Where Are They Now? Melanie Onn
Melanie Onn | portrait by Tracy Worrall
Labour MP for Great Grimsby, 2015 - 2019
Melanie Onn is convinced she left little mark on Westminster. The former shadow housing minister warns ahead of her interview that she might not be very interesting. “I would be amazed if people remember who I am!”, she exclaims.
Such self-deprecation is surprising given she was singled out as one to watch after first being elected to represent her hometown in 2015. Within months she was on the front bench as shadow deputy leader of the Commons. Her counterpart in the housing brief, which she took on in 2017, has gone on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer: Rishi Sunak.
Having experienced homelessness herself as a teenager, Onn says it is her accomplishments in housing she is most proud of, particularly changes made to provide private renters with more security.
She was also keen to use her parliamentary role to counter negative perceptions of her place of birth – stereotypes she saw as being perpetuated by the Channel 4 documentary Skint and Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Grimsby.
As an MP, Onn believed her job was to try to make the lives of local people “a little bit easier” and politics about “normal people trying to make a difference in a weird system”.
This “weird system” was not always an easy place for Onn: “If you are less strict with yourself – which was me – then everything goes haywire, and you race into it at 100 miles an hour and take on too much.
“I looked with envy at others who had a balanced diet – I didn’t, I was warned about the ‘Westminster stone’ – there was a difficult situation with the traybakes in Portcullis”.
As a sufferer of Crohn’s disease – a lifelong digestive condition – the chaos of the role of MP proved difficult.
“My health took quite a bad hit. I was really very, very unwell for quite a long time. But you can’t stop, you just have to keep going, because there is an expectation from your party, from your constituents.”
“You feel the weight of responsibility so heavily”, she adds.
I looked with envy at others who had a balanced diet – I didn’t, I was warned about the ‘Westminster stone’
Onn now works as Deputy Chief Executive for Renewable UK, a trade association focused on clean energy.
She is enthusiastic about her new role, and glad it keeps her connected to politics. The sense of structure and clear expectations are worlds away from Westminster.
“Regular hours, having a clear delineation between work and not work, all these things are helpful”, she says.
Despite moving into another role quickly – Onn was appointed to Renewables UK within two months of leaving Parliament – the pain of losing the job she loved lingers.
“I could see the writing on the wall, so it was not a huge surprise. But, equally, when you stand for public office, you put everything out there – you put yourself on the line – and anyone who doesn’t do it never really understands.”
There are undoubtedly benefits to not being in Westminster. As we speak, Onn is in her home in Grimsby watching her golden retriever Misty play outdoors while her husband does some gardening.
Would she welcome a return to the Commons? “It’s difficult. Not that I wouldn’t love to do it again, honestly – despite being ill, despite the stress and the pressure of all of it – I really did love the role and took great pride in it and hopefully treated people regardless of their party background well and kindly.
Equally, I went in when I was 35… I’m now 42 and have just started in a brand-new career.
“If there’s one reason to become an MP again it’s to bring my lovely golden retriever to Parliament and go for Westminster dog of the year again.”
Words by Laura Hutchinson
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