The independent

Selby MP John Grogan will step down at the next election having gained respect as a key campaigner for Yorkshire brewing and mining – not the most obvious choice for an Oxford educated, PR guru who initially looked like a textbook New Labour clone. Rod McPhee reports

THERE are two ways of guaranteeing a name for yourself among the political elite – mould yourself as an unfaltering supporter or an unbridled rebel.

John Grogan, by his own admission, hasn't gained notoriety by falling into either category. Yet when he steps down at the next election he'll do so with the commendation of fellow party members.

The list of admirers includes Tony Blair, who recently penned him a letter of thanks after the Selby MP spoke up for the Prime Minister this summer, just as other parliamentarians had the knives out.

Grogan said: "The one thing I realise is that if it weren't for Blair I probably wouldn't have been elected an MP in 1997 or 2001 and there are plenty of other MPs who wouldn't be here today if it weren't for him.

"I've always stood up for what I believed in rather than following any particular crowd. So when I've felt I should give my support to the Prime Minister I have and when I haven't I've stood by that too."

That includes voting against the whip on several occasions, most notably on Iraq, new gambling legislation and top-up fees.

Now 45, Grogan acknowledges that his refusal to doggedly toe the party line probably cost him a potential ministerial position.

But he has always been more concerned with regional issues to worry about gaining high office. As a Yorkshireman, born in Halifax, raised in Burley-in-Wharfedale and educated in Leeds, the county's in his blood.

Perhaps his greatest achievements while in office are also the most contrasting – namely his handling of the demise of the local mining industry and his contribution towards reshaping Leeds as a cosmopolitan destination.

The latter was achieved by him spearheading a drive to modernise the archaic licensing laws which Grogan knew from personal experience caused as many problems as they prevented.

He said: "When I was a young lad in Leeds during the 70s and 80s the pub culture was very stayed and you always had these flashpoints of friction around 11pm.

"Everything revolved almost entirely around the drinking culture and that held Leeds back. In the 70s we were known as The Motorway City which about says it all really.

"We were always in the shadow of Manchester and we seemed to lack ambition and foresight. Now the changes to licensing laws means that there's far more diversity in the city, it isn't all about boozing and you no longer get the same level of trouble at kicking out time."

From the moment Grogan was elected to office nine years ago he fought hard to bolster local mines, particularly the Selby complex which employed some 2,000 pitmen.

He said: "When I realised by my second term in office that we were fighting a battle we could never win, my goal was to ensure that if the pit closed it wouldn't close in the same brutal way mines had been shut down before.

"I'm very proud to say that as a result of a lot of hard work, sometimes bruising visits to Downing Street, we ensured that all the miners got the same redundancy payments that they would have received had they still been in a nationalised industry.

"We were also able to put into practice a package which saw most people offered retraining and reskilling. By the time the mine closed just 50 of the 2,000 employees left there without another job to go to."

Although Grogan became known as a major supporter of the mining industry it wasn't, at first sight at least, his natural field of interest.

Grogan was the son of a headmaster and after leaving St Michael's College in Woodhouse, Leeds, went on to study at Oxford where his contemporaries included former Conservative leader William Hague.

Before becoming an MP he spent eight years living and working in Leeds, mostly as Jon Trickett's right hand man when he was leader of the city council.

Boundary changes

By 1995 he was head of communications and had become, in his own words, "Jon's equivalent of Peter Mandelson I suppose."

During this time Grogan had been fighting to win Selby for Labour on several occasions. His decision to stand down at the next election stems from the fact that boundary changes make it almost impossible for the party to hang on to the seat.

The new Selby constituency will include large numbers of villages close to Harrogate, Knaresborough and Otley – essentially Tory heartland.

He said: "I know you could argue that I'm not going to take up the fight because I think I'll lose it, but they should remember that I've been fighting for this seat for the last 25 years.

"We went from a position of being in third place in Selby up to finally taking the seat in 1997 and I don't want to start another fight with a whole new playing field all over again.

"And besides I'd rather spend the next two or three years fighting for my constituents rather than for myself.

"I'm not ruling out a return to politics in some way – either as an MEP or an MP – but at the moment I just don't know to be honest."

Grogan leaves parliament seeming content that he never achieved any position higher than that of head of the All-Party Beer Group.

But he does so knowing that this position was influential enough to sway the government on the crucial issue of licensing hours and helped one of the towns he represents, Tadcaster, which is home to three breweries.

Above all else it perhaps typifies his transition from potential Blairite into a backbencher whose priorities lie with his Yorkshire constituency.

"I must admit that I probably have changed a great deal." he said. "And it's probably been the constituency that's changed me.

"Now I probably have many new characteristics – a sheer bloody mindedness, down-to-earth approach – which are reflected in the Selby area.

"As a local party leader recently said of my early days campaigning for the seat in the early 80s – 'He came here just out of Oxford, all long hair and ideas and, we have to say, he did all right for us.' "

rod.mcphee@ypn.co.uk