"How can a national newspaper call you a 'Cutie' at 45? You're my mum!" asked my highly amused 22-year-old son last weekend. He was, of course, referring to the fact that I had been shortlisted for interview at a safe Conservative parliamentary seat in Suffolk, where a row had supposedly broken out among members of the association concerning the candidate selection process.
I had unfortunately been caught in the media crossfire as one of six finalists, none of whom were "local" to the area. The ensuing story that unfolded labelled me as a raunchy tap dancer. The reality is more prosaic. I have built a (now large) business, teaching thousands of 16-80 year olds to dance. One can imagine how the grocer's daughter from Grantham would have reacted to the media's implication that small business owners were an insignificance to the nation.
I have spent the last 20 years raising a family as well as running a business. As anyone in a similar position will tell you, setting up a business from scratch, working long hours and fitting this around a growing family is never easy. But it is a process taking place in thousands of homes in constituencies across the country, because it's usually from the front room of a house that your first business venture begins.
Two questions regularly put to me before I was shortlisted were, first, why somebody running a business would want to be an MP; and, second, what right a non-local has to be an MP. Let me explain.
On the first: our country is facing enormous challenges. We need jobs and the right training for our young people, but we also need politicians from all walks of life, with a whole range of experiences and skills. I want to use the experience I have, and the commercial skills I have developed over the years, to make a real difference. And I want to encourage more women to come forward and contribute to public life too. On the second: some candidates will be local before they are selected for their seat; some will be local after. What matters more than whether or not they've grown up in the area where they are standing is a commitment to the constituency and the people they would serve.
The days before any final selection is always a busy time for candidates. Once we are chosen by a panel of local party members, we are then encouraged to engage with as many people in the constituency as possible, to invite them along to the final so that they can hear us answer questions and then vote for their favourite. It is a new, innovative method of selecting, brought in by David Cameron, and is an opportunity for anyone living in the constituency who is registered on the electoral roll to participate in the process.
In the run up to this selection, the councillors I met from both rural Suffolk and urban Ipswich were all extremely supportive and I experienced no hostility whatsoever – just a curiosity to find out more about me and what I could offer to the area if selected. On the night of the count, we were well looked after and the only amusing moment arose when it transpired that the lady who was looking after us was the same lady my photo had been juxtaposed against in the media that week. We both agreed that, given our ages, being called "cute" was quite an achievement.
Suffolk chose a great candidate, but it wasn't me this time. I am now busy applying to another seat and so the process begins all over again. The life of a candidate is never dull and with an impending election it can only get busier.
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