Where Are They Now? John Leech
John Leech | portrait by Tracy Worrall
Liberal Democrat MP for Manchester Withington, 2005 - 2015
For John Leech, entering Parliament in 2005 was a blur. It followed a shock victory in a formerly strong Labour area of Manchester.
“We had plans to win over two elections, but somehow we did it in one. I went into the election as a candidate thinking we’d get ourselves into a decent second place, then I was going to decide whether I wanted to do it again, and that decision was taken away from me.”
Having won re-election in 2010, Leech was one of just two in his party to oppose the formation of the coalition with the Conservatives – the other being the late Charles Kennedy – and it sparked a more rebellious second term.
“It’s so much easier to toe the party line when you’re in opposition, because the position you’re taking is usually at odds with the government. Even if you disagree with colleagues, it’s very easy to be of one mind that whatever it is the government has done is a terrible thing, and you can vote against that.”
Having found himself in a party of government, Leech said he chose his battles, and would “begrudgingly” vote for things in exchange for support elsewhere.
One of the most notable achievements from his time in Parliament was his instrumental role in securing an historic pardon for Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing, who was prosecuted for “homosexual acts”.
It’s so much easier to toe the party line when you’re in opposition
“I remember at the time saying quite clearly that we recognised this wasn’t going to set a precedent if we gave Turing a pardon, but of course that’s exactly what we intended,” he says. “And that’s what happened in the end.”
But Leech says there are plenty more memorable moments of which he is proud, even if they did not garner the same level of press interest.
“It’s very rare you get to make a clear difference. Most of the achievements have been things that can’t ever come into the public debate, because it’s individual pieces of casework where I’ve made a real difference for someone.”
That urge to help constituents drove Leech to run, successfully, for a council seat after he lost his parliamentary seat when his party was routed at the 2015 election. Despite being a victim of the coalition era, Leech insists there is “no real benefit of being able to say ‘I told you so’”.
“It is what it is,” he adds. “The thing that struck me post-coalition was those of us who had been in Parliament who were responsible for the decision to go into coalition, whether we backed it or not, in my view had a duty to actually try to make it right afterwards.”
Moving from Westminster to the local council came with its own challenges, in particular a “huge” financial hit.
“The biggest challenge for me was the financial consequences of losing, because I made a decision very early on that it was incumbent on me to start the fight back for the party in Manchester,” he says.
“I don’t have to go down to London any more, but I still do all the same sorts of stuff that I was doing before, I just do it with no staff.”
Combined with his long campaign for safe standing in football stadiums, Leech hopes a record of public service will help him in the upcoming local elections, where he is planning to defend his seat on a council dominated by Labour.
“It’s always a lot tougher being a Liberal Democrat than the Labour or Tories, because there are people who will vote for them regardless of what is going on in the local area,” he says. “It’s always going to be that way when we have the voting system we do, but we will do our best and see how it goes.”
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