Increased Majority In Paradise

The Early Days

In an earlier Hub I wrote about how I took the third safest Conservative seat on Bradford Council for Labour in only a two month campaign. I had not expected to be elected on the first attempt but I was, to the surprise of everyone including me.

Hard Political Thinking

The result after Labour's sweeping success in the 1986 council elections was that we had now 48 Councillors out of 90, so Labour took control. Previously no party had control so everything had had to operate on consensus. This meant that inertia had ruled.

All the Labour Councillors completed forms to say which committees we wished to serve on. There are people who have a passionate interest in Education or Planning or Social Services. The Whips try to put people where they want to be. Then if a Councillor misbehaves s/he can be punished by being moved off their favourite committee. Committee allocation is one major mechanism used by the Whips to ensure good behaviour. So when I said I wanted to serve on as few committees as possible, and that I had no preferences, the Chief Whip asked me to see him.

I explained that as a Labour councillor for a normally Conservative held seat I had little chance of being re-elected. The Conservatives would have four years to build their election machine, and when the Conservatives organise well they can throw money and people into a ward. My only hope of holding the seat was to work the ward. I had to be seen on the streets, I had to talk to my ten thousand electors, and I had to be well known across the ward. I had to help people, take up issues, and build a better election machine than the Conservatives would build. As the only Labour councillor in the ward I would have a lot of requests for help. I had to respond to all of them. I really had to put my time into the ward.

As a junior councillor joining a committee I had no real prospect of affecting policy or becoming Chairman. If I put my time into City Hall instead of the ward that would guarantee that I was not re-elected. So I was not interested in spending much time at City Hall.

I told the Chief Whip that my reason for not asking for any particular committees or subcommittees was that I was interested in everything. He could put me where he thought I would be most useful.

The Chief Whip was I think puzzled. How do you control a councillor like me? He understood my position and he was impressed by my altruism. He said it was essential I turned up for Council, and he would give me a couple of sub committees.

Casework

I attracted probably a problem a week. I normally visited my constituents at home to discuss their concerns. Each time I met usually at least two voters and often more. I was very quick, usually seeing them the same day or the next day. I handed out my Councillor card. I always sent a letter after the visit, and copies of correspondence. The vast majority of problems took only one telephone call to the relevant Council officer to sort out. Then I telephoned the people and followed up with a letter confirming what I had told them. Some were more difficult. With those I usually telephoned the people to tell them about every twist and turn, and then sent a letter telling them again.

I was also good at publicity. I went to every meeting taking place in the ward. I was always there, even when I had not been invited.

I earned a reputation for being good at casework. Some constituents contacted all three Councillors for help with their problem. Each time I was the first to telephone them and the first to arrive on their doorstep. I learned a lot about how the Council actually operates from the cases where something had gone wrong. I met and worked on the telephone with a lot of good Council employees.

When I was told that something was not possible, I asked the Council employee which manager I had to speak to. The worker would be surprised at the question. In at least half the cases I was telephoned within half an hour to be told that the employee had consulted, and that there was a way of doing what needed doing.

I learned that when an employee told me something that defied common sense, the employee was usually right. This was on technical issues like the siting of a traffic light.

It is simple arithmetic that if one helps two people a week for four years, that is roughly four hundred people who will vote for you, and who will tell their friends, their neighbours and their relations that Councillor James has helped. When canvassing for my re-election the canvassers were impressed how often they were told that I had helped the household they were canvassing.

One canvasser reported how she had encountered a very hostile individual who swore and said that no (rude word) way was he going to vote Labour. Suddenly he stopped and said "Councillor James? I will vote for him. He helped my sister in law".

The Rat Run

I was asked to help with a problem. There were two busy streets at right angles to each other, and a street that ran diagonally between them that was a natural short cut for rushing motorists. The people living along the rat run were afraid for their children who had to cross the road on their way to school because the traffic on the rat run was very heavy. There were also side streets off the rat run, and the people living there were worried, too.

I called a public meeting, which involved writing to just over two hundred houses. Approaching a hundred people turned up. I also invited the two Conservative Councillors. As I explained to the meeting there was nothing political in this problem. We needed to find a practical solution to a practical problem. After some discussion I summarised the discussion by saying there seemed to be four options. One was "Do nothing". One was to make the road "one way" the wrong way. One was to divert the rat runners round some of the side streets so they gained no time advantage and would stop coming into the area. The last was to block the entrance the ratrunners used in the morning. There had been good speeches from local residents for and against each option.

Once I had agreement these were the options I said I would be sending out ballot papers to every voter in the affected streets. It was not a case that I would put forward the option that had the most votes. I would only put an option forward to the Highways Department if it gained 51% of the vote. Otherwise I would be putting forward an option that more people had voted against than had voted for.

About 250 people returned ballot papers. There was no majority. So I wrote to every voter giving the result of the vote. I said that as there was no consensus in the local community as to what was needed I could not approach the Highways Department. I suggested the community discussed among themselves. If they thought there was now a consensus I would organise another ballot and go forward with what the local residents agreed was needed.

Although I achieved nothing at all I had been seen to work hard for the local community. At the next election my vote in that polling district doubled.

Paradise Calls

One of the streets in my ward was called Paradise Road. Paradise Road and the few streets around it were locally referred to as "Paradise" so I was "a Councillor for Paradise". The Council owned a small yard there that had been a builders yard for the Council's buildings operations. It was disused, and it was becoming a meeting place for teenage lads and for people who wanted not to be seen using drugs. The local residents wanted the property sold for housing development, which I put through the Council's systems.


What About The Revolution?

Most of what I did as a Councillor could have been done by a Councillor of any party. So what was my socialist contribution? First, I was supporting the Labour Group in running the District. We spent more on Education, and we reorganised school repairs to get better value for money. We built two residential homes for elderly people. I was not a Tory, and I was keeping a Tory out.

In the Labour Group meetings I put forward common sense. Although I was a member of an Education sub committee I spoke against and voted against the Chair of Education when he was wrong on an issue. A majority of Labour Councillors were members of one or other Education sub committee so he thought he would win any vote. He lost.

I object to Councillors who get so tied up in City Hall politics that they do not have the time to do the ward work for the voters who put them there. I understand how it happens. If you are involved in big issues, long time frames, personnel issues, multimillion pound projects, and improving quality of delivery across a department, you have become a manager of a large enterprise. Getting little Shamaila admitted to a local Catholic school takes up a lot of time and at most will help only one family. What is the better use of your time? And if you represent a safe seat you will be relected anyway.

Being out on the street, meeting people, dealing with relatively small problems is part of service to the community, which is another aspect of socialism and the Labour Party. We are elected to serve, not to rule.

I Stand Again

About a year after I was elected I met a good woman and we started living together. We are still together now. For various reasons it was more practical for me to move to her than for her to move to me. So I sold the house and moved away from Bradford. I still ran my solicitor business in Bradford, and I was a ratepayer, so I was eligible to stand for election in Bradford.

I told the Group Leader that I was thinking of standing down after one term because I now had an instant family and the legal practice was growing. He was horrified. He said that if I stood he thought I would be re-elected, but if Labour put up anyone else they would lose. I had been a very good ward councillor and I had a significant personal vote. Even if I did less on Council and only turned up to the Council meetings once every six weeks it was better to have me on Council than the Tory who would otherwise replace me. The two vote difference could be crucial. Our majority on Council was currently very narrow, and Councillor X was dying. His seat was marginal. Please would I stay on.

So I stood. I was attacked in the local paper by the Conservatives. One wrote a letter saying that I did not live in the ward and I was only able to keep in touch with the ward because I had "a network of informants in every street".

This was a gift! The paper published a letter from me admitting that I did have a network of informants in every street. And if the Conservative Councillors did not have a network of informants in every street it said more about them than it did about me.

The Campaign

I stood again. In a leaflet I was able to list the streets in which I had helped a constituent, and nearly every street in the ward was listed. I pointed to the three jobs I had pared from the Council roster by having a computer installed to do a really boring job. I mentioned the sub committees on which I had served.

As far as I was concerned the election was highly marginal. One of the Tories told me later about one of his voters, a little old lady, who was very concerned about the dayglo orange posters that almost every house in her street now displayed. Were all her neighbours' homes for sale? They were Labour posters. Everyone told me not to worry, I was sure to be re-elected. I and my team worked really hard.

It was not until the first ballot box was opened and counted that I relaxed. I told my partner that I had won the election with an increased majority. She said that 30% of the votes were for me and 65% for the Tory, so how could I be so sure? I told her that four years earlier I had scored only 15% in this box.

I increased my vote from 2400 to 3500, a further 47% from the original 80% increase. The Tories vote had increased, too, and would have beaten my 1986 vote. I had replaced my 81 majority with a 700+ majority. I now had the highest vote for any candidate from any party since the seat was created in 1948. The boundaries have changed again so my record is safe.


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