So, parties are naming their candidates for the May Leeds City Council elections.
These will be quite a big deal this year because the areas that councillors represent (called ‘wards’) have changed. This means this year’s Council elections are ‘all out’—and since every ward has three councillors, we all get to cast three votes, for whatever three candidates we choose. You can vote for three people from the same party, or for your preferred candidates from a range of parties.
In Leeds Green Party, we’ve been working hard for several years to get the excellent, hard-working, local candidate Ed Carlisle elected in the area now called Hunslet and Riverside (basically Beeston Hill, Hunslet, and Leeds City Centre).
But this year, we get to stand three candidates, so I’m delighted to stand beside Ed and the excellent Eunice Goncalves.
In our patch, the Green Party is the only serious contender to Labour. There’s no risk whatsoever of voting Green and ‘letting the Tories in’. We think we need a change here, and we’re ready to deliver it.
Wherever you lay your heart is home
I don’t have a particular desire to be a politician. But I’ve moved around quite a lot in my life and learned that places become your home when you make them your home. I don’t love Leeds because I was born here or because it’s a perfect place. I grew to love Leeds because I decided to work with my neighbours to make it better. Now I’m standing for election to take this work up a level.
I moved here in 2007, when I got a job at Leeds University—just in time for the UK’s first bank run since 1866, and to see my students graduate into a recession which most economists agree the Con-Dems prolongued through their cuts, and into stagnant wages and growing insecurity. For most of my twenties, I’d lived in Scotland and Finland, which gave me a chance to see very different ways of organising politics and society from what we have in England, but I hadn’t been politically active. Now, though, I saw that I couldn’t ignore politics.
I was also ready to put down roots, so I helped set up the residents’ committee for the flats I live in (Greenhouse, in Beeston). This gave me lots of experience of the tough task of building community in tower blocks. I’ve worked to make sure developers, building managers, landlords and letting agents fulfil their responsibilities; I’ve run social events; and I’ve supported small businesses around the building. I’d love to help people in the sometimes impersonal blocks in Leeds City Centre do the same.
But I also wanted to get involved with my neighbourhood, so I became the secretary and then chair of a new tenants and residents committee in the Beeston Road/Dewsbury Road area, working with councillors to identify and fix local issues—from fly-tipping and traffic congestion to drug-dealing and other anti-social behaviour. I’ve learned a lot there from watching Angela Gabriel and Adam Ogilvie, Labour councillors from the ward next to ours: in their different ways, they’ve been proactive, hands on, and good at getting people involved in making their city better.
I also became a governor at Park View Primary school by Cross Flatts Park, and for several years volunteered to co-run an after-school debating club for Leeds secondary-school pupils. So I understand the pressures our schools, parents, and students are under.
So I’m running for the Greens, with Ed Carlisle and Eunice Goncalves
I first met Ed when me and some neighbours were making planters to improve Beeston Road. Characteristically, he’d heard what we were doing and just came along to lend a hand. Getting to know him, I was impressed by the huge amount of energy he puts into community work, and when he began campaigning to improve how our area is represented in Leeds City Council, I was keen to help. That’s how I first met Eunice, who besides doing her own hard work in Hunslet was also rooting for Ed.
There are some great councillors in Leeds, but the councillors for Hunslet and Riverside don’t live locally and are too hands-off. This is no surprise, as this part of Leeds has given Labour massive majorities for time immemorial. If we’re going to get councillors to be more proactive, we’ve got to give them some competition (and don’t forget, your vote in council elections has no effect on who’s in Parliament nationally).
We have to be realistic about what councillors can achieve. Most councillors are working people putting time aside to make things better for others—not superheroes. Councils in England have less power than anywhere else in the western world—a problem which both the Tories and Labour have made steadily worse over the last four decades. Funding for local government has fallen by more than a fifth since 2010. The Green Party can’t wave magic wands. But precisely because of this, we need to be bolder and more creative than ever, and find ways to make the city we want despite what goes on in Westminster.
Everyone needs an advocate
A lot of being a good councillor comes down to the little things in life that make a big difference: cracking down on fly-tipping, arranging for grit bins, or simply—but importantly—making the place we live in more beautiful.
I’m a union rep in my workplace, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned there is that people will do for others what they would never do for themselves: so everyone needs an advocate. This is a crucial role for councillors: people will put up with a lot and get by without complaining. So councillors need to be proactive, to find the opportunities to improve their areas and help people help themselves. Going out and talking to people to develop the Green Party’s brilliant manifesto for our area over the last four years has been awesome, and we’ll be able to make those plans happen that much better if we’re on the Council.
And when people do come to councillors for help, councillors need to take on that casework vigorously and help their constituents get results that they wouldn’t have achieved alone. Leeds City Council is a big organisation and voices from poorer areas easily get drowned out. I’ve advocated for neighbours on issues from anti-social behaviour to leaking windows to parking problems. Progress is usually slow, but we’re persistent and we get there.
And it helps if you live in the ward you represent—which all three of our Green candidates for Hunslet and Riverside do. Rather than driving to the area for meetings or walk-arounds, you notice the fly-tipping, parking problems or drug-dealing because they’re on your own doorstep. And you do something about them!
With ever poorer funding of local government and growing demands on essential social care, councillors have to do better to inspire, organise, and lead our communities to work together on the little things. We can help people take pride and ownership of their streets. I’ve run social events, gardening days, and litter-picks—and we need more of this in Hunslet and Riverside.
BUT we still need vision!
Rocognising that there are limitations on what councillors can do doesn’t mean we should be timid. On the contrary, we need to be all the more creative.
If you’ve been wondering what I do in the day job, I teach Icelandic—and amongst other things I’ve been researching how Icelanders responded to the Crash in 2008. That gave me the opportunity to see some amazing grassroots organising that led to dramatic changes in municipal government, a swift economic recovery, and has even set the country on a path to a new constitution. Seeing what people have achieved abroad shows me that we can do more here.
A century ago, it wasn’t Westminster that was leading the way to the NHS, electric tramlines and underground systems, or affordable housing for all: it was our city councils and the voters who elected them. In these tough times, we need to retread their steps. Lately, our area has seen some amazing successes from people who have dared to attempt the seemingly impossible. I’ve been proud to support Leeds Community Homes, which is not only building affordable housing fit for the twenty-first century, but using innovative covenants to make sure those houses stay affordable forever. Hunslet has a new factory making prefabricated eco-houses, unparalleled in the UK, and in my community work I’ve worked closely with Citu, the company behind this. And behind the scenes, Leeds Green Party has been doing lots of innovative work to improve Leeds’s transport, waste, and housing policies. Vote for us and help us bring these ideas to the table.