For Gemma Tumelty, the political isn’t just personal: it’s also professional. As well as receiving the reins of The HR Dept, the HR franchise, from her mother Sue Tumelty, she also gained a passion for politics that led her from student welfare officer to working for former Labour party leader Ed Miliband. “When I was eight, she sent me dressed as a suffragette to a fancy dress party,” Tumelty says. “I’m not sure I knew who I was at that point in time but she certainly did.” It’s no coincidence that 22 years later, when mother and daughter were sat around a table trying to pick a logo for the former’s embryonic HR brand they settled on the one that was purple, green and white. “It was the colours of the suffragettes, women’s equality and liberation,” says Tumelty. “That’s very much the ethos that I’ve been brought up with: women can do anything men can do.”
But this isn’t the only value that Sue has imparted to her daughter over the years. Raising her children in Burnham-on-Sea as a single parent, she would commute three hours a day just to ensure that her family could afford to live in their own home. And the young Tumeltys followed her example – sometimes a little too well. “My sister and I got into a bit of trouble one day when my mum came home to find out that we had sold loads of her plants along the side of the road,” says Tumelty. “We were so delighted when we presented her with this pile of pennies; obviously replacing all of those plants in the garden cost her a lot more.” Despite this bumpy start, Tumelty’s career from here yielded much better net profits: from the age of 14, she earned her own money and worked at a care home, a newsagents, Specsavers and a McDonald’s drive-through. “That work ethic was really embedded in me,” she says. “Unless you were at death’s door, you would go to work.”
And this industrious mindset wasn’t reserved just for the workplace: by the time the family had moved to Tring in Buckinghamshire, Tumelty was getting ready to knuckle down to earn her first round of qualifications. “In my household, you didn’t go out on a school night,” says Tumelty. “It was all about your future, getting your exams and then going to university.” While this diligence netted her some excellent results for her GCSEs, when it came to her A-levels she found that the pressure got to her and she didn’t achieve grades as high as she was predicted. “But my wonderful teacher, Mr Barnett, wrote a letter to Liverpool John Moores University and basically said ‘this girl has got so much potential; she’s a real gem and if you polish her she’ll shine,” she says.
Thanks to this glowing recommendation, Tumelty soon found herself attending the university’s freshers week. Having seen several union members provide pastoral care to students, she decided to get involved: before she knew it, she was being offered a spot on the student election slate. “So within literally a couple of weeks of me getting to Liverpool John Moores University, I was standing in an election to be a part-time women’s officer,” she says. Given her background, it will surprise no-one to discover Tumelty proved to have a knack for politics: by the end of her second year, she had decided to take a year out to stand to be the union’s vice-president of welfare. As a result, when Unite Student Housing failed to provide student housing on time for the new cohort of freshers, she took point on helping to rehouse the students. “It was really infuriating to be honest but, because we did a lot of campaigning, we ended up getting those students some compensation,” she says. “So that was my first taste of winning a campaign where somebody had been wronged.”
But it wouldn’t be Tumelty’s last. In 2004, the Higher Education Act announced that tuition fee caps would be tripled for students applying for the academic year beginning in 2006. This provoked strong resistance from the student community: Tumelty was soon involved in organising campaigns and supporting demonstrations in Liverpool and London, something that began to garner a lot of attention. “The national officers of the National Union of Students (NUS) were seeing which student officers were showing potential for leading the union,” she says. “They approached me to run as a part-time member of the national executive committee.”