By Chloé Meley
This article was originally released in November 2019 as part of Incite’s General Election special edition.
To better understand what kind of politician Anne Milton is, or believes herself to be, we have to go back to her career as a nurse. When asked about how her time in the NHS has informed her views and her work in Parliament, Anne Milton said that “having worked as a nurse in the NHS for 25 years, everything I do is in the light of that background.” She highlighted the similarities between what motivates one to become a nurse and what motivates one to get into politics, as she considers both professions to be about care and support, either directed at patients or constituents. From her perspective, “unless you’ve been a nurse, or possibly a social worker”, you would not have this sort of unique insight into the difficulties people face. She does not fail to mention the privilege that it is to be a carer, the “humbling experience” that it is to “realise that most people aren’t like you, and they’re dealing with pressures and stresses and strains and extraordinarily difficult circumstances.” She considers that the compassion she cultivated as a nurse has been translated into her work as MP for Guildford, where, she admits, there still are “significant pockets of deprivation.” Anne Milton speaks fondly of her time in the NHS, but it is important to remember that this experience is central to her political persona, which she has been crafting and refining for fourteen years now.
Indeed, Anne Milton is not a newcomer to politics. She has been an MP since 2005, was Minister for Women between June 2017 and January 2018, and Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships between June 2017 and July 2019, a position she resigned from shortly before Boris Johnson was announced Prime Minister. Although her tenure as Minister for Women was short-lived, Anne Milton has been outspoken about issues of bullying and sexual harassment against women in Parliament, notably resigning from the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion in October 2018, citing failures by parliamentary leaders, including the committee’s chair John Bercow, to improve working life for women in the House of Commons. When asked about the challenges of being a woman in politics relating to those problems of bullying and harassment, Anne Milton lamented that “political debate has become a lot more aggressive […] and quite toxic”, which is made even worse by social media, where “women are disproportionately trolled and attacked.”
Due to her decision to vote against the government regarding Brexit and her staunch opposition to No-Deal, Anne Milton was one of 21 Conservative MPs to lose the whip in September, and did not appeal the removal. In November, she announced she would be running as an independent candidate in this General Election, and she describes having the Conservative whip withdrawn from her as “enormously liberating”. Although she argues that she has felt “a sense of increasing unease since 2017” regarding the Conservative Party, her contention that stopping no deal was what she “sacrificed [her] political career on” indicates that Brexit was the final straw for her. We therefore asked her why she believed Brexit to be the issue in particular – not Grenfell, not the negative fallouts of austerity measures – that was the Conservative government’s ultimate mistake. She avoided discussing Grenfell, and was cautious not to be too critical of austerity measures, which she argues have resulted in the more efficient delivery of public services: “I think that the cuts to the public sector, some of them have had some positive outcomes.” Although she recognises that “the lifting of some of those austerity measures is to be welcomed” because “the pips are squeaking”, she is not fond of the idea of increasing taxes, for either individuals or businesses, and believes that borrowing will burden younger generations with crushing debt. She is therefore quite distrustful of “people saying they can spend more money on everything”, as “nobody’s really been that clear about where they are going to get it from.”
Anne Milton unsurprisingly dodged this question, but if there is one thing she was eager to discuss, it was her decision to stand as an independent. She says that her journey towards becoming an independent began in July this year, and gained momentum as she grew more and more suspicious of Boris Johnson and the policies he put forward. She is now convinced that “party politics have failed this country”, for two reasons. First, she mentioned the reluctance to reach a consensus and the animosity that have defined Brexit talks, as MPs are pressured to toe the party line and therefore remained entrenched in their respective positions. She notably argues that cross-party talks have been used by political parties as ‘political ammunition’ against each other. Secondly, she asserts that having smaller parties such as the Brexit Party or the Greens stand down to avoid splitting the vote is fundamentally undemocratic, as “it denies the public a vote for the party they want.” This is also why she would be open to voting reform, as first-past-the-post “works well when you’ve got two main strong political parties”, but “we are moving to an era where that is no longer the case.”
When asked what it would mean for Guildford constituents to be represented by an independent, she claims that “it would mean a voice that is not required or obliged to go along with any particular political party”, a voice that is essentially “free of the ties of party politics.” She also talked about the “very good cross-party alliances” she built during her fourteen years as an MP and her time as Deputy Chief Whip, a position she held between 2015 and 2017. For her, those alliances will prove invaluable in the case of a hung Parliament. If elected, Anne Milton says she will “pick and mix policies that [she] will support”, putting the emphasis on “good sound financial management, never putting our national security at risk, and sensible borrowing that doesn’t saddle our children with too much debt,” as she outlined at the very end of our conversation.
In terms of the logistics of campaigning itself, running as an independent is obviously very different from running as a member of a party. “I have no big party political machine behind me”, Anne explains, “it’s friends and supporters”. Her campaign remains quite classic, as she believes leafleting, door-knocking, and meeting people is still what works best. And, according to her, “what has been staggering is the overwhelming support that is pouring in.” However, that does not change the fact that campaigning is hard, and can take a significant toll on candidates’ mental health.
When asked about the sort of impact that General Election campaigning has had on her mental health is the past, Anne Milton sighs: “You will have 24 hours when you will sit and weep. And 24 hours when it feels almost insurmountable to carry on.” However, she points out that her age – she turned 64 in November – and experience have made her more resilient. She added that campaigning can be an exhausting feat for younger candidates: “The harsh reality when you become a candidate is that actually you’re going to get knocked around, and I think that can be quite tough if you’re experiencing it for the first time.” Anne Milton considers herself fortunate for not having an extensive social media history, which she suggests can be weaponised against candidates: “If you’re younger, you know, 18 or 16, you might have taken photos of yourself or done things that you regret later in life, and all that gets dug up. It can be pretty vicious.” Negative, adversarial campaigning, which Anne Milton claims she has never and would never engage in, is therefore likely to test the resilience of candidates, especially those standing for the first time. And not only are your opponents likely to make your life harder, but the public isn’t going to defend you either. Indeed, as she contends, “generally politicians as a whole aren’t popular people, so nobody is going to have any sympathy for them.” Politics these days might not be for the fainthearted, but Anne Milton doesn’t think that the world of politics benefits from being as cutthroat as it currently is: “We rely, democracy in this country relies on people putting their name forward. It would be a shame if only the people that can survive a bruising General Election campaign are the people that put their name forward.”
Finally, asked about what she hopes the outcome of the General Election will be, Anne Milton said that “it would be a shame if anybody had a large majority”, as it would give the government license to implement under-scrutinised policies. For her, this election “is about Boris Johnson wanting to get his own way”, and she is therefore worried that the Conservatives will obtain a large majority that would give him the mandate he seeks. She would prefer to see a hung Parliament, which she believes would result in a “government of national unity”. She also maintains that this General Election is “largely but not entirely being fought on one issue”, which she condemns; “I think general elections work well when you’re […] asking the people to decide on a range of policies.” When asked about that one issue, Brexit, Anne is categorical: there needs to be a confirmation referendum, as it is “the only way to get closure.”