Gillian Merron

It is difficult for business adviser and former Minister in the Labour Government, Gillian Merron to comprehend just how dramatically Lancaster University blew open the world of that school girl from a Dagenham council estate.

She left her Jewish family home within earshot of the vast car factory, as the youngest child of five, with no awareness that she had a regional accent, as she never heard anything else, and left Lancaster University four years later a budding politician and veteran of a number of lively demonstrations.

Gillian says."It was a totally foreign land for me. It unleashed in me something that I did not know was there."

The process of her transformation from student innocent into a fighter for social justice – boasting 13 years as Labour MP for Lincoln and several ministerial positions in the Labour government – was totally unplanned. So were her studies at Lancaster.

Gillian soon became aware, however, that fortune had dealt her an ace: "The marketing course was totally ahead of its time and the department was quite something. We did a lot of marketing for social purpose, which was not common at all at the time."

All this opened up her social and political thinking. Creativity too was positively encouraged by her Lancaster tutors. She laughs as she remembers a project she was given to devise a strategy to market transcendental meditation.She also found herself studying organisational behaviour, which was invaluable to her later 10-year role as a union official for UNISON beginning in 1987.

Everything at Lancaster was an opportunity to try something new. She was proud of gaining a bronze medal in ballroom dancing, but student politics was the greatest gift given to her. She was soon President of Furness and stayed on an extra year after her graduation as Vice President of the Student Union.

It was the era of sit ins and protests and it was not long until Gillian found herself packing sandwiches and a flask for her first 'demo' of many, in Salford, in support of higher grants: "I remember the intense sense of excitement and the feeling that this would change the world. That opportunity to be excited is so wonderful."

She had spent a gap year on a Kibbutz in Israel and her Jewish heritage was important to her. She still has fond memories of Friday night gatherings with the Jewish Society, which very much involved both Jews and non Jews, and featured mass cook-ins of fish cakes relying on 'lots of tinned pilchards'. She also fitted in jobs at a Galgate pub and serving at Pizza Margherita.

All this did not leave her much time and she admits she did the minimum and survived academically by relying on last-minute, late-night study. On leaving university, all she knew was that she intended to make a social difference. She joined both the Labour Party and the National Union of Public Employees and her Lancaster degree landed her first job as a local government officer in Derbyshire.

This is where she says she grew up politically. Margaret Beckett had just been elected and Gillian looked up to her as her mentor. When Labour lost the election in 1992, she decided she wanted to enter politics formally and took the big step of become the Labour parliamentary candidate for Lincoln.

Although undoubtedly exciting, being a candidate was also exhausting as Gillian spent several years leaving home in Derby to drive a 120 mile round trip to Lincoln to put on a political performance, several times a week, with no guarantee that it would eventually win her a seat in 1997.

"If you have the chance to be part of a government, you are privileged," she says, reflecting on her 13 years as part of the Blair and Brown governments, which saw her in five ministerial jobs, as well as Senior Government Whip and in several senior advisory roles.

As Minister for Africa, she spent 24 hours in a village in Northern Nigeria where the women told her that education would make the biggest difference to their lives by allowing them to grow up before getting married and having children. Gillian says: 'There are some things only governments can do."

She is proud of what she achieved in her last Government job as Public Health Minister, to extend the scope of anti-smoking legislation to save lives, despite fierce opposition.

Losing her seat was in Gillian's own word,' brutal': "In a stroke everything went - my career, my link with my community, my role in my political party. I was unemployed publicly, without any planning for it. It's the nature of the beast, but you can't underestimate what it is like."

Since then she has not let the grass grow under her feet, but has set up her own consultancy which includes roles as public affairs director of the Cool Milk Group, Chair of Bus Users UK and European Representative for Weight Watchers International.

Life has revealed new vistas recently, as Gillian has just started a Foundation Course in Drama, for which she had to audition and has also performed her first stand-up set in a pub.

Gillian's gratitude to Lancaster is not in doubt and she has recently participated in alumni lectures and networking events. She says: "A degree from Lancaster University opened up doors for me that would otherwise have remained firmly shut."