Getting Elected as a Local Councillor - An interview with Stephanie, who did Combined Honours in Sociology and English and has an MA in Gender Studies
Top tips from Stephanie: 'Do some volunteering for an MP or a PPC so you can show you are keen and that you are prepared to work. It will set you apart from someone who has a theoretical knowledge of Politics, say a degree in the subject, but doesn't know how it works in the current climate.'
Deborah: Tell me what degree you read for and what you particularly enjoyed studying?
Stephanie: I studied Sociology and English as a joint degree. I enjoyed modules about Feminist Perspectives in Sociology, Abuse of Power (which went deeper into feminist arguments) and Women's Contemporary Fiction.
D: After your first degree, you went on to do an MA. Tell me what it was like doing that? Did you find studying at postgraduate level very different from being an undergraduate?
S: It was quite different as the essays are much longer! You have to do a lot of research and background reading as your bibliographies need to show you've referred to a lot of sources. I really enjoyed it as it allowed me to do a lot of research into areas I was particularly interested in. I did my dissertation on street harassment which was great as I got to interview a lot of women about their experiences of being sexually harassed in various ways in public places. It was surprising what I found out.
D: What jobs did you do after you were successfully awarded your MA?
S: I went to intern in Parliament where I did research for a Lib Dem MP. Her portfolio was Children and Young People so I worked with a lot of charities who wanted to lobby the government to change legislation. I wrote press releases and speeches for her. Then I worked as a Researcher and Campaign Manager for another MP where I was responsible for the local election campaign in 2007.
D: How did you first get involved in local politics as a councillor?
S: When I was working on the campaign I had to do a lot of research into local issues to form the basis of our campaign messages. I was living and working in the town and could see that other councillors were making a real difference to the standard of the area and people's lives. We needed more candidates to stand in the election so I put myself forward.
D: Tell me about the process of becoming a local councillor?
S: You have to fulfil certain criteria to be able to stand legally. You have to be on the Electoral Roll, own property in the area or have worked there for a year. If you want to stand for a political party you need to have been a member for a certain amount of time too. A panel of people from the party will interview you to find out what you know about the area and to see how good you would be as a councillor. They want to see that you agree with the general principles of the party and that you've had some experience of campaigning or delivering leaflets before, or are really prepared to work to get elected. When you are approved then you can appear on leaflets but you have to help deliver them! There is a lot of knocking on doors and introducing yourself to people and finding out how they are going to vote.
D: What sorts of things do local councillors do? What would a typical day be like?
S: It depends if you are a full-time councillor or not. I'm not, and most people do it on top of working full or part-time. I'm a backbencher so I don't have particular responsibility for anything; I just represent the people who live in my area. I attend meetings in the evenings about twice a month. We vote on areas of policy, like where the council's money should be spent. My constituents ring and email me with issues that affect them, like plans for housing being built in the area and anti-social behaviour and I try to help them. I pass their concerns onto council officers (who are employed directly by the council, not elected) and lobby the council to improve services like getting more police on the streets and having CCTV installed in areas which are unsafe or have high levels of crime.
D: What have been your most significant challenges as a local councillor?
S: Probably working with councillors from another political party. Sometime's it's hard because you want to do good things for the area and the people you represent but other people let party politics get in the way. There have been bad things said and written by another party, not about me but about colleagues, which has been hard. You need to develop a thick skin and carry on anyway.
D: Tell me about the most rewarding parts of being a local councillor?
S: Getting results. We managed to save a lot of council houses from being sold which is great as it means affordable housing for people who otherwise wouldn't have a decent place to live. Working with the Police and the Safer Neighbourhoods Team is always good as it means you can tackle Anti Social Behaviour. It's appreciated by residents who sometimes can't sleep because of noise or have their property damaged by people. We have a youth group that's free to attend now. If you're aged between eight and sixteen you can go to the club and use Playstations, karaoke machines, stereos, wide screen TVs and just hang out. These kids might otherwise be on the street causing problems but now they can go somewhere where they have things they don't have at home.
D: I know you plan to stand for selection as a parliamentary candidate. Is local politics very much a stepping stone for people who want to be MPs?
S: I don't think it is. A lot of people want to serve the area they come from and that's it. A few people do local politics and see what a difference you can make when you get involved and this spurs them on to want to do more. Standing for Parliament is a chance to make a difference for more people in an even bigger area and to get the real decision makers to listen. The majority of MPs I know were councillors first, because you have to be pretty committed to stand for Parliament and local politics is a good training ground really.
D: What do you need to do to stand for selection as a parliamentary candidate?
S: In a mainstream political party you need to have been a member for a certain amount of time. You have to attend an interview where you are asked about policy issues to check you know what the party believes about certain issues. You have a fake media interview to check if you can handle being on TV or the radio. They want to see that you are presentable and that you have experience and know how much hard work being involved in a campaign is. You need to be able to lead a team and motivate people to work on your behalf. If you show you really want to get elected then other people will be happy to come and help you.
D: What particularly attracts you to being an MP?
S: The ability to make a real difference. It's frustrating in local government because there are limits to what you can do and so much red tape. I'd like to see the power given back to the councils and voluntary groups who know more about what people really want and need. We should have more public consultations and transparency and make the democratic process something people feel involved in and not estranged from.
D: How do you want your career to develop? Do you want to be Prime Minister?
S: I think I would feel a bit limited if I was the Prime Minister and as we can see you do become a target for all the problems in the country, rightly or wrongly. I've never thought that we should just focus on the UK and the problems we have here because the World is so diverse. I'm still a feminist at heart and I'd like to make a difference for women the world over. Women and children are still the poorest people in the world and I'd like to work with human rights organisations to try and change that. I think I'll write a few books at some stage, but I'd like to say I made a difference in some small way at least.
D: What advice would you give to students who are at university now and thinking about a career in politics?
S: Get some life experience either before or at the same time as working or volunteering in the political sphere. It's important that you have something to fall back on or that brings the money in because politics is not well-paid and there are no guarantees. Do some volunteering for an MP or a PPC so you can show you are keen and that you are prepared to work. It will set you apart from someone who has a theoretical knowledge of Politics, say a degree in the subject, but doesn't know how it works in the current climate.