Conor McGinn: "People don’t feel Labour listens to them, never mind speaks for them"
He is making his mark as one of Labour’s rising stars from the 2015 intake – but growing up in 1980s South Armagh, Conor McGinn felt a world away from Westminster. The St Helens North MP tells Kevin Schofield his story
Conor McGinn is not your average Labour MP. Brought up in the Irish Republican heartland of Bessbrook, South Armagh, and the son of a Sinn Fein councillor, he freely admits that the notion that he would go on to represent a Merseyside constituency at Westminster would have been fanciful just 20 years ago.
And that’s before you learn of his past as a school cleaner, barman, petrol pump attendant, bookies’ clerk and prison mental health worker. So how did he end up as a whip in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, identified by many as a rising star in his party, at the tender age of 31?
It all began in rural Northern Ireland at a tumultuous time in the country’s history. “From the outside looking in, growing up in South Armagh in the 1980s and 1990s was abnormal,” he says. “But when you were there at the time and living in it, and never having experienced anything else, it was just life.
“I grew up in a very tight-knit community and a close family. It was an incredibly political environment you were growing up in because Bessbrook was one of the most militarised in western Europe. It had a heliport and armed soldiers on the streets, and my community was hostile to them and they were hostile to us.”
His dad Pat, like many men in the area, struggled to find work and went to university as a mature student. Mum Noreen was a clerical officer in the NHS. Both made huge sacrifices for their family, and encouraged Conor and his brother Niall to read and learn as much as they could.
“The opinions and views of either of my parents were never imposed upon us,” he insists. “Like most Irish families, there’s a very diverse range of opinions on everything from football to politics and so it was a house where we challenged and were challenged.
“I always remember when I got to my early teens I made a stand against going to Mass on a Sunday. I said I don’t believe in God so I’m not going to Mass. The truth is most of my contemporaries would have been told they were going whether they liked it or not.
“My mum and dad said fine, they recognised I was old enough to form my own opinion, but I still had to get up on a Sunday morning and do something else. Now I’ve gone back to the church and I now do go to Mass of my own volition, so there’s a lesson in there as well.”
He followed the “well-trodden path” from Ireland to London at the age of 18 to study history and politics at Goldsmith’s University. After a second year in which he “messed about”, McGinn failed his exams and dropped out. (He would resume his studies a few years later, getting a first class degree).
Happily, the break in his higher education gave him more time to work in the Tooting pub where, as well as serving pints, he had started to demonstrate the public service ethos which would eventually lead him to the green benches of the House of Commons.
“I used to run effectively a surgery in the pub,” he says. “You were seeing and helping people with a lot of the issues they had – people who couldn’t read or write – and helping them to fill out forms for their housing or their benefits.
“I got a bit of a reputation where Irish people would come to me with problems and some of the older men, it was the early 2000s and the dawn of Ryanair and internet cheap flights, and they would come to me to book their flights home. That was the community focus that I had been brought up with.”
He was able to put desire to help others into practice in his next job working with Irish prisoners in the British prisons system. McGinn says: “I visited dozens of prisons and met hundreds of prisoners. 10% were very bad people, 40% were nuisances, and the rest were fellas who made bad choices or had no choices at all. I tried to help people and accentuate the rehabilitative nature of prison. I didn’t suffer fools either, I knew when someone was at it. Then I thought, in order to give a voice to these people, I’d move into politics.”
Having joined the Labour party shortly after arriving in Britain in 2002, McGinn became chair of the Young Fabians. He says: “That challenged a lot of prejudices – a working class Paddy who becomes the chair of the youth wing of the intellectual side of the party.
“I firmly believe the Labour party is most successful when the organising wing and the intellectual wings coalesce. Part of the difficulty the Labour party is in today is we’ve somehow saw those two as competing rather than complementary.”
A resident of Islington for over a decade, he twice tried and failed to get elected to the local council. Undeterred, he applied to be Vernon Coaker’s adviser when he was appointed shadow Northern Ireland secretary by Ed Miliband.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background, it took three months for him to receive the full security clearance necessary for him to do his job properly. In the end, testimonials were needed from pals who were senior police officers in Glasgow and Northern Ireland before the Serjeant At Arms finally signed off his application.
“I would say Vernon took a big risk appointing me to that job, and he showed a lot of confidence in me,” McGinn says. “I suppose he saw a bit of himself in me – working class kid who, if he gets a break, might make it. We worked hard and we showed the difference you can make in opposition because we pushed the government to get things done.”
When Coaker was promoted to shadow defence secretary in Miliband’s next reshuffle, he had no hesitation in telling McGinn that he wanted him to come too. Security concerns meant he had to discuss it with his family in Northern Ireland, but he quickly accepted the offer.
It was a big job, but not without its moments of levity. “Whenever we met the defence chiefs either they cracked a gag or I cracked a gag,” he recalls. “Most of the senior officers at that level had all served in Northern Ireland.
“I remember we were on Salisbury Plain on the firing range with Sir Nick Houghton, who is now head of the Army, and I don’t think I hit anything and he said ‘oh I would have expected a man from South Armagh to do better than that’ and I said ‘well that might be so sir, and if it’s not too impertinent, I might also say you probably weren’t quite so relaxed the last time someone from South Armagh let off a few live ones in your vicinity’.
“And when I got the job we had a meeting with one of the defence companies and they said ‘do you know anything about defence equipment?’ and I said ‘I know a lot about the undercarriages of helicopters, having looked up at them for a long time back home’. But I was never treated with anything other than the utmost of respect.”
By now his ambition was to become an MP, and when Dave Watts announced he was standing down in St Helens North, he threw his hat into the ring.
“A constituency had to be the right fit for me and St Helens North is working class, community is important, family is important, and there’s quite a significant Catholic population and a big Irish heritage,” he says.
“I knew Dave Watts and he was and still is a really good friend. He wanted someone to succeed him who was working class and would work hard in St Helens but also represent the constituency well here. Out of nothing I decided to have a punt.”
Despite being up against the leader of the local council, the outgoing mayor of the borough, a trade union candidate and two other councillors, McGinn won the selection and was elected last May with a 17,000 majority.
Firmly on the right of the party, becoming an MP has simply reinforced his belief that for Labour to stand any chance of winning in 2020, it must once again speak for the ordinary voter
He says: “I love London, and it’s a fantastic city, and Islington is a great place, but it’s not like the rest of the country. Being the MP for St Helens has simply reinforced that for me. I think the challenge for Jeremy having been an MP for 30-odd years for a seat like Islington, is how he relates to the rest of the country.
“I think there is a political crisis that has engulfed what would be seen as the traditional Labour working class. They don’t feel that anyone listens to them, never mind speaks for them. And I think that’s a real problem for the Labour party particularly. Sometimes it can seem that we’re pre-occupied with things that are insignificant to the population.
“I’m a very straightforward sort of fella. I think when you lose an election you should look at the reasons why and try, within the parameters of your own values, to move closer to the public, not further away from the public.”
To that end, he will vote for the renewal of Trident, arguing that voters want a government “they think puts their safety and security as a priority”.
McGinn is currently campaigning hard to keep Britain in the EU. For him, the impact Brexit could have on Anglo-Irish relations is reason enough to vote Remain. He says: “I think it would be very destabilising and I think it would be bad for Ireland and for the UK.
“Growing up in a border area and remembering what it was like when we had checkpoints and now being able to go home and drive from Dublin airport across a border that doesn’t really exist is a big deal. I just think it would be bad.”
Although he does not want to be defined by his background, the idea that he could be a role model obviously appeals.
“If a kid in school where I come from or a kid in school in loyalist east Belfast, or a working class kid from St. Helens can look at me and say ‘I fancy a bit of that too’ then I think that’ll be job done for me.”
MCGINN ON TONY BLAIR
“I think people have very short memories. For me it’s personal. When Labour came to power in 1997, Tony Blair made it his priority to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Working with the Irish government he drove that agenda and that gave opportunities to people like me that had been denied to previous generations. I'm not naïve enough to think that he didn’t make mistakes, he is fallible, but I think the last Labour government was the transformative government in the last 100 years of British political history, but also a transformative one for me personally."
MCGINN ON HIS EARLY BELIEFS
“Like most teenagers I was a communist for a brief period but then I stopped believing in that, and Santa Claus. I worry about young people who aren’t rebels.”
MCGINN ON ‘PATRICIAN SOCIALISM’
“There is a patrician socialism that not only wants to tell working class people what’s best for them, but what they should and shouldn’t think. I think if we are to have a genuine revival in the politics of the left, then we need to start listening to people and hearing their truths.
“The epitome of the last general election campaign to me was in Warrington South. I knocked on the door of what I would describe as an ordinary man who said ‘yeah, I’m voting Labour but to be honest you’re not offering me anything’. If I was to describe this man I would say he wanted a secure job that paid decent wages, an affordable mortgage that allowed him to have a nice home, a good education for his kids, wife to be able to get home safely from the train station every night, putting away a few quid for his retirement, dignity in old age for his parents, a holiday away every year and changing his car every couple of years. The problem with sections of the left is that they sneer at people like that.”
MCGINN ON LABOUR’S DEFENCE RECORD
“Defence might not win you a lot of votes, but it can definitely lose you a lot of votes if you’re not in the right place on it. Labour has a proud history when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, and whether that’s our membership of Nato, the nuclear deterrent, support for the Armed Forces, or not being afraid to intervene in the best spirit and sense of internationalism, and humanitarianism – that has got to be Labour’s future as well.”