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Becoming the first Jewish MP in Brighton & Hove

Looking back, amongst the factors contributing to my becoming the first Labour MP for Hove, growing up Jewish in Brighton and Hove played as significant a role as any. There is something about belonging to a community where your parents are active members that can give you an awareness of a wider world and how… Read more »

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Looking back, amongst the factors contributing to my becoming the first Labour MP for Hove, growing up Jewish in Brighton and Hove played as significant a role as any. There is something about belonging to a community where your parents are active members that can give you an awareness of a wider world and how you relate to it.

For me, a significant part of that awareness came in the preparation for my barmitzvah under the unforgettable tutelage of Hove Hebrew Congregation’s Kalman Fausner and the experience of projecting my accomplishments, hopes and aspirations in what is, as every 13 year old will testify, a nerve-racking and very public event and for me significantly held at the historic Middle Street Synagogue.

On another level, when asked in an interview where my broader interest in politics stemmed from it must have been shortly after. At school (King Edward’s Witley, Surrey) during a run-up to a mock election John, a close black friend of mine, found himself the recipient of a nasty barrage of harassment and verbal abuse, which affected us both deeply and made us aware that there were larger societal causes to fight.

While that experience did not play an immediate role, I look back on it as a trigger moment, when I became caught up in the active anti-nuclear movement that was prominent in Brighton & Hove in the early 80s,but which I left shortly after. By then I had completed a business studies degree at Brighton College of Technology whilst working at Legal & General in Montefiore Road. It was at this time that I joined the Labour Party. During this period I discovered, following discussions with my father, that members of his family had been founding members of the London Communist League in the 1950s. It seems that the family had a streak of political involvement, that I had not known about.

I quickly became Chair of the Hove Labour constituency, standing in a number of elections in the 1980s, all unsuccessfully, but eventually succeeded in 1991 in being selected and winning the seat of Portslade South on Hove Borough Council.  As the opposition on the Council, we set about putting forward our own agenda to demolish Portland Gate and replace it with new public housing, save the Old Market, support Brighton & Hove Albion through its difficult years and introduce free bus travel for pensioners.

By 1995, the electors responded to our campaigning and I was proud to lead Labour’s campaign to win control of the Council and become its Leader. We set about the process of creating the new Brighton & Hove Unitary Authority which would have its first elections in 1996, in which Labour won a landslide of seats.

Things snowballed quickly after this. I became deputy leader and at the same time was selected for the parliamentary seat for Hove for the 1997 General Election, which would sweep Labour and Tony Blair to 10 Downing Street after a hiatus of 18 years.

My own victory was made doubly sweet because, overnight, I became the first-ever Labour MP for Hove and the first Jewish MP in the Brighton & Hove area as well. Hearing Tony Blair declare with confidence on election night (my result was declared in Hove Town Hall at 2am) that he had won the election after learning of Labour’s first-time capture of what had been a Conservative stronghold since 1950, was the icing on the cake.

Those were euphoric days as Labour returned to power, but it was also a time to get stuck in, learning how parliament works and how to get involved with it in a way that would make a difference for my constituents. During my first year, I travelled to Israel with Labour Friends of Israel, having helped re-write the Labour Manifesto in 1996 on the two-state solution vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict, before becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to Margaret Beckett, who was the Leader of the House and a senior member of the Cabinet.

Those were important years, but they cannot match the life-changing experiences that were to follow. First, with the 2001 Election and retaining my seat, then I became a Government Whip attached to the Foreign Office and then, in 2003, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Veterans at the Ministry of Defence.

These were turbulent times, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the vote to authorise the sending of troops to Iraq. I visited the region in 2004, where I saw things from a completely different perspective than the regular protesters who began pitching up outside my constituency office in Hove. This time at the Ministry of Defence was the most formative, difficult, challenging and completely time-consuming in my professional life, but also some of the most gratifying. During that visit, I made 24 helicopter movements in 36 hours, but also managed a live radio broadcast to Sussex before leaving Iraq!

Since retiring from the House of Commons at the 2005 General Election, I havebeen running my own consultancy business with a small number of private clients and have continued with my involvement in the Albion’s new American Express Community Stadium. I am pleased to be involved in the celebration of 250 years of Jewish life in Brighton & Hove in 2016

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