Where are they now? Steve Howell
(BA Economic History 1977)
For our final alumni interview of 2017 we spoke to alumnus Steve Howell, an economic history graduate turned PR expert, about his life in Sheffield and beyond, and his transition from student politics into the spotlight of the UK General Election earlier this year.
What did you study while at Sheffield?
I was originally going to study Economics but I found the course – at the time - too mathematical and lacking in any historical or political context. Economic History seemed the answer and that proved to be the case – an interesting mix, studying economic development and thought over several centuries.
What first attracted you to Sheffield?
I attended a grammar school in north London that was obsessed with getting people into Oxford and Cambridge, but - already active in politics by then - I was keen to go to somewhere more down to earth. I fell in love with Sheffield instantly and stayed in the city for 20 years before moving to South Wales, where my wife, Kim, also a Sheffield graduate, was from.
Did you get involved in any clubs or societies during your studies?
I was a member of the Union executive in my first year and then became South Yorkshire NUS chairperson in my second, serving for two years, the second as a sabbatical. Nationally, I also served on the steering committee of NUS for three years, acting as chairperson for two years. I was then elected to the NUS finance committee and became a board director of both NUS Services and Endsleigh Insurance. I was awarded honorary life membership of both NUS and the Students’ Union at Sheffield, which was nice, though I’m not sure what it means!
What were some of your favourite things to do in Sheffield?
Drinking Tetleys in the Notty (then a small corner pub) would undoubtedly rank highly. Unfortunately, I drank rather more of it than was healthy for my football career, which went downhill after a short stint as captain of the University Freshers’ team.
What is your best memory of Sheffield?
Kim and I were married in Sheffield in 1984 - some time after we had both graduated - and had our reception at the Students’ Union and an evening event at the Afro-Caribbean Community Centre. It was a really memorable day, matched only by the births of all three of our children at the Northern General Hospital.
After graduating from Sheffield where did you go?
After graduating in 1977, I worked in Sheffield until the end of 1992, mostly for Sheffield City Council. This included five years as secretary of Local Authorities Against Apartheid, an organisation representing 200 local councils across the UK, which Sheffield City Council chaired. Of course, with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, my days in that job were numbered! I gradually carved out a career in journalism, with spells at the South Wales Argus and then BBC Wales. In 1997, I moved into PR and built up a consultancy, Freshwater, that now employs nearly sixty people in London and Cardiff.
Recently you had a large part to play in the UK General Election as the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications for the Labour Party. How did you become involved in this?
I have been a Labour party member for the last 25 years and supported Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership elections. In January, with local elections scheduled for May and a snap election always possible, I was approached to work for him at the House of Commons. As it was something I really wanted to do, I arranged to take leave of absence from my job as Freshwater’s chief executive.
No time period was fixed, especially as I wasn’t sure how long I could sustain living in Cardiff and working in London. With the snap election having fast-tracked everything, I decided to stand down in September.
What was it like being involved in such a huge event, affecting so many people across the UK?
A real privilege. Labour’s manifesto embodied so many of the things I believe in and it was exciting to be at the centre of such an extraordinary campaign. At the start, we were dismissed as no-hopers. But the media underestimated the power of the ideas in the manifesto and Jeremy’s ability to communicate them once he had a fair hearing on TV, as the election rules require. When you add to that the energy of our supporters and the opportunity to reach people directly through social media, we knew we had the potential to close the gap. The challenge was to pull it all together in just seven weeks – which was daunting and exciting at the same time.
How do you see political campaigns changing?
Undoubtedly, the biggest change is the growth of social media. Jeremy’s personal social media presence is huge – one of his video posts was watched by 8.35M people – and this allowed us to get our message across in an undiluted way and answer attacks instantly.
But this doesn’t mean you should discard traditional campaign methods. For example, Jeremy’s campaign tour took him to nearly 100 constituencies where people turned out in their thousands to hear him speak. That made a difference in those seats while also gaining TV coverage and providing content for social media.
So, I think the biggest change is the proliferation of channels of communication and the challenge of bringing all them together - in an incredibly fast-paced environment – to build a single campaign around consistent messages. The risks are high - everyone knows about your mistakes instantly - but the potential to change the political agenda is enormous, as we showed.
You’ve also written a novel about the use of drugs in sport. Have you always wanted to write fiction or was this a more recent interest?
Over The Line wasn’t my first novel, but it’s the first I’ve managed to finish. I’ve had plenty of ideas for novels and started quite a few but actually writing one takes a huge investment of time. About five years ago, I decided it was time to knuckle down and get something finished. Over The Line is about how both suspicion and trust can be misplaced. The central character is an Olympic athlete but her story could really apply to anyone.
You’ve had a varied career, where do you see it going next?
I’m planning to concentrate on writing. When the chance to work for Jeremy came up, I was already nearly half way through writing a political thriller. So I want to go back to that, while also staying on the board of Freshwater and continuing to support Jeremy and the Labour party in other ways.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self or a recent graduate?
Push yourself beyond your comfort zone and never think you have nothing new to learn.
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