“I arrived at the count thinking, blummin’ eck.” James Frith, MP for Bury North, talks to Northern Soul
It was one of the gloomiest nights of my life.
The date was May 7, 2015 and I’d been employed by ITV to cover the general election count at Heywood & Middleton. UKIP was making serious inroads into the popular vote and there was a distinct chance that the anti-EU party could cause an upset in this North West constituency. In the event, it was not to be but the night dragged on and I was forced to watch televised multiple recounts of Bury North, the seat I’d lived in for the past five years.
Previously, both Bury North and Bury South had gone with the government of the day but, along with a number of other factors, the Westminster expenses scandal put paid to that tradition. Before I moved back to the North, I’d spent some time as a Lobby Correspondent for The Times in London. As a Bury lass (with a politics lecturer for a Dad), I had contacted David Chaytor and enjoyed a number of chats and coffee in Portcullis House. I liked him and thought he was a good local MP. But when I was deployed to comb through MPs’ expenses, it became clear that he’d not been above board. In the end, Chaytor was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
And so, despite Labour’s best efforts (and possibly hampered by the fact that, after Chaytor’s disgrace, the top brass insisted on an all-female shortlist), in 2010 they lost the seat to David Nuttall, a local Tory party activist. Rightly or wrongly, Nuttall quickly gained a reputation as a pro-hunting, anti-EU, pro-death penalty, anti-immigrant, anti-equal pay, anti-same sex marriage member of parliament. To say he was one of the Conservative Party’s most prolific rebels is no compliment.
I have the 2015 memory in mind when I meet James Frith. It’s more than five months since the 2017 election and Frith is one of Westminster’s newest Labour MPs. His victory came as a surprise to all parties. I mean, he’d stood before and lost by a whisker (the 2015 Tory majority was just 378) and, if pre-election polls were to be believed, he stood no chance. So it was with some disbelief when, around 2.30am on June 9, Frith became an MP with a 4,375 majority – a 12.5 per cent increase in the share of the vote. Yes, this was an election where Jeremy Corbyn and his party had done better than expected, but Frith’s success bucked the trend. His percentage swing was 5 per cent. According to LabourList, the national swing to Labour was 2.05 per cent.
I wonder, after that devastating loss two years ago, how Frith found the strength to fight again. As someone who trailed round after her activist Dad for years as a child, I know first-hand how unrelenting campaigning can be.
“It was very different for a huge number of reasons,” he says. “Principally, it was because expectations are dangerous forces. But there’s only one real version of that experience that leaves you with an emotional black eye. It took quite some time to get over that because I’d worked so hard and I really believed that we could do things differently. For some time I thought, oh, we should have gone for another recount, and sometimes I thought oh, if only we’d done this and that. And what is it they say? Success has many parents but failure is an orphan. But we’re over that and that 378 figure has disappeared like sand with the tide.”
But it must have taken an inordinate amount of determination to begin again?
“Yes, absolutely it did. But I was never really in any doubt that I would do it, that I would stand. What I actually did was speak quite candidly to people who I knew I would need to work with closely, I spoke to them about how lonely the previous defeat had felt.”
He adds: “I had gone into a hibernate, self-protect mode whereas the first time round I’d arrived thinking we’d lost. With the exit poll this time I thought that I was bound not to get any fortune or luck. And much of that was don’t let yourself get sucked in again, you can’t have another two years of your life going ”urrgghh’. Plus we had another baby on the way, and we also had another baby on the way in the 2015 defeat. And for sure my little girl Lizzie, one of four children that we have, was born shortly after the 2015 election. I took all the potential disheartenment and threw it into the love that I have for her, so she and I have an incredibly close relationship, it’s lovely. And now poor old Bobby, our newest, is the victim of me being in parliament three days a week. So it will be interesting what happens.
“But I had definitely arrived at the count thinking, blummin’ eck. But then to win with what was a 5 per cent swing when nationally we’d had a 2 per cent swing…what I had thought was, maintain the narrative, James Frith can buck a national trend.”
And that’s exactly what Frith did. Since taking office, he’s been elected to the Education Select Committee. The new role is fitting as Frith has worked in skills and education for the past decade, including founding a careers guidance social enterprise called All Together which employs 12 people and works with around 20 schools. But has Frith, now aged 40, always wanted to become an MP?
“I’d always been inspired to be a member of parliament because I want to be both responsible for change and accountable for it and I think I’ve got some ideas and visions.”
During our conversation, he talks passionately about the care and hospice movement and his ideas for it, as well as initiatives for combating bed-blocking and his concerns about the economy. Indeed, since election earlier this year, Frith has been active on issues such as palliative care, education and local concerns. But his interest in community and care dates back to childhood. He cites watching Cry Freedom, a film about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, when he was 10-years-old as a pivotal moment. Later, aged 19, Frith spent time in post-Ceaușescu Romania volunteering with orphans and street children and then went to South Africa.
“I came back super-charged,” he says. “And that magnesium light, that magnesium brightness in my argument and my belief, that hasn’t gone down.”
A lifelong Labour supporter (he joined the party at 18), Frith’s history with his local constituency dates back to his Great-Grandfather who was a vicar in Bury. “My Grandfather was born in the same square mile as my kids. I feel a strong affinity to it. I’ve lived here ten years and my wife is from Bury and all four of my kids are. So there’s this arch, this 100-year history if you like.”
While he has lived in different places, Frith says that, when it came to choosing where to settle down, it was “always going to be Manchester because I’m such a muso, and it was always then going to be Bury”.
It’s hard not to be sceptical when a politician mentions their love of music (think of Tony Blair’s early rock band, Ugly Rumours, Gordon Brown’s professed love of Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron’s claim to like The Smiths). But Frith seems a good deal more genuine than our former Prime Ministers. He says that his favourite band is Radiohead and he also loves Supergrass and The Charlatans. And, when he’s finished our interview and shoe-horned in back-to-back constituency meetings, he’s off to Manchester Academy to see the American rock band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. There’s more.
“I played Glastonbury in 2003 with my band Finka,” he discloses. “I was the lead singer. We were in the New Bands Tent as was, now the John Peel Stage. And we once supported Shed Seven. I was once described as having the voice of the ghost of Jim Morrison sharing a cigarette with Ian Curtis.”
As a 40-something who gets a nosebleed at the thought of going out more than twice a week, it amazes me where Frith finds the energy for all his interests. In addition to loving a good gig, he is father to four children, all under the age of 10, not to mention the weekly grind of the commute to London. And his wife, Nikki, seems to have similar energy levels. She runs Granny Cool, a preserves business which, since appearing on Dragons’ Den in 2014, has gone from strength to strength. The range of curds and marmalades, based on longstanding family recipes sourced from her husband’s Gran, is now stocked in outlets nationwide, including upmarket Northern supermarket chain, Booths, and Sainsbury’s. Oh, and she’s chair of the PTA at her children’s school. I know because I often spot her at the gates when I’m picking up my niece.
“We are quite energetic as a family but it does take a lot of work,” admits Frith. “And we’re not getting it all right yet. I think we’ve given each other quite a bit of grace in terms of, look, this is a bit difficult. But there are people in far harder circumstances.”
As for the future, Frith is still digesting 2017. “So this year I turned 40 in April, I got elected in June, I became a dad again in September and then appointed to the select committee in the same month. So I’m like, can nothing else happen this year please.”
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