Interview
Change
Politics
S&U interviews
7 min read

Stephen Timms: still on mission

The MP on five decades trying to prove a Christian Tory wrong.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.

 

A man in a suit turns to look at the camera and behind him is a gallery of large painting
Stephen TImms MP.

The day before the February 1974 election, the first in which he was old enough to vote, Stephen Timms says an elder at the Brethren assembly that he then attended – near his home in Fleet, in Hampshire – took him aside. The Brethren are a non-denominational, non-conformist evangelical Christian movement. 

“You will be voting Conservative, won’t you?” Timms recalls the man asking. 

The assumption surprised Timms, who had thought there was an “obvious connection” between the social justice elements of Christ’s teaching and parties that sought greater equality. He told the elder – Mr Gilmour – that he would be voting Labour. 

The incident was an early sign of how Timms, now 68, would spend a life that has brought together an evangelical Christian faith with attachment to the Labour party. 

His career has taken him as high as the Cabinet – where he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury for a year in 2006 and 2007. He became Sir Stephen in 2022. He also has a reputation as one of the MPs most dogged in pursuing case work for constituents. That commitment nearly cost him his life in 2010 when a constituent, angry at his support for the Iraq War, stabbed him twice at a constituency surgery. Timms is standing again at the coming general election for East Ham, the constituency which, with some boundary changes, he has represented in various forms since 1994. 

“I suppose I’ve spent 50 years trying to prove Mr Gilmour wrong,” Timms says. “[He was] a delightful man but I never agreed with him about that.” 

There is a “very clear trend” of economic justice in the biblical message, which the Labour party represents and seeks to realise, Timms goes on, over coffee at an arts centre in his constituency. 

“The Christian roots of Labour are absolutely clear,” he says, pointing out that Keir Hardie, the party’s first leader, was an evangelical Christian and many of its other founders were Methodists. “I’ve always seen Labour values and Labour aims as wanting to realise that commitment to economic justice which is such a clear thrust of the Bible.” 

He sees no attempt in the Conservative party to realise that vision, he says. 

“It’s just not a subject of interest, I don’t think,” Timms says of Conservative supporters. “For people in the Conservative party, there are concerns about maintaining order and respectability and all those things and I can understand how you might find those in the Bible. But I don’t think that’s what the Bible is about.” 

“His argument to me was, ‘You believe in God; we believe in God; we think you should go for this’.”

Timms’ attachment to his small area of East London is almost as strong a thread in his story as his Christian and Labour party commitments. He first came to the area while a maths student at Cambridge, in the summer of 1976, as part of a two-week mission by the Christian Union of Emmanuel College to Forest Gate. It was a formative experience. 

“It was the first time I could see how what I believed could shape my life,” Timms recalls. 

He returned to the area in 1978 when, after leaving university, he was recruited by Logica, then an information technology and management consultancy, working in the west end of London. He joined the church that the 1976 mission had planted – now called Plaistow Christian Fellowship. He continues to attend the church with his wife, Hui-Leng, originally from Singapore, who was also part of the 1976 mission. 

His joined the local Labour party. 

“Very quickly, I was asked to be the secretary of my local branch Labour party, which was Little Ilford branch, and then very quickly after that I was asked to be the secretary of the constituency Labour party,” Timms recalls. 

Timms was chosen as an office bearer, he believes, because of his neutrality in a bitter feud. Left-wing activists had tried to oust Reg Prentice, Labour MP for the constituency, then called Newham North-East. They claimed he was fundamentally a Conservative. Long-standing local activists had successfully defended him. Both sides had been left dismayed when Prentice subsequently defected to the Conservative party. 

“It was a terrible mess,” Timms recalls. 

His first elected office was as a councillor on Newham Council, fighting in an unusually high-profile council byelection in 1984. The party had, surprisingly, lost the three Little Ilford wards to representatives of the then Liberal-SDP Alliance. But it emerged that two of the Alliance councillors had given false addresses and there was a byelection. 

“Ken Livingstone came down; Neil Kinnock came down,” Timms recalls, referring, respectively, to the then Labour leader of the Greater London council and the Labour party nationally. “We threw everything at it.” 

Timms was leader of Newham council when, in 1994, the previous MP, Ron Leighton, died of a heart attack. After being chosen as the Labour candidate, Timms won the subsequent byelection, in June 1994. 

His connection with his church has remained critical, he says. A group in the church offered to pray with him every month when he became a councillor. They increased the frequency to weekly once he became leader of the council. 

“We still do that and that has been a very important source of support for me through all the ups and downs of the intervening 34 years,” Timms says. 

Yet it was not a foregone conclusion that an evangelical Christian would form such a strong bond with, first, Newham North-East and then East Ham, as the constituency has been known since 1997. The seat has, according to the 2021 census, the eighth-highest proportion of people – 41.2 per cent – identifying as Muslim. 

Timms insists the tension is less than it might appear. The first person to urge him to stand as an MP following Ron Leighton’s death was the chair of the Alliance of Newham Muslim Associations, he says. 

“His argument to me was, ‘You believe in God; we believe in God; we think you should go for this’,” Timms recalls. 

There are points of connection between different faith groups in the area, he adds. He has a particularly strong connection with Bonny Downs Baptists Church, in Beckton, which has an active food bank and many other social ministries. 

“If you look at the people who around this community are really doing things to help here, it’s the faith groups,” Timms says. “It’s Bonny Downs Baptist Church; it’s some of the Muslim groups.” 

“I certainly see what I’ve been doing in politics as a calling, as part of what I came here first of all to do, which is to take part in a mission,”

Timms’s sense of affinity with his Muslim constituents, however, did not prevent the most distressing incident of his career – when Roshonara Choudhry tried to kill him at a constituency surgery in Beckton in May 2010. 

Medical staff described the two stab wounds, to his stomach, as “life-threatening” and Choudhry is serving a life term for attempted murder. She had been radicalised by online Islamist extremist sermons and acted because of Timms’ vote in favour of the 2003 Iraq war. 

“It was a very, very unpleasant episode,” Timms says, with characteristic understatement. 

In March this year, he says, he received a reply from Choudhry, part of a correspondence that began after she wrote to him expressing remorse for her actions. 

Even the stabbing, however, underlined the community’s goodwill, Timms insists. 

“I was absolutely inundated after that episode with people sending cards and good wishes – including Christians saying, ‘We’re praying for you’, and quite a lot of similar things from Muslims saying, ‘We’re praying for you for a speedy recovery’,” he says. “I hadn’t had that experience before of Muslims telling me, ‘We’re praying for you’. So it left me with a stronger sense, I think, of being supported by my Christian and Muslim constituents, which I appreciated very much.” 

Timms nevertheless remains an unapologetically partisan politician. He wants a Labour government under Keir Starmer, he says, to resolve problems he says have built up over 14 years of coalition and then Conservative government since 2010. 

“I think the country is in a sorry mess,” he says. “I think we very urgently need a change of direction. I think that the prescription that Keir Starmer has set out offers a hopeful way forward.” 

Timms, who is currently chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, says he would be “delighted” to return to a ministerial role in a Starmer government. He is standing as an MP again in the hope of being able to support a new Labour government. 

“It would seem a shame to leave just when we might be on the brink of a Labour government again,” he says. 

Nevertheless, the way he links his work as an MP with his Christian faith sets him apart. 

“I experienced a calling to be in this area,” Timms says. 

As far back as when he came to East London, his thinking about faith, what to do with his life and politics were all “intertwined”, he adds. 

“I certainly see what I’ve been doing in politics as a calling, as part of what I came here first of all to do, which is to take part in a mission,” Timms says. 

Column
Change
Character
Psychology
1 min read

Look out for the outliers

Seeing the good qualities in others lifts them, benefits us, and makes the world better.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A office worker wearing headphones looks out of a hectic and loud office space around which people are moving
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

I was talking to someone the other day. She is a website developer and she’s just changed jobs. She is not a loud person, but anyone who meets her knows she is a person of quality, of depth and presence. She emanates a humble confidence. In her old job, she worked in a quiet, fairly sedate, office where she was given the space and the time to bring all her creativity to bear on whatever brief she was given. She was known and appreciated. 

But her new job – the job she started last week – is a bit different. Her new colleagues are loud and outspoken. Silence is unknown in their office. They like to work to a soundtrack. The drum and bass keep thumping, and the banter never stops flowing. She’s finding it hard to fit in with her new team. And things weren’t made any easier when, after a few days, her new boss took her aside for a pep talk.  

What was the problem? She was ‘too quiet’.  

It hurt to hear that. It broke my heart to think that anyone could be so blind. How shortsighted do you have to be, to view the grace and peace someone carries as a problem to be solved? In a world of distressing noise and clamour, she is precisely the kind of person every office needs to temper the insanity.  

I’m not worried about her. She’s bright and innovative. She’ll work it out. Either her new boss will see sense, or she’ll leave. And if she does, the queue of employers looking for someone just like her stretches round the block. She’ll be okay. 

But it got me thinking about the kind of psychology I study. In my research, she would be called an outlier.  One of those people in a team or a family who don’t quite fit in. Not because they are weird or awkward, but because they possess some positive quality the rest of the gang don’t have. They are the creative exuberant in a team who prefer doing things by the book. The hilarious joker in a pack who like to take things seriously. The conscientious worker trying to get on with the job in an office that would rather play now and work later. The kind one in a family of cutthroat competitors.

At the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated.

The thing is we all have a unique contribution to make to the world, a one-off fingerprint of strengths and abilities never to be repeated in anyone else. In research these have been called Signature Strengths, the unique combination of positive qualities that make you you. And the weird thing is that we don’t have to try that hard to be them. If you are naturally kind, or wise, or grateful, or disciplined you won’t be able to stop yourself being that way. They come effortlessly to us. And if someone tries to stop us being the loving thoughtful faithful person we know ourselves to be, it is like losing a limb. If we find ourselves in a context where the most beautiful things about us are unwelcome – like my friend the website developer – it is like being rejected, right to the core.  

But here’s the cool thing. If we can live by our Signature Strengths – if we can wake up each morning and ask the question, how can I use my unique positive qualities in a new way today? – it leads to remarkable improvements in wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that those who live like this, thinking about how they can bring what is best in them to the opportunities and obstacles of each day, report increased happiness in living. Not only that, but they also show reduced anxiety, stress and depression. It turns out being good is good for us. Who knew. 

That’s not the whole story though. To really be our best, we need other people to spot these strengths in us. If they don’t, we feel confined, unable to be ourselves in some way. When I ask people what it is like not to be able to bring their best qualities to the people around them, they come up with some pretty dark images. It is lonely, isolating, a desert, a fog, a prison, like being trapped in a cage. And when researchers ask people why they consider leaving their current job, their answers often reflect something like this. Work-life balance and salary are no doubt important, but often, at the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated. Something good we wanted to give has not been received. We feel unseen. 

So that’s why I say: look out for the outliers. Who is it in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, who goes underappreciated? Who do you know who has something good to give, but needs some help to give it? Because if we can learn to see those invisible beautiful qualities in the people around us, we not only give them the joy of being known, we also invite more light and flavour into the world. Life becomes a little less grey. 

I just hope my friend’s new boss can learn this while he still has the chance. It is tough for her to feel so misunderstood, but it’s worse for him. She can move on, but he has to remain in an office deprived of the humble compassion she would have brought to it. It’s a question worth asking. What gift of beauty and goodness are we excluding from the world because we failed to see past the packaging?