Focus: The General Election, Commons goal
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With less than three weeks to go until the general election, The Lawyer catches up with some of the legal practitioners hoping to become the political stars of the future
The general election campaign is up and running, and the leaders of the UK’s political parties are travelling the country in a bid to convince the electorate of their policies ahead of 6 May.
But they are not the only ones. With a total of 650 seats up for grabs, the UK is awash with prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) fighting to win a place in the House of Commons. As ever there are plenty of barristers and solicitors among them. We talk to two PPCs from each of the three main parties to find out why they are prepared to give up their legal careers to serve the British public.
Bambous Charalambous, in-house lawyer, Hackney Council, and Labour PPC for Enfield Southgate
Labour candidate Bambous Charalambous, an in-house lawyer at Hackney Council, is standing in one of the most infamous seats in the country.
Enfield Southgate gained notoriety in the 1997 election when Michael Portillo, who had held the seat for the Conservative Party for 13 years, was famously ousted in a shock defeat for the Tories. Stephen Twigg won the seat for Labour and strengthened his majority in 2001, but 2005 saw another upset when Twigg had the dubious distinction of having the largest majority of the election overturned following an 8.7 per cent swing to Tory candidate David Burrowes.
Boundary changes mean that Burrowes’ majority has been reduced from 1,700 to just 1,300, and the battle appears to be wide open.
Charalambous was educated at Chace Boys Comprehensive School in Enfield and still lives in the area, where he has been a councillor for the past 15 years. He read law at Liverpool Polytechnic and passed the LPC at South Bank University and North London University, qualifying as a solicitor in 1998 after a traineeship at Saunders & Co. He now works in-house at Hackney Council, where he specialises in housing law.
Charalambous has been interested in politics since a young age and joined the Labour Party in 1984, when he was still in secondary school.
“When I was at school I had visions of trying to change the world,” he says, “and I’ve always thought the best way was to be in a position where you can pass legislation.”
Neither is he a stranger to parliamentary campaigns, having stood for the Epping Forest seat in 2005, losing to the now shadow justice minister Eleanor Laing.
Charalambous feels strongly about the challenges facing the new generation of MPs after the expenses scandal that rocked Westminster last year.
“There are a number of things that need to change,” he says. “First we need to publish expenses every year so that people can see exactly what has been spent and to ensure that MPs are more accountable. Second, MPs also need to communicate more with the electorate and explain more about what it is they do; there’s a culture at the moment whereby only those in the know have an idea of what’s going on.”
While he admits that campaigning is tough, Charalambous is confident he can pull off an upset, adding: “It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I’m really thrilled to be involved in the campaign. Watch this space.”
Joanna Shaw, barrister, One Essex Court, and Liberal Democrat PPC for Holborn and St Pancras
“Sleep is for wimps,” laughs Joanna Shaw, a barrister at One Essex Court and Liberal Democrat PPC for Holborn and St Pancras.
Shaw admits that she has had hardly any sleep since the start of the election campaign, but claims that her passion and determination have helped her through so far.
“To give up work to focus on the campaign you’re taking a significant hit financially, but it’s worth it,” she explains. ”Whatever happens, I’ll be back at work on 10 May as I have a case to work on.”
Shaw only joined the Liberal Democrats in 2001 because she was sick of what she calls “Labour’s disregard for the criminal justice system, immigration and civil liberties”.
Despite her fairly late allegiance to the party, the state-educated Londoner says her first jaunts into the political arena started at a much younger age when she used to help her parents deliver leaflets for the Labour party.
Shaw has now turned her back on the Labour Government’s policies and admits the new parliamentary intake needs to make significant changes to restore trust in the House of Commons.
“We need to make the political system fairer, be able to sack MPs, see a significant devolution of power and we need to have voting reform,” she insists.
Shaw cites her political heroes as former Liberal Democrat leader Shirley Williams and the late Labour MP for Livingston Robin Cook.
“Shirley Williams was ferociously intelligent, driven by principles and was not afraid to do things that were going to be unpopular,” she explains. “Robin Cook was interested in civil liberties and also stood up for what he believed in over the Iraq war at an extremely crucial time.”
Despite admiring such established political figures, Shaw is embracing modern trends in her bid to win a seat at Westminster.
“I buzzed on a man’s door the other day and he told me that he’d been following me on Twitter and I would be getting his vote, so maybe it does work,” she laughs. “I see social networking as another useful method to get the message out but not one that will replace old-fashioned canvassing.”
Jeremy Brier, barrister, Essex Court Chambers, and Conservative PPC for Luton North
If David Cameron is looking for a poster boy, he could probably do worse than turn to Essex Court Chambers rising star Jeremy Brier. Although his path to becoming the
Conservative’s PCC for Luton North appears to be a well-worn one - good public school, Cambridge University, law school - Brier is cut from a different cloth. His political heroes are not the Bevans, Churchills, Kennedys or Obamas of this world, but his own parents, both of whom worked in the charity sector.
“It’s about recognising that at a local level individuals can do a lot of good,” he explains. “I never thought, ’how can I become an MP?’ I thought, ’I’d like to do something about the state of society’, and about how I could do that.”
Refreshingly, 29-year-old Brier admits he wanted to be a footballer when he was at school. And in another unusual bout of political frankness, he concedes that his opponent, incumbent Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, “has been an honest MP”. But high-flying Brier, a ex-president of the Cambridge Union and world debating champion, turned to the Tories after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997.
“Like many people I was hopeful about what Blair might offer the country,” he recalls. “But by the time I left university a lot of that hope had been shattered.”
The national spotlight is likely to fall heavily on Luton during the election campaign after the Labour MP for Luton South, Margaret Moran, was caught up in one of the most
notorious chapters in the expenses scandal when she claimed more than £22,500 to treat dry rot at her house in Southampton - 100 miles away from her constituency.
Brier thinks the scandal has made his generation of politicians focus on what really matters. “Everyone’s sick of politicians talking about their own affairs,” he says.
However, some of his colleagues are unsure about Brier’s new career path. “Some of them are confused about why anybody would give up the lifestyle at the bar to be shouted at by constituents,” he jokes. “But they don’t know the reality, which is that it can be incredibly rewarding.”
Hamish Sandison, partner, Field Fisher Waterhouse, and Labour PPC for Monmouth
Many politicians will tell you their greatest inspiration in politics is their parents, but with Hamish Sandison there is little doubting his sincerity.
His father, a barrister, was a Labour candidate in London in 1945, reducing the Tory majority from 26,000 to 3,000, but ultimately failing to win the seat. Ill-health meant he was unable to stand again, and he later died when Sandison was six years old.
“As a child I saw my father come very close, but he wasn’t able to have another go,” he says. “That was a huge motivator for me and my father remains a big inspiration.”
Sandison is a highly regarded partner at Field Fisher Waterhouse, where he specialises in technology law, having joined the firm two years ago from Bird & Bird, where he had been non-executive chairman. He studied law at Cambridge and then at the University of California at Berkeley, and is dual-qualified as a US attorney, having practised law in Washington DC with Arnold & Porter for eight years.
Sandison has previously run for selection in other seats in the South Wales Valleys but until now had been unsuccessful. When the Monmouth candidacy came up, however, there was little dispute over Sandison’s candidacy, which was helped by the fact that he has lived near Usk, Monmouthshire, for the past 22 years.
“Getting selected was the easy part,” he says. “The hard part is getting elected. It’s no longer the case that you can show up with just a few weeks to go and kiss a few babies; it’s hard graft, particularly when you’re up against an incumbent.
“It’s been a challenge working with clients in the weekdays and constituents at the weekends,” he adds, insisting there has been little conflict with his work life. “The firm has been very tolerant. I continue to keep clients happy and the firm understands that I’m in the public eye and I have this other life. Do they understand why I’m doing it? Possibly not - you have to be slightly obsessed to find the get-up-and-go, I suppose.”
Sandison insists there is space at Westminster for more lawyers. But why do so many end up running for parliament?
“As a lawyer you can help one person, but not everyone. For a lawyer to actually improve the world by changing the law means you really can have an impact.”
Serena Tierney, consultant, Wragge & Co, and Liberal Democrat PPC for West Sussex
Wragge & Co consultant Serena Tierney has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 1974 when, as an idealistic teenager, she began to see the electoral system of the time as being unjust.
“I wanted to do something about it. It’s still unfair but I think that we’ve finally got to the point where most people want it changed to a proportional system where everyone’s vote counts equally,” she explains.
But Tierney’s real ambition to become an MP came much later when, in 2003, she began to think she could do more for the party and was no longer satisfied just running campaigns for other people.
The working mother thinks Westminster’s new intake needs to act more honestly about its own conduct and return power to a local level, including bringing the health service and policy under local democratic control.
Tierney admits she has two political heroes: theorist John Stuart Mill and former leader of the Liberal Democrats Charles Kennedy.
She believes Mill encapsulated the very essence of liberalism when he said: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Meanwhile, the state-educated IP lawyer claims she was inspired when Kennedy made the brave move to lead the Liberal Democrats to lobby against the war in Iraq.
She says: “He did that and then took the appalling abuse that was hurled at him by Tory and Labour MPs whenever he stood up to speak in the Commons. It took real political guts to make that decision,” she says.
Tierney believes that her devotion to the party will take her all the way to the House of Commons. She also believes that being a lawyer is an added bonus and insists that her legal background will help her to scrutinise the actions of the Government with regard to proposed legislation much more thoroughly.
“Whether someone is a lawyer or not matters far less than whether they’re good and persistent questioners,” she explains. “I take with me a burning ambition that comes from my experience as a lawyer - for a bonfire of unnecessary yards of legislation.”
Donald Cameron, advocate, Murray Stable, and Conservative PPC for Ross, Skye & Lochaber
Donald Cameron, an advocate at Murray Stable in Edinburgh and Conservative candidate for Ross, Skye & Lochaber, is facing an unusually parochial challenge if he is to wrest control of the UK’s geographically largest constituency from incumbent MP Charles Kennedy.
Not only does Cameron have to beat the former Liberal Democrat leader in his own backyard, but he also has to beat Labour candidate John McKendrick, who just happens to be a member of Murray Stable too. “Some of our clerks are quite amused by it,” says Cameron, adding that the pair remain on friendly terms despite their political differences.
In fact, the head-to-head between the colleagues illustrates what Cameron sees as a natural affinity between law and politics. He baulks at the suggestion that Westminster is over-lawyered. “It used to be the case but I don’t think there are enough [lawyers] in politics now,” he says. “I think there’s always room for more lawyers seeing as we’re making the law; they bring expertise of how legislation actually works.”
Cameron’s own practice focuses particularly on employment law with some experience of appearing at the Immigration Tribunal, something he thinks would help further what he hopes will be his next career. “It helps having work experience beyond the political,” he believes. “In employment law, you come across people and are directly involved in their lives - that can bring a lot to the political role.”
The nephew of former Tory chairman Michael Ancram, Cameron’s own political awakening comes from his days working for a think-tank in Washington DC in 2000. While in the US, he was particularly impressed by John McCain during his failed attempt to secure the nomination for the Republican presidential candidacy. Along with Tory leader David Cameron, he lists McCain as one of his political heroes.
“I liked his down-to-earth approach,” he says. “There’s a lot more room for candour and frankness than we currently have in politics.”
Such candour leads Cameron to admit that the Conservatives face a hard task in Scotland, but he isn’t prepared to admit defeat. “It’s difficult for Conservatives in Scotland,” he says. “We still suffer because of Margaret Thatcher, but people do now see we’ve moved on from that.”