PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Thursday 19th April 2012 | 19:00
WORDS: SAM MACRORY
It can sometimes seem that distinct voices are a dying breed in Parliament, crowded out by endless former political advisers, Oxbridge PPE graduates and circumspect, greasy pole-climbing young MPs. But on more than one count, Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, is keeping extinction at bay. A product, in his own words, of “the school of hard knocks”, Rotheram’s working class background makes him something of a minority at Westminster, his strong Scouse accent even more so, and he is determined to make himself heard.
Dressed in an Adidas top and a fashionable Pretty Green t-shirt – he is a huge fan of Liam Gallagher’s clothing line – Rotheram is also showing that not all MPs slip into tweed and chinos once outside the confines of SW1. A more formal suit is later donned for an official trip to the Aintree races that afternoon, but as a football obsessive – Rotheram is the parliamentary football team’s player of the year – his mind is on the following day’s FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Everton. “Having two premier league football clubs on my patch, I can’t lose, can I?” winces the lifelong Red.
The subject of football, and specifically Liverpool Football Club, first saw Rotheram make waves beyond Merseyside, when he took to the floor of the Commons last October and listed the names of all 96 Liverpool fans killed in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster – a game which he had attended.
“I’d said in 1989, on the coach on the way back to Kirby, that whatever it takes, individually or collectively, we should try and do. I’d always supported the Hillsborough campaign, I’d done things that I could do with my limited capacity, but all of a sudden I was going to be an MP – and there are opportunities,” Rotheram explains, and after a Downing Street e-petition he successfully secured a parliamentary debate.
“Twenty minutes sounds a long time to speak but this is an issue that was 22-and-a-half years in the making. I’d had a lot of thoughts about it,” he recalls. “The other thing that caused me concern was whether or not to leave the names out. I’m not sure it’s parliamentary protocol and I didn’t want to upset anybody, but it was a judgment call that I thought needed to be done.”
Noting that home secretary Theresa May “acted magnificently on the evening”, Rotheram is determined that the ongoing independent inquiry should result in one outcome: “The truth. Not my version of the truth, not Parliament’s versions, not even the police’s or the press’s. The report will address all the concerns… from all different perspectives, and be as near as possible to a full picture of what happened on the 15th of April 1989 and the aftermath.”
Might this require David Cameron to give an official apology? “If what I believe to be the truth is confirmed in the narrative of the report, then I will be asking – and I am sure there will be a groundswell of support – for the prime minister to make a full apology,” Rotheram replies, before turning to the Sun, and its notorious ‘The Truth’ splash which blamed Liverpool fans for the tragedy. “We were claiming that there was collusion between politicians, the police and the press in 1989. That was quite bold; ordinary people were saying ‘that can’t be true’. Then we saw with ‘hackgate’ those very things being borne out. Maybe people are at least being open at having a look at these things, rather than having a closed mind.”
As a member of the select committee on culture, media and sport, Rotheram last year found himself face-to-face with the Sun-owning Murdoch family – but he would have preferred to have questioned Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun’s editor at the time of Hillsborough, over the source for the ‘truth’ story. “He keeps on wanting to shift the blame. The blame is his and, we believe, a Tory politician’s at the time. We’d just like him to come clean. Why has there been misdirection on that one particular issue? Who’s he protecting?”
While the Hillsborough campaign is a priority, Rotheram is also determined to restore his party’s links with football. “People were from working class backgrounds and articulated the same sort of concerns that we, the Labour Party, had at that time,” he recalls of his early days on the terraces, bemoaning “a disconnect between the two sides”.
Part of Rotheram’s motivation to re-engage football fans with politics is to shake up Parliament’s demographic. From his seat in the Chamber, where he sits with a cabal of working-class Labour MPs, Rotheram is not impressed with the view.
“I sit in a little corner – you’ve got the Beast of Bolsover (Dennis Skinner) on one side; I don’t know what I’m going to be called here – but I look across and primarily members of those [Conservative] benches are still school tie, old boys’ network, sort of daddy’s connections. The Establishment still rules – to a lesser extent, in all parties – and it depresses me that in 2012 it’s such a narrow demographic.”
In one heated debate, a Tory MP did more than merely depress him. “Aidan Burley did wind me up. He said shame on Liverpool, shame on Scousers, and there was steam coming out of my ears. I didn’t bite my lip on that occasion and I should have done. But I’m still in an apprenticeship, and normally apprenticeships last for three years. I’ve got a little way to go before I come out the other end and say I’m a proper MP.”
That said, Rotheram is comfortable telling his leader where he can improve Labour’s fortunes. “I spoke to Ed [Miliband] and said that my party, his party, needed to be more representative. He agreed that there needed to be more people like me, from my background. If everyone thinks the same, that’s what you’re going to get. You do need people who can perhaps pop in from a different life perspective.”
Rotheram’s perspective was shaped by a “very Labour-orientated family”, and he began leafleting for the party at the age of 11. At school he concentrated on “girls and football”, but discovered a gift for woodwork and on leaving became an apprentice bricklayer. For now, politics was resisted.
“My dad spent every night of the week in the Labour Club – he was the MC – and my mum and dad ended up being divorced. Politics certainly had a factor in it, so when I got married I sort of opted out of active politics,” Rotheram explains, but when his son’s nursery ran into “real problems under a Tory government” he met Peter Kilfoyle, the local MP, who told him it was “no good just having ideas, you need to get involved”. When he heard his local ward party was struggling, Rotheram acted. “I discussed it with my wife, but I did say that if I go to this meeting, there will be another meeting, and after the other meeting there will be some leafleting, and after the leafleting… we knew that it was a spider’s web.”
Rotheram was soon trapped, but the web seemed to suit him. After becoming ward secretary, he was elected to the council, became chief whip and then, in 2007, was asked to become Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Then, when Kilfoyle announced his retirement, another opportunity materialised.
“It was the third-safest seat in the country so we knew that you’d have plenty of carpet baggers – we had to ensure, with the machinations and mechanisms of our party, that there was a local person on the shortlist.” Rotheram won the selection with ease, was duly elected, and travelled to London for what would prove to be a difficult few days.
“If I get the opportunity in 2015, I wouldn’t let what happened to me happen to the new intake. We were just cut adrift; certainly I was. There was very little help and assistance. Having worked on building sites, believe me, some of the strangest characters I’d ever met in my life are in Parliament. It’s a very strange place.”
Once settled, Rotheram began to make his name from the back benches – where, he insists, he is happy to stay. “I know politicians say this, but I’ve got absolutely no ambition to go on the front benches,” he states, even suggesting that he has resisted promotion. “I’m not saying that I haven’t been asked to do something, I may well have been, [but] I’m not going to let me down and I’m certainly not going to let anyone else down. I’d say ‘no’ at the moment. I need to learn the ropes. Even if there was an opportunity, I wouldn’t do something where I didn’t think I was absolutely comfortable doing it – and I wouldn’t do it for self-ambition.”
With that promise, he steps from his busy office into a Liverpool bathed in sunshine and buzzing before the Grand National and the Merseyside derby. His voice may be less distinct at home, but I get the impression Steve Rotheram has no trouble making himself heard – wherever he finds himself.
Be briefed for £1.50 a week...PoliticsHome PRO Find out more