I was with Jim when he announced that he would set up Labour Friends of the Forces at Labour’s annual conference in 2011. For too long an idea has existed that the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces would not naturally vote for or be members of Labour. This idea is not based on sound evidence and I know from personal experience of serving in the Army that Labour values are so close to those which underpin our fighting forces of today. Values such as unity and believing in that working together we are stronger, and values such as Fairness – knowing that doing right by others is a pre-requisite to earning and reciprocating respect.
Last year I was selected to stand as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for my home town, Burton, and Jim has supported me throughout. So, at a fundraising dinner held earlier this year I was so proud to be able to invite and host Jim. The fundraising dinner was a first for me and the first for the CLP for some time. Therefore it was excellent to have Jim there as our special guest and speaker.
On the night of the dinner, I was reminded that I was fortunate three times over.
Firstly, I was reminded how fortunate I had been to have served in the British Army as a commissioned officer. I first started to think about joining the Army when I was at school in Burton. I did all the normal stuff at school: scouts, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and camping in the Peak District. Spending time in the great outdoors is a big part of Army life and it was one of the reasons for me joining. More importantly, the Army appeared to provide opportunities and adventure that weren’t readily available elsewhere. So I volunteered at the Armed Forces Recruitment Office on Station Street in 1992.
I went to Whittington Barracks near Lichfield to take some tests and to learn more about joining up. I have fond memories of taking my first basic fitness test there – running about the camp was my initial experience of what the Army likes to do. And I loved the sense of achievement, the sense of belonging, and the team work.
The Army encouraged me to go to university and so I went to Aberystwyth to study International Politics and Strategic Studies, a course taken by many who go onto commissioning in the Armed Forces. During my three years there I studied a range of subjects from the history of the British Army through to nuclear deterrence theory… but I spent much of my time with the Territorial Army trying to learn the skills I would later as well as running and walking in the nearby hills and mountains.
I was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and after further training at the Royal School of Artillery I requested a posting to the most immediately available operational tour. That meant a few weeks later I joined 12th Regiment Royal Artillery in Armagh, Northern Ireland. I lead soldiers on foot patrols, and spent a lot of time trying not to get lost in the truly beautiful countryside along the border. I greatly enjoyed this first taste of command and have remained very fond of Ireland both the South and the North ever since. It was with great sadness that I was on foot patrol on the day of the Omagh bombing in 1998 and although some considerable distance away having to respond to the tragedy.
Only a few months following returning from Northern Ireland to Germany I was put in command of an armoured troop heading for the Balkans. I remember Kosovo as an incredible country – in terms of its people, history and stunning scenery, and so the contrast with the tragedy of the human suffering was obvious. In a short space of time I learnt a great deal about people and social injustice: what it looks, sounds and smells like to be close to men, women and children suffering the worst kinds of deprivation.
The remainder of my Army career included several more operational tours and postings for instance as a forward observation officer working with a small team in Afghanistan.
It was a true privilege to serve with the very finest young men and women of the British Army.
Secondly, I was reminded why I joined Labour. Labour is a political party but it’s also a group of like-minded people who believe in working together to make the lives of others more fair. Social justice and a belief that we can and should intervene both at home and abroad is something I subscribe to. It’s a belief which crystalized at certain points in my army career. Seeing the wreckage and human suffering of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuse – being the first on the scene and dealing with the hollowed out souls who are left behind has made me feel strongly that our collective duty to assist others cannot go ignored.
At the dinner we were joined by local representatives from the Soldiers’ Charity and the Royal British Legion. At the time Jim was in training for running the London Marathon for The Soldiers’ Charity and I presented Jim a donation of £100 on behalf of local Labour Party members. Maybe a small gesture, but everyone in the room wanted to extend their support to the veterans charities there on the night and to all those who have served. I know from many years in the regular and reserve forces, and I know Jim thinks so too, that veterans’ charities need our unwavering support.
Thirdly, I was reminded of what an enormous privilege it is to stand as parliamentary candidate for my home town. Burton is where I grew up, where I went to school, and from where I joined the Army. Many a time I have been out on operational service and thought about the town and the people, of returning and where I would go on my next period of leave. Burton was the town which I would head to from Germany and other exotic places where I had been serving. Burton was the place that was my anchor point and from where I carried my values which I sought to follow at times of conflict and in places of hardship.
So to be there with Jim and friends from the local Labour Party as my home town’s parliamentary candidate meant a very great deal to me.
I know winning back a key marginal is never going to be a walk in the park and as I know from way-back, maybe as far back as when I took my first basic fitness test all those years ago, that the hardest things to achieve are those which deserve the most effort.