Green pioneers: The journey of a lone councillor

‘There's a world of difference between booing from the sidelines and exploiting our tiny bit of power fully, responsibly and tactically. It's a tricky shift requiring much subtler politics, choosing your battles and trying to look ahead.’ Green Councillor Becca Thackray, who sits on Lambeth Council, has learned a lot since her days as the only Green on the council. Here she shares her experience and some handy advice for when councillors find themselves as the only Green in the room.

Becca Thackray and Jenny Jones
Becca Thackray and Jenny Jones

Becca Thackray and Jenny Jones

Becca Thackray

Half of my ward know how to use the democratic process and beat a well-trodden path to my inbox. The other half have given up on authorities or are unaware of what might be done for them.

As a Practice Nurse I was often diverted to the demands of the 'worried well' above those in need but who don't complain. Being a councillor can be the same.

In 2006, I became the first Green councillor in Lambeth and a novelty to all parties. In the arena of the Council Chamber I was initially more mascot than threat and found myself on the sidelines in the crossfire between Labour, Lib Dems and Tories. I had little power and responsibility in the Town Hall and the main challenge was finding out what was going on.

Then I started to bridge the divide and find common ground with individual councillors. I sat on a cross-party commission on climate change, started talking about 20 mph speed limits and criticised the leading questions on a ballot on estates.

Sometimes I merely needed to be present, like having the vicar to tea, for those around to behave better and compete for who was greenest.

Jean Lambert lambeth living wage
Jean Lambert and Becca Thackray campaigning for a Lambeth Living Wage.

I got used to finding a seconder for a motion. Though not an ideal arrangement, it meant both parties had an investment in it. I got a motion passed committing the council to the Lambeth Living Wage.

I opposed the Arms Length Management of Housing at public meetings where my main allies were Kate Hoey and John McDonnell and, after 10 years and a lot of expense, the cabinet U-turned and brought its stock back in-house.

There's a world of difference between booing from the sidelines and exploiting our tiny bit of power fully, responsibly and tactically. It's a tricky shift requiring much subtler politics, choosing your battles and trying to look ahead.

Mutual support

For much of the time I was responding to the centre stage action by Labour. But because I was a School Nurse in my ward, my foothold was the schools and I supported the NUT in resisting academies.

I soon recognised that my nursing career would have to be put on hold. I found a part-time job in an advice centre, which was more compatible with council work.

Becca T, Jenny J, Darren J
Jenny Jones, Becca Thackray and Darren Johnson.

I did go to see Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, Assembly Members at City Hall when I was feeling like Frodo with the burden of the ring – and a bit like Fredo in The Godfather contemplating betrayal. I came away thinking there was no way I'd let the Green Party down. I was just missing a team and lonely.

At first, us lone Green councillors were too busy fire-fighting to take our helmets off and look up 

At the time, London had 12 Green councillors. The four of us pioneering in our boroughs were too busy fire-fighting to take our helmets off and look up for the first year. Katie Dawson was holding the balance of power in Islington plus a new baby and had to handle the press far more than I did. I got letters in the South London Press but I didn't have to grapple with Facebook and Twitter.

Jenny Jones and I were councillors in adjoining boroughs but somehow missed the opportunity to work collaboratively. I would be less in awe of senior Greens these days, especially as Greens wear status very lightly and Jenny is a very approachable Baroness.

Return to the council

To my surprise, people from around the borough contacted me about anything that was the colour green – lawns, trees, knotweed, parks; and anything to do with waste (fly-tipping, recycling, nappies, dog faeces). My final act when I decided not to stand for re-election in 2010 was to choose cycle racks and have them painted 'invisible green'!

A fallow four years followed before Scott Ainslie held the torch and blazed a rabble-rousing trail.

When eight years later I bounced back in 2018, Lib Dems had disappeared as had any benign innocuous image of the Green Party. This time residents know that Greens aren't exclusively about the environment. The Tory Government might be slashing what it gives to local authorities but we hold Lambeth's Labour Administration to account on where it chooses to cut.

I play a more vocal role as Deputy Leader of the Opposition. On the Planning Committee I encounter a roomful of controversy fortnightly as 'units' of housing stack up by the Thames like it's Monopoly.

I've managed to maintain a respectful and often amicable relationship with Labour councillors but the vitriol hurled our way at Full Council Meetings can be traumatising.

The work goes on

Following the 2018 election, there are now 12 London Green councillors again but the bases have changed and two fresh faces in Siân Berry and Caroline Russell are forging ahead in City Hall.

There is a lot more support now than when I started. I am now aware of the Local Government Association, which has provided me with training and is a way to get Green voices heard by government ministers.

The Association of Green Councillors has also upped its game and Green Conferences have more of a buzz about them.

I remain a lone councillor in my ward and my heart goes out to other groundbreaking pioneers picking their way, trying not to clobber themselves through naïve clumsiness and sleep deprivation.

Keen to avoid being cornered by those who shout loudest – 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease' – I realise I have a mental check-list to prioritise what I do (see below).

Above all else, I like the casework of being a councillor: advocating for someone who isn't getting what they deserve and demonstrating how to ask the right person in the right way at the right time to get what they want.

One observation though: the more visible, accessible and efficient we are, the more work comes our way. So I suppose feigning incompetence and laziness is always an option!

Becca Thackray is a Green Councillor for Lambeth.

Checklist

  • Is it the role of a Councillor?
  • Is it my role?
  • Are there reasons I might tackle it anyway? (special interest, live issue, target ward etc.)
  • If I don’t do it, no-one will
  • Problem won’t be resolved with time
  • Resident is vulnerable and matter is urgent
  • Situation is serious and will deteriorate
  • Issue is an important Green issue
  • Issue has ramifications for others
  • I can learn by doing this (including chance to network)
  • Is this likely to lead to Green support/vote?

If you're a Green Party member and wondering how to support your local councillor, take a look at this document from the Association of Green Councillors.