. However, while they are interested in their value-for-money guides to consumer durables, many of those running the organisation would prefer to chart more radical waters.

There has been a long-running internal debate about whether the association should be tackling more political issues, such as pesticides and food irradiation. By choosing Ms McKechnie as their next director, in succession to John Beishon, it would seem the organisation is going along the radical activist, rather than the conservative consumer path. But is Sheila McKechnie the right person to lead it?

Like an actor who gets type- cast, she feels 10 years in the same business makes people forget she had a life before Shelter. In that life, first as a post-graduate at Warwick University and later as a trade unionist, subjects such as health and environmental concerns were her chosen specialisms. So in terms of knowledge, she qualifies for the job. She is also, under the name of her partner of 18 years, a subscriber to Which? magazine.

But what matters to a lobbying organisation like the Consumers' Association - and to Shelter - is that it makes its voice heard in the corridors of power. And here, Ms McKechnie may face a difficult struggle.

Ms McKechnie had the misfortune to be leading Shelter during the heydey of the right-to-buy era, when owner-occupation was the only topic on the government's housing agenda. The organisation opposed that, as it did the revitalisation of the private rental sector. Shelter has gained a reputation as the organisation which likes to say No.

The directorship of the Consumers' Association was not the only job on offer. Ms McKechnie was also sounded out for the very prickly post of successor to Ros Hepplewhite, at the Child Support Agency. The Consumers' Association will certainly offer a more comfortable life than that.

But she has no intention of making it too comfortable. Though unwilling to spell out her agenda for the organisation before she has even arrived, she clearly sees the association's role as championing the cause of the little guy in important political areas such as financial services, as well as environmental ones.

Her hardest task will be to persuade ministers that in adopting her causes, they are not seen to be guilty of consorting with the enemy.

(Photograph omitted)

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