Local government need different kinds of people willing to stand for election so that parties get a choice of quality candidates: councillors who are capable, vibrant, energetic and engaged, with a commitment to local people and a passion for change. We asked Leader of the London Borough of Waltham Forest, Cllr Clare Coghill what it takes to be a councillor.
When did you first become interested in politics – do you remember how old you were?
I first became interested in politics when I was young because there was a lot of political debate in my home. Also, when I was studying in France in my early 20s, Jacques Chirac was up against the far right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the second round of the French Presidential election. That election confirmed to me that if you don’t speak up or participate in politics, then other people will.
Why did you decide to become a councillor?
I decided to run for elected office because I wanted to make a difference. I come from a proud working class family in the West Midlands and had wonderful role models in my parents and grandparents, who encouraged me to do my best at school and then go on to university. They told me about the tough situations that they experienced first-hand and this has always stayed with me, and it has driven me to work for the benefit of the community in which I live.
I am also a strong believer that our politicians should come from as a wide a cross-section of the community as possible. We have made good progress in the last 20 years to get a more diverse range of people into politics, but there is still room for us to do a lot better. As a woman from a working class background, I see my role as important in making sure that more women who have a desire to get into politics, are able to do so.
When did you first get elected?
I was first elected 2010 to represent High Street Ward in Walthamstow. As Leader I am now a representative for the whole borough, but I still take my personal ward work very seriously.
What most surprised you about being a councillor?
When I first became a Councillor I remember thinking what an honour it is to represent my community and my party. My first bundle of casework included a letter from a female domestic violence survivor, and I felt what an enormous responsibility it is to help people in that situation.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would describe my leadership style as very much a leader of a team. Whilst I have a great responsibility as Leader, it would be foolish for me to think that I know all the answers, and I value the discussions that I am able to have with fellow Councillors and officers to ensure we make the best possible decisions on behalf of our residents.
How do you juggle being a leader and other commitments?
I am still relatively new to my role as Leader but having been a Cabinet member beforehand for a number of years, I am used to having a busy diary which can often mean irregular working hours. As such the transition to Leader hasn’t been as much of a shock as it might otherwise have been. I try to ensure I have space in my week to see family and friends and to just generally enjoy living in this great city. There can be weeks where you feel like you’ve only been at work and not done much else, but on the whole I feel like have a good work/life balance, and a lot of that is about being realistic about what you can achieve in the space of a working week.
What advice would you offer someone thinking of becoming a councillor?
Think about your own experiences and how you might be able to put them to use as a councillor. You may not realise it at first but I really believe that everyone has something to offer if they really want to commit themselves to public service.