Standing for Labour

Ahead of this week's local elections, we speak to first time Labour council candidate Gemma Weavis Long about what it's like for party activists to run for council.

Gemma Weavis Long (left) on the campaign trail in Bromsgrove.

Gemma Weavis Long is a first-time Labour council candidate in Bromsgrove, just south of Birmingham in the West Midlands. A Tory-led district council since 1999, it hit the headlines in 2015 when it became the only council in the country to have its planning department in ‘special measures’ after a series of questionable decisions drew the attention of the Department of Communities and Local Government. Some source of embarassment, no doubt, for local MP, current home secretary and Tory leadership contender Sajid Javid.

But Bromsgrove’s history as a Tory stronghold hasn’t deterred Weavis Long, a 34-year-old mother of two, from standing for council. A health and safety rep and branch chair for her union, the TSSA, she became active when her workplace faced serious restructuring. “I work in the Control Room for the British Transport Police which is currently under threat of closure with possible job losses,” she tells Tribune, “we have been campaigning for it to remain open to secure the safety not only of passengers but of transport workers.”

Weavis Long is one of a wave of candidates for council across the country who are relatively new to the Labour Party, having been won over by its recent commitments to anti-austerity positions. “I remember returning to work after maternity leave in 2016 and noticing the huge increase in the number of homeless people on the streets in less than a year,” she recalls, “Jeremy Corbyn’s message and the core socialist values of the Labour Party really resonated with me … [and so] I started campaigning during the last general election.”

After becoming involved in her Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and various local campaigns, Weavis Long was approached to stand in the council elections for Sanders Park after incumbent Labour councillor Margaret Buxton decided to retire. Standing for council has “not been as difficult as I thought,” she says, with support and guidance available from members of her CLP. The most challenging aspect has been managing her time, between work, union commitments, and minding two young children, finding the time to canvass isn’t easy.

But Weavis Long feels it is important that women in her position put themselves forward for election. “As a mother I feel we are underrepresented in politics and can be a voice for that part of our community. With the underfunding of schools, closure of children’s centres, youth centres, and maternity wards austerity is impacting us … Our local libraries are at risk of closure or being downgraded to an automated self-service system by the Tory council. My daughter had the library assistant come into her nursery class the other day to talk to the children about libraries and read books to them, you can’t get that from a computer!”

Libraries aren’t the only area where Labour’s anti-austerity message is resonating, with Weavis Long saying a significant number of Tory voters on the doors in one of that party’s heartlands are wavering. “Our local fire station is going to public consultation shortly with the view to close overnight and place firefighters on call from their home addresses … We have seen the closure of paediatric and maternity services in our local hospital in Redditch and now have to travel twenty miles to Worcester.”

While residents remain divided over Brexit, issues more directly impacting day-to-day life prove more pressing. Bromsgrove’s traffic problems are the most discussed issue on the campaign trail. “Our town is so congested at pretty much any time of day,” Weavis Long explains, “on top of frustrating residents we also have a real problem with air pollution. Our local manifesto pledged to lobby the county council for a western relief road to ease traffic flow.”

“From the reactions on the doorstep I feel that I’m in with a good chance,” she says of her chances in the election. But even if she wasn’t successful, she would want to stand again, in the hope it would be “less daunting” the second time around. “Sitting back and not doing anything to fight the injustices facing the most vulnerable in society,” she feels, “is not something that sits well with me.”