PROFILE: Sheila McKechnie / The consumer's choice

After Shelter, the quintessential campaigner is ready for a new battle, says Laurence Marks

Related Topics
AFTER 10 years in command of Shelter's rearguard action against cuts in public housing, Sheila McKechnie takes over as £75,000-a-year director of the Consumers' Association on Tuesday. She will find a situation not unlike the one that confronted her at the housing charity in 1985: a respected national institution fallen into disrepair.

The association's core activity is commercial product testing, recorded in its monthly magazine, Which? The magazine's circulation has dropped from 850,000 in 1988 to 683,000. This has caused a crisis of confidence, and morale was not improved by a strike over pay last June or by public criticism of Which?'s attempt to attract new subscribers with hard-sell mail shots.

The staff, who have been at odds with the retiring director, John Beishon, have welcomed Ms McKechnie's appointment. Her primary task will be to decide whether the association's definition of the consumer interest is too narrow. Advice about a new fridge or laptop is useful, but there are more pressing consumer concerns.

The most important of these are environmental damage to health; mendacious advertising; failures in the regulation of financial services and privatised utilities, in the effectiveness of the enforcement agencies and in the provision of health, housing, education and public transport.

Although she has not committed herself publicly, nobody familiar with Ms McKechnie's career or with her social outlook doubts that the Consumers' Association stands on the threshold of a revolution.

SHEILA McKECHNIE is a large, cheerful, emotionally uncomplicated Scot of 46 - a familiar presence, with her anglicised Lowlands accent, on the BBC's Question Time. She grew up in Falkirk, where she took maths, physics and chemistry as her sixth-form subjects at high school, and taught Sunday school. Her father, a baker, bequeathed to her a talent for shortbread, though she owes most of her considerable culinary skills to holidays in France with her longtime partner and stepdaughter.

At Edinburgh University she read history and, as secretary of the students' representative council, was drawn into the heady student politics of the late Sixties. "I felt incredibly liberated by leaving that sedate little Scottish town for the cosmopolitanism of Edinburgh," she recalls. "There was an enormous optimism and self-confidence compared with university life today. I had a sense of wonder, most of the time I was there, that this was happening to me."

The experience formed her character, and she never lost that optimism, though in the past 10 years there has been little reason for it.

Graduating with an upper second, she worked as a research assistant in labour relations, first at Warwick and then at Oxford, where she says she was radicalised by reading American feminist literature. She helped organise the National Women's Liberation Conferences at Manchester and Birmingham in the Seventies and was on the editorial board of Red Rag, a radical feminist periodical.

In 1972 the Wallpaper Workers' Union, worried by the aggressive recruiting tactics of Clive Jenkins's white-collar ASTMS, hired her as assistant secretary to organise supervisors, designers and other clerical staff in the industry. "Negotiating with companies like Crown and Sanderson's knocked some of the airy-fairy idealism out of me," she says. "I learnt that life is seldom clear-cut, and that there's usually right and wrong on both sides."

She spent two years teaching labour relations and women's studies at Manchester University, and had a regular slot on Granada TV's This is Your Right programme, answering questions about the Equal Pay Act.

Then, in 1974, Parliament passed the Health and Safety at Work Act. Although tens of thousands of employees were being injured every year by industrial accidents and degenerative diseases, few in the trade union movement understood the technical and medical complexities of the subject. Ms McKechnie took the trouble to instruct herself in it.

Clive Jenkins had been impressed by her competitive spirit at the wallpaper union. A significant number of his members worked in dangerous laboratories. Without much enthusiasm for the issue, he invited her to join ASTMS as national health and safety officer in 1976. He taught her how to handle the media, and left her to get on with the job. She made the union one of the most effective agencies in the country for the reform of life-threatening industrial practices, a model of enlightened trade unionism.

The housing charity Shelter was started in the Sixties by a Catholic priest, Eamonn Casey (since disgraced), and a Methodist minister, Bruce Kendrick, who were active among exploited private tenants in London's Notting Hill district. Des Wilson, whom they hired as its director, was the first person to recognise that it was not enough for a charity to lobby clandestinely in the corridors of Whitehall. If it was to achieve worthwhile changes in government policy it needed to enlist the mass media, particularly television, which had recently moved the nation with a play about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. Wilson transformed single-issue politics.

When Ms McKechnie became director, Shelter had lost its edge and direction. In common with other public-interest groups, it was being injured by left-wing elements that wished to use it as an engine of radicalism. The 1977 Homeless Persons Act, which introduced housing benefit, had been the greatest political achievement of the housing lobby, but many people would argue that Shelter's housing advice arm, SHAC, under Nick Raynsford, played a greater part in that than the parent organisation.

Recognising, like Sue Slipman at the National Council for One-Parent Families, that a lobby's strength lies in its independence from party interest and in the absolute objectivity of its research, Ms McKechnie fought a tough-minded internal battle to restore Shelter's effectiveness, widening its financial base and earning the respect of Whitehall and the media.

In his Campaigning Handbook, published last month, Mark Lattimer argues that single-issue campaigning has been more successful than mass-party politics. "The growth of a host of separate struggles has proved a more effective way of achieving social change than attempting to persuade different individuals to join together," he writes. "The harbinger of change is not so much a new dawn, more a thousand points of light . . . Perhaps the best analogy for campaigning now is not war, but surgery . . . The campaign strike should be as surgical as possible. Localised, precise . . . minimally invasive."

Ms McKechnie's experience at Shelter exposes the strength and weakness of this thesis. During her 10 years there, the Government continually cut its spending on public housing in the belief that a free market would provide a more flexible resource for a mobile workforce. It has been proved glaringly wrong, as the proliferation of inhabited cardboard boxes on our streets amply testifies. At the same time, the right-to-buy policy has reduced council tenancies from 6 to 4 million, diminishing the the number of citizens with a vested interest in public housing.

"The problem has been that the Government doesn't see housing as a social issue, but as a side-issue of economic policy," Ms McKechnie says. She and her team have campaigned successfully to limit the effects of a disastrous policy. One of the most valuable functions of a pressure group is the detailed monitoring of legislation. Her greatest victory has been to fight off an attack on the Homeless Persons Act in the Department of the Environment's green paper last February.

But she has not been able to halt the retreat from public housing. Nor has she been able to force the Government to restore housing benefit to 16- and 17-year-olds in order to get juveniles off the streets.

"There's a cyclical pattern to single-issue politics," says Raynsford, now a Labour MP and shadow housing minister. "Sheila transformed Shelter. It's a much stronger organisation, better placed to have an influence. But the world in which it operates haschanged. It's far harder these days to exercise that influence."

Unlike housing, which has not been central to Westminster politics since the Sixties, consumerism is politically hot. Failures in regulatory bodies and in the enforcement agencies have contributed to an impression of the Government's political weakness and administrative incompetence. Like Blucher at Waterloo, Ms McKechnie is a late arrival on the battlefield, but one to be reckoned with.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Daily catch-up: the gap between rich and poor has narrowed (a little) since the banking crisis

John Rentoul
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot