Neighbourhood meetings, nasty tweets and national newspapers: being a 19-year-old councillor

Being a young councillor is tough. There is a lot of expectation placed on you to succeed in a field which has been dominated for many years by those much older than me. I want to share my experiences as both a young candidate and a young councillor. Let me make clear, these are entirely my own views, and do not represent the views of Plymouth City Council or The Labour Party in any form. I am happy to answer any questions which may arise from this blog. If there are enough, I will consider a follow-up blog to answer them. I think it is about time people were aware of the added pressure faced by young councillors. My aim is to be as open and honest as possible.

A bit of background:
I joined the Labour Party in 2010 following the recommendation of a good friend, and four years as a local and national representative of the UK Youth Parliament. I spent Saturday morning after Saturday morning, month after month, campaigning for Councillor Chaz Singh in Drake ward. Despite opposition, we succeeded in unseating the Tory councillor and electing Plymouth’s first Sikh councillor.

Chaz’s election campaign gave me a taste not only of what we could achieve as a local party, but also what I could achieve as a person. It can be daunting, that first door you knock on. I stumbled over all my words, I forgot most of what I was supposed to say and I don’t think I even came away from the door with any Voter ID. But the more you do it, the more doors you knock on, the more voters you phone, the more your confidence grows. In fact, even those who slam the door in your face, put the phone down or tell you they’re a BNP supporter gives you some kind of new fierce attitude.

Alongside being Youth and Student Officer for my CLP, I was also elected the Secretary of the then-Local Government Committee, and so oversaw the empanelment and selection of candidates for the local elections. We had just about finished, when Councillor Nicky Wildy announced she would be standing down at the 2012 election. As Nicky was re-selected on an All Women’s Shortlist, the same process had to be put in place for her replacement. As I sat in at Plymouth Labour HQ late at night, licking and sticking over 200 envelopes to send to women in the local party, it dawned on me that this could be an opportunity to gain a bit of experience. Go up for selection, learn the process, know what sort of questions are asked, go to university, come back after my degree and put myself up to stand for a seat in 2017. It seemed like an ideal opportunity.

So I did. I got myself empanelled. I was up against four other talented, experienced women at shortlisting, so I was genuinely surprised when Devonport’s branch chair phoned me to say I’d been shortlisted, along with one other woman, who was in her 50’s. At this point, I started to wonder if I did have a chance at winning the selection, so I sent letters to branch members and went along to the selection. The selection was tough. Despite the members being really warm and welcoming, selections put you on the spot. I delivered my speech and had to answer questions from branch members. But, despite my nerves, I kept my cool and, that night, won the selection of Devonport… Which I had to keep under wraps for approximately a month and I was bursting to tell people. In hindsight, the month’s preparation time probably did me some good.

Being a young candidate:
My local newspaper, The Herald, printed the story “Labour strikes early in Plymouth city council 2012 election battle” at the end of February – with an absolutely hideous photo taken from my second UKYP election and about four hair colours behind which didn’t do me any favours at all – when Plymouth Labour revealed their full slate of 19 candidates. The article only touched on my selection, but it seemed to cause a few problems:

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See what I mean about the photo? The comments could have been worse, and I was under no illusions that everybody was going to be completely supportive of an 18 year old representing an area of over 10,000 people. So I did an interview with The Herald, hoping that people might want to know a bit more about who I am and what I believe in. A badly spun headline meant I was wrong:

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Now, in fairness, the majority of the comments on that article were, overwhelmingly, supportive. It meant I felt a lot more positive about actually standing for election. I rejected my offers from other universities, and accepted an offer from Plymouth University. My decision was partly about staying in the city to care for my grandfather, but mostly, it was in case I won my election – I couldn’t do an effective job serving the people of Devonport from Leeds, Brighton, London or Southampton.

And so the campaign for Devonport began. Door after door, phone call after phone call, hill after hill. Some criticism, lots of kind words, a couple of dog bites and utterly destroyed feet. 2,517 voters in Devonport, Keyham and Morice Town came out to vote across five polling stations in three neighbourhoods. A 6am start (and a 6am finish) and I won. Despite electors, internet trolls, and even members of my own party, telling me to expect to lose, I won, with a majority of 839 – the biggest majority Devonport had seen for years. Despite my feet absolutely killing me, I could not have been happier as the Returning Officer said my name. The roaring cheers of the Labour group – and even a few Tory activists – were deafening and both of my parents were in tears. It was a simply indescribable feeling, and one I will never forget.

Being a young councillor:
There was some great stories printed following my election. I made it into The Sun, The Guardian, The Independent. My local newspaper printed a great story based around my shoes. I was interviewed for radio, for TV in my back garden… I even made it onto Northern Ireland radio. My only regret was that I didn’t tweet something a little bit more historic. I had no idea the eyes of the nation were on me, and so tweeted that I was happy and going to bed. A missed opportunity.

Not everyone was so happy for me:

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Those comments were the tip of the iceberg compared to those on other online sites. Some lovely users on Yahoo spent comment after comment commenting on my appearance, my dress sense, my weight. They speculated about what my parents do for a living, they even questioned whether I was really a young carer, or whether I was just “attention seeking”. I was called ugly, fat, a whale, stupid, poor, spoilt, a bitch. The list goes on. All for trying to make a difference. I was warned after my election that, while a lot of people would be supportive, some wouldn’t. And these people clearly chose to be brutally unsupportive. Despite developing quite a thick skin after being bullied at school, some comments cut deep. I tried not to read the comments on articles, but found myself drawn to them, unable not to look.

Thankfully, my colleagues within the Labour Group room were supportive and welcoming, and I will be forever grateful to my ward colleagues, Cllr Bill Stevens and Cllr Mark Coker, for the unconditional support they gave me. They believed in me even when I stumbled, and it was their guidance which gave me the confidence to do things myself – so thanks boys. It is on that note I want to discuss the difficulties I face as a 19 year old councillor.

Learning about local government politics:
There is a lot to learn when you first enter local government politics. There are group meetings where you can actually vote, inductions, hundreds and hundreds of new faces, reams of papers, appointments to committees, agendas, minutes of meetings you’ve never been to, pigeon holes, scrutiny, emails and letters to hundreds of events and a new Filofax. There are terms you’ve never heard of, abbreviations to learn and a whole new routine to get used to. Politics is tough, but the first few weeks is tougher. Eventually, it settled down. I sit on the Licensing Committee, which I find fascinating, and Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Panel, which I felt my experiences could be invaluable on to improve the lives of young people in our city. There is no handbook to local government politics. People can only advise. Everyone is different, everyone reacts differently, everyone has different ideas, different ways of working, different commitments. There is no right or way wrong to do things.

Conservative members on my committees are helpful and polite. They are willing to answer questions and help you to understand things you haven’t quite gotten to grips with yet. The majority of them are, on the whole, pleasant people. Some aren’t. Some are rude and attempt to patronise me in order to make themselves look good. Some believe I am an easy target because of my age. But I refuse to be. I refuse to be made to feel small or insignificant simply because my date of birth is in the 90s rather than the 50s. No councillor is elected knowing everything there is to know about politics, communities and people. We are all learning, every day.

I cannot claim to know everything, nor can I claim to be a political or economic genius. But politics is changing all the time. I am dynamic, open to change and, most importantly, open to learning new skills, listening to new ideas and trying to make a change. I ask questions, I listen to the answers and I try to learn from them. I am honest if I don’t understand, and I no longer feel uncomfortable about speaking out if I am not following something. Nobody in politics understands everything, and it is sad that some people use my age as a reason to target the fact I don’t know everything.

I attended a weekend event for Young Councillors hosted by the LGA in November, which was a cross-party workshop weekend which aims to give young councillors skills and ideas to be best equipped to carry out their role. Naturally, I was criticised for attending this, too. It was a brilliant weekend and was one of the most helpful and informative events I have ever been to. The support from the LGA has been brilliant, as has the support from the Young Councillor’s Network, an informal mentoring scheme set up by other young Labour councillors. Some of the best support and advice I have received has been from other young councillors, those who have been there, done it. It is a great base of support and guidance, and something I would love to be expanded in the future.

Disspelling the myths about young people:
I take great pride in the fact that I am doing something which a lot of young people wouldn’t. A lot of emphasis was placed onto my elections. Some people saw it as a negative move for the Labour Party, whereas others saw it as an opportunity to engage young people in politics. I see it as the latter. When I was elected, I was a sixth form student at Notre Dame, and a lot of the girls I went to school with knew little or nothing about politics. The majority were extremely interested in my election, and it made a lot of them think differently about what they saw as a boring or pointless subject. They began to realise that politics does affect them, and in fact, I recently had to give a presentation during a lecture on the subject “What is cool”. Amongst presentations about cats, DJs and fashion, I did mine on politics. I showed people that politics affects everyone – food, drink, smoking, car insurance, jobs, money, healthcare, work, university tuition fees. If you engage young people, listen to their ideas, you begin to notice that the reason they are not engaged is, often, because they do not understand.

I am a big supporter of more political education for young people in schools, preparing people so they know what decisions affect them, and how using their vote, whether it is local or national politics, is important. I spent much of my time with UK Youth Parliament standing up for young people and making sure they were listened to – the next natural move to me, was to run for council and show that young people do have opinions and it is so important that they are listened to. I was criticised heavily by a lot of people for doing something which is seen as the older generations territory. It is not. Politics is for everyone, and if just one young person looks at my election and thinks “I can do that, I can really make a difference in my community”, then all the hassle has been worth it.

I have a great deal of support from my local branch, party and neighbourhoods. They recognise that I am doing my best to ensure their voices are heard in the council. And they respect that. For them, it is not about my age, but my ability. If they believed I wasn’t capable of doing my job effectively, they would not have voted me in. The results at the ballot box spoke volumes, and it is that support which gives me the confidence to carry out my role.

Getting to know your local community:
At the time of my election, I lived in a different ward to the one I represent. I grew up in Devonport, and I faced a lot of the same problems growing up which are still be experienced every day by families now. Too often, people stand for election to positions simply so they can be in a certain place, a stepping stone to other positions. Not for me. I care about Devonport. I have seen it change drastically since I lived there, and I am proud of the achievements of a community which was once pushed aside.

Devonport is a dynamic ward which stretches over three neighbourhoods. There are thousands of residents living in these areas, with a lot of local businesses, schools and community groups to get to know. Every week, I learn of new and exciting projects which are happening in the ward. I care so much about the area that I grew up in that I knew it was the place I wanted to represent. And after my election, I made a commitment to my ward by moving to be in my ward, local to residents. A real community councillor. I take my role very seriously, and want residents to know that I am approachable and accountable to them. I am here for their benefit, not for my own.

Life experience:

My biggest hurdle has been the criticism I have received for not having enough life experience. I am more than aware of the fact that I am, at present, 41 years younger than the average age of a councillor. I am at an immediate disadvantage simply because of when I was born. People use this as a justification to belittle me, but I refuse to be boxed as “young and naive”.

I have maintained since my election that I do not have to explain myself to people. I have allowed people to make assumptions about me, about my life and about my experiences. I have kept, what I like to think is, a dignified silence on my own background. But it is infuriating when people assume things about me when they have taken no time to talk to me, or even try to understand the trials I have faced in my own life. I have been bullied, viciously, which left a huge mark on my self esteem. I have been a young carer for 8 years, for my grandfather who suffers from Alzheimers disease. My parents are separated; my father lives in the West Midlands, and I lived with my mother. She was married to a man who I had awful experiences with, and who ruined a lot of my childhood, until she became a single mother, and we shared care of my elderly grandfather. When I turned 18, I was not out partying, I was at home looking after my grandfather to make sure my mother got a break from her caring duties. My spare time was spent studying for my A Levels. I saw the Labour Party as my social life, because I enjoy it. It was not a chore to go canvassing. I come from a low-income family, I grew up in a deprived area with little money and issues surrounding my family, but a lot of love, with three older brothers and a lot of expectation placed on me to succeed. I am a bisexual young woman, and have such have struggled with my sexuality and the reactions of other people to my sexuality. I am criticised by the same two people for “broadcasting my sexuality for attention”. That is not what it’s about, and I find it quite offensive that people would suggest that. It is about demonstrating that I have faced difficulty in coming to terms with my sexuality, and I am proud of who I am and how I have overcome those problems. I would not be the person that I am without them – why shouldn’t I be proud of getting through them?

I have been extremely lucky in the amount of love and support I receive from my parents and my brothers. I by no means believe that I have had a horrible life, and recognise that others face much bigger difficulties than I have. But my life has not been a smooth ride, and it upsets me that people assume. I would be interested in meeting any councillor, young or old, who has first-hand experience of every situation faced by their constituents. Until then, all I can do is try my best to aid my constituents to resolve their issues and continue to help Devonport grow.

A healthy balance:
I am a first year Events Management student at the University of Plymouth. My lecturers know that I am a councillor, and so are supportive if I have to miss lectures to attend important meetings. Thankfully, there have been no huge clashes so far. But it does mean I have to work hard to make sure I keep up with the work I miss. I maintain that my education is important to me. I am not a career politician. I stood for election because I wanted to make a difference in my community, not because I wanted a glorious career within the Labour Party. I want a career which is not political, but take my council responsibilities very seriously. Yet, I am criticised for wanting to work hard for an education.

I personally don’t feel I am any more disadvantaged when it comes to my council responsibilities than someone who works a full-time job. My lectures are flexible, and I am trying to manage my time effectively to ensure that neither my education or council work slips. I am not prepared to quit university for the council. Being a local councillor is not a full time job, and it is shameful that people use my attendance at university against me.

Whilst we’re talking about that, I recently went to Amsterdam for five days with university. Those five days meant that I missed a Children and Young People’s OSP, which I sent apologies and a substitute for. Yet, I was criticised for going by members of an opposition party, despite councillors of the same party going abroad for a week or two, rather than two days. I should not have to justify myself, but I feel it is necessary when lies are being spread. The trip was directly linked to my intercultural encounters module. It was not a holiday. I did not pay for it, the University of Plymouth paid for it. Councillors are allowed time off, too. It is not a 24/7 job. Councillors are people too, often with jobs or families, and it is simply ridiculous to suggest they should be in their ward all hours of the day. Just thought it would be helpful to clear that up, for anyone who was in any doubt.

Curbing your tongue:

Without doubt, a huge challenge has been learning to think about what I say before I tweet. It is difficult knowing all eyes are on you, and it has been a challenge to remember that. I have a Facebook profile, which I maintain is my personal account for friends, family and colleagues. I am happy with that. I am also a dedicated Twitter user, tweeting @yeskatiedear. My profile is open, because I like to be able to engage with as many people as possible – friends, constituents, members across the political spectrum. Twitter is a great place for debate and sharing best practise and ideas.

Yet, having an open account has its downfalls. I am always aware of my conduct on Twitter. I try my best to be careful with what I tweet. I do not swear, I do not offend people and I try to remain polite at all times. It is a shame, therefore, that other people don’t feel its necessary to do the same. It is difficult to keep diplomatic and polite when strangers are calling you every name under the sun online, because of, well, just about everything. My age, my politics, my tweets, my appearance.

But, of course, I’m an elected member and I put myself in the spotlight so I have to put up with that, right? Wrong. Nobody should have to put up with it. I do not have an obligation to engage with anybody on Twitter who is purposely seeking to offend or upset me, and as such, have begun to block people who do just that. I also do not have to put up with people spreading lies about me on social networking sites, and so will seek to correct those whenever I become aware of them.

I have tried my best not to engage with those who are purposely acting as Twitter trolls, but now seem to have my own dedicated personal army of people – who have been blocked off my account – who read my tweets, and then tweet about me. Whilst I find it flattering that people care so much about my life, it is also quite tiring, and boring. These people also criticise me for the fact that I do not tweet solely about issues happening in Devonport. It has been suggested that I have two Twitter accounts – one for my council work, and another personal account. I say no. Councillors are people too. If I want to tweet about what I had for my dinner, or what I’m watching on the television, or my opinion on national politics, then I will. I was a person with opinions before I was elected. And, actually, I think residents of Devonport appreciate a “normal” politician. Someone just like them. Because I am. I am just a normal person.

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People seem to forget that a) councillors are people with other commitments and responsibilities and no obligation to work 24/7 and b) there is more than one ward councillor for each area. Whilst I visited Amsterdam, any work which arose was covered by my ward colleagues. That is the point of a partnership. Of course, there are no complaints if a member of their own political group leave the city, but that’s another issue. The above tweet was sent whilst I was attending the Young Councillor’s Weekend, and was not “a holiday” at suggested.

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I welcome constructive criticism and I am always looking for ways which I can improve my skills to undertake my role even better. I am very aware of what my residents need, and how I can best provide them with that. I have never received a complaint from a resident, in fact, often I receive lovely letters and emails of support from local residents to say thank you. So as far as I am aware, my voters have a positive opinion on me. Local councillors are under no obligation to lie down and take insults, whether in person or on a social networking site. Being on a public platform does not make it ok for people to harass or insult you. Bullying is bullying, whatever medium it is in.

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These two tweets relate to a tweet I posted about the Falkland Islands, as below. I notice a lot of the tweets by the above two people have been deleted – namely the ones where they tweeted the local newspaper suggesting I support the FI being returned to Argentina. This is untrue, and I don’t believe my tweet suggested otherwise. I was told it was insensitive for me to tweet, as I represent a ward containing the dockyard. I apologised if anybody took offence, but I don’t see why they should. I was supporting the Falkland Islands remaining British. Being told I am unable to discuss it because brave men died is ridiculous – that would be like saying you couldn’t discuss women’s suffrage, or LGBT liberation, because people died. As for spouting “leftie nonsense”, I am no longer going to allow comments from the above to get under my skin, given the “jokes” that they feel are appropriate to make on Twitter.

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And this one just amused me. It still confuses me that people believe the way you look affects your ability to serve your local community. I have taken a lot of stick for my appearance for a lot of my life, but I now view these sorts of comments as almost positive. If this is the only thing people can find to pick on me about, I must be doing a pretty good job.

A message for my critics:
It is difficult being a councillor full stop, but it is much more difficult being a councillor in the face of so much criticism, scrutiny and local government inexperience. I am proud of what I have achieved in the first eight months of my term, and I am excited about what is to come. I am looking forward to watching Devonport grow, communities become closer and doing whatever I can to improve the lives of the residents who elected me. I am doing my best to make a difference in the face of a lot of criticism and negativity. I do not have to answer to Twitter trolls, or nasty anonymous commenters on online articles. I have to answer to my electors – and they put their trust in me to represent them. I am so proud to represent such a wonderful and diverse community.

As a final note, it would be wrong not to show you a comment made on the article from The Sun. My brother is 21 years old and rarely shows any affection towards me – I suppose it makes it more special when things like this are said.

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10 thoughts on “Neighbourhood meetings, nasty tweets and national newspapers: being a 19-year-old councillor

  1. Very Well Done Katie. One day soon, maybe I will pick your brain on becoming a young councillor myself (I’m 25)!

  2. I have always struggled as an old UKYP’er with my views on young people in politics as I support Youth Parliament utterly and with all my heart, but can also see that a 50 year old might be annoyed to have an 18 year old representing them on issues that affect 50 year olds (UKYP deals only with young people). But reading this has fully turned my mind: well done Katie. I agree with your points and think you argued it well and articulately.

  3. This is a really interesting piece. Perhaps it will inspire more young people to become involved. I am quite saddened by some of the negative, rude or mean comments that you have received, but am pleased to see that you are coping well and brushing them aside. That inspires me to cope better with criticism in my work life, which is also dominated by men, most of whom are much older and more self-assured than me. I live in your ward and despite the fact that I don’t generally like the Labour party much, you won my vote because you are young and interested in politics. Also, because you seemed to genuinely care about the area. It annoys me how many people play the “no life-experience as she’s just 18” card. That’s ridiculous. One can experience an awful lot in 18 years.
    Anyway, I hope you continue in your role and perhaps take on more responsibility in the future. I think you’re doing a great job and will definitely vote for you next time around, if you choose to stand again!

  4. Such an amazing blog and I can completely empathise with you. I was elected as a Labour cllr at 19 and throughout the campaign and to this day I get this. Everytime I go to London to conduct interviews for my journalism course I get horrible comments thrown at me.

    Since you shared some quotes, I’ll share one too ” Somebody please tell what on earth a 19yr old knows about what is good for us in millbrook this is an insult to the people of millbrook we deserve better our community is going to become one big mess no money spent here at all, its not going to be nice living here, MY GOD PEOPLE OF MILLBROOK WHAT HAVE YOU DONE they don’t care what state it becomes , we now have 2 idiots and a baby sister looking after our best interests in the community , people what were you thinking .”

  5. I can totally empathise with the amount of abuse thrown at you for being young & politically active, I suffered much the same when I stood as a candidate aged 18 back in 2010. The way you deal with it has been admirable, and I don’t blame you a jolt for not taking the time to respond to those who throw personal insults; Back in 2010 I tried to reply to everyone’s comments, even the personal ones, trying to reassure them or trying to change their minds about what they’d assumed about me based on a few tweets & a misinterpreted blog post and I discovered a lot of people are just out there to troll & hurl abuse, and when I replied to it I’d just get even worse hurled at me, so I think your approach is certainly the right one.

    2010 actually left me pretty deflated in terms of dealing with people as a candidate, but seeing the effort you put in & the largely positive response you received inspired me to get back involved with the party more. You are a phenomenal credit to young people and more widely to the network of councillors we have nationwide. I know as I was many of our age peers will be inspired to become more involved or involved again with the political process in this country and hopefully slowly we can start to lower the average age of councillors so the system becomes more representative of all. You have an extraordinary heart & passion for other people, and I think that really shows in this blog & your activities more widely. It’s genuinely a pleasure to know you and your constituents are lucky to have someone as determined & relentless as you representing them on Plymouth City Council.

    All the best,

    Dom.

  6. Your collegue who Publicly Supported his wife spurting her thoughts in daily echo under fake I.D put you at a big disadvantage there unfortunately. We are not a bad lot in Millbrook & no need to be annonymous its clear as to who you are. As you will also know who I am & for the record your not all tarnished with the same brush,everybody deserves a chance, its just up to individual as to wether they want to work with us or against. After all,correct me if i am wrong but Councillors are representing the public are they not? Honesty & Communication is always a good start,aswell as a backbone on dealing with difficult situations. Lastly Good luck to both of you, you will be widely respected for standing your ground. Wish you both long sucessful futures in Politics… Great Blog btw.

  7. Great piece,many valid points. Perhaps now you need to teach some of the others that they would get morefrom their wards if they worked towards a united plymouth and notwasted time arguing like children in meetings trying to score points with cheap puns. Cllrs forget sometimes that they are respected and for somr lead by example.

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