Arranging an interview with Gloria De Piero, you’d be forgiven for feeling slightly ‘media managed’. Her assistant seems sceptical about the idea of a profile, especially when I say I want to come to her Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield. A few years ago, he explains, some broadsheet journalists painted the constituency in a very bad light. They aren’t keen on that happening again.
During another preliminary conversation, De Piero herself comes on the line, asking in her rich Yorkshire accent – a fixture in people’s living rooms during her years as GMTV’s political editor – what I would need and what kind of thing the photographer would want. Her journalist’s background, she says, means she can see things from the other side.
Trawling through the newspaper archives, their caution begins to make sense. A Sunday Times piece about De Piero from early 2010 makes the constituency out to be a needle-strewn hellhole, declaring: “The truth about Ashfield is shocking”. Nor is De Piero, then still a candidate, portrayed in a flattering light – the article, along with another in The Telegraph, depicts her as aloof and out of touch with the community she’s hoping to represent.
Three years on, what do her constituents say about her? Wendy Harvey, a former independent councillor in Ashfield, cannot speak highly enough of the Labour MP, particularly compared with her predecessor, Geoff Hoon. “Him, he had all his bodyguards round him,” she tells me by phone (logistical challenges have ruled out my visit to Ashfield). “Honestly, you could not speak to that man. And her – you can sit and tell her the problems you’ve got, and she’ll listen. She’s what you’d call dedicated. She’s bothered about the area.” Harvey became a Labour member last year. A big part of the reason “was Gloria”.
Conservatives seem to like her, too. Ron Walker isn’t quite one of her constituents – Tories are pretty hard to come by in this former mining town – but he’s a member of Kirkby and Ashfield Rotary Club, which has close links with the community. Walker has “seen her, but not met her”, and has a "very strong and favourable impression of her… It’s clear that she’s very much part of her constituency and takes a great interest in what’s going on,” he says.
One word which a De Piero archive trawl throws up repeatedly is ‘glamorous’. Approaching Portcullis House for our interview, a resolve sets in: this profile will avoid that reductive description at all costs, not least because I want to ask her if she ever tires of the endless coupling of her name with the g-word. Then we meet. Her hair bounces, her nails sparkle and her electronic cigarette – it makes several appearances during the interview – is certainly the most… glamorous I’ve ever seen: it’s silver with a black filter and emits little clouds of vanilla vapour. It’s hard not to find her a tiny bit dazzling.
But perhaps this is less to do with her appearance and more about the warmth of her character. She asks so many questions, and seems to take such a genuine interest in the answers that it’s easy to forget we’re here to talk about her. As she banters with the photographer Antonello, she tells him he’s making her want to speak Italian. Her parents were Italian immigrants but they were so keen for her to be successful that, while she was growing up in Bradford, they refused to speak to her in their native language. She only managed a C in Italian at GCSE.
How did she feel when she read those articles about Ashfield? The response is impassioned: “I tell you, if you came to Ashfield… the people are like me and I’m like them. And that’s why they got me wrong as well. People still remember those pieces” – she winces – “and they’re like, ‘Why would a journalist from London come and tell us about our community?’” Ashfield, she says, is a place where “you stand up for yourself, you don’t take any crap, you say it like it is. I’ve lived in a number of places, but I’ve not seen a community spirit like this one anywhere else in the country. They’re wonderful people – and, you know, we’ve got beautiful green spaces.”
Ashfield isn’t without its problems – “in unemployment terms, we’re about 254th out of 650, and higher education is really bad, we’re almost bottom” – but aspiration among teenagers wanting to go to university is high, De Piero says, adding that she’s always impressed by the talent and ambition she encounters when visiting local schools. She seems moved just talking about it.
Having grown up in a workless home, she is familiar with long-term unemployment. Health problems meant her dad stopped working when she was around 10 and her mother then quit her job to care for him. They pushed her to make something of herself, however, and she ended up graduating with a First class social sciences degree from the University of Westminster.
Much of her time as an MP is spent “banging on at agencies” on behalf of constituents – whether it’s the Child Support Agency or the tax credits people, “you kind of realise how bad many of these agencies are.” She’s had success with campaigns to save the local DH Lawrence Heritage Centre and also to make her primary care trust change a ludicrous rule which meant a blind, wheelchair-bound woman had to have her incontinence pads weighed to determine if they were soiled enough for her to get them free.
Another crusade revolves around National Lottery funding, something she hadn’t really considered before becoming an MP. “One of the neighbouring seats in Nottingham gets £1m more in funding. I said to one of the Lottery people, ‘It’s not fair that my community...’ – we don’t even have a cinema – ‘why does that place get £1m more when it’s just a few miles away?’ So that’s one of the things I’ve really got onto the Lottery about, because actually many former pit towns are not getting their share of funding. I’ve Freedom-of-Information-ed them, and Camelot just stalls me. What I want to know is where the tickets are bought, ‘cos I reckon we’re buying a lot more than we’re getting back. But they will not give me those figures. The government won’t help me either. So that’s an ongoing campaign.”
When De Piero discusses an area of public life where she’s impatient to see change, short, sharp sighs of exasperation punctuate her speech. The frustration of being shadow crime prevention minister prompts a number of these angry exhalations. She says she’s “genuinely astonished” that the government is scrapping the ASBO and effectively decriminalising anti-social behaviour. “Antisocial behaviour makes people’s lives a flippin’ misery. It’s the hardest thing to crack in my constituency. I honestly can’t get my head round [the decision] at all.” The Labour team scrutinising the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill also wanted to introduce a test to measure the vulnerability of the person complaining about antisocial behaviour, but the government rejected it. “Again, I just don’t know why,” she says. “I just don’t think they get it.”
A thread running through almost everything De Piero says is the need to open up politics – not just by cutting out the bluster and discussing issues in the language of those outside SW1, but also by diversifying the intake of parliament itself. To this end, she recently went out door-knocking, armed with a so-called ‘marked register’ of non-voters, urging those she met to see politics as something relevant to them, and even encouraging them to join the local council.
But isn’t much of the public’s apathy down to a lack of clarity about what the main parties, particularly Labour, stand for? I read her something her constituent Wendy Harvey has said to me about Labour being “adrift” and having “lost the plot” – this from someone who has recently joined the party, never mind someone who never votes. What would De Piero say to her?
“What would I say? ‘Get involved. Join us, spread our message’. Because every single member of the Labour Party… We’ve got to get out there and we’ve got to understand people, we’ve got to talk their language.”
This is the strategy, but what’s the substance? She smiles and looks furtive. She seems to be about to make a stealthy policy announcement. What Labour activists should be saying on the doorstep, she suggests, is, “Do you know what? If you’ve been out of work for a year and you’re a young person, you’re going to get a job. And it’s going to be paid for by the bankers, not a spending commitment. That’s a blooming guarantee.” But the jobs guarantee is already out there – Ed Miliband first mentioned it in March 2012. Perhaps De Piero is hinting it will be in the manifesto, but it’s clear she’s wary of saying too much.
She’s more comfortable talking tactics. Labour must “focus relentlessly” on evening bulletins and breakfast programmes to get their message across, she says. As GMTV’s former political editor she understands all too well the importance of these media outlets. When the shoe was on the other foot, though, was it ever tempting for De Piero – a card-carrying party member since she was 18 – to compromise journalistic integrity and give Labour ministers an easier ride? She was, after all, known as ‘Tony Blair’s favourite interviewer’.
“It’s weird, but there’s actually a self-correct button that means the reverse happens. ‘Cos you’re paranoid about it, you’re probably a little bit kinder to the Tories,” she says laughing.
De Piero’s broadcasting background has, of course, contributed to the way she’s been described by the media since she entered politics. How does it feel to read yet another description of ‘glamorous Labour MP Gloria De Piero’?
She sighs. “It’s an example of everyday sexism, isn’t it?” Not long after she was elected, she recounts, she asked a national newspaper editor – “who will remain nameless” – if he’d mind not using the word ‘busty’ to describe her. “I expected him to go, ‘Oh sorry, that’s ridiculous’, but he said, ‘You are quite busty’”.
Yet The Sun (where this description appeared) is another crucial vehicle for reaching voters. Do female politicians just have to tolerate that kind of language? “To be fair to them – I do a lot with The Sun, it’s Britain’s biggest- selling newspaper – if we’re doing an antisocial behaviour story, they wouldn’t put that. It’s just when they’re commenting, or when it’s a diary story… that’s when they stick it in.”
I remind her of a long interview she did with the paper, which was published under the strapline, ‘Sun has a cup of tea with our sexiest MP’.
She pauses, and then says: “You shouldn’t have to put up with it. It shouldn’t be part of how we describe people. I don’t have an answer to it, though. Perhaps getting more women in the lobby would be a good start.”
During her campaign in 2010, it emerged that as a 15-year-old, and without her parents’ knowledge, De Piero had posed topless for a local photo agency. The revelation sparked a media frenzy, including Telegraph and Sunday Times pieces, which saw journalists pursue her through the streets of Ashfield. In 2011 she spoke about the pictures for the first time, describing her motivation for having them taken: her family was broke, she was on free school meals, and she wanted some cash to buy nice clothes. She was fed up with wearing her school uniform even at times when she didn’t have to.
When she was asked last year if she had signed a petition to take bare breasts out of The Sun, she revealed that she hadn’t. She could understand why a girl would pose for topless pictures as “a way out” of unhappy circumstances, emphasising that she didn’t blame the girls themselves for the presence of such pictures in a newspaper.
I ask her what she thinks of the current ‘No More Page Three’ campaign. Hesitating at first, she replies: “It’s right, isn’t it? It’s totally fair enough. It [Page 3] just normalises soft porn, I guess.
It’s a big issue in politics at the moment and lots of people have said it, but I just don’t think a daily newspaper is the right place for it.”
My meeting with De Piero happens at a time when female campaigners and journalists are being subjected to a torrent of online abuse, and the MP’s own parliamentary colleagues Stella Creasy and Claire Perry have also been subject to rape and death threats.
By way of background music, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is at Number 3 in the UK charts, having been at Number 1 for a large part of the summer. Its video sees topless women parade around fully-clothed male rappers – one of whom says, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”.
I ask De Piero if she ever feels as if the clock has been turned back on the way young men see women. “It certainly feels like that, doesn’t it?” she says. She also points to the ongoing trend on TV “of a lot of old blokes with very young female presenters… Of course there are totally different standards for women – so much is about our appearance.”
For all this, she says how heartened she is by the sense of sisterhood among Labour women in parliament – women like Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell who “haven’t pulled the ladder up after them” but “who extend their hands and pull you up with them… I can also see with [the] Everyday Sexism [campaign] the shoots of a new feminist movement, and blimey, we do need one.”
Until this point, De Piero’s answers have been characterised by an easy candour, but there seems to be one subject to which her openness doesn’t extend: Steve Coogan. I want to know for how long the two dated.
“Oh god,” she says, half-groaning, half-laughing. “We were just... I mean... Steve’s a mate.”
How long ago did the Alpha Papa liaison take place? “I met Steve when I was about 22, at a Labour Party Conference and we’ve been friends ever since.
“I haven’t seen him for a couple of years, but… I hope he’ll be endorsing the Labour Party at the next election!”
This reticence doesn’t bode well for my final question: where De Piero sees herself in 10 years. MPs avoid this one like the plague and the Labour member for Ashfield is no different.
She says she’s recently become vice-chair of the mental health APPG and this will be a priority “whatever job Ed does or doesn’t ask me to do”.
She’ll also continue on her mission to open up politics. Wherever she is, she says, she just wants to be “making a blooming difference”.
With that, we’re done. “I don’t know what the top line is there,” she says smiling. I half expect her to suggest one for me, but Gloria De Piero is media savvy enough to know that people will make up their own minds. She adds: “There are lots to choose from… ”