Gloria De Piero: Attention everyday sexists - beware the 'TV girl'

The new, media-savvy Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities is speaking out for the politically detached 'Take a Break' mums. Jane Merrick meets Gloria De Piero MP

When MPs and candidates are out canvassing, they usually knock on the doors of the six out of 10 people who have voted before. The remaining four out of 10 go undisturbed. What's the point, the canvassers will say, when we need to get these Tory voters to switch to Labour, or those Labour supporters to back the Liberal Democrats?

When she was elected MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Gloria De Piero, a former TV journalist, began an investigation into political disengagement called "Why Do People Hate Me?" She started knocking on the doors of those who never voted. A few months ago, she came across Michelle, a mother in her thirties. De Piero asked her why she had never voted. Michelle replied that she and her husband didn't understand politics. "We're little people, we're just thick."

De Piero says: "Then she started talking about antisocial behaviour in the neighbourhood and I said: 'Michelle, we're talking about politics, do you realise that? You would be a breath of fresh air, you could be on the council.' And she paused and said, 'Maybe I could do it.' This was a five-minute conversation with someone who'd never voted at 34 and it was a very short journey to saying, 'Maybe this is like me.'"

De Piero was last week appointed as the first MP to hold a Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet position responsible solely for women and equalities. She wants to give a voice to the "millions of Michelles around the country".

"I see my job as not just taking Labour Party policies to women, but to bring women's voices to the top table in the Labour Party. I want to be a woman's friend in politics. Yesterday I said to my press person, Nick, 'Do you know who I want to meet? I want to meet the editor of Take a Break.' I'd love to, not because I want to say, 'Get me in your magazine' but, 'I want to talk to your readers.'"

The women's weekly magazine of real-life stories and competitions has a circulation of nearly 720,000; if three people read each copy, that's more than 2.1 million. These voices, De Piero feels, are not being fully represented by Westminster politicians. "Everyone is facing a cost of living crisis, but I think for mums it is more profound than for any other group."

More than most other MPs, De Piero has personal experience of what constitutes a cost of living crisis. She grew up in Bradford, the daughter of Italian immigrants, and her parents were out of work by the time she was 10. When I ask her what it was like, for the first time, her strident, gesticulating effervescence gives way to quieter reflection.

"My dad read The Guardian and watched World in Action and all those serious programmes, but he was totally self taught. Even though there was no money, we had a house full of books … the library would sell them off at 10p a book. They were very ambitious for their daughter to do better, to have a better life than they had."

De Piero, 40, joined the Labour Party at 18, shortly before the 1992 election. A year before the 1997 election, she ran Labour Students, and appeared in a party political broadcast entitled Road to the Manifesto. When Tony Blair won, she tried to get a job in politics, but could not break through.

Perhaps her strong Bradford accent did not fit well with the Islington types who ran New Labour. De Piero says: "I remember thinking that when I looked around, there were no working-class female role models. Nobody actually sounded like me. "

Instead, she went into political journalism – on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme, then the BBC's On the Record. She joined GMTV as political editor in 2003. "While you're describing the Budget in 45 seconds, mum's probably gone out of the room to put the sandwich box together – people aren't tuning into it in the way they're tuning into On the Record. It was one of the best things that I did; I think it changed me. I think I'm a better politician for it."

When she held Ashfield for Labour in 2010, after Geoff Hoon stood down, De Piero once again found herself – despite all of her experience as a journalist in Westminster – searching for working-class women to look up to. There were few: Caroline Flint, Yvette Cooper, and Sharon Hodgson, who left school in Gateshead at 16, became a mother at 27 and joined the Labour Party at 29. Hodgson was elected in 2005, at the age of 39, and is now De Piero's new deputy. "She's proves you don't need a degree from Oxford to be an MP."

De Piero always receives a lot of attention for her appearance – she was once voted 85th sexiest woman in the world by FHM magazine. For her first question to David Cameron at PMQs back in 2010, she asked a question about free swimming lessons, and Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail sketch-writer, referred to her as "the lovely Gloria – no need for armbands, she". On her promotion last week, the Daily Mail described her as a "TV girl".

She says: "These are the examples of everyday sexism aren't they?"

De Piero organised David Miliband's leaving party from Parliament – "He deserved a good send-off." So is she a Blairite? "I think even Tony Blair would say we've got to constantly move on. But do I owe a debt of gratitude to a man who won us three elections? You bet."

While, "right now we are focusing on getting Ed in" to Downing Street, it is "only a matter of time" before Labour gets a female leader. But she insists that she has no leadership ambitions of her own. Instead, her ambition is to get Michelle a seat on her local council. "Having more Michelles on the council, in politics, would be transformative."

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