Saturday, 29 September 2012

'Be a Green Councillor'

Today saw 36 Green Party members descend on Camden Town Hall for an inspiring day entitled ‘Be a Green Councillor.’ With the local elections in London now being under two years away, it was time to galvanise local parties across the capital into selecting candidates and working target wards.

Cllr Rob White from Reading kicked things off, talking about how he became involved with the Green Party after protesting against the Iraq War, and hearing Caroline Lucas speak. He spoke about what a positive experience being a ward councillor has been for him. Focusing on local issues can be, Rob explained, very rewarding. “You’re not going to change the world overnight from Reading!” he quipped, explaining that he prioritises casework relevant to the ward rather than bigger council issues.

The Reading Greens sound like an active bunch, door-knocking every week and campaigning on and debating  local issues, such as the lack of school places. Street letters are used a great deal to communicate with residents, and this generally brings back a greater response than ward newsletters.

Cllr Darren Johnson, who is also of course a Green London Assembly Member, explained how as Lewisham’s lone Green Councillor, he deals with two sorts of casework. The first is the individual issues, such as a broken street light. This is something to be processed quickly. The second sort of casework is on issues which affect hundreds or thousands of residents, and which become the focus of campaigns. Darren emphasised the importance of communication, including using social media, in order to make sure residents know how hard Greens are working for them. It is all too easy for the opposition to take credit for Green ideas; this was a sentiment that resonated with all the Green Councillors present!

Cllr Maya de Souza, Camden’s Green Councillor, explained the responsibilities of the local authority, and the powers of a councillor. Maya explained that councils in London are ‘unitary’ councils, and that four of them - Hackney, Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Newham – now have elected mayors. She also spoke about her experiences on the various committees within the council, as well as the importance of understanding the finances of the local authority.

Cllr Claire Stephenson, leader of the Green group on Norwich City Council, spoke next, and her first point was that as a councillor it is easy to lose track of what one has achieved, and all too easy to focus on what one has failed to deliver. Even in opposition, Claire noted, there are lots of things Greens have achieved. She pointed to the infamous achievements of Kirklees Greens with their renewable energy programme and free mass insulation project. She also told us that Green Councillors on Norwich County Council have just set up an ESCO (Energy Services Company), which has great promise.

Norwich Greens have had some of their biggest victories by getting amendments made to the council budget. For example, last year they secured £250,000 to fund solar energy generation, which saw solar panels being put on the roof of Norwich City Hall.

We also heard from Katie Dawson and Ute Michel, who up until 2010 were Green councillors in Islington and Lewisham respectively. Katie said that when she was elected in 2006 it felt like a ‘fluke’, and that her youngest child was just four and a half months old. However, never one to be fazed, she simple reasoned “this baby is very portable” and got on with the job.

She recalled the van from Islington Council bringing a big box of papers for her to read every day, and wondering what to do about it. In the end she realised that no councillor reads all of the papers, and it was possible to pick out the salient points on the bus ride to the council meeting!

Katie’s greatest achievement was arguing for 20mph speed limits on residential roads. When she put forward the idea, the opposition councillors “roared with laughter.” She joked that the other parties viewed her as a “stupid hippy with a baby”. However, we all know now that the idea of 20mph speed limits was agreed for Islington and the idea has spread around the country. One Green councillor – with a baby in tow – making one big difference.

Ute Michel also spoke fondly of her days as a Green councillor in Lewisham. “I didn’t have a clue what I was letting myself in for when I stood as a candidate,” she said. “But it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life.” She recalled the night when it was announced that the Greens’ budget amendment, which means an increase in the adult social care budget, had been accepted. Ute recalled walking out of the town hall “as though I was walking on air”, so delighted was she that Greens had managed to have such a positive impact on so many residents’ lives.

Attendees had lots of questions to ask the panellists, and much advice was proffered about how to survive as a Green Councillor, especially as a lone Green on a council. It was advised that councillors do not try to ‘do’ too much in the first 6 months to a year; listening, learning and making good working relationships with council officers was important. It is important, as a councillor, to stay focused, say no to things, and to do what you enjoy. It was noted that local parties really need to put the infrastructure in place in order to support their Green elected representatives. This might involve reading and summarising reports, taking on campaigning on behalf of the councillor, or simply taking the councillor out for a drink after a council meeting! Moral support, it was noted, should never be underestimated.

In short, ‘Be a Green Councillor’ was a positive, inspiring day, where many attendees left fuelled with the desire to get elected in 2014. We discussed briefly our next steps in terms of training, which will include Target to Win training, canvassing workshops and attending the Association of Green Councillors (AGC) conference.

I’ll leave you with a pertinent quotation from Katie Dawson. . “You can always come up with hundreds of reasons not to stand. But you can’t learn passion for politics. If you have that, go for it.”