Standing against the Prime Minister

26th March 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

Labour Parliamentary candidate for Witney, Duncan Enright (1982, Physics), will be fighting David Cameron at the next election in May 2015. He talks to Julia Banfield about his career so far.

  • Duncan Enright

Duncan Enright had his sights set on Wadham from an early age. “My Dad Derek, from the mining town of Pontefract in Yorkshire was given a place at Wadham to read Classics in 1954 by Maurice Bowra, who championed individual students from working backgrounds. It was a big adventure for my Dad to come to Oxford and he revelled in it, becoming JCR President. I grew up, meeting his Wadham friends and knew I wanted to come to Wadham too,” explained Duncan.

Duncan gained his place in 1982, reading Physics, and had what he described as a ‘fantastic time’, joining lots of clubs and societies including rowing, football, rugby league, cricket (playing mainly for the Woebegones), and in 1984 became Wadham’s Student Union President. He also stood for a sabbatical post in Oxford University Student Union as Labour candidate but lost out narrowly on transfer votes to the Alliance. His primary school teacher from Pontefract had paid for his membership at the Oxford Union before he even arrived in Oxford, so when he wasn’t boycotting the Union, along with other Labour Party students, he faced contemporaries Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nick Robinson in the debating chamber. He even stood for Union office with the help of campaign manager Anne McElvoy (1984, Philosophy and Modern Languages), but was unsuccessful.  

Duncan grew up with a taste for politics. “My family was always Labour and were trade unionists; my granddad was a railway man and my dad was a Labour MEP who went on to become an MP. I have been a Labour campaigner all my life and was chair of the Young Socialists in Pontefract.” But it was at Wadham that Duncan was introduced to the mechanics and arguments of politics in a real way.  He explains: “It was a politically charged atmosphere at the time, with Thatcher as Prime Minister, a highly politicised Wadham and Oxford and the miners on strike back at home. Mostly people at Wadham were moved by compassion for the miners and we raised a lot of money for their families." At the end of 1984 there was a big demonstration in Oxford, known as the ‘All Souls demo’, when Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph came to Oxford for a dinner at All Souls. A large part of the student body demonstrated in the streets and there were a number of arrests with what Duncan describes as ‘heavy-handed policing’.

Through his Father’s work at the European Parliament, a young Duncan became conference aide to Barbara Castle. “It was a privilege and pleasure for the access it gave me. During the pensions campaign I was helping negotiate with Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman as well as making sure her hairdresser could get into the secure areas of the conference! I helped write speeches full of emollient phrases with unifying messages that Barbara would ignore utterly when she got up to speak,” he recalls.

From student politics Duncan went into local politics and soon after leaving university to begin his career in publishing, Duncan joined Andrew Smith’s campaign to become the first Labour MP for Oxford East, a hugely successful campaign.

I feel I now have the experience to really challenge Cameron.

Duncan Enright

Duncan’s first job was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press. “Maxwell was barely there, but when he was, you knew about it. He threw his weight around (and had a lot of weight to throw). I was very junior so I loved it for the entertainment value that ensued from visits by this very charismatic figure, and for the way he made the bosses jump” he remembers.

In 1992 Duncan stood as the Labour candidate for the University seat and lost, despite help from a campaign team which included Ed Miliband. His first public political act was to become county councillor in 1993, when he fought Iffley, Rose Hill and Cowley Centre. He won with a big majority and went on to represent them for four years.

In 1997 Duncan stood against Michael Heseltine in the general election in Henley. A well organised campaign and a slogan saying ‘we may not promise the world but what we do promise, we will deliver’ halved Heseltine’s majority. Duncan recalls: “On the day of the result we were getting thumbs up and people hooting their horns in the middle of Henley town…quite an achievement in such a conservative stronghold.”

On moving to Witney in 1996 Duncan was already eight years into a career at Reed Elsevier in scientific, medical and technical publishing – where he was in charge of some of the text books he had used as an undergraduate. “Publishing gives you a useful perspective on international business, science and medicine which has been invaluable in politics,” he said.  In 2013 Duncan set up his own company, Evidence-based Networks, focused on publishing and policy projects.

Combining family life with politics is something Duncan takes in his stride. “I see my political career as being consistent with family life as it is local and close to home and my family can get involved.” He and his wife, Sally-Ann had three children, Katy, Lucy and Tom. The oldest, Katy was born with profound disabilities and died in 2011 at the age of 16.

An interest in policy led to a ten year stint as a non-executive director of Oxfordshire Learning Disabilities NHS Trust where Duncan was able to see first-hand the point where policy and service meet. At the same time he was a policy commissioner on Labour’s National Policy Forum driving initiatives into the manifesto. One small success was to get contractors to report to clinical leaders (for example, getting a hospital ward matron to be able to tell the cleaning staff what needs doing and where).

Following his success in the town council by-election in 2011, Duncan won the Witney East district council seat in 2012, fighting particularly on the issue of promoting fair trade. His victory in the ward was a first for Labour.
“I feel I now have the experience to really challenge Cameron. Of course I want to win Witney but it is an uphill challenge against a sitting Prime Minister. However, the election will give me a real platform on which to raise specific local issues. I am very concerned about inequality in our area and nationally. As we reduce public services, it exposes a huge gap in support for some people. In West Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds there are huge mansions empty nearly all of the time while at the same time we have a desperate housing shortage. How can that be right? I want to see government acting as a strong supporter of communities. Our towns and cities need to be places where we support each other much more... like the community that I experienced at Wadham, where together we were able to organise things like the ball, and where we could support each other when we were in trouble.”

Unsurprisingly, Duncan wants Labour to win the next general election on 7 May 2015. “I think we need a Labour government and Ed Miliband is shaping up to become a new style political leader. I hope to continue to carry on playing an important role in my local community, reducing inequality and building a strong community.”

Ed Miliband is shaping up to become a new style political leader

Duncan Enright