By Baroness Helen Newlove
Happy International Women’s Day!
2018 celebrates 100 years since the first women won the vote, and along the way, there have been many milestones. For the first time ever, the UK has both a female Prime Minister and a female Home Secretary, with three women heading up our emergency services – at the Met Police, Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade.
Now, in any career, women must expect the unexpected to overcome obstacles – but in those kinds of jobs, I’m sure they get used to dealing with the unexpected every day. Sadly, it’s something I also know only too well.
In August 2007, Garry was brutally beaten outside his family home by teenage yobs; in the very place he should have felt safest. Garry challenged them when they vandalised his car and they kicked him to death. This savage assault took place in broad daylight in front of his wife and three young daughters.
In 2007, there were 530 recorded homicides in England. But Garry wasn’t just another crime statistic.
Garry was my husband.
Knowing Garry was 1 in 50,000 felt like we won the world’s unluckiest lottery. Tragedy can change you, one way or the other. Some days, I just sat on the sofa staring at the TV and it is easy to feel suicidal. Every aspect of my life changed forever. I was a mum, but also Helen, and I had lost my relationship as one half of a couple. Going to bed felt lonely, but my girls pulled me through.
Within days, sacks of letters and cards poured into our home. Each well-wisher expressed shock and sympathy that our ordinary family in a normal neighbourhood had our world shattered. I drew comfort knowing Garry’s story touched thousands of strangers. And if Gary could have seen the reaction, he’d have been amazed.
At that point, I was determined Garry’s death would be a game-changer. A murder can suck all your energy – or drive you. But I had a broken heart, and I don’t think people appreciate how life-altering a murder is, and what bereaved victims go through.
Yet despite the trauma of our loss, I wanted to salvage some good and help other victims make their voices heard.
After a 10-week trial and murder conviction, I read out my statement fuelled by passion, calling upon ordinary, decent people to reclaim the streets from criminals.
I condemned the culture of bargain booze and lack of parental responsibility that blighted so many towns across Britain.
Incredibly, my speech dominated the news and propelled me into the role of campaigner for victims’ rights.
Of course, reinvention in middle-age is never easy. At 46, you might be a civil servant, secretary or hairdresser.
You could be single, divorced or a married mum. Every big marriage, family and career decision is usually carved in stone and life doesn’t change much thereafter.
Not in my case.
Overnight I changed from a shy housewife to widowed single parent, plunged into an alien world of crime scenes, investigations and witness statements. Back home, I comforted my girls, determined that somehow, we’d stumble through our crisis.
Too upset to return to work, I poured my energy into campaigning against anti-social abuse, and slowly my reputation grew.
David Cameron gave me a peerage in 2010 and appointed me to the role of Government Champion for Active, Safer Communities.
Parliament wasn’t on my radar growing up. Standing up in the House of Lords for the first time was my ‘whoa’ moment. I grew up watching politicians on TV in my lounge, and to sit beside Ministers who served Margaret Thatcher made me wonder if I belonged there.
Making my maiden speech was daunting: as a working-class mum, I found it hard to get my head around what I could offer. But I talked about Garry, my daughters and myself and everyone listened with respect.
People love to criticise the Lords as a stuffy, pompous institution. In fact, it’s the most warm, respectful place I’ve ever worked in, and I immersed myself in my new role.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I travel all over the country meeting victims of crime and listening to their stories. It’s my privilege to see so many heart-warming local initiatives for victims delivered by wonderful volunteers with such humanity.
And I’ll tell you why: because it gives me so much hope knowing across communities, people are choosing kindness over cruelty, virtue over violence and decency over destruction.
Well, there it is, my life story: from Warrington to Westminster, my journey was totally unplanned and unexpected.
• I was a young, married mum in my twenties.
• I lost my soulmate in my forties.
• Then I became a campaigner for victims, and a Baroness in the Lords aged 48.
It’s been a strange old life!
When David Cameron rang asking if he could nominate me for a seat in the Lords, I was so shocked; I rang my mum and swore her to secrecy. My instinct was to say ‘no’, but mum said: ‘Do it for your girls.’
Mums are always right!
Looking back, it wasn’t a random twist of fate that changed my life, but a cruel gang of drunken teenagers. I think my experience reflects the strength we have within. But losing Garry taught me to never waste an opportunity.
So don’t let anyone tell you; ‘you’re too old, too unqualified or too in-experienced’.
Instead, focus on what you have and grab any opportunity – you just need a ‘can-do’ attitude!
These days, I might be a peer with a fancy title and an ornate office. But I’m still the same old Helen who shops in Sainsbury, and loves to chill out watching Real Housewives of Cheshire.
Last August, my daughters and I passed the poignant 10th anniversary of Garry’s death. It was a milestone for reflection, not only the loss of a loving husband and dad, but the train of events that took me from being a housewife in Warrington to a a Member for the House of Lords and Victims’ Commissioner.
I’ll never forget Garry.
Whenever I think of him, my overwhelming emotion is pure pride, tinged with sadness that he missed out on seeing all his girls come of age, but we talk about him all the time. I think he’d be proud how we survived, and we smile more than we feel sad. The best things in life remain my beautiful daughters who are my heroines and greatest inspiration.
My success came from turning tragedy into positivity. I always tell my girls, ‘If you don’t bloom when you’re young, don’t worry success will never happen because your strengths will blossom when you’re ready.’
I’m proud to be a late bloomer. If a tarot reader predicted I would stand up in the Lords, write a book and make speeches, like this one today, I’d have sworn they got the wrong woman.
My daughters tell me after half a century, I’ve made something of myself. If anyone asks what I want to do when I’m grown up, I say, ‘I’m still deciding – but I’m excited trying to find out!’
And if I can reinvent my life at the ripe old age of 46, from crime victim to victim champion, then so can you.
So whatever you want to do, go for it, grab life by the balls and be yourself.