Is being a local councillor compatible with being a working mother? This is a question I get asked a lot along with “why on earth would you want to be a local councillor?” and “how could you be a Tory?”
And the truth is that it is extremely hard to be a working mum and a councillor. It’s hard because you have a full-time job on top of being a councillor and most people tend to forget that, and it’s hard because – let’s face it – misogyny is still prevalent. As for being a Tory, well suffice it to say that the current Conservative Party is most certainly no longer in line with my core beliefs and that’s without even mentioning the “B” word.
I decided to run for local election because I believed that my professional expertise could be put to good use. I wanted to give back to my community by using my skills. I wanted to help people improve their lives by providing a link to an authority they are often too distanced from, or don’t understand the dealings of. I naively believed that I would be taken seriously having spent over 15 years working for large multinational corporations, that my voice once elected would be equal to that of all the other elected councillors. But most naively of all, I believed that we would focus our time, effort and attention to local issues and would focus on what was best for Medway and Medway’s residents. Suffice it to be said that this was not the case.
No matter what political family you belong to, the message from the top has recently been that it is important to engage young people in politics, that getting women and mothers involved is important too. And yet, once you become a councillor, you have absolutely no support as a working mother. You cannot attend day time meetings because – wait for it – you actually have a job (you know, that thing that allows you to pay the bills). Sometimes you struggle to attend evening meetings because – wait for it – you have young kids and sometimes your husband can’t look after them no matter how far ahead you plan or better – and as one of those “awful commuters” I had to rely on Southeastern rail to be on time. As for being a young(ish) woman in the Conservative Party, well, interpret this as you will, but isn’t it rather telling that two women who ran and won in 2015 for the Gillingham and Rainham Conservative Party were either deselected or chose not to run again?
I had time constraints, and I admit my presence at meetings was not stellar – but if I believe The Political Medway I attended full council as much as my MP (who also happened to be a councillor) and when I attended my O&S committees I had always done my homework, I had read the papers and I had the audacity to ask questions. Well, isn’t that what O&S is for, asking questions? But no, I was informed that my “questions” were not wanted because it looked like I was questioning Cabinet’s decisions and no one questions Cabinet, especially not if you belong to the same party and haven’t been a councillor for a gazillion years. After my first year as a councillor, I was informed that I had been removed from the Business Support O&S because I asked too many questions (well, on paper I was told it was because I’d had a baby and surely wouldn’t have time). It’s a shame because I actually know quite a lot about running a business and finances, so it seems logical that I should be removed from the only committee I actually had expertise for.
I decided to focus on ward work because, when push comes to shove, that’s where councillors can make a real difference. But as the only Conservative councillor in a Labour ward, it wasn’t always easy. Thankfully there were hard-working and dedicated council officers, community officers, PCSOs, and my two fellow ward councillors in Twydall who could understand that when it comes to helping residents party politics are not all that matters.
But it’s not all dark in the world of council politics. I truly enjoyed understanding the challenges of running a local authority in the face of significant budgetary constraints although this was at times disheartening. I enjoyed being able to help residents deal with issues such as housing, obtaining SEN status for their children, gaining access to care, fighting for their surgery, struggling with planning regulations etc. I enjoyed working with councillors dedicated to the improvement of their wards, and most councillors are truly dedicated to their ward. I saw the dedication of many council officers going above and beyond what is expected of them. I felt that there were instances where I could make a small different to people’s lives. And yes, I did have a verbally abusive man come to my surgery, insulting emails, and threats, but sadly I learnt to accept this as part of the job description. I did draw the line at a woman screaming at me in front of my two small children.
I would consider becoming a councillor again, but I would want to see Cabinet actually held to account, councillors being free to question without being whipped, I would like to see debates in Council centre on what’s important for Medway not “who loves Medway most”. I would want to see councillors respecting each other, no matter what their political family and cease posturing in full council meetings.
Medway, with all its challenges, is an area with wonderful potential but this potential is being squandered by a lack of vision, a lack of funding, a lack of creativity which can only show itself when the decision-making powers are diverse. The latest councillor census showed that the average age of local politicians across the UK stood at 59 years in 2018, with 63% of councillors being male and 96% of them white. This is terrible and demonstrates again the huge disconnect between local politics and reality. Medway sadly is not that different.
Anne-Claire Howard has been a Medway resident since 2013, and is a proud European, CEO, mother of 2 who is married to former army officer and fire fighter. She was elected as a Conservative councillor for Twydall in 2015, before going independent in 2018, and standing down this year.