*Updated January 2023
So a little bit of backstory, I’m 50 something, married with four children and live in Redcar, Yorkshire and consider myself reasonably healthy. I have always been active, hyperactive even, go jogging, and used to play football regularly. I have a background and experience in a variety of things including working with the NHS, electronics, HR, plumbing, fitting and in 2010, I became heavily involved in digital content, copy & ghost writing and digital & social media marketing with a focus on tourism while working with web developers locally, nationally and internationally through local and online contracts.
In the past decade I organized an environmental community litter pick group for 10 years and an independent bohemian market for a couple of years. I was elected as a Labour Councillor in 2015, held a portfolio position for 4 years until 2019 and from 2019 to 2022 I was the Labour Group Leader.
I am currently enjoying being a backbench councillor after stepping back to balance my time with full time work for a shipping company.
My political highs
I was asked to consider to stand as a Labour councillor from my work as a community activist cleaning up Redcar beach from 2013 and for engaging the media in that plight. This included successfully campaigning for a cleaner beach environment, shifting 100s of tonnes of masonry from unauthorised landfills, improving our visitor offer and shining a light on the local economy. I agreed months later, driven by the lack of interest and response from sitting councillors to my concerns at the time, about the seafront and the surrounding area.
After being nominated, selected and going out campaigning, I was elected as a councillor for the Coatham ward in May 2015 which was one of the most surreal and exhilarating experiences of my life. At that time Labour, locally, were in transition having lost control of the council prior to the May election following a process of deselection which saw others leave the party. With a new wave of optimism and many new faces, including mine, Labour returned to the administration with 29 out of 59 councillors and also retook the Redcar seat from the Lib Dems with a new Labour MP. At that time it felt like a fresh start for Labour and for Redcar & Cleveland and one to build on with renewed energy, policies and social engagement.
After being elected, I was proud to be recommended and put forward by my Labour peers to be nominated for a Cabinet position overseeing a packed portfolio that enveloped Jobs, Skills, Apprenticeships, Economic Growth, Communications, Tourism and the Visitor Economy. Effectively many of the things I had been shouting about as a resident would be my responsibility to do something about. I thought to myself later, ‘Ok, you said you don’t like it? Well you better get on with it then!’
During the first term I became involved with the North East Cultural Partnership and supported their White Paper to government regarding the imbalance in cultural and arts funding between the North and South. As it transpired the portfolio was far too heavy and following internal wranglings eventually split Economic Growth from Culture and Tourism to allow a better focus on both these important areas.
I had the absolute honour of overseeing the portfolio roles for 4 years, overhauling, recreating, improving comms, and marketing the borough to be more inclusive, welcoming, focussing more on it’s strengths and identity but most importantly – togetherness.
My main achievements in those early years;
Took apart the Town Management aspect that was imprecise from town to town and realigned local economy with visitor economy, culture, tourism and the events department and brought them together with part of the comms department under the umbrella of the Visitor Destination model;
Created a Masterplan for Redcar through public consultations to provide a vision and direction to follow; Provided access to funding for each of the key towns supporting infrastructure and local businesses;
Improved communication and our online presence and oversaw the new functional council services website (which had a couple false starts);
Marketed the borough beyond the local area;
Supported and encouraged all event organisers who could bring value including the music festivals, markets, sporting events, Festival of Thrift and the Tour de Yorkshire;
And created the Ambassador scheme under the description of ‘Bringing the Borough Together’ complete with its own tourism website. There is unfinished business that hasn’t continued in the right direction since I left the role but it is something I am still optimistic will realise it’s full potential and purpose.
And the frustrating lows
That first year as a councillor was pretty chaotic and I found myself at times overrun but it helped being in a structured political group with a support mechanism and discussions around all issues. Understanding the inner workings of the council and becoming deeply involved as a new councillor and Cabinet member took some time, adjustment and sacrifices especially being self employed and leading on my own contracts and time management.
Being someone who is determined to be on (and in) the business, conscientious and responsive, it took me some time to learn I couldn’t please everyone, nor continually pursue dormant requests personally. I would have to let some things drift in order to function, to focus on the important, topical and urgent stuff and to see the bigger picture, which included my personal life and health.
In self-employment I am very much in charge of my direction, projects and timeline. The contrast working within a local authority is stark. It is the complete opposite. You are most always reliant on others. It can be very slow going operationally, some issues are very complexed and long term, many issues you are waiting to be addressed and sometimes the most simple operation can become bones of contention.
You can find many issues you raise unactionable because of their location or legislation that prevents you, or with numerous hurdles to overcome that rely on multiple departments coming together. Often your issue remains somehow in some constant state of limbo waiting for you and only you, to keep breathing life back into it. Time often moves slowly in the council and within external bodies too who are ‘dealing with your concern’.
That’s not to say things don’t get done, they do, and the officers work hard and are in the main very helpful and personable. But there is an order to things, some things come up and take priority because of their urgent nature. And there simply isn’t enough time and staff to deal with the thousands of issues they have on their agendas. There often isn’t the cover during holiday periods, and there are many staff changes throughout the organisation. Sometimes you are literally starting over with an historic issue.
The issues mount up and before you know it, months have drifted by. Indeed, I remember writing a disclaimer footer on my emails early on in that first term, so that anyone emailing me knew I was dealing with issues of varying complexity and duration, large and small, but that all enquiries were important to me and I would get back to them. Easier said than done.
Health and Happiness?
Needless to say, that first term, I was often burning the candles at both ends, dropping balls, or rather, not spinning all the plates all the time and trying to deal with too many issues at any given time. I was chasing unanswered or unactioned requests that were getting nowhere and requests would be coming in, day and night and weekends from multiple platforms including messenger, phone, text, voicemail, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, as well as email and then …’where did that original complaint come from?’
It’s easy to think make a note or organise yourself but when you’re on the ground the issues hit you thick and fast, your technology isn’t always working and other matters arise that are topical and urgent. Organizing tourism and litter picking events, working on content for work and interacting with businesses, attending all manner of meetings professionally and as a councillor, chasing up councillor issues and balancing family and domestic life unknowingly started to take its toll on me.
I was exercising much less, having run regularly for years. I was becoming more unfit and put on weight because I would be constantly active writing and organizing and doing all other things. I stopped being as structured and disciplined and neglected me. I hated letting people down but there simply isn’t enough hours. Unlike an MP who have staff, it’s just you being all things to all people. So, I put a lot of time in to prove my worth, but then was cancelling evenings out with friends or doing family things because I was too busy or worn out. I would spend many days and nights, on computers and phones basically writing, replying and reporting.
I paid the consequence of this too. By year three, I started to suffer regular ocular migraines. My neck and joints around my shoulders stiffened, and I would have headaches and vertigo. This got worse. I ignored it and wasn’t connecting the dots seriously enough between these increasing health issues and my working attitude. I had a couple instances while driving where I had to pull over until the road in front of me stopped spinning. One day while at the RCBC offices I was feeling so bad with an ocular migraine and dizziness, I couldn’t drive and ended up gaining a lift home from an officer in democratic services. When I got inside the back door I crawled into the downstairs toilet and was physically sick.
Ultimately, I suffered from a prolonged spell of vertigo and ocular headaches and became completely dysfunctional and incapacitated for four months. I had sought medical help. By now I couldn’t raise my left arm or turn my neck without pain. One day I simply couldn’t stand up without the whole world shifting. I was holding onto the walls. This was now constant and went on for days whereby the room was spinning as if I’d just got off the Waltzer after necking a bottle of rum! I was unable to stand or get my balance and it was scary.
I struggled to read texts, emails, reports or my digital work contracts because my vision would simply spin out of control. I couldn’t string sentences together properly and even thought I may have had a mild stroke and this was a consideration of the medical staff. Often the effect made me physically sick or in a state of uncompromising nausea. I would fall asleep with exhaustion and wake up in the night and in the dark, and the room would be spinning. I was on medication now and ordered to rest. I could do little else.
Professionally, I ended up losing the business I built up and wasn’t taking on any new writing contracts because I had no staff to pick them up. I went for tests, and was put on a variety of medications, given physiotherapy, prescribed a daily routine of breathing exercises, ordered to do certain stretches and floor exercises, to rest and get my eyesight tested.
I was advised that what I was experiencing was the result of exhaustion and not taking care of myself. It was from being in front of a screen all day, everyday for hours, breathing from the diaphragm, hunching over, not exercising, not stretching, being clenched, not taking regular breaks, forgetting to eat and to hydrate, having tinnitus affected my balance as well as not taking care of my eyes. I had been ignoring my short-sightedness, by squinting while working and in inadequate lighting because I would often under-estimated just how long a piece of work would take me.
So, I was out of action for four months and this was leading up to the eve of the next local election in May 2019. Mostly my time was spent horizontally, on the sofa or in bed, with continual or sporadic dizziness and nausea. I would crawl about at times, when it was absolutely necessary to get around the house.
I couldn’t risk much more and at its worst I recall early 2019, I was needed for an important vote in the council chamber. I agreed to go but shouldn’t have done it. I recall being driven and physically escorted to the council chamber. The staff had set me up at the back of the chamber with a special chair that had arms and a neck rest. I needed it and was wearing sunglasses because of the lighting and my dizziness. Aside putting my hand up at the required moment, it was all a blur. After the vote I was physically escorted back into the car and driven home. I was too poorly to feel embarrassed or self-conscious. I got home and laid down. With the local elections approaching in May 2019 I was convinced I would resign my seat.
With the local elections fast approaching in May, I had discussed stepping away altogether and not standing as councillor again. I wondered if I would ever fully recover. Voicing this, I was encouraged by my colleagues to wait and carry on and to see how I was nearer to selections. If I didn’t have that advice and such a strong network around me I would most likely, no longer be active as a councillor today. My family and Labour party activists were my crutch during this period and I am extremely grateful for that support.
By March 2019, I was having better days and bad days. I was able to get about and go for short walks with lots of rest breaks. Driving was out of the question. The fresh air was great and I could sense myself getting stronger daily. The Vertigo, headaches and optical migraine episodes were reducing. I was able to fully raise my arm again.
I did very little physical campaigning for the election early on, aside being driven about and being propped up or sat down, to get the odd photograph to go with our Labour pledges. By April, I had started to recover in earnest. I no longer wore sunglasses all day. Having had my eyes tested I had purchased my first prescription ‘rose tinted’ glasses that reduces light pollution. I think these glasses were key to my recovery.
Once I was confident that the vertigo was not going to embarrass me, I managed to get out door knocking with Labour members and more and more I felt like me again. A huge relief. One time I was so happy to be out and about and myself again, I was literally jogging from door to door with the Labour team.
I campaigned and door knocked right up to the last minute of the last day and later the next day when the count was in, I was delighted to be re-elected for another term in Coatham and with renewed fitness and energy.
However, there were lessons to be learnt from this horrible experience. I don’t take myself for granted and I don’t allow my enthusiasm to undermine my support – It’s a marathon not a sprint. I am cautious of spending too long on any digital devices. I exercise daily, I take time to consciously breathe deeply, I wear my glasses and I stretch – I stretch a lot!
There would be mixed emotions at that local election with the loss of many good colleagues. Indeed, it was also the precursor of what was to come at the General Election.
Red Wall and Moving forward
Labour lost heavily at the May 2019 local election. We were left with 15 councillors after losing 13 seats. Locally, Labour were still the biggest group (just) but not enough to run the council which was eagerly snapped up by the “Lindies” (A coalition of the ‘Pro Brexit’ Independent group and propped up by the ‘Pro EU’ Lib Dem group).
It was clear the party had fallen out of favour for a number of reasons not least because of the establishment’s and broader public’s absolute dislike and distrust of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which was clear while out on the doorsteps, but in this area and in equal measure, the resolute desire to be out of the EU. This was not seen as Labour’s desire and was a wholly rejected by our Redcar Labour MP Anna Turley, as being harmful to this area and the country.
Unsurprisingly, this cocktail would be Labour’s downfall in Redcar & Cleveland and across the North East ‘Red Wall’ constituencies when a snap General Election was called for December 2019. After what was a disastrous election campaign, where door knocking was as an unpleasant an experience as I have ever had, I felt that despite all the good work Labour had done locally in the borough over the past four years, it wouldn’t be enough to prevent a total collapse in our support. And this proved to be the case. At the General Election we lost our excellent Labour MP, to an immature Tory candidate who didn’t even want to stand in Redcar.
Leading the Group
Following that disastrous result and now fully fit, my peers elected me to lead the Labour Group. Now no longer working in digital marketing anymore, I decided to accept and put my full concentration in this, working smarter than previously. A huge honour and unimaginable just a couple months before.
I spent a lot of time working on bringing the councillor group closer together, communicating regularly, bonding, keeping things light while holding the administration to account. The group really inspire me. I am so fortunate to have been surrounded by experienced and assertive colleagues, active community volunteers fighting for their residents and people who care deeply about their communities.
I worked at a different pace always ensuring, whatever I or a group member was pushing, we would discuss as a group with the opportunity to debate, organize, alter and contribute on all relevant items of interest. My focus was for our councillors to focus on their wards and their passion. Play to your strengths to ensure our areas and the residents were not neglected. And that important and urgent issues were shared for maximum advice and support.
Coming from a digital organization I set up mechanisms to communicate with our residents and businesses, I set up pages on social media for our councillors and I ensured we could collectively converse at anytime, day or night with drop in and out messaging. With the onset of Covid I ensured all our councillors mastered the Teams platform. We insisted Council meetings continued in this manner until it was safe to meet face to face again. The administration tried to delay online meetings for months until Sept 2020 but through our pressure we got them going in June.
Sadly, I was struggling financially to support my family and home while leader of the group. Despite popular belief otherwise, it isn’t a fruitful occupation. This is why quite often you’ll find many councillors are retirement age or are people who have flexible working. The time required leading a political party and being an active councillor really doesn’t afford time for external employment if you want to be fully committed and well versed.
I had no desire to go back to digital working, consulting or office work. Not only did I not want to bring back ocular migraines or vertigo but I wanting to be away from being inside and do something meaningful – productive. I made a decision and in the Summer of 2021 I sought after that employment and a new challenge. After discussing with family and colleagues I stepped down as Leader and gave the opportunity to someone who could offer more time to it.
By January 2022, I was a a backbench councillor and a qualified Class One lorry driver.
Onwards and Upwards
Redcar Labour Group work closely together. We scrutinize this administration, their decisions, their communication, their competence. And when they haven’t consulted properly we challenge them. We ask the questions required of their actions and challenge whether they are, or the civil servants are, controlling the brief. We challenge them over whether they are being active and if they are calling on the government to release necessary funding to support this borough’s services. We will ensure that democracy is played out and when it isn’t – it is called out.
And we fight on for this borough and we fight back. We will never forget how this government stripped our borough of £100million+ for over a decade at the cost of many services and at the loss of over 1000 council staff. We won’t forget that our spending power has been relatively reduced by £340m compared to 2010.
We will stand beside the NHS, police, schools, social care, councils, the ports, postal service, fire service, prison service, the unions, RNLI, transport, libraries, employers, workers and independent businesses, landlords, tenants and homeowners and the many charities, community groups and trusts who make such a difference to lives and rely on funding to function.
And we will never forget how the Independent Group when in opposition, opposed every rise in council tax, year on year, but in administration put up council tax in their very first year. Nor will we forget them creating effectively two leaders and providing the council leader a 31% pay rise while setting out council tax increases.
Yes we took a hard hit in 2019 but we dusted ourselves off on day one and remain on and in the business of Redcar and Cleveland and will be challenging again in May 2023.