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#7: Why passion and authenticity beats expertise

March 22, 2024 #Insights
#7: Why passion and authenticity beats expertise
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Jo Gideon is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and is one of the leading advocates for change on food policy in the Conservative Party. I wanted to speak to her to understand how she thinks about getting policy unstuck, why food policy should be a Conservative-led issue, and what the role of expertise is in British politics.

I stumbled into food when I first became a parliamentarian. Former MP Laura Sandys and the Food Foundation asked me if I would chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on the National Food Strategy. At that point I knew very little about the importance of a national food strategy and over the next two and a half years, having read the work that Henry Dimbleby led on, it was a no-brainer to me that this is massively important. You always used to see the same colleagues at the Diabetes UK receptions stand holding up signs saying we must reduce diabetes by 50% by 2030, but you can’t say we need to do more preventative work for various diseases without addressing the fundamental underlying issue: our poor diet.

I don’t blame people for picking the wrong foods and having unhealthy diets. There needs to be government intervention to help consumers make better food choices because it’s a bit like smoking – you would never have changed people’s behaviour patterns on smoking simply by having the ‘please don’t smoke’ adverts and all the individual patches and things because it’s not about individual behaviour change.

There are some MPs you won’t convince because it’s a soundbite for them, there’s no intellectual rigour behind what they say. That’s their way of dismissing it. The way you tackle this is to frame the issue differently, but a lot of the framing work in the food space is preaching to the converted. That’s the challenge that I’ve had – I’ve been in rooms with experts that have the most compelling PowerPoints and you just go [shakes head]. You have to frame it around something that people will get behind. Nobody’s going to say it’s not important for our children to have the best start in life. You can focus on education, on the importance of understanding nutrition in every school, and the importance of knowing how to prepare food. The Buy British campaign can easily be used. People are interested in supporting Britain and the local economy. We need to highlight the best of British in terms of food that’s local and healthy. 

I’ve never seen the food industry as being the demons in this. From a commercial point of view, the more people are made aware of healthy foods and how to keep healthy, the more profitable it is for retailers to stock these foods, and manufacturers to develop healthier options.

Food became weaponised very early on in this Parliament by the Labour Party with the free school meals agenda and the Marcus Rashford campaign. Knowingly or unknowingly, he was used as a political tool. Sadly this led to the debate about food becoming toxic and focused solely on poverty rather than addressing the wider health issues. 

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Think tanks are useful to help MPs who know nothing about their subject become instant experts. I can do deep dives into subjects for short periods of time, but because of the nature of this place, there’s no way that you can be on the top of every piece of legislation. You need people to say this is what this bill is in two paragraphs. So you have to pick your think tank carefully. I wouldn’t let anything go out in my name that I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with, but somebody who’s been researching it for the last 50 years can probably articulate it in a much more succinct way.

Being passionate about a subject is more important in terms of raising the profile of the subject than being an expert. And then the experts can support you and will provide you with the detail. That’s where you need your expert to help. ‘I really care about this subject and I care about it because, and here are the facts’ and that’s where you need the research.

There are experts and there are experts, there are people who are, how should I put it, a little dogmatic. Government should listen to what the experts say, but they also have to take into account the financial situation and the other things that need to be balanced out. It is never a straightforward answer. I have just been on the Carbon Competitiveness Commission and we presented some really, really good facts about introducing a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. And the Government has done that, but they’ve done it in a way that was not what any of the industries wanted. We got detailed information from all of them, and we have one of these lovely reports that you see, and yeah, it was ignored.

You have to go individually to every single MP and give them a reason to support something. People think that you can get MPs to sign an Early Day Motion. No MP signs Early Day Motions as a general principle. I’ve only ever signed one. Whereas if you get one of the MP’s constituents who’s signed up to your campaign to meet with them in their office to talk about it…  if you get an MP mildly interested, then when there’s a Westminster Hall debate and they think that it might be important to their constituents, they’ll probably take part. And once they’ve taken part and spoken on something, then they’ll be lobbied constantly to do more.

Parting thoughts for future MPs…

Make it your own. Whatever you do in parliament, be authentic. Be yourself. When I first arrived, I thought I had to sound like Winston Churchill to impress in the Chamber. For the first few months, I had somebody writing speeches and he was very eloquent, but it wasn’t my voice, it wasn’t me. The first speech I wrote myself was on domestic abuse and people said it was so much better. I realised then that I’m rubbish at being anybody else but me. So be yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that there are other people who’ve been here a very long time. But have respect for them, and the place.

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