Interview: Claire Ward; Age of innocence
She's the youngest of Tony Blair's new girls. So how do you get to be an MP at the age of 24? By starting your political career at age 11...
Aside from The Independent, Annalisa Barbieri writes for the Economist's Intelligent Life magazine, and the New Statesman. A former contributing editor of the Independent on Sunday and fishing correspondent of the Independent, she is also patron of Rights of Women
Sunday 11 May 1997
"It's quite amusing," says Ward. "When I came in yesterday to get my pass, I had a TV crew with me - they'd been filming me from leaving home, getting on the train etc. And they filmed me coming out of the taxi here and then going and saying to the policeman: `I'm a new member of Parliament. Where do I go to get my pass?' And it's all very amusing, but there really is a sense of `My God!' you know..."
Despite the fuss, Ward is not the youngest MP. Christopher Leslie, who won the Shipley seat from 69-year-old Sir Marcus Fox, is a month younger. But this is nit-picking. Ward may get tired of the emphasis placed on her age, but for everyone else the influx of youth into Westminster is as refreshing as a lemon fizz. Compare the unctuous, can't-show-myself- up, fwah fwah behaviour of some politicians with Ward's slightly gauche response to being asked for an interview. "Where shall we meet? Do you know anywhere in Westminster?" "Er, what about the House of Commons?" I offer. "Do you have an office there yet?" "No, but I guess they'll let me in there won't they?"
Really though, Ward is no stranger to the House of Commons and certainly no stranger to politics, which is apparent immediately. She may be young, but she is already a politician. Questions are answered simply and directly. She is friendly but distant. Not easily side-tracked, giving fairly stock answers, and she does not slip into the trap less experienced interviewees do of saying yes yes in an absent-minded response. But sometimes, just sometimes, you see the person underneath the politician and this makes for a curious mixture of sophisticated crispness with the odd hint of something altogether more interesting. Like an After Eight mint.
Claire Ward was born in North Shields in Tyne and Wear, to Scottish parents. Her father works for a housing association, in property management, her mother used be a sewing machinist. Both are Labour councillors. Her father stood for Parliament in Hertsmere against Cecil Parkinson in 1987. "I grew up in a political family, but I really started to take an interest when I was about 11, when Dad had just got onto the council." Politics then became part of everyday life and Ward helped out leafleting in the `83 election. She went to Loreto Roman Catholic Secondary School in St Albans when she was 11, where her interest in politics was already apparent, and she took every election day off and a week for the Labour party conference. The school disapproved. "But my parents thought it was right that I should work in elections because they thought it was part of my education."
Sister Kathleen, Ward's headmistress at Loreto, remembers her well. "Well, to put it in a nutshell, throughout all her time here, it was very obvious Claire saw her future in politics. From the age of 11, she would take a week of for the Labour conferences and a week off for the TUC conferences. Obviously, her parents got permission, but, yes, it did make me very cross." Was Claire a fount of political knowledge? Did she write "Up the Labour party" on the toilet walls? "She was always talking about the Labour party and the Labour manifesto - but that's not knowing all about politics is it? That's knowing about one political party - and I believe she was like that all through her primary school as well. She did an A-level in politics and she got a C." Obviously, Sister Kathleen is very proud of her former charge now "it's very nice", in the retrospective way that all convent schools are proud of former pupils who have done well.
It was the miners strike of 84/85 that really got Ward going. Her family were involved in a miners' family support group. "I think any child could see that something was not quite right. You see children of the same age as you whose fathers are facing the loss of their jobs and they may not get a job again. And you see the effect on the family and the whole community."
Soon after, at 15, Ward joined the Labour Party and then the Transport and General Workers Union. She got elected onto the Labour Party National Executive Committee at 19, working with Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and then Tony Blair, "so I'm used to dealing with people at that level," and came off the committee in 1995, when she was selected to run for Watford.
Ward isn't frightened of being bullied in the Commons. "Some will try to do it intentionally and some will just not be used to getting younger women in here... that young kid over there, the girl over there, that kind of thing. But so long as I keep reminding them that I'm here on equal terms with them. I've been elected just the same as they were." She was elected with a majority of nearly 6,000, winning the seat from the Tories. Does she wake up and think, "Oh my God. I'm an MP, I'm an MP!"? "Sometimes, I sort of pinch myself almost. I think it will really hit me when I sit on the benches, because it's something you've seen on television. And, although I've been in there before, it will be quite an experience."
Throughout the interview, people come up and kiss Ward and congratulate her and suddenly the HoC seems like a place where nice things could happen. "That's Jim Murphy who won Eastwood." I sneak a look at her pass. She looks about 12. "There are quite a few people here that I know," she says a bit proudly, "and yesterday I met some of the new MPs that I had known as candidates and we all rushed up and kissed and hugged each other and the camera crew loved it. That sense of friendship that's obviously going to be here."
Ward has heard that there is a lack of female toilets and wonders how she will be able to manage without her mobile phone - which must be switched off when you are in the House. "But surely I can have mine on? I'm an MP."
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