Michael Shanks: I had free school meals for a long time, but I knew that we weren’t at that extreme end of poverty
When Michael Shanks and I meet, he can still claim to be Labour’s newest MP. He was officially sworn in less than 48-hours before, is still finding his way around Westminster’s rabbit warren of corridors and meeting rooms, and is fresh enough to find being called ‘sir’ by parliamentary staff slightly unnerving, as it serves as a reminder that he has, literally, just left the classroom – his election to Westminster meant resigning from his beloved role as a secondary schoolteacher.
But with his party winning two more by-elections in the intervening days, Shanks’s victory is also fast becoming yet another staging post in Keir Starmer’s bid to be the next prime minister and puts the former modern studies teacher in the strange position of likely being the focus of future academic textbooks for his role in radically shifting the UK’s political landscape.
The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election result, when it was called in the early hours of Friday 6 October, exceeded even the most optimistic of Labour activists. Party strategists had expected a win for Labour, after all, the circumstances for the SNP were not great given both reasons for the by-election – the recall of Margaret Ferrier, who had flouted Covid rules during lockdown, and the police investigation into SNP finances – but even the most generous of modelling had predicted something in the order of a 15 per cent swing to the party that had once dominated Scottish politics. But when the results came in, they were, as Starmer described, “seismic”.
Shanks won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West seat in an overwhelming victory over the SNP, securing more than double the votes of his SNP rival. And with a 20 per cent swing to Labour, pollster Professor Sir John Curtice claimed in a shower of psephological superlatives that if the party was to replicate that size of swing across Scotland at the next general election, Labour could win 40 seats north of the border and be well on its way to power.
He said the result confirmed that Labour posed a “serious challenge” to the SNP’s primacy at Westminster and had a momentum comparable with the run-up to the party’s 1997 landslide under Tony Blair.
Speaking less than two weeks out from the Tamworth by-election, triggered by the resignation of the former Tory whip Chris Pincher, Curtice said that the result will “tell us much more than Rutherglen does about the probability of the party to win a general election”.
Labour went on to win that by-election with a 23.9 per cent swing from the Tories – the second biggest from the Conservatives to Labour at a by-election since 1945. On the same night, Labour also overcame a 24,664 Tory majority in Mid Bedfordshire to win that seat for the first time – the largest numerical majority ever overturned in a by-election in history. Starmer described the wins as a “game-changer”.
And Shanks makes no bones about it, he is in this to make change. Shanks is a genuinely nice person. Everyone says so. Quietly spoken and clearly thoughtful, he exudes a gentle dignity and a steely drive. He is fuelled by a desire to make a difference to people’s lives, particularly people with disabilities.
He does ‘nuance’ and ‘reasonable’ and believes you can disagree agreeably. He has friends, and indeed family, across political divides – he and his sister, for instance, are on opposite sides of the constitutional debate and while it is a no-go area in terms of their own conversations, he even finds compromise within that thorny subject among Yes supporters. But more of that later.
Shanks was born in Irvine in 1988 where his father worked in the paper mill and when he and his sister, who is four years older, were still at primary school, the family moved to Prestwick. His father was only 17 when his parents had his sister and when Shanks talks about his parents, it is always in the context of them being driven, striving to get on in life, and to make things better for their children. Just the kind of aspiring working-class family that has become the focus of attention for Starmer’s Labour Party.
Shanks remembers as a child that boxes of textbooks would arrive in the post as both parents juggled work with starting Open University degrees, having missed out on further education because of the need to get into work and provide for a young family. And although there were bleak times when his father was made redundant, and when his parents separated and he and his sister moved into housing association accommodation with his mother, he says he can’t remember ever wanting for anything.
“It was a tough time economically in Ayrshire in the early 1990s and I knew a lot of people at that age who were living in poverty. I knew that it was tough for my own family, and we lived through periods of my dad being made redundant. We were on benefits at times, I had free school meals for a long time, but I knew that we weren’t at that extreme end of poverty that I could see in other people’s lives.
We were always on the edge, like so many families, and there was no extra to spare but I never felt like I needed anything that wasn’t there. We were well provided for, but I knew I had friends who weren’t in that place and that was hard.”
Shanks says that while his parents weren’t overtly political and wouldn’t have dreamt of joining a party or campaigning, they were always interested in current affairs and had clear opinions. He says he suspects they were Labour voters. There were always newspapers in the house and the television news, including the children’s programme Newsround, was consumed avidly.
Two events stand out for Shanks during his formative years. Firstly, was when his parents got an unexpected knock at the door by the then local Labour MP, Brian Donohoe, who had spotted a poster campaigning for him in the forthcoming 2001 general election and had assumed it was a Labour household.
Shanks laughs and says his parents were a little shocked and hadn’t even known he had put the poster up on his bedroom window. He was 13 or 14 at the time and says he must have taken the time to write to the party to request the poster, given there was no easy access to the internet back then.
The second occasion was when he was picked by his school to be one of the young community representatives taking part in the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building in 2004. He vividly recalls walking down the Royal Mile and meeting then first minister Jack McConnell and George Reid, who was presiding officer, and pointing out other politicians to his mum.
“I remember the whole sense of occasion and knowing who the various characters were and it just felt very exciting and that feeling stayed with me,” he says.
Shanks says he is a child of devolution and grew up “totally comfortable” with the idea that Scotland could be served by two parliaments sometimes doing different things.
He is a “devolutionist” and believes that if there is a logical reason for devolving any power then it should be looked at. But he is clearly against independence and says, “it never occurred to me that Scotland couldn’t be Scotland and part of the UK”. “I just know I’ve always been really comfortable being Scottish and British and so for me, it has never been an issue being part of that union.”
He campaigned for No during the 2014 independence referendum but says he never did that from a point of view that the Union was perfect.
However, his older sister is, he says, an independence supporter and while they agree on almost everything else politically, both being on the left – he suspects she may be a Green voter – he says they are unable to discuss the constitution at all which, he says, is “really difficult”.
“It’s just a subject we have to completely ignore and it’s actually really difficult because we are very close and we’ve just got to the point where we just don’t talk about it because it’s easier, and yet we talk about all sorts of other political things.
“Christmas, it’s the only time we all get together really these days, and we just avoid the subject and I think genuinely that’s not uncommon in homes across Scotland. And I think it’s a real shame.
“I recognise that, yes, of course, there were elements of the referendum that were really good in terms of an outpouring of Scottish culture and people proudly talking about what an independent Scotland could be, but it was incredibly divisive. It tore families and communities apart, and I think people ignore that part of it.
“I am sure it’s a difficult one for my mum, who wasn’t a Yes supporter, because who do you personally support out of your two children when they are so diametrically opposed on that one area?
“I have to say that sometimes it frustrates me with people who say that they would vote Labour in an independent Scotland because I think, ‘well, you could vote Labour now to get a Labour government in’.
"But one of the really good things about the by-election was that I did feel we were slightly moving beyond it.
"I spoke to lots of people who, quite straightforwardly, said that they would vote yes if there was another referendum, but that it just was not important right now and they were going to vote for something else other than that in the election. And I think, whether that’s for me or for another party, I like that people are thinking in that mindset and that there’s an opportunity to make change happen now – with Labour.”
Shanks left Prestwick to go to the University of Glasgow to study politics and history, although a UCAS cock-up meant he had actually applied to the wrong faculty and ended up graduating with a pure politics degree. He eschewed student politics, which he says he considered “a bit contrived”, and instead engaged with the hardcore politics of Glasgow’s trade union movement.
“I had a real interest in debating, but I went to the university debating society and thought, this just isn’t for me. I wanted to, I suppose, just get stuck into real-world things. So that’s where I got much more involved in running a charity in Glasgow and did things like that, along with getting very involved in local politics and the trade union movement.
“I went to branch meetings of the Labour Party in Glasgow at the time when the chair was Sammy Barr, who was the shop steward at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders way and the North Clydeside Labour Party was not far removed from the Communist Party, I suspect, in some of the conversations we had but I just kind of loved it.
"That’s the debating that I got into and while I knew, early on, that I disagreed with so much of what these people were saying, the premise was right but the means of getting there was wrong, and I started arguing and I realised I really liked that kind of genuine level of debate rooted in real-life experience.
"It was at the time when parts of the Labour Party in Glasgow were still very old school, even though New Labour had been elected, obviously, a long time before that, but I speak about this with Paul O’Kane [MSP and best friend] quite a lot.
"We grew up with the Labour Party in government during our first few years as adults. I graduated in 2010 and we still had a Labour prime minister, and then most of that period of our 20s, when you’re probably most active in politics, that was our party’s decline. And those were really, really tough years to be a Labour Party supporter, but it made it even more important that we were there, kind of pushing the right way forward.
“I was what, nine, when Tony Blair became prime minister. I never really experienced old Labour. But I knew instinctively that I agreed with a lot of what Tony Blair stood for, which was primarily a Labour Party that was electable. And going back to the student politics thing, I think, for me, it was totally pointless having a Labour Party where everybody agreed with everything but we never won elections, because then you can change nothing.”
Shanks first stood for election to the council in Glasgow in 2012, just two years after graduating. The narrative at the time was that the Labour Party was going to get hammered but in fact 44 out of its 45 candidates got elected. Shanks was the 45th and the only one not to win.
That news, however, failed to reach party HQ and he nevertheless received the same pro-forma congratulatory note on winning the election from Harriet Harman, who was then deputy leader of the party. He says he is still to remind her of that faux pas.
Notwithstanding that ignominy, he was bitten by the bug. He then stood for the Scottish Parliament in 2016 for Glasgow Kelvin, coming in third and then in the 2017 general election for Glasgow North West, coming second. He cites his first job as a case worker for then MP Katy Clark – he later worked for then MSP Ken Macintosh – as the motivation that pushed him into standing.
“I genuinely do feel a certain calling, perhaps ‘calling’ is too strong a word, but as a Christian, there is an element of being called to things, that in life we have certain things that we’re good at and we should use them, and public service is certainly part of that for me, which sounds very grand and I don’t mean it like that but I have never been motivated by money or anything like that, so doing public service and making a change was very much part of it.
“Being a case worker couldn’t be more removed from the glamour of politics but is probably the most important part of the job and I met so many people that were caught up in systems that weren’t working for them. Then when I was at the charity Includem, I worked with so many young people caught up in systems that just didn’t serve them, almost caught them out, and I just felt that systems are often used as an excuse for not making change, but they are created by governments and they can be changed.
"I just felt strongly that instead of trying to solve the symptoms of systems not working, I wanted to get in and change the system, which can be quite small things, so I’m not talking here about smashing the system, so to speak, but there are processes that hold people back and we hold onto them as if they are intrinsic, and they are not, so that really motivated me to stand for election to do something about that.”
Shanks talks a lot about finding people’s potential. When he worked for Includem, which works with looked-after children, young people involved in offending, gang members, and others at risk of being marginalised, he met a teenage boy in Polmont who had been involved in low-level criminality which had escalated until he was eventually charged with carrying a knife. Shanks asked him what kind of future he wanted, and the young lad said he couldn’t imagine one.
“I remember nearly bursting into tears hearing that, because that’s a horrendous thing for a 15-year-old to say – that he couldn’t see himself as an adult – because every kid should be able to imagine themselves being an astronaut, or a doctor or teacher or whatever. But that was his life. That was all he could imagine. And that was heartbreaking.”
Realising the potential in young people is something that drives Shanks. He has been a lead volunteer with Glasgow Disabled Scouts since he was an undergraduate and then in his late 20s, he decided to go back to education to train to be a teacher for the same reasons. He says that in parliament, for however long he is there, he will focus on those areas and try to square the circle.
There is something almost priestlike about Shanks; he exudes serenity, and while he will likely hate that description, his faith is something that shapes him and also something that informed his decision to leave the Labour Party in 2019 when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.
“The Corbyn years were really tough. I mean, obviously, famously, I eventually left the Labour Party over it, but I also stood as a candidate when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, because I did want to stay and fight.
"I fundamentally believed a Labour government would still be better than a Conservative government, so even though I disagree with Jeremy Corbyn on so many things, but there are also things I agree with him on, and the manifesto had so much that would have made the country better, but it got to a point where his failure of leadership actually meant the opposite, and that actually, deliberately encouraging him on was just too much for me to bear.
“By that point, I’d been really involved in interfaith work in Glasgow. I’m a Christian and active in the Episcopal Church, and I’d got involved in a lot of Jewish/Christian dialogue as there is a really painful history between Jews and Christians.
"I am a trustee of an interfaith charity and Paul [O’Kane] and I have gone with a Church of Scotland delegation to the Middle East, been to the West Bank and so on, and I just knew so many Jewish people, and they would speak to me about me being in the Labour Party, not in an angry way but just genuinely confused about how someone like me, who had spent so long trying to understand Jewish issues, could still defend the party.
"And it was a really personal decision, because most of my closest friends in the party stayed and fought, and I’ve constantly gone over whether it was the right thing to do. Should I have just stayed and argued the case? But it was a deeply, deeply personal thing for me to leave.
“Brexit was also an issue, but the personal decision was about the anti-Semitism because that was the hardest thing to try to defend. Politically, you will always disagree with certain things your party stands for, but you can still argue the politics of it.
"I think at the time, we weren’t really anywhere on Brexit, we hadn’t put up as much of a fight against Leave as we should have, as a party, and I think if the referendum was now, Remain would have won, partly because the Labour Party is in a place where we would have fought much more for it, but the anti-Semitism stuff, you just couldn’t get away from it, because week after week, there were more stories, and in my own constituency party there were leaflets being handed over that were clearly anti-Semitic.
"And the chair would just say, ‘Oh, that’s not a matter for me’. It just got to that point when it was just not something that I could be part of any more.”
Shanks rejoined the party a year later when Keir Starmer was elected leader and during the current crisis in the Middle East he welcomes the clarity that he says Starmer has brought to the table.
“The situation’s incredibly difficult, and it’s going to become even more difficult in the weeks and months ahead, but I’m glad the Labour Party is at a place where it can speak with credibility on these issues.
"At conference, I went to a Labour Friends of Israel event which had hundreds of people at it. And we spoke with confidence that actually, we’re a party on the side of Jewish people again, that people don’t need to worry about the Labour Party, because people were genuinely scared about what the Labour Party’s position was.
"But I think at the same time, that balance is also about ensuring we can’t have a rise in Islamophobia either and we need to think of a Palestinian people who deserve a homeland. It’s going to become difficult in the Labour Party, but I think Keir made a point this week that while there’s a broad church in the party on the spectrum of Israel and Palestine, we have to stay united on the fundamentals, which are, Israel has a right to defend itself and Palestine has the right to a homeland.
“It is complex and I think the greatest loss in our politics in the past decades has been nuance. We’ve got ourselves, and I suspect it’s going to become worse in the lead-up to the general election, into the situation where you’re either for this or you’re against it and nothing in between.
"Pro or against, with no regard for complexity. And the great loss in politics is not finding that centre ground. I don’t see centre ground as compromise, I see it as a place where most people are.
"Most people are not on one side or the other on any issue. They are somewhere in the middle. And the gender recognition reform issue is a really good example of that.
"I met so many people during the by-election who instantly wanted to be against gender reform but actually, when you started talking to them, their position was more nuanced, they absolutely wanted safety for women, they wanted safeguards, as there absolutely should be, but they also wanted trans people to feel safe and be who they are.
"And that’s where most of the country is, but with so many of these things, we’ve got ourselves into a place where you are either pro trans or you are pro women, and that’s just absurd.
"I didn’t find it difficult during the by-election because, fortunately, Katy Loudon [SNP candidate] and I hold broadly similar positions so it didn’t become a core by-election issue. But the Conservative candidate I don’t think believed anything he was saying on it, but he decided this was an electoral issue. And I think that’s a great shame. Culture wars are just the worst of our politics.”
As he mentions it frequently throughout the interview, Shanks does do religion and he is not afraid to talk about it. But he didn’t grow up with a faith. In fact, the nearest he got to a church as a child was accompanying his granny when she was arranging flowers in a small church near her home and he got to play the organ while he was there.
In short, he was passing a church one Sunday on the way to the university library [a miracle on a number of counts] and he went in, felt at home and while Shanks tells me that he didn’t know he was missing anything in his life until he joined the church, he says he couldn’t imagine life now without it.
After shopping around various churches – he left one because the minister spoke out against equal marriage – he was baptised in the Scottish Episcopalian Church (SEC).
Following our interview, I go and read the home page for the SEC and find a descriptor which could basically serve as a character reference for Shanks himself: “The SEC is diverse. It celebrates diversity and values dialogue alongside dogma.”