Mark My Words crack
In an exclusive interview for The Cheltonian Michael Hasted talks to Mark Coote, Conservative candidate .
Imagine staking your whole future on a metaphorical throw of the dice. Imagine spending years of your life building up to an event, the outcome of which you have no real control over. Imagine your life changing dramatically whatever that outcome of that event may be.
This is a situation in which Mark Coote finds himself. Mark is the Conservative candidate for the Cheltenham parliamentary seat and on 7th May (assuming the general election is on 6th May) his life will change fundamentally. If he is successful in his bid for election he will be whisked off to Westminster and become a player on the national stage, if he fails – well, that is not in his plan and not something he wants to contemplate.
I talked with Mark in the front room of his elegant, terraced house in St. Luke’s and asked him about his background. “Well, I grew up in Leckhampton, off the Moorend Park Road and went to Leckhampton Primary School and then to Pates Grammar School. In 1979 I went off to university at Nottingham to study politics and what they then called Soviet Studies.”
So, it seems there was already an early interest in politics. How had that come about? “I joined the Young Conservatives at the age of fifteen as a result of a chance meeting with Lorna, a girl I met at the old Chicken Inn take away in Albion Street.” Mark admits to joining as much for the social benefits as anything else. His first active involvement though came while he was still at Pates.
“We all got a letter saying that the school could not uphold its commitment to provide a grammar school education up to the age of eighteen. This was as a result of the 1976 Education Act. I remember thinking, no-one’s been asked; we’ve just been told. So, I wrote to our MP and the County Council and, rather precociously I suppose, decided to raise a petition. One day we were standing in the Promenade collecting signatures and Charles Irving, the sitting MP, came along and signed. He was a larger than life character with a larger than life signature.”
As a result of that meeting, Mark took his petition to Downing Street, had tea at the Houses of Parliament and appeared on the old BBC Nationwide programme. “I was really fired up and that same year, 1978, I spoke at the Party Conference in Brighton in front of Margaret Thatcher and the shadow cabinet. I had been the first Young Conservative to do so. At a reception in Cheltenham a few days later Charles Irving proposed a toast to, ‘Mark Coote, our next Conservative member of parliament’. That was 32 years ago and that’s still what I intend to be.”
After university Mark did a teacher training course and spent the next twenty two years teaching, starting in a Nottinghamshire mining village. After a three year stint teaching at the British school in Milan, he returned to England in 1996. “I remember watching the defeat of the John Major government on the Thursday night and on the Friday morning I rang Central Office and asked to be put on the list. I felt that was a good time, the time to do something. That day was always going to come and that was it. I passed the selection board in 1998 and I have been a candidate ever since.”
Mark fought the last two general elections without much success in the labour stronghold of Hastings and Rye. David Cameron changed the selection process when he became Tory party leader and Mark was placed on the A List of the one hundred candidates most likely to succeed. Soon after, he was able to secure the nomination for Cheltenham, a dream he had always cherished. “People always say you cannot be a prophet in your own land but I had always harboured a rather sentimental, perhaps romantic idea that I would love to come home and fight this seat. As soon as I was selected I left London and moved here, in April it will be three years.”
Mark recently gave up his day job working for a cancer charity to concentrate on the campaign. “Westminster’s voice in Cheltenham is loud and clear but what about Cheltenham’s voice in Westminster? That’s what I want to be able to create, I want to be able to bang the table and make our voice heard.”
I asked what Marks priorities would be if he got to Westminster, what were his special interests? “I’m very interested in health care especially in early diagnosis and preventative medicine. We have got an awful lot to do to catch up with our European neighbours. I am particularly concerned about health outcomes. We have a process and a system where we talk big numbers at the front end but we don’t match those numbers to outcomes. We need to change the focus to outcomes.
“Secondly, education. I was the first person in my entire family to go into higher education and that’s because I went to the local grammar school. There is such limited social mobility now across the educational spectrum. Teachers should be freed up to teach. I’m governor at three state schools in Cheltenham and things now bear no relationship to what I left just three years ago. It really worries me. We’ve been shutting chemistry departments, shutting physics departments. We have to get back to a rigorous curriculum, we’ve got to get away from a culture that say’s prizes for all, and we’ve got to stop offering subjects which are cop outs – courses whose names end in the word ‘studies’”.
We had discussed at length the problems facing our society, our broken society. I wondered if Mark thought there was any part of our culture that worked okay, that wasn’t broken? “I think the model of the independent education system works. It’s about the only model where the government has pretty much no say. It’s regulated, but the institutions that run the independent sector are in the driving seat to run their schools as they see fit. This is a model that is unfettered by government interference, that has some freedom around the curriculum and the teachers are left to teach. They provide schools for parents who are as concerned about social skills, self responsibility and discipline as they are about GCSE results”.
Finally, I asked how he fancied his chances, come the general election. “I’m confident that it’s ours to win, this is our best chance in a political generation. Cheltenham is a marginal seat and we need a swing of only 0.33%. Michael Ashcroft [vice chairman of the Tory Party] said to me, ‘If we lose Cheltenham it’s because you f….d up.’”
No pressure then.