I first met Sam James when he was three. I was a play group assistant at Lower Shaw Farm and so was his mum, Madeline. He enjoyed climbing and exploring – and painting, although we had to watch him as he liked to lick the paintbrushes.
He’s come a long way since then and twenty years later I caught up with him at his Swindon home. Sam, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is the eldest of six children. He attended Robert le Kynge Primary School, transferring to Commonweal School, and then going on to Cirencester College and graduating from the Royal Holloway University of London.
In conversation Sam discusses education, his political beliefs and what the future might hold.
It was nice going to Cirencester (College) as there was a real separation between work and home. When I was at college I worked obsessively and when I was at home I vegetated in front of the television. It was nice to have that separation.
I went to Royal Holloway University of London in Egham in Surrey. It was actually quite nice as it was 20 minutes away from London on the train. I was there for four years because I did my under grad in Politics and International Relations and then I got a scholarship to do a Masters in Democracy and Governance for a year, which was very fun. I enjoyed the Masters year very much, I would describe it as the most rewarding year of my entire education.
Provisions for help were always enough. If I needed to do an essay I would call up someone on the list of student helpers and ask if they were available to work. The problem with that is often when I had pressing deadlines to meet the people I relied on for help were as well. Generally the provision was good. Universities are such a vast variant and disabilities are such a vast variant but I had an all right experience.
I would say to anyone with a disability, or anyone at all really, don’t be put off university because you think you can’t do it. If you’ve got evidence that you can do well at GCSE or more importantly ‘A’ level there’s no reason at all why anyone can’t go to University. Universities are very wired in to access and equality so don’t be put off because you’re dyslexic or that you’re worried about getting into debt, that’s not the way it works.
There’s absolutely no additional expense for those with special needs because that’s covered by budget that you don’t have to repay. Life is more expensive for a disabled person for various reasons, but that’s life in general. I lived in halls, which worked very well because I was able to get fed on campus and someone came in to do my cleaning once a week; that was nice.
I’m now ready for something new - anything interesting. I don’t really want to work in the private sector; I would like to do something directly involved with politics or third sector, or trade unions; the old cliché of wanting to work to make a difference rather than making a profit.
I’m at the stage of getting a CV together and tapping into the limited contacts I have. It’s not the nicest time to be a graduate entering the labour market, but you’ve got to kinda go for it and I know full well I want to go off and do something interesting and if you don’t and if you don’t try you’re not going to end up doing something interesting. I’m determined to try and go with the flow.
Last summer I went on a leadership course in Liverpool. One thing they said was that there’s a great tendency, especially if you’re ambitious, to over plan everything and sometimes if you just go with the flow and see what happens you end up somewhere better and more interesting.
I’ve got a mentor I’ve been working with all the way through university, and who I continue to work with now. I’m signed up with a very good career service at Holloway. I’m just largely going with what comes up. The ideal is to be on a graduate scheme so that I’m not just taking a random job somewhere. I’d like to be involved in something that is integrated into a wider career structure.
I’m qualified as a Youth Worker so that’s another string to my bow. And that’s just an opportunity that came up because I attended a youth club and then became a volunteer. The Rowdy Bunch (Swindon based) is a very good organisation run by a wonderful woman named Jackie Stevens. It’s a youth club for people with various special needs.
In 2007 Sam visited No 10 accompanied by South Swindon MP Anne Snelgrove.
It was a reception for gifted youth at Downing Street, I was very honoured and it was nice to meet Gordon Brown. It was lovely to go to Downing Street. What surprised me was how relaxed they were, there was this beautiful furniture everywhere and they were completed relaxed about people putting their drinks down on it and leaving marks.
So what does Sam think about the present Labour Leader, Ed Miliband.
He’d make a much better Prime Minister than the present incumbent. He has some interesting ideas to take the country forward.
When asked if he might stand for parliament Sam said ‘not now.’
I am an active member of the Labour Party, and I’m very committed to that. That has been the great advantage of being back in Swindon. Obviously being in rural Surrey there wasn’t much Labour presence, but I’ve taken the opportunity to get back involved with the local Labour Party. I’ve done quite a lot of canvassing. But I’m open to anything. I don’t really want to be an MP at this stage but certainly at some stage it would be interesting to be a councillor maybe an MEP and I’d certainly like to work in politics.
Asked what tips he had for Labour MPs on how to engage the non voting public, Sam replied.
I think you’ve got to have a real sense of why you’re in politics and why you’re doing a certain thing. You’ve got to be full of empathy, an overused word, but you’ve got to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Certainly if you’re a Labour MP in opposition you’ve got to avoid the risk of doing anything silly. There’s something in the adage that ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.’ So, don’t be spooked by the headlines, have a sense of the overall strategy of what you want to achieve and I think we can do that.
I think New Labour was a natural response to four successive defeats. No party likes being defeated. I can see why people are upset at New Labour and certainly not everything Tony Blair did was defensible and good.
Again we are living in a different environment under our post financial crisis. We can’t go back to Old Labour because Old Labour for various historical and economic reasons tore itself to pieces. New Labour was what replaced that and it was successful for awhile and it achieved a lot. It’s not going to be Old Labour but it’s not going to be New Labour because New Labour wasn’t some messianic coming of a new religion - it was just a stage the party had to go through and now we’re evolving on to something, which can hopefully meet the challenge of the post crisis age much better.
You’re never going to get a perfect leader because they don’t exist, but you’re going to get a better leader – and you know Cameron isn’t evil, he’s just misguided. I think he’s got the wrong underlying values and the wrong underlying approach to the problems to be solved. Miliband and Labour’s approach and values are much closer to what we need, but you know they’re not ideal, no one is ever going to have their ideal Prime Minister.
And finally ..
Things can be better under Labour and I think Ed Miliband is much more intellectually curious than any Prime Minister we’ve had since Thatcher really. I think he’ll examine the status quo in a much more fundamental and strategic way than Blair or Brown ever did, even Callaghan or Wilson. So I think there is a real opportunity if Labour gets in at the next election, certainly with a substantial majority, that Ed can look at the status quo in a fundamental and more far reaching way.