Associate Profile Series | Gavin Callaghan

GPG delivers specialist technical advice through a core group of retained Associates who are former Ministers, Members of Parliament, senior civil servants or parliamentary staff, and academics. We have built long-lasting relationships with Associates which we seek to highlight in this series of personal profiles.

This month’s Associate, Gavin Callaghan, is the former leader of Basildon Borough Council in Essex and has been involved in our work against Modern Slavery.

Why did you decide to work in politics?  

A friend of mine said to me that she thought I should go and work in parliament for an MP and that I’d really enjoy the hustle and bustle of Westminster. However, in 2010 I had just finished my degree in politics at the University of Newcastle when I landed a job in sports broadcasting in Manchester. It was my dream. I had always wanted to be a football commentator.

I was really enjoying the work but then came the student protests in the autumn of 2010 when the Liberal Democrats went back on their pledge not to increase tuition fees. I couldn’t shake the feeling inside that I should be working in politics and doing something to help the party I’d supported since I joined at 16, so that Christmas I went home, quit my job, and applied for unpaid work experience posts in Westminster until an MP gave me a job. Thankfully, like London buses, I waited a while for one and then three came at once.

I stayed working in Westminster for 4 and a half years and in the middle of my time working for MPs, I was elected to Basildon Council and stood for parliament in the 2015 general election. In 2017, aged 28 I became the youngest elected council leader in the UK and led the council whilst it was in no overall control, until 2021, including through the COVID pandemic.

Give us a short overview of what you consider to have been a key moment in your career. What brought you where you are today? 

When I began working for MPs, I was asked to help design a public relations and public affairs strategy for a campaign that my MP wanted to run on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 97 Liverpool football fans were killed. It was one of the largest losses of life on a single day in the UK since the end of the second world war and there was a widespread feeling that there had been a concerted cover up of the facts surrounding how the fans died and the emergency response.

The campaign aimed to lift the official Secrets Act restrictions early to enable the independent inquiry to review everything and establish the truth of what happened. For the first time ever, we utilised the Backbench Business Committee’s e-petition programme which stipulated that if 100,000 signatures could be secured, you would automictically trigger a parliamentary debate with a divisible motion on the floor of the House of Commons. We secured more than 100,000 signatures in less than a fortnight, which no one thought was possible.

From there, the debate took place in the House of Commons on 17th October 2011. It was electric. The speech I helped to craft for my MP was voted the parliamentary speech of the year and for the first time ever, he read the names of the victims which meant that they were recorded in Hansard in perpetuity. The Home Secretary agreed to release the documents and 9 months later it was revealed that the police, the press and parts of the political establishment had in fact covered up massive failings which led to the deaths of the fans and they had indeed conspired to blame the fans for their own deaths.

The campaign was significant, not just in how it showed me the power of what is often referred to as ‘small p’ politics – meaning you have to give as much attention to the smaller elements of a political campaign as to the larger ones – but also in how it was the first time there was concrete facts that the press, police and politicians in the UK could be corrupted in the ways that had been alleged for over 20 years but always denied. Many of the reactions since, to phone hacking, MPs expenses scandals, Brexit, Partygate and COVID have been directly impacted upon by the revelations of that Hillsborough campaign. For better or for worse, it exposed a dark underbelly at the heart of the criminal justice system in the UK which has eroded public trust and confidence in many of the established institutions that they are now fighting to recover.

What one thing about working in politics do you wish was different? 

I am a huge believer in the advancement of science and technology. However, I cannot think of a single positive that the invention of social media has had on politics! I am being slightly facetious, but I think it is one of the most critical challenges confronting politics today and there is precious little in the way of international agreement on how to confront and regulate it moving forward.

As Churchill once said, “a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has had time to put its trousers on”. In today’s social media climate, a lie is doing laps of the world before the truth even realises!

Which aspects of GPG’s projects and values encouraged you to join the organisation? 

I like that GPG is interested in hard facts and hard recommendations. Quite often, organisations at home and abroad, can produce the best written strategies and documents but they do not adequately understand the one simple but most powerful obstacle to effectively implementing these strategies: politics.

By having the input of professional serving and former politicians, the strategies and recommendations are enriched with an understanding of what is actually the art of the possible and what additional steps towards progress need to be factored in.

What work have you done with GPG, and which particular project with GPG stuck with you the most?

I have been working with GPG on the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking project in Sudan. This has been a very timely project and it has been one that has combined my first-hand experience of trafficking as a council leader, with the chance to get on the ground in North Africa and see what is actually going on to help prevent the trafficking and enslaving of vulnerable people. Given the issues that the British government is confronting with its Rwanda policy and the migration crisis out of the middle east and north Africa towards mainland Europe more generally, it has been incredibly interesting to understand more about the international community’s response to these crisis.

How would you describe the impact of your work with GPG?

Time will tell and I hope we are successful in obtaining the agreement to continue into the next phase and to get on the ground in Sudan and help the regional governments to implement some of the recommendations we have laid out. However, I think we have managed to pivot during the COVID travel bans, to produce a series of best practice examples from other nations and regions which can provide tangible solutions to the problem, especially around reporting and digitalising the response.   

Share your thoughts on a recent event or news story that caught your attention. 

Given the work that I have been doing with GPG, the most recent news event that helped to shift the dial on a difficult topic has been the documentary detailing how Sir Mo Farrah was trafficked from Somaliland to the UK as a child. For an Olympic hero to be open about his childhood, his journey and the crimes committed against him, was powerful. When the public have something tangible to cling to and understand, it is very impactful in helping to change the view of how human trafficking and modern slavery is an everyday occurrence here in the UK as well as in other parts of the world.

After the documentary aired, a number of people contacted me to ask me whether the work I do for GPG is aimed at things like they saw on the programme. I was able to talk them through exactly the kinds of issues people are facing now and how the work of GPG is attempting to stop this from happening on such a large scale in the future.

Which books, articles, podcasts, shows or other would you recommend anyone working in politics should read/listen to/watch? 

I’ve just finished reading Jason Cowley’s Who Are We Now? which is very good. I also enjoy re-reading The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe almost annually!

Podcast wise, I listen to The Rest is Politics, The Political Party, All Talk with Iain Dale and Full Disclosure with James O’Brien. I’m also adding The News Agents to the list as well.