Councillor, Fishwife and other Terms of Endearment
Former SNP Group Leader on East Ayrshire Council Kim Nicoll blogs about becoming a councillor. Since her time at the coal face in local politics Kim has worked as a Radio Journalist and is currently employed as a Refuge Worker at Glasgow East Women’s Aid, any follow up contact can be made through Women for Indy.
A month or so back my friend and Women for Independence National Committee member Margaret Young asked me if I would write about my experience of being a councillor for fellow members considering standing at next year’s elections.
I stood down from politics almost twenty years ago after being a councillor on Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Strathclyde Region and East Ayrshire and have long moved away both workwise and geographically. It says much about the enduring power of the friendships that I made back then that I count among my closest friends those people that I got to know in the fiery political days of the 90’s in what is now East Ayrshire.
The local SNP were a combative bunch who couldn’t wait to get stuck into the unionists that had control in our country- Thatcher’s dictat from Westminster sat alongside an entrenched Labour lot locally that were complacent and patronising, perhaps you’ve met them? In a way, the fact that we were hugely underestimated worked to our advantage, as we organised, campaigned hard on local issues and were busily active in our local communities. It paid off. I became one of the ever increasing numbers of elected representatives as the SNP marched forward to take East Ayrshire Council, and the Holyrood and Westminster constituencies. I was depute, then leader of the SNP group.
So what was my experience of trying to get elected and then being elected and what are the enduring truths that remain?
The first thing you’ll need is commitment and energy. For without these you’re unlikely to succeed and you’ll also be found out. Don’t for a minute think you don’t have the talents - if you’ve read down this far you can cope with the paperwork and there’s lots of it.
I was first asked to stand by my local branch in Galston because we were short of numbers and we weren’t going to win so would I please help make up the numbers. I did and sure enough we didn’t win but by chapping on doors, speaking to people and taking a genuine interest on what they were saying our vote tripled and I began to get known and trusted. Over the years electoral success followed but it wasn’t always plain sailing.
I experienced sexism of the everyday variety, usually by men old enough to be my father, who tried to treat me like a daft young lassie and sometimes I felt like I was spoiling their game because politics is a man’s world after all and I really shouldn’t be there. At times it felt like open season in the local press and in today’s world social media can be utterly vile, so it’s no place for the faint-hearted.
The SNP liked to see itself as above that sort of thing and anyway we had Winnie, Margot and young Nicola so really what’s the problem?
And until very recently the refusal to see a lack of balance in the body politic as anything other than a side issue has been blight on Scottish civic society. Sometimes those shouting up for men - sorry, merit - are women, somehow blind to the fact that there is no such thing as equality, or else they truly think it’s just a coincidence that women only make up about 25 % of local councillors.
But 50/50 in itself isn’t enough. We also need a good mix of women from different backgrounds too or there is a danger that we become the female version of male, pale and middle class. The basic salary for a councillor is around £16,000 and while no king’s ransom it’s important to remember that its better money than many women earn and can represent a step forward.
We know sex discrimination is a thing. It's part of the reason Women for Indy has taken up campaigns such as Media Watch and looking into the court system and how it treats women. Until the life experiences of men and women are pretty much the same women lose out if we aren’t in the tent when decisions are being made. So it’s vitally important that we get in there and shape the agenda to reflect our lives and interests.
If you were involved in Women for Indy during the referendum campaign you probably already have all the tools you’ll need to plan and organise your team to get the job done. You’ll have a good grasp of what’s going on in your local area; roads, schools, community safety and facilities etc. Your job when elected is to represent and speak up for those who can’t always do it for themselves and to be honest and open about how you come to your decisions and, yes, you won’t please everyone.
Do your best. You can’t attend every meeting, open day, launch or AGM but you can follow up all your constituents' enquiries, do home visits to those who can’t get out and hold regular surgeries. Folk will soon suss you out and a willingness to get about and listen goes a long way.
You’ll also have loads of laughs and tons of stories to tell about the things people say and do as well as being privileged when people open up about the difficulties they are facing. You’ll get to shape, sometimes literally, your area, and you have the honour of representing your community, be it standing at the cenotaph or handing out the prizes at the county show. But one word of warning; never ever volunteer to judge the bonny baby contest, not if you value your skin.
It’s a varied job and if you like people, in the main, you’ll enjoy it. All of us who want independence for Scotland want to see change in how our country is governed. So, as the saying goes, make the political personal and be part of the change you want to see.