Councillor Matthew Brown profile: A triumph over adversity
HE left school with poor grades and few prospects. But now with a Masters degree under his belt, one of the area’s youngest councillors is setting his sights on a seat in parliament. In the latest of his profiles on North East Lincolnshire’s ward councillors, Local Government Reporter Simon Faulkner speaks to Labour’s Matthew Brown.
WHEN asked by the then Cleethorpes MP Shona McIsaac what he would like to do when he grew up, the 11-year-old Matthew Brown answered simply: “I want your job.”
It was the ambitious answer of a boy who had been immersed in politics from an early age.
The son of two long-time Labour voters, Matthew campaigned from the age of 11, delivering leaflets with his dad for Croft Baker ward councillor Alan Green, and supporting Ms McIsaac’s successful 1997 election campaign.
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“I was always interested in politics”, he says.
“I remember going around Bursar Primary school saying ‘Tony Blair has got in, he’s going to be amazing.”
After campaigning in Sidney Sussex for Chris Shaw in 2003, he was encouraged by the new Labour group leader to join the party at the age of just 17.
At 18 he became vice chairman of the Cleethorpes Constituency Labour party, making him the youngest CLP vice chairman in the UK.
And in 2007 and 2008 Matthew contested the safe Tory seat of Haverstoe in order to cut his teeth.
His big break came in 2010 when, at the age of 24, he defeated well-known local figures Colin Eastwell and Bob Callison to claim the Croft Baker seat for Labour.
His story may sound like the inexorable rise of a precocious political prodigy.
But there has been nothing straightforward about Matthew’s path into local government. He has had to overcome many obstacles, including ill health, poor school grades and depression.
Born in Grimsby in April 1986, Matthew attended Bursar Primary and Lindsey Schools, but endured a childhood plagued with ill health.
Between the ages of 10 and 14 he suffered with severe asthma, was confined to a wheelchair for three years and twice came close to losing his life to the illness.
After leaving school with poor GCSE results he was advised to pursue a practical career, but stubbornly chose to stay on at sixth form in a bid to improve his grades.
He clashed with the head of sixth form at Lindsey, butthankfully Lesley Dover, the head of sixth form at the neighbouring Matthew Humberstone site, recognised his potential and encouraged him to transfer across, telling him: “I will get you to university.”
She was as good as her word.
“I was really lucky at Matthew Humberstone,” he says.
“I had some great teachers. They really supported me and I still go for a pint with them now and again.”
Matthew graduated in 2005 with a 2:1 in business and management from the University of Hull’s Scarborough campus – an institution for which he is equally effusive in his praise.
“I love that university to death. I’m very proud of what it does in widening participation. Education is the biggest tool against social deprivation and that’s why on Cleethorpes Town Team I fought to get a satellite campus on Lindsey Lower School. Unfortunately we just missed the boat as there was no funding left.”
In 2009 Matthew embarked on a masters degree at Hull University’s Hull Campus, and the following year was elected as union vice president, with special responsibilities for the Scarborough campus.
During his two terms in office, he led a group of students on the national demonstration against the rise in tuition fees, and transformed the union from a silver to a gold standard.
By now, Matthew was combining his vice presidency with his new role as a ward councillor.
His victory in Croft Baker was all the more sweet for being in the ward which the late Alan Green represented for many years.
“I was very close to Alan Green and I remember when he lost in 2003 tears running down his face. I would say to this day that he died of a broken heart.
“As soon as I won I went round to see his wife Brenda and she threw her arms around me and said: ‘Alan would have been proud of you.’”
Matthew’s greatest regret is that his nanna Barbara, who died in 2007, was not around to witness his proudest moment.
“When she died it affected me quite a lot. She was like a mother to me. She always encouraged me to do what was right and taught me that if you try hard enough you can make a difference to people.”
However, he insists that he sees his seat as being very much “on loan” and says that if he was voted out he would walk away from local politics and let someone else have a go.
Matthew admits that becoming a councillor was a massive learning curve.
“Within hours of getting elected you get people ringing you because you’re the new kid on the block and they think you can change the world.
“You can’t change the world, but often you can tinker at the edges and if you can do that you can make things better for people.”
All the while, Matthew was continuing his long-running battle with depression.
“I go into a really, really dark place and it’s difficult to come out. But it hasn’t held me back.
“Too often people see mental health as meaning you are unable to do a job or you are not good enough. But everybody will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.”
Two years after being elected, Matthew was appointed chairman of the children and young people scrutiny panel – a role he is passionate about, given his own experiences of education.
Under his chairmanship, the panel examined A-level provision at Franklin College in the wake of the institution’s unexpectedly poor Ofsted report – a process he and his colleagues found extremely reassuring.
It is now tackling the thorny issue of pupil exclusions – something Matthew is keen to explore even further by undertaking a phD on the impact of academies on social mobility in North East Lincolnshire.
“I would be interested to know whether academies have been cherry picking pupils or if they really have been effective in improving standards across the board.”
However, it is in politics, not education, that Matthew sees his true vocation.
His immediate aim is to get into the Cabinet, but his ultimate goal is to represent Cleethorpes in parliament.
Since November, Matthew has been working as a voluntary intern in the constituency office of Hemsworth MP Jon Trickett.
And having come a creditable second in the battle to be Labour’s candidate for the safe Tory seat of Hartsmere at the next election, Matthew is now setting his sights on running closer to home.
“I would love a crack at Cleethorpes. I would love to be the local boy going to parliament to represent the area.”
WHO would be a councillor?
Today we run the latest in our series profiling North East Lincolnshire councillors.
Locally elected representatives put themselves up for criticism and public scrutiny the second they decided to go for office – it goes with the territory.
And criticised they most certainly are! Some of this is justified and is to be expected – as stated above, at the end of the day these people are going into the job with their eyes wide open.
However ask yourself this question – would you do it?
Yes, they get expenses and again are criticised for claiming.
Of course there will always be the odd bad apple who will bid for power in an attempt to lever a more prosperous future for themselves.
But if a councillor is doing his or her job correctly, and the majority will have that intention, then it can be an extremely challenging task and one which few would relish – a full time job in itself.
The quality and calibre of those who serve is vital – more so now, at a time when difficult decisions have to be made.
Follow the editor on Twitter @michellelalor