Charlotte Gerada with local councillor George Fielding
Charlotte Gerada with local councillor George Fielding

While many don’t know what the role of local councillor entails, it is important nonetheless. They oversee million-pound budgets and local services: from new housing developments to refuse and recycling collections, to adult social care. While turnout in local elections tends to be much lower than in those for Westminster, decisions made by local councils affect much of your daily life. Common complaints about road conditions and cycling provision, unclean streets or dreaded parking woes, all come under their control.


That’s why, given how much councillors are responsible for, diversity among local representatives is important. Without it councils run the risk of failing to serve the needs of different parts of our community. It’s why, for example, councils continue to approve housing developments that are unaffordable to many, or why important local services like refuges for those escaping domestic violence are cut. It’s government by cliques, for cliques. Nationally that often transcends party divides.


Despite the clear need for councillors to be as diverse as the wider public they represent, the opposite is true. The age of the average councillor is increasing – in England it is presently 59. Over a quarter of councillors are in their 70s. Two-thirds of councillors are men and, inevitably, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds.


Councillors elected to Portsmouth City Council reflect this broader inability to reflect modern Britain. Nearly 80% of Pompey councillors are men, most are white and are generally older. This stands in stark contrast to the candidates Portsmouth Labour selected for local elections this year, where there was a 50:50 gender balance and there were three candidates from BAME backgrounds. The age profile was also mixed, with just under half of the candidates being 40 or younger.

Charlotte on the doorstep with cllr George Fielding and the Central Southsea action team
Charlotte on the doorstep with cllr George Fielding and the Central Southsea action team

I was proud to stand for the first time in Portsmouth, both because Pompey is my home city and the crop of Labour candidates were so diverse and had much to offer. Although I didn’t win in Central Southsea – I came second – it would have been an immense privilege to serve the city which has made me the person I am today.


Standing here as the Labour candidate was bitter-sweet. Because I match the profile of the average resident – I’m in my 30s, live with my partner and part of ‘Generation Rent’ – it was incredibly positive. Like a significant proportion of the ward, I’m trapped in private rental housing because the ladder for first time buyers has lost several of its lower rungs. This is reflected in the national statistics: UK home ownership is now at its lowest level since 1985 – and it’s getting worse.


As a result I had fantastic conversations with local residents – at the doorstep, on high streets and at meetings. What is more I got a firm understanding of the main issues facing Central Southsea, most of which I share, from parking to private renting, concerns about pollution, the demise of our high streets and the homelessness crisis.

Charlotte at Portsmouth Pride with cllr George fielding, Judith Smyth and city MP Stephen Morgan
Charlotte at Portsmouth Pride with cllr George fielding, Judith Smyth and city MP Stephen Morgan

Yet the experience was not an entirely positive one. Despite the clear need for Pompey councillors to more effectively reflect our communities, I frequently faced sexism from the Liberal Democrats. I was patronisingly told that I’m ‘very young’ by a sitting councillor (I’m 31) and lies were told about my occupation and that I secretly didn’t live in Portsmouth (I do). I was genuinely taken aback by the untruths that were told about me via telephone calls to residents, on the doorstep, in printed materials and on social media. The Labour Party wouldn’t dream of lying about or targeting candidates in such a way. At our best we stick to challenging ideas and policies, which is why we added several million votes in the 2017 general election.


In the run up to the elections there was a flurry of articles, both locally and nationally, about the desperate need for councillors to look and sound like the electorate. This was met with apparently authentic dismay from candidates of all stripes who agree more needs to be done. And yet in the same breath I was made to feel unworthy of standing here.


The truth is there is an unhealthy political culture in Portsmouth, where it is deemed acceptable to target individuals on social media – far more so than anything I experienced during my decade in London before coming back home (I was there for university and work). Here it is commonplace to target female candidates at any cost – while honest debate comes second to petty squabbling and personal attacks by the council’s two major parties. While I feel bruised, the truth is that only means the city suffers. Rather than generating ideas and a vision for the city, the Liberal Democrats in particular reduce themselves to triviality and gossip. This means major challenges – homelessness, high rents, empty shop fronts – are left unresolved.


The reality is that Portsmouth is poorly run – that’s obvious to anyone who’s visited nearby cities. In my view that’s the result of political choices made by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, but also because of an obvious lack of competence. From our terrible cycling provision, to our run-down town centre – there’s so much more the council can be doing. Much of what’s great about Portsmouth is so in spite of local government, not because of it. Our brilliant local assets: the seafront, the people, our history and football club – deserve so much better.


If we want our great cities and towns to thrive again we need to change the kinds of people who have become so accustomed to local government –  who view it more as a status symbol than a form of public service; who have more ideas about how to smear an opponent, than how to address problems we all experience as residents here. Pompey deserves better than this. For that to happen its rotten political culture, which suits those in power and vested interests, must change.


Despite the challenges I faced this year during the elections, I won’t be put off. The behaviour of other parties has only strengthened my resolve to stand up for the many and encourage more women to run for elected office. I know that with the support of Pompey Labour – our committed activists, volunteers and supporters – we’ll continue to be a force for good in the city.

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