Gordon Birtwistle: One man industrial revolution

Posted On: 
8th March 2012

As the oldest of the 2010 MPs, Gordon Birtwistle says the rise of apprenticeships is good news for Britain – even if his own political career may be cut short by a boundary review

Many MPs served a political apprenticeship in the corridors of power before they were elected. Gordon Birtwistle served a real apprenticeship, and is now working to ensure the next generation have the same opportunities that he had back in the 1950s.

The Lib Dem MP for the former mill town of Burnley, where he has lived since he was a child, started his professional life as a craft engineering apprentice in 1958. After serving his apprenticeship, Birtwistle became a jig and tool draftsman, then worked as a machine shop methods engineer.  He later set up his own successful cutter grinding business, sold it to a large engineering company, and founded another engineering supplies business.

Birtwistle recalls his first day on the shop floor, “turning up in a new set of overalls and big boots”.

“I remember it well. I went to work at 15 and I came out with my certificate when I was 21. Modern apprenticeships are three or four years long now, but that is not a problem; people start later, so they do a bit more education before they leave. I left school at 15.  “Then I had a choice of seven or eight jobs because all the big companies in my area, they were all manufacturing companies and they all took on vast numbers of apprentices. The company I worked for took on 60 apprentices every August, but they employed 5,500 people, so they were always replacing the stock of skilled people.”

Born in Oswaldtwistle in 1943, Birtwistle was the oldest new MP of the 2010 intake, but he is no political ingenu. It was his fourth attempt to win Burnley, and his victory was one of the few Lib Dem gains of the night. A 9.6 per cent swing sent him to Westminster with a majority of 1,818.

A longstanding councillor and former leader of the local council, he was the first non-Labour MP to represent the town since 1935.

A big man with a dominating presence, he has been jokingly compared by fellow Lib Dem MPs to Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times and to mill-owner Bradley Hardacre in Brass, ITV’s satire on the Dickens classic. He has more than 50 years’ experience as an engineer and employer.

Birtwistle is certainly atypical of the sort of modern politicians who normally end up on the green benches, and puts paid to the idea that all Liberal Democrats are as smooth as Jeremy Browne, Nick Clegg or David Laws.

He jokes he is the most “senior” of the new intake “by a long way”, and reveals that he had already hung up his boots before coming to Westminster.  “I retired from work at 65 years old. I got myself an allotment, I was taking my grandchildren to school, taking holidays, it was wonderful.”

His winning campaign was centred on the local hospital. “We had an awful MP at the time who showed little interest in Burnley,” he says. “There was a general trend against Labour but the big issue was that the previous Labour government transferred our A&E unit from our hospital, and our children’s ward to Blackburn. We led a massive campaign for four years, including marches of a thousand people through the town. I stood outside Marks & Spencer for four years with a campaign stand and got 25,000 on the petition. It was what they call local politics, I believe.”

Birtwistle laughs when he is asked to comment on the rest of the 2010 intake. “Brains coming out of every orifice of their body, intelligence beyond belief, but common sense? Zero,” is his assessment.

He enjoys his role as PPS to Danny Alexander. “When I got elected I became a junior whip, or a ‘whipette’ as I call it, for about three weeks, and then Danny approached me and said, would I like to be his PPS? I didn’t even know what a PPS was. It is really, really interesting.”

Birtwistle says his boss is “future leadership material”, and becomes quite animated when Harriet Harman’s name is mentioned in relation to her attacks on Alexander.

“She doesn’t have to say what she is going to do. It is very easy to condemn others when you don’t have to say what you would do. That is the problem with the Labour Party; they condemn us for everything but don’t suggest what they would do in return.”

He was, however, a Labour Party member in the 1960s and early 1970s, later leaving to join the SDP when it was founded in 1982. And Birtwistle is against any future Lib Dem/Labour coalition. “I think I would call it a day and go back to my allotment,” he says when asked his view of Lib Dems putting Labour back in power.

The proposed boundary changes that would split his seat are electoral “death”, he states bluntly.

“I will stand again, but I will be 72. With the boundary changes as they are now, I doubt I will be able to win because we will get wiped out. Burnley North and Burnley South will both become safe Labour seats.”

Last month the first all-party parliamentary group (APPG) dedicated to the advancement of apprenticeships was launched, with Birtwistle as chairman.

Birtwistle says it will draw attention to the need to properly train “the people of the future”.

“An apprentice is like buying a machine, it is an asset. If you replenish your tools you go out of business, and if you don’t replenish your workforce, you go out of business.

“The assets of the company are the machine tools and the guy who works on them. You can have a workshop full of the best machine tools in the world but if you don’t have any skilled men to work them, they are not worth anything.”

He says the growth in manufacturing means there is “a desperate need for apprenticeships in the UK”.

“Unfortunately in Burnley we don’t have the skills to do the jobs that are coming now in the future. Also the age profile of a lot of manufacturing companies, particularly in Burnley, is very high. We have one company that employs more than 800 people, whose age profile is in excess of 47 – the majority of people are over 47 years old.”

He blames Labour for the decline in apprenticeships. “The problem we have had for the last 15 years is the decline of manufacturing. The previous government thought, quite foolishly, we could rely on the service sector.

“Then they realised quite suddenly that that does not work. Manufacturing is now returning to the economy, it is climbing every month, but we don’t have the people skilled enough to do the job now, which is a problem.”

Birtwistle may not be in the next Parliament if the boundary changes go ahead, but he appears happy with what he has managed to achieve as a member of the first coalition government in his lifetime.

“I am getting a brand new £10m emergency unit at the hospital and got the university extension I wanted. The main thing in Burnley is to replace the poor housing quality and improve the prosperity of the town, but it is doing well. When manufacturing picks up, we do well. Burnley is on the up at the moment.”