I am today announcing to the Walsall South Constituency Labour Party that I am standing down as its candidate at the forthcoming General Election, though I shall remain an active MP until the dissolution of the House. It is a decision that I have agonised over for the last several months and that I have reached with the very greatest of reluctance and with an extremely heavy heart. However, I feel it is the right decision: the right decision for me, for my wife and above all for the Walsall South electorate and Labour Party. I know some of you have heard this from me at previous elections, but this time it is my final decision and I have communicated it to the Regional Labour Party.
There is no one single reason for my decision, but rather a combination of reasons. I will be 68 in June and I have experienced a few health problems of late. Whilst I am generally very healthy and am still as active as when I first entered Parliament, and still maintain my busy and punishing schedule, I know that my health would be better served by a more regular and less pressurised existence.
My wife Lisa has loyally stood by my side throughout our time together over the last thirty years, sharing my life in Walsall and in London, and providing me with incalculable support in all manner of ways. It is a life she has enjoyed enormously but which has at times been both stressful and lonely for her. She has recently returned to full-time work for a charity. When she took on this demanding post, I promised her that it would be her time at last and that I would endeavour to give her the kind of support that she has selflessly given to me over the years.
Another person who has provided me with unstinting loyalty and support is my outstanding Constituency Assistant, Rose Burley. Rose plans to retire as my assistant in May. I think we, with the support of others, have made an excellent team locally and Rose’s imminent retirement has given added impetus to my feeling that this is a natural break point for me. Whilst Rose is retiring from her Parliamentary employment, I am delighted that she is standing again for Walsall Council and my wife and I will be campaigning our very hardest for her election in the Bentley-Darlaston North ward. I have also been immensely fortunate in the excellence of my London staff who have assisted me in my Parliamentary duties and my international work and have been a link between Westminster and the constituency. My senior researcher, Simon Kimber, deserves special mention for his exceptionally hard work, patience and loyalty.
Although my fondest wish would be to carry on working for the people of Walsall at Westminster until I take my last breath if they so desired, this would be entirely selfish and I am realistic. I feel that I owe it to both the Walsall South constituency and my Party to make way for a new face and a much younger individual to fight this seat at the next election and to hopefully represent Walsall South in the new Parliament.
It is not simply a function of age as I am still very energetic, but more a function of change of generation. Although I of course recognise the benefits to Parliamentary democracy of all the ways in which one can now digitally connect with their constituents – email, blogging, texting, tweeting and the rest – for me personally, none of these technologies are adequate substitutes for meeting the people I represent at my surgeries, in my offices, in home visits, in visits to schools, hospitals, religious institutions, businesses and factories, at my home, and often just meeting people in the street. Whilst I bow to the inevitability of the growing use of these forms of communication, and grudgingly admit to the many advantages they offer, I readily and proudly concede my preference for a more old-fashioned, more personalised approach. I believe I was one of the earliest MPs to be firmly rooted to the district they represented; living in the constituency, holding regular surgeries and generally having a visible presence. It is much more common now, though not universal. When I was first a Member of Parliament, I shared a secretary and an old typewriter with the MP for Aldridge-Brownhills. So much has changed in the use of technology and the size of staff in my time.
In ten days time I shall be entering my thirty seventh uninterrupted year as your Member of Parliament. Despite Walsall South being for most of that period a marginal constituency, I am the 14th longest serving Member of Parliament and the longest serving MP for Walsall since the democratic era began in the mid-nineteenth century. I am very proud of that record.
I understand that some people may be disappointed that I am standing down and that I have waited so long to announce this decision. However, since the furore over MPs’ expenses broke last May, I felt it was only right and proper to let all the enquiries take place before I made my decision to retire. The results of the Legg audit have now been published. I had “no issues” as Sir Thomas Legg so quaintly expressed it. A Member of Parliament’s integrity is his strongest asset and whilst others may have lost theirs, I am proud that I have not been asked to repay any money and that I can look my constituents in the eye knowing that my claims were honest, principled and consistently in the lowest quartile. I am deeply saddened at the damage this whole sorry saga has done to the reputation of Parliament, but the expenses issue has no bearing whatsoever on my decision to stand down and the public record confirms this.
Some may think that I am retiring because I don’t believe we can win the next election, but this is far from true. I have faced much tougher elections before, the 1983 election. Furthermore I wholeheartedly believe that this election is winnable for Labour and that Walsall South can remain a Labour seat. Indeed most recent polls have suggested that despite the Conservative lead nationally, this doesn’t translate to a Tory win in Walsall.
To say that it has been the most enormous privilege, honour and pleasure to have represented the Walsall South Constituency at Westminster for the last 36 years is an understatement of almost epic proportion. I have loved almost every minute of it and I have sought to do it to the very best of my ability at all times. I hope that those who have not always agreed with my positions on various issues will recognise that I have always fought for what I passionately believed in and most of all, for what I believed was in the best interests of the town and all of my constituents regardless of their political orientation, social class, ethnicity or gender.
I feel a tremendous sense of sadness at bowing out, but I will do everything within my power to secure the election of my successor as the Labour Parliamentary candidate for Walsall South, and I hope its MP. I have sought on so many occasions to put the interests of the town above party politics. There were so many occasions when I believed government policy was in the interests of the town and should not be seen as party political. However, in Walsall, an intensely party political town, this has frequently been impossible and it has often been necessary to endorse and seek to implement what the democratically-elected government wishes to do. An enormous amount of money has been directed towards this town and I have worked hard to bring additional resources to my constituents. I am enormously happy when I walk around Walsall to see the progress that has been made in recent years. There is improvement in the health service, especially with the imminent opening of what is in essence a new hospital, increased investment in the police and a significant reduction in crime. The Government has recently announced a massive new school building programme, which will benefit the whole town, entitled, “Building Schools for the Future”, and I recently visited for the sixth time the fabulous new College that the Government contributed so heavily towards. The work being done by the Walsall Regeneration Company has seen remarkable progress throughout the town.
It is not just through local actions that the government has improved the lives of the people of Walsall. Since 1997 this government has introduced the national minimum wage (against strong opposition), extended maternity leave for parents, signed the Human Rights Act and introduced the Disability Rights Act, cut by 2.4 million the number of people living in poverty, created 2,900 Sure Start centres, doubled health spending in real terms, leading the way in tackling climate change, spent £23 billion in social housing, overseen a 73% increased in arts funding, and more than tripled overseas aid to £7.5 billion. This is just a sample of what we have achieved and it is a record I am extremely proud of.
All of these improvements tell me that this is not the broken society that the opposition claims it to be. We have so much going for us and must not be excessively despondent about the current economic and financial difficulties. We must continue to work hard to improve the lives of all members of society no matter what their social class, their economic background or their gender and ethnicity.
I have no intention of quietly fading away from the town I have spent most of my adult life in. I have too many friends here, so many memories and frankly I love the town. So you’ll be seeing a lot of me over the coming years though not as your representative. That honour will soon be bestowed by you on another fortunate individual.
Neither is it my intention to give up work entirely, quite the reverse. I have spent the last three and a half decades building up an enormous amount of experience and pursuing a number of interests such as violence in the family, defence, security and policing, democracy and human rights to name just a few. In no way am I going to jettison what I have built up over the last forty odd years as a student, academic and politician. I plan to continue pursuing these matters, but outside the Parliamentary arena.
In closing, may I express my deepest, most heartfelt thanks to both Walsall and the party for the trust you have consistently placed in me and for the opportunities you have given to me. I hope that I have upheld the trust that was conferred upon me by so many people that I have represented over the last thirty six years, very many of whom have now passed away.
With every best wish,