The Labour aide getting down with the kids

Claire McCarthy was a Labour special adviser during both the Blair and Brown premierships. Now, she is the public affairs supremo at the charity 4Children. Richard Welbirg meets her

Claire Mccarthy
Claire Mccarthy

She may have spent a good few years working behind the scenes as a key cog in the New Labour machine, but Claire McCarthy insists she never had a big interest in “the machinations of Westminster”.

This is perhaps unfortunate, given who she worked for and how they left office. McCarthy advised Peter Hain during his time as work and pensions secretary, only for him to resign in 2008. Following his departure, she went to work for fellow Labour MP Caroline Flint. One year later, Flint dramatically resigned as Europe minister, accusing then Prime Minister Gordon Brown of treating her like “female window dressing”.

While all this Westminster intrigue would excite some, McCarthy says she has always been more interested in the issues. After Flint left the government, she moved to family and children’s charity 4Children for this very reason. “My interest in politics has always been also an interest in issues. It’s a bit of cliché, but that kind of wanting to change the world sort of thing.”

With the charity’s lobbying arm steadily expanding, she has not looked back. Since McCarthy joined 4Children in 2009, her public affairs team has grown from two members to six and the company’s annual turnover has risen to £20m, as Government puts ever more focus on the family. “The whole organisation has grown substantially in that time. We’ve basically doubled in size,” she says.

Broader reach
The current incarnation of 4Children was created in 2004. Previously it was the National Out of School Alliance and later the Kids Club Network – organisations attempting to deal with the fears over “latchkey” children in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It has since developed from being a campaign around childcare into a wider children and families organisation.

“There was a whole change of strategy that was about having a broader reach into a wider set of issues,” says McCarthy. “It also saw a move into running children’s services directly – part of the reason for the exponential growth in recent years.”

4Children’s current campaign, and McCarthy’s primary focus, has been ‘Give Me Strength’. The campaign, which has run for two years, aims to highlight examples of early intervention in post-natal depression, domestic violence, and parental alcohol misuse – and to sell the idea to the public without it sounding “like policy speak”.

She explains: “There’s a lot of debate in policy circles about early intervention – it’s better to prevent families falling into crisis than it is to deal with the crisis after it’s happened. We felt that argument was happening in too theoretical a way.

“Whilst the rhetoric from Government is very promising on all of this, it’s always important to ensure that is translated into action on the ground.”

Did it work? She cites “individual small bits of success” – the first report, on post-natal depression, has led to new Department of Health guidelines – and argues the campaign has helped grow awareness of 4Children among the general public.

She is proud the campaign reached new media outlets: discussion on This Morning and Loose Women reaches “the kinds of audiences that it’s not always easy for organisations that talk about policy to necessarily be able to reach... and obviously they have significant audiences.”

McCarthy’s next task will be to harness next year’s 30th anniversary celebrations to continue the brand’s expansion.

The big picture
Working amid austerity is McCarthy’s major challenge. Despite families and children being of central concern to policymakers, she admits the current climate “really does put pressure on us and organisations like ours to be really disciplined on prioritising”.

“In the years when there was plenty of money around, it was easy to almost go to government with a shopping list and say ‘you should do all of these things’.

“I think you can’t do that anymore – it’s not credible.” Proposals with “huge price tags” are out of the window, she adds.

Arriving at 4Children in 2009, it was the transition from Labour to the Conservative – and the cuts – that immediately confronted her. She is clear how important it was to make that transition smoothly: “The people that we represent require us to have a good relationship with governments of all colours and persuasions.”

Despite these thrifty times, McCarthy claims 4Children and the Government are as close as when Ed Balls ran the Department for Education (or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as it then was).

Balancing that dialogue with the Government, while at the same time holding it to account, is another challenge. 4Children is a strategic partner to the Department for Education on ‘early years and childcare’, and they will co-produce policies like the revised early years curriculum for children under six in childcare, on which 4Children organised and hosted the parental consultation.

“We’re sort of a conduit between the Department and the voluntary and campaigning sector. We help to make sure that the voice of the sector goes into the DfE and we then help to make sure that the sector’s informed about what the DfE is doing and saying.”

But 4Children is very clear – as an enterprise that runs 67 children’s centres – it will campaign against cuts and closures. There are areas, McCarthy says, “where we’ll disagree or be critical”, but she adds: “One of my jobs is to make sure that it’s not awkward, to make sure that we maintain the relationship, and that we’re out there being the voice of parents who are concerned. The DfE are very clear we do both, we’re very clear we do both, and it’s my job to make sure that works properly.”

“We’re juggling a lot of balls on that issue,” she admits. She adds that 4Children worked hard to engage with the Conservatives in opposition: “You have to identify where the common ground will be. I think that’s the key thing in public affairs.”

Practical and pragmatic

Kate Groucutt, deputy chief executive at Daycare Trust, says it is McCarthy’s practical political know-how that makes her an effective lobbyist for the charity. “Claire’s experience at the heart of government shines through and she knows how to get things done. She works well in partnership and is a practical and pragmatic campaigner,” she says.

Estelle McCartney, director at Champillion, which provides public affairs consultancy to 4Children, says this is combined with an “instinctive feel” for a good news story. “Claire is brilliant at leading her policy and media teams to ensure they work together and collaborate effectively,” adds McCartney. “She is committed and determined to get great results but is always realistic, fair and lots of fun.”

It could have been very different: at Cardiff University, McCarthy enrolled to study law. It didn’t quite work out.

She recalls: “About two weeks into my law degree, I decided it was incredibly boring, and I didn’t know what I was doing.” Instead, of changing her degree she decided “to make the most of the other opportunities of university, and suffer the law degree”.

Like many aspiring politicos, she poured her energy into the student union, NUS and Labour Students. “Then on the very last day wiped my forehead and thought ‘thank God I’ll never have to do anything to do with law ever again’.”

Now she is where she had wanted to be – although she has been happily out of action for the last few months. Grinning, she adds that it’s “really good” to be back in work following the birth of her first child. McCarthy’s daughter Frankie is eight months old, and her mother is “feeling her way” into a new work/family balance.

“Spending eight months at home with her was brilliant,” says McCarthy. “But it’s nice to use the old brain cells again.”

8th November 2012 by Richard Welbirg

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