From a high-flying career with a city law firm Huw Merriman became MP for Bexhill and Battle in 2015 and in each election since he has significantly increased his majority. He believes his time is better spent in his constituency than in Westminster and he hopes his chairmanship of the Transport Select Committee can bring benefits to this area. Stuart Baillie found out more about the life of a man who says he has a passionate commitment to social justice…
Political ambition is not what drives Huw Merriman, he tasted success as a lawyer leading the team that dealt with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers bank – the biggest bankruptcy the world has ever seen.
For this Northamptonshire born, former Secondary Modern pupil, his ambitions are rooted in seeing social justice and giving people the freedom to make the best of themselves, just as he had to do growing up.
“I failed my exams for grammar school and so was sent to ‘the other’ school in our town. If you went to the grammar school you were considered a success, if you went to the other school, you were seen as a failure, that’s how it was,” he explains.
The young Huw would not be pigeon holed though and got himself a good crop of GCSEs and found a place in further education to do his A levels.
He then went to what he describes as ‘a good university’– it was Durham – where he gained a law degree. He became a barrister and then Managing Director of a law firm in the city of London – that’s where he got involved in the complex Lehman Brothers work.
Huw says he reached a stage in his life where he realised he’d had success and decided it was time to give something back to a society that had been good to him.
At Durham he was President of the Young Conservatives yet he came from a staunchly Labour family with strong links to the trades union movement.
“My family was a Labour supporting family, my parents are trade unionists. Ultimately we want the same things, to improve the lot of working people, it’s just that we disagree on the best way to achieve that. I believe we achieve that by setting people free rather than by controlling them from the centre,” he says.
In 2007 he was elected to Wealden District Council and had his first tilt at a parliamentary seat in the 2010 general election when he contested North East Derbyshire, where he lost out to Labour by 2,445 votes.
Selected to contest the safe Bexhill and Battle seat in 2015, he was delighted not just to win the seat but to increase the Conservative majority from around 12,000 in 2010 to more than 20,000. In the two elections since he has continued to boost his winning margin growing it to what he describes as ‘an extraordinary’ 22,165 in 2017 and then to more than 26,000 in December last year, “that must be as good as it gets,” he says.
His constituency is 200 square miles and he sees his principal role as getting out into the community, talking to the people living there and finding out what their problems and issues are, then attempting to put those right.
“Many people believe that for an MP Westminster is the be-all and end-all but I look at it a little differently,” he says and points out that he enjoys being able to report back to constituents when he has been able to use his office and his contacts to sort out and resolve a problem that they had brought to him.
But what of the big issues facing his constituency? High on that list is transport links.
Poor road and rail links have often been cited as reasons why the economic prosperity of the area is being held back. Huw was delighted when he became a member of the transport select committee in 2015 and was particularly pleased to have been elected its chairman in January this year.
“The A21 is appalling, the A27 is appalling and dangerous and it takes two hours to get from London to Bexhill by train,” he says, “I can be the voice for my constituents on that committee and by being its chairman I expect to be able to win more for this area because I have the time and opportunity to speak to Network Rail, the train operators, and to Highways England asking them why they are not doing more about the roads.”
The other big area where more needs to be done according to the Bexhill and Battle MP is in the area of health and social care. Local hospitals need to be improved.
“I’d like to see local hospitals in Bexhill, Hastings and Eastbourne being given the funding that they need to be upgraded. They are staffed by some fantastic doctors and nurses but the buildings need investment,” he says. As for social care he sums that up by saying: “…social care is just not working.”
The whole system, he believes, needs an overhaul and the NHS and social care need to be brought together: “Look at the Covid situation, hospitals work, care homes don’t. Covid has shown us it’s necessary to bring social care and the NHS together. The current systems is holding us back.”
And building enough new homes to meet the demands of the constituency will be a challenge too, says Huw: “Seventy five per cent of the constituency is classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty,” he points out.
But what about those ambitions and aspirations: “The job of an MP is to legislate and to hold the government to account and to use your office, influence and relationships across the community to fix unjust situations,” he says.
That’s why he says he doesn’t believe in playing politics: “Outside of elections I don’t spend time rowing with opponents, I believe in working with them. Even during the elections I get on well with my opponents. People in this constituency do not want to see us at each other’s throats, they want to see us working together to help the community.”
‘There’s a common misconception that I’m a remainer but I didn’t take a position either way…’
Building relationships with other elected representatives on district or county councils is also something that he considers an important element of his role as MP: “The reality is that in many ways you are more like an outreach worker or social a worker on the ground fighting for your community and for the services that it needs.”
In many respects Huw Merriman has swum against the tide in terms of the direction the Conservative party has taken in recent years. He voted against Brexit but points out that he did not reveal how he had voted until five minutes before the polls closed: “I didn’t want to been seen to be trying to sway people. There’s a common misconception that I’m a remainer but I didn’t take a position either way, the idea of a referendum is that it is down to the people to make the decision.”
Within his constituency he says he arranged meetings and debates at which both sides of the Brexit debate were fully represented and he organised literature that set out both sides of the arguement that was available to local households.
He backed Jeremy Hunt in last year’s Conservative party leadership election and had worked for a time as Parliamentary Private Secretary, or PPS, to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond.
On his current relationship with senior members of the government, perhaps significantly, Huw Merriman says he has a ‘different outlook’ from that of Prime Minister Boris Johnston.