Features
15 Jul 2013 02:24pm

Do the Wright thing

Home-grown MP for Hartlepool Iain Wright tells Julia Irvine why the UK needs more accountants in government, why government needs to take a long-term view on industry, and why he likes to be called by his first name

There aren’t many Labour MPs who think they owe Margaret Thatcher one. But it’s thanks in part to Britain’s first woman prime minister that Iain Wright, MP for Hartlepool, shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise and chartered accountant, developed an early interest in politics.

Having business people and accountants in parliament makes debate and legislation better

He grew up in Hartlepool during the 1980s under Thatcher and saw the destruction of industry and the destabilisation of local communities. “We’re still suffering from the social impact of that now,” he says. “Growing up in that context almost inevitably led to an interest in politics and, in my case, a reaction against it.”

His granddad, a former steelworker, also played an important part in his political education. He’d had to give up work after an industrial accident and the task of looking after Iain fell to him. “He used to sit in his chair, Woodbine in his hand, and talk to me about politics. He was a staunch left wing socialist, who believed in collective endeavours and industry.”

Although Wright’s granddad died when he was nine, those conversations continued to influence him. He read history at University College, London, won a scholarship to do a Masters and then faced a decision to either do a PhD in 20th century political history or to go out into “the real world” and earn a living.

“I always wanted to get a good qualification. It’s the old idea of getting a good trade behind you. I was interested in the idea of business and, this sounds terribly sad, governance. I was fascinated by how organisations work. I do see a common thread between politics and accountancy: how institutions work and how they can be improved. Institutions could be companies or they could be countries.”

He chose chartered accountancy because, he says, the ACA is the best business qualification in the world. He qualified with Deloitte in Newcastle and worked with the firm for several years before joining regional development agency One North East. He was only there for six months: in 2004 Peter Mandelson resigned as MP for Hartlepool to become an EC commissioner, a by-election was called and Wright was elected.

He is Hartlepool’s first home-grown MP, a fact of which he is immensely proud. “I wouldn’t have thought of being an MP for anywhere else. Although I love politics and the institution of parliament, I love Hartlepool more. It’s not just being an MP that’s important to me, it’s being MP for Hartlepool.” 

We need to think more like business, looking ahead and asking what would be good for the British economy in 2050

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Having grown up in the constituency is mostly an advantage, he says, except when he knocks on a door to be greeted with, “I know you from school”. When he walks down the street, people sing the football chant about his footballer namesake – he acknowledges they’re taking the mick – and even those meeting him for the first time tend to address him as Iain. “All politicians fret about how to connect with the electorate and disengagement with politics is a difficult and dangerous thing. So the idea that people can come and see their member of parliament and call him Iain is important to me.”

He chose not to move his family to London (his wife runs his constituency office) because he wanted his four children to grow up in the north-east. “That meant I wouldn’t see as much of them, but it does let me work long hours as I don’t have to run home.”

He spends Friday and often weekends as well on constituency affairs, bringing the “ethos of customer service about giving the best possible deal for the client” instilled in him at Deloitte to his constituents. When he’s not being an MP, he can be found with his dad and brother at Hartlepool United home games (“It’s been painful, we’ve just been relegated to League Two”), listening to the Stone Roses and New Order (“still got the haircut”) and watching Get Carter (“my favourite film”).

He is aware that public trust in institutions, including parliament, has been eroded. Tarring every politician with the same brush, though, is unfair. In the main, he argues, MPs work hard on behalf of their constituents and want to make a difference. “It’s the same for the accountancy profession – the idea that all accountants are somehow fiddling and helping people fiddle. Accountants have an important role in ensuring industry performs better and works to a regulatory framework so shareholders can trust in the integrity of financial statements.”

He chairs the ICAEW-sponsored All-Party Parliamentary Group on Business, Finance and Accountancy, which aims to inform and educate parliamentarians by bringing together representatives from the political and business worlds. Its role in promoting the business experience, he believes, is invaluable. He’d like to see more accountants as MPs for the same reason.

Currently, there are only 13 in the Commons compared to 86 lawyers. “The way to achieve a sustainable growth model for the economy in the future is by having great businesses producing innovative goods and services that can be sold around the world, and employing people in good, rewarding jobs. Parliament needs to understand the issues affecting businesses and come up with policy to help address their concerns. Having business people and accountants in parliament makes the quality of debate and legislation much better.”

He also wants the Commons to take a longer-term view of business, something he thinks business secretary Vince Cable is starting to recognise. “Take aerospace. We are the largest manufacturer of aerospace components in Europe, second only to the US in the world. And there is a multi-trillion order book for the next 30 years. If we are to stay a leading player in the industry, we need to be investing now in innovation, technology and skills.

“The political and parliamentary cycle is at odds with the product cycle. We often don’t look beyond the next general election. We need to think more like business, looking ahead and asking what would be good for the British economy in 2050.”

The job of opposition is to scrutinise, challenge and often to oppose for opposition’s sake, he says, which is not necessarily good for politics or business. “Where the government is doing the right things like in the aerospace growth partnership, I will stand up and support it because I want to give out the message to industry that you can invest in the UK happy in the knowledge that this flight path will continue.”

Julia Irvine