My thirteen leap years
This is my thirteenth leap year. I hope that’s not a bad omen, though it’s hard to see how things could be worse for me than 2015. I was born in 1966, a good year in many ways, even if you don’t support England at football, so I was largely oblivious to my first leap year. On 29th February 1968 I was just one year and four months old. I lived with my parents in Greenfield Terrace, Abercynon. It was an archetypal Valleys house, front door straight onto the pavement but with a small back garden that also contained our only toilet. The house was rented and we didn’t have use of all the rooms. The middle room downstairs and the back bedroom upstairs were used by the landlord for storage. The front room was heated by a coal fire, the back room kitchen by a small electric fire. That room also doubled up as a bathroom, with a cold water tap into the big “Belfast” sink. To this day I still prefer to wash in cold water. In winter upstairs was freezing cold and by 1968 I was already in my own bedroom, complete with partially collapsed ceiling and a bucket to catch drips during heavy rain. All of this was in my mind when 45 years later I became a government minister with responsibility for regulating housing standards and upholding tenant rights.
I have no particular memory of 1972, neither of the Munich Olympics or Britain’s entry into the then EEC. By this time I had been in Abertaff Primary School for three years, having started in Mrs Ruddell’s nursery class at the age of two and a half. My first datable memory comes from that summer of 1969, the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. I remember nothing of the event itself but recall nagging poor Mrs Ruddell for my commemorative mug. It’s now on a bookshelf in the middle room of my current house, where I have exclusive use of all the rooms and even have central heating. In the early 1970s my father worked for Glamorgan County Council’s Highways Department. In the warmer months he repaired roads. In winter he drove a gritter and snow plough. He occasionally broke all the rules and took me out for a ride, ploughing snow aside was great fun.
In 1976 I remember enjoying the Montreal Olympics and in particular the female gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci, who I decided I wanted to marry. My hormones weren’t telling me the truth at that age. I was absolutely crap at school sports, preferring reading books. I was already an adept public reader both at school events and at chapel. From a much younger age I had been stood on a chair at the front of the congregation at Moriah Baptist Chapel, giving short Bible recitations. Speaking without nerves to large audiences has never bothered me and may be one of the few things I’m good at doing. Attendance at Sunday School and having a grandmother who was local treasurer for the Baptist Missionary Society meant that I did door to door cash collections. So door knocking was also an early skill I didn’t know I was going to need later in life.
Four years later was probably the worst year of my life. My father had been ill for several years, with repeated admissions to hospital for stomach complaints. He had always been a heavy smoker and downed eight pints of beer a day. By 1980 he was in a terrible state, racked with pain and losing weight. Bowel cancer is a horrendous disease and 36 years ago was a death sentence for most people. In the end my father died from respiratory failure, weakened by being starved and bedridden but smoking to the end. I have despised smoking and heavy drinking ever since. So at the age of 13 I was the only boy in school to be without a father and my mother was a very young widow. By then we were living in a two bed house the small council estate of Cefnpennar, on one of the hills above Mountain Ash. We had been evicted from our Abercynon home in 1977, which was the first time I met a politician, our local councillor Ann Williams. She had arranged our emergency re-housing and must have made me a little curious about politics. In 1979 I had a Labour Party poster in my bedroom window, a bit odd for a 12 year old. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics I was more interested in watching the male athletes.
By my fifth leap year I was half way through my A Levels at Mountain Ash Comprehensive School. I had ten O Levels under my belt, the best academic record in the school. I was determined to aim high and get into a top university, which meant emigrating to England, considered heresy by many of my teachers. But I had been fortunate throughout secondary school to have received the support and encouragement of lots of teachers, including those who never actually taught me but wanted me to do well. But while I was doing fine academically, I was in emotional turmoil. 1984 was the year of lots of 18th birthday parties and I still shudder on hearing some of the hits of the time, particularly those that remind me of the humiliation of sitting out the last dance. I had known I fancied boys since I was twelve but wasn’t in a position to do much about it. I never denied that I was gay (“bender” was the school insult of choice at the time) but never confirmed it either. Teenagers today are so lucky.
In 1988 I graduated with a degree in history after 3 very happy years at Bristol University. I recall catching snippets of the Seoul Olympics while trapped in Leicester University on a two week introductory course in double entry book keeping. It was the start of my seventeen year not very glorious career as a tax accountant. I was pleased though to be able to stay in Bristol, having secured a job with the firm now known as PWC. My first year of fully independent living was in a bedsit in Clifton right next to the zoo. I woke to the roaring of lions and unfamiliar bird calls.
In May 1992 I attempted a double political and professional victory by sitting my first tax exams and fighting my first election as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Redland ward. I was half successful, fortunately with hindsight in the career that paid the bills. I did well in the election, almost doubling the Lib Dem vote to 1,111 which has the merit of being the easiest tally to remember of all my nine election results to date. But I didn’t win a council seat until the following year, in the neighbouring Cabot ward.
Four years later in 1996 I was the Leader of the Lib Dem group on Bristol City Council and as we had eclipsed the Conservatives in the previous year’s election I was also the Shadow Council Leader. I was the youngest member of the council, which possibly made it easier for me to get on with the councillors from both the other parties, many of whom had been in office before I was born. Politics had effectively taken over my life and I spent my 30th birthday at a Lib Dem fundraising dinner.
In Millennium year I had just retired from the council (as the third youngest member!) and had fought my first general election in Bristol South in 1997. In early 1999 I had been selected as the candidate for my home seat of Bristol West. The year 2000 was a rocky year and there were some members who wanted me ousted. I was told by some to shut up about my sexuality, I had been “out” for several years by now. The same group of illiberal Liberals were none too pleased when I also advocated the decriminalisation of cannabis. The 2001 general election saw me move us from third to second place, by the skin of my teeth. But defeat felt awful.
In 2004 I was preparing for my third general election and the prospects looked much rosier. Party relations were harmonious enough and the Lib Dem opposition to the Iraq war made it easier to peel away people from Tony Blair. I took another massive career risk by spending the first six months as a full time candidate. I spent the rest year as the Tax Accountant of the RAC, the last proper job I had before finally becoming the MP for Bristol West in 2005. At age 38 I had realised my ambition but at quite a cost to my professional career and personal life.
Leap year number eleven was my third year in Parliament. I was the Lib Dem shadow secretary of state for Innovation, Universities and Skills, under our new Leader Nick Clegg. He gave me cautious support in my efforts over the next year to change the party’s outright opposition to any form of university tuition fees. But when it came to the crunch in 2009 he wouldn’t contemplate trying to force a change through our party’s policy making machine. I was very angry with him at the time and resigned as our spokesman but he persuaded me to withdraw my resignation and carry on. The seeds of disaster were sewn.
By 2012 my party was in the doldrums, trapped in an unpopular coalition government and despised for the “betrayal” of allowing through an increase in tuition fees. After many years of being a personally popular councillor and MP I now had the novelty of being hated by lots of people. In 2010 we knew entering government would cost us support but naively thought 2012 would be the year when things turned round. The London Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and a recovering economy were supposed to deliver a “feel good factor”. Maybe they did but only for the Tories. I covered up any worries about my future prospects by frenetic activity. As the Lib Dem spokesman on the economy I was constantly on TV and radio programmes, making speeches and writing articles about tax and spending. Those professional exams were useful after all. I was also chair of the cross party group on Smoking & Health. Making the case for ever tighter tobacco control was something I passionately believed in but also brought me some notoriety. By now I was a regular blogger, tweeter and Facebook user. Social media has its advantages but when people want to tell you how much they hate you it’s not very social.
So in 2016 I find myself for the first time in my adult life unemployed and rudderless. Leap year number 13 will have to be the year that I find a third career and try to find some personal happiness. By 29th February 2020 I hope I can look back with satisfaction.