Fifteen for 2015: The Rock Star Politician

James Frith is one of the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) profiled in the new Young Fabians pamphlet 'Fifteen for 2015'. You can read the pamphlet here.

I doubt you’ll find many Labour candidates who can boast that their rock band once entertained the same crowd as Kings of Leon at Glastonbury. But dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to see how James Frith, Labour’s PPC for Bury North, was inspired by the draw of the festival stage, and later by the pull of party politics.

As Frith headed to the University of Manchester in 1996, as much “to chase the Manchester music scene” as to complete a Politics and Economics degree, Labour were on the brink of an historic election victory. With Tony Blair securing support of Britpop icons, Cool Britannia was at its peak and the 13 years of progressive politics to follow would contrast Frith’s childhood introduction to election fever. “Who won the competition, dad?” he asked after the 1987 election. “The wrong side,” was the reply.

Like so many of his generation it’s easy to see how Frith found inspiration in Tony Blair. “In 1997 people were paid £1 an hour, we needed to save the NHS – the country was a mess,” Frith says. “The minimum wage, the independent Bank of England measures, introducing SureStart… I think [Blair] did more for ordinary people and families than any government since and I think the challenge is to achieve more than he did. Until we do that we’d be ill-advised to overlook his success.”

Yet Frith, chief executive of All Together – a social enterprise tackling youth unemployment, is far from uncritical of the New Labour years and believes “we should have gone further and faster.”

“I don’t think we did enough structural change,” he says. “We did quite a lot of transactional and retail offer, which was great but doesn’t shift the templates of society. We didn’t, for instance, do enough to address the huge inequality towards young people who don’t have a voice or a vote.”

The lesson, he says, is that “we shouldn’t dilly-dally with political capital – if you’ve got it, go for it.”

Critically Frith seems to hit that all important note, taking pride in New Labour’s achievements but demanding more where necessary – and understanding that the challenges of 2015 require different answers to those of 1997.

“We’re hearing some really exciting stuff from Ed Miliband - backing regional state banks, co-ordinating growth in a particular region based on skills, demographic and economic productivity,” he says. “This is where the planning comes in – and the government needs to be backing winners. We need a race to the top – in terms of new jobs that are high-skilled, high-quality and offer secure employment – not, as Ed has said, a race to the bottom and zero-hours contracts.”

Naturally Frith is keen to make Bury North part of this economic vision, making clear his faith in the idea that private sector growth can fund improvements in public services. “That’s not a model that’s broken simply because the financial service sector we relied on for so much tax revenue was too narrow. It’s not the system that’s broken, it’s the structure.”

“Alongside [financial services] we need greater volumes of successful industry,” he argues, while lending support to infrastructure and regional growth plans championed by Lord Adonis and Chuka Umunna.

“We need an improved redistribution of wealth through economic growth,” he says. “An economic recovery for all people - and I will be looking for ways in which Bury North can be a feature.”

Frith is quick to praise Ed Miliband’s focus on apprenticeships. “We’ve got a pretty Victorian way of valuing technical and vocational ability,” Frith says. “They shouldn’t be viewed as secondary to academic. We need to celebrate both, whether that’s through business start-ups or in terms of a valued government pathway for young people.”

Is it right for Miliband to move the focus away from university targets? “It’s clever to say that it’s an evolution from the Tony Blair 50% goal, but Ed would acknowledge that goal [existed] because in 1997… the idea that 30% could go to university was laughable. But now we need far more technical and vocational talent as well.”

Frith, three years a local councillor, also recognises the importance of Miliband’s plans for the NHS and talks passionately about his campaign to ‘Save Bury Hospice.’ “If we want to return to cradle to grave integrated care,” he says, “we should start with an appreciation that end of life hospice provision needs to be [better funded and a part of the plan]. 10%-20% short of a bridge is not a bridge.”

Frith’s passion for a thriving economy and a healthy NHS is matched only by his desire for Labour to make more of its “very exciting and much overlooked” policy offer. “We need to make clear the really exciting policy offer we’ve got [and] that loving the NHS is not enough to win a mandate. We need to make the proposition, not the opposition.”

And it’s this focus that perhaps best reflects Frith’s ambitions for Labour over the next five years. “I want to see anger and apathy replaced by optimism and hope… More aspiration and ambition than what feels like a scrap rolling down a hill,” he says. If his party can pull that off, politics may once more regain that rock’n’roll swagger of the Britpop era.

Joe Jervis

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