Starting her campaigning career at 15, when she stood against her best friend to sit on the school governing body, she has packed an impressive amount into her 39 years. She is a former ‘Blair babe’, the first ever recipient of the IPR’s Young Communicator of the Year Award and a visiting fellow at the Defence Academy.
Now, as CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), she is turning her attention to creating a better understanding of Israel within the UK. With the Middle East rarely out of the news, the self-declared ‘gentile atheist Zionist dyslexic artist from Rochdale’ certainly has her work cut out.
Petite and immaculately groomed, she emerges from a packed boardroom. ‘I’ve been in back-to-back meetings since 6am this morning,’ she laughs, as she darts in and out of two more meetings behind closed doors. Yet she shows few signs of flagging.
The non-Jewish ex-Labour MP seems an unusual candidate for her new role, but it is these sorts of preconceptions that Fitzsimons wants to overturn. ‘Sometimes just by doing the job you make a statement,’ she says. ‘I cannot overemphasise the importance of Israel. The future of nation states is on the line. Some people may think that’s an extreme statement, but it really is.’
Politicised when the Tory government tried to close her art college, she started reading government education policy, despite only starting to read at 13 years of age owing to her dyslexia. ‘That was when I realised the realities of democracy’, she says. ‘You pick which team you’re on and make sure their policies are the ones you want.’
She joined the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock to ‘get rid of the Trots and let common sense prevail’, and it was here, mixing with Labour students, that she first visited Israel in 1989 and where she says she fell in love with the people – both Palestinians and Israelis.
‘The truth is you can be friends with both people. I have been to Palestine as many times as I have been to Israel,’ she says. Fitzsimons recently won a libel case at the High Court against a local newspaper that implied she had lied to her constituents about her support for Israel in order to be elected. ‘Enough was enough,’ she says. ‘The election campaign that defeated me in 2005 was run on the ‘clash of civilisations’ idea, and I refuse to accept that logic.’
Her campaigning skills were developed when, as president of the National Union of Students, she railed against the legislation that was threatening to ban student representation. By the end of the two-year campaign, Fitzsimons and her gang had not only won their case, but drafted the amendments.
‘I learned some important lessons. What is your objective? Who’s the decision maker? What is your message to that decision maker?’ she says.
The success of this campaign led her to be headhunted by Saatchi & Saatchi to work in the public affairs team at The Rowland Company. Johnny Pitt, CEO of The Launch Group, who worked with her there, describes her as ‘a little firecracker. She was clearly ambitious, full of strong opinions and had a no-nonsense approach, but was also very warm. I’m not surprised she has taken on a role as meaty as this.’
Married with a four-year-old son, Fitzsimons splits her time between London and Rochdale. Her husband, a soldier in the Territorial Army, last year spent seven months in Iraq – a war for which she voted as an MP. She says she does not regret her decision: ‘I’m not a hypocrite. People don’t join the army to be weekend soldiers on a piss-up; they want to prove themselves.’
Clear in her opinions and her direction, Fitzsimons is a woman who needs a campaign. It is obvious that she has no intention of stopping any time soon.
Visiting fellow for the Defence Academy
Labour MP for Rochdale
Associate director, The Rowland Company
President, National Union of Students