It’s not certain which political party will come out on top when the people of Batley and Spen cast their votes today - what is certain is that by tomorrow morning they will have a new MP.
For the last 18 years Labour’s Mike Wood has served the constituency as its representative in Parliament but after announcing his intention to retire at this General Election he is about to hand over the reins to his successor.
He has admitted choosing to stand down has been a difficult decision as politics has been at the forefront of his life for so long but he believes that now is definitely the right time to go.
“It’s self evident that you cannot go on forever. But it’s also difficult to decide when it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
It’s coincidence that he sits down to give his final interview to the paper 18 years to the very day of that election - May 1 1997 - when he took the seat from Conservative Elizabeth Peacock during the Labour landslide that swept Tony Blair into Number 10.
Looking back at the 1997 campaign he said a great deal of planning went into winning the seat - unlike other candidates he came well prepared. He had rented an office and had people available to work for him “from day one”.
“They (the public) do not expect you to achieve miracles. But they do expect you to be straight and do the things you said you would do.”Mike Wood
“I had given up work two years before to look after the campaign because I knew that long before there was any suggestion of a Labour landslide if you did the work in Batley and Spen we would take the seat,” he said.
“Even though we could never make these assumptions we were the ninth most marginal seat in Britain and the Labour Party had to at least win 90 seats if we were going to win a majority - you did not win number 90 if you couldn’t win number nine.”
At the election count he remembers he and his main opponent, Mrs Peacock, who had held the constituency for the Tories since it was created in 1983, were both thinking exactly the same thing - that they had taken the seat.
“We both arrived feeling we had won,” he said. “The count was even more intense because of that.”
But when the result came through at 2.30am it was Mr Wood who came out victorious, becoming the first Labour MP to represent Batley and Spen.
By 11am the next morning his office had taken the first call from a constituent asking to speak to their new MP.
He first went to Westminster the following Tuesday, along with the rest of the new intake of MPs. After swearing the Oath of Allegiance the first job they were expected to do was collect their post. This was the first time the years of preparation paid off.
“I was surrounded by people walking around with armfuls of post, trying to find somewhere to sit and open it because nobody had an office. I was already getting mail sent to my office here,” he said.
“At first the post overwhelms you. I was getting 150 items a week that had to be dealt with. If you do not get on top of that it gets on top of you. So as far as that was concerned we hit the ground running.”
His constituency office in Cleckheaton has been fully staffed by a dedicated team of workers since he was first elected - and he credits them with some of his success as an MP.
“From day one I wanted people to feel they had a good service from this office and we met that target,” he said.
“All my staff have been based here. I have always supported the entirety of the staffing budget because staff equals accessibility and good service. If you look at the way the job is you essentially have two full time jobs - the one in the constituency is dependant on having first class staff, if only because half the week you’re in London.
“I wanted the public to know if they approached Mike Wood’s office they would be treated with respect by a group of people who wanted the best possible deal by them.”
His constituents have always been his main priority and he has believed his job in Parliament has been very much to serve them, not himself.
“I started from that first day,” he said.
“I went down to Westminster, we swore the oath and (then Labour MP for Wakefield) David Hinchcliffe, who I knew, showed me where the gents were...and that was it. You were left to get on with it.
“There’s no job description, there’s no training course. You have to get on and do things the way you think is right and every five years 80,000 people will tell you if you have.
“You have to prioritise, in my view. You need to prioritise the constituency because the demands are too great. It’s not difficult to me to do that. My own view is that areas like this need as much imput as you can put into them.”
He said that is why the people of Batley and Spen have continued to vote him back into office at every election since 1997.
“People knew by experience if you came to Mike Wood’s office people looked after you. People come in with problems that are simple - sometimes comically simple, things that can be resolved with two phone calls - right through to life and death.”
As an example he recalls the case of a Spen woman whose family came to him in desperation after she was thrown into a Kenyan jail. He helped them take their fight to Downing Street and she was eventually freed.
“But to the person involved, whatever the issue is, however big or small to anyone else, it’s the most important issue in the world to them right then,” he said.
One criticism levelled at Mr Wood by his detractors over the years has been what they claimed was an unwillingness to speak in the House of Commons.
“I’ve had accusations that I never speak in Parliament. But most of the work done in Parliament does not take place in the Chamber,” he said.
“I have wanted to use that institution for the good of the people of Batley and Spen and time management is of the essence. I have worked 70 hours a week - you could spend 14 or 15 hours of your time in the House and in most debates you get five minutes. That’s 15 hours you could have spent working on something and you think “I could have spent that time doing something more productive”.
“In 2001 Elizabeth Peacock’s main argument (during that year’s election campaign) was she spoke a lot more when she had been in parliament. Well I beat her by 4,500 votes.”
He points out that despite his low profile in Parliament he has been personally responsible for changes in the law on several occasions.
The first time was after the tragic case of Batley man Timothy Finn, who was found dead at his home in 2000. The Benefits Agency had sent him letters saying his money would be stopped if he did not respond to them. Mr Finn, suffering from a mental illness, ignored the letters believing they were messages from the devil. He was found starved to death in a sleeping bag with a note which suggested he believed the authorities had killed him. He had just nine pence to his name.
Mr Wood had the rules changed so such letters could never be sent again (although subsequently the law has changed yet again).
He also helped tighten up laws about home made ammunition after police office Ian Broadhurst, from Birkenshaw, was shot and killed by former US Marine David Bieber in Leeds in 2003.
“That involved one question at Prime Minister’s Questions and one meeting with the Home Secretary,” he said.
“I have done things to some effect.”
Mr Wood said he had also been proud of his involvement in local campaigns, including the fight to stop a huge opencast mine operation (“the hole would have been big enough to sink York Minster into without it being seen)
which would have engulfed an area near the Babes in the Wood on Leeds Road through Batley and Woodkirk.
He said his office was also central to the campaign to stop Tesco moving out of Cleckheaton town centre and they are currently working to save Batley and Spen’s libraries which are under threat from closure. There was also his involvement in the campaign to stop the downgrading of Dewsbury and District Hospital and the success of the Spen Valley Greenway.
“If you look at the Greenway, it’s the biggest improvement in recreation provision locally for 30 years. Within two years it had won a European award for the most used of its kind in Europe.”
He said most recently he is proud of the way the Batley Foodbank is helping families in need across the area. “We are successfully helping people feed their children,” he said. “I started the foodbank because we were picking up a worryingly increasing level of people who could not feed their kids despite working.”
But he said the one thing he is probably most proud of is what he and his staff have stood for in terms of their beliefs and values.
“We have tried to put them into effect in practical terms and I hope that’s strengthened a bit of trust in politics and politicians,” he said, adding that he has always believed that politics was a force for changing things for the good.
“I hope we have more people in Batley and Spen who believe that and engage in it themselves.
“You need to remember what you are there (in Parliament) for. You are not there to toe the party line or boost your career - and I think the public welcomes that. They do not expect you to achieve miracles. But they do expect you to be straight and do the things you said you would do.
“It’s been a fantastic job and I have loved every minute of it. Being retired is going to have to work very hard to compete with that. It’s been an enormous honour to be the representative of an area as fabulous as Batley and Spen.”
Whichever candidate takes the seat in today’s vote, they won’t have their predecessor around them for long as Mr Wood plans to leave the area almost immediately.
“It will take a bit of time for the public to adjust. Nobody needs me lurking in the background! I think as soon as you are no longer an area’s MP you should be out of people’s way.”
And what does retirement hold for him?
“I have no idea what retirement means. My decision was that I continue to carry on working until the end of May so I can hand over any remaining case work. Then I’ll have three days to clear away the 20 years of rubbish I’ve collected in the office!
“I’m going on holiday and when I come back I will look at my options. I have offers of work, some of them interesting. I would like to do some study, perhaps some writing. I have hobbies I’d like to spend some time on. And I have four grandchildren.
“What I do not want to do is not fulfill my time. Time is precious and finite. I want to do something meaningful to me and something that will make a difference.”
He quotes Tony Benn’s famous words about leaving Parliament in order to spend more time on politics.
“I’m someone who thinks that blowing their nose is a political act so it’s not going to be difficult to achieve!
And the aspects of an MP’s life he won’t miss?
“I will not miss constantly being under a microscope. I will not miss the travel and I will not miss spending half the week away from my family and friends.
“But I have loved the job. It’s fabulous to have an interesting job and what could beat this? It’s been an absolute joy.”