In May 1998 at the age of 37, I was elected to Tower Hamlets Council. Although I’d been involved in the Labour Party since I’d joined as a 19-year-old student I had lived in the borough for just two and half years, having moved into my small terraced house in Bethnal Green at the end of 1996. At the time I worked for the trade union, Unison, managing the equalities team at its head office.
Just a week after I was elected I received a short handwritten note through the door. It was from a Mrs Doris Walker who lived just over the road in a one bedroomed flat in a small low rise council owned block. Mrs Walker was writing to congratulate me on my election to the council and she was looking forward to meeting me. When I met her a few days later I discovered that she was in her eighties and had lived in Tower Hamlets and its predecessor boroughs all her life.
I also discovered something else which wasn’t a complete surprise. In sharp contrast to the sometimes rarefied world of equalities and political correctness that I inhabited where having an ism was a strict no-no, Mrs Walker was, it seemed, quite hostile to many of her Bengali neighbours. She was someone who many people would have dismissed as a racist. The other thing I discovered was that Mrs Walker wanted her rotten windows fixed and she wanted me as her new local councillor to see to it that they were.
I have thought about Mrs Walker a lot since Donald Trump’s election last Wednesday because she had some things in common with Mr Trump’s ‘deplorables’. Or to use an analogy closer to home, she was my very own Mrs Duffy. Of course, if she had a query about her windows or anything else I would have to deal with it. But it wouldn’t be worth spending time with a racist old lady whose vote was long gone. Of course, for the most part, no one actually said this but it was clear some thought it nonetheless.
In truth, it was difficult to talk to Mrs Walker at first because her hostility to the local Bengal population was quite deep rooted. But listen I did because it was combined with a sense of injustice and a belief that the council and in particular the Labour Party which I represented had long since stopped caring about people like her. And on another level, it was impossible not to warm to her. Whenever she saw me in the street as I left for work in the morning she would greet me with a ‘Good morning, councillor’. She had an old-fashioned respect for the office which was undeniably humbling and it was clear that beneath her rather spiky persona, she was proud that I, one of her local councillors, lived on her street.
Mrs Walker, a woman who had lived in the area since the first world war was respectful to me, a middle-class interloper, less than half her age, who barely knew the ward, let alone the borough. She put aside those obvious shortcomings and decided to take me at face value. Whatever I thought of her views, I felt strongly that it wasn’t for me not to reciprocate.
And so we became friends in a strange sort of way. I would pop in and see her for a cup of tea every now and again and I plugged away at trying to get her windows fixed. Despite their obvious state of disrepair, that wasn’t as straightforward as you might think. They weren’t the only rotten windows around, the council was strapped for cash and the repair was part of a capital programme that was some way down the line. I was learning quickly that getting things done for my electors was anything but quick.
Despite my failure to sort out the one thing that would improve the quality of her day to day life, Mrs Walker’s respect for me remained undiminished, although it did take a bit of a knock 18 months later when I moved house. ‘Don’t worry’ I blithely said to her, I was only moving down the road to Whitechapel. I would, of course, still be in the borough. She shook her head. ‘We won’t see you now’, she said.
In fact, I had made a point of standing for election in the ward I lived in. I thought, and I was right, that it would enable me to be a better councillor. I might know a lot less about the local community than most of the people I had been elected to represent but at least I would be able to see what they saw every day when I left the house. Now, unfortunately, I was moving. But no matter. To a young middle-class immigrant to London like me, Whitechapel was just round the corner. How little I understood. To Mrs Walker in her eighties, it was now a strange hinterland. She wheeled her shopping trolley as far as Bethnal Green Road at the end of our street. For all the use it was to her, Whitechapel High Street might as well have been in Manchester and I could have been going there.
Looking back I realise how lucky I was to receive Mrs Walker’s unsolicited letter of congratulations so early in my term as a councillor. She was the first of many such people I would meet, a lot of whom were older women and all of whom could tell me a thing or two. I knew when I was elected that there were two or three local tenants and residents associations. What I hadn’t understood with my pretty superficial knowledge of the ward was quite how different attending each of them as a councillor would be.
The easiest by far was the Jesus Green Resident’s Association, covering an area full of small Victorian terraces, close to the increasingly trendy Columbia Road market. They could be a bit tetchy about rubbish from the market but at the end of the day they were the nearest thing in the ward to people like me and we got by as long as I pursued their enquiries and took an interest. Which, of course, I did.
Then there was the Boundary Estate Tenants and Residents Association close to the edge of what is now super trendy Shoreditch. The Boundary Estate, formally opened in 1900, was one of the earliest social housing schemes built by a local authority. A hundred years later, although charming architecturally it was in a pretty poor state of repair. Its inhabitants were a diverse mix of tenants, many of them poor and Bengali, and owner-occupiers, many of them middle class and some of them reasonably off. Given the condition of the estate they had plenty to complain about, but we gradually got along reasonably well, again because they realised that I would do my best to alleviate those conditions. In reality that all too often felt like precious little.
Finally, there was the Dorset Estate Tenants and Residents Association, a stone’s throw from the Boundary but light years away. The stalwarts of the Dorset were white working class folk, most of whom no longer voted Labour. Of the three associations, they were the hardest nut to crack. There was no shortage of people like Mrs Walker on the Dorset, but none greeted me with a letter of congratulations. They were aggrieved and straightaway you knew it. They felt left behind and they weren’t going to let you forget it.
And yes, they were what many people would have regarded as racist. With good cause; their hostility to their Bengali neighbours was palpable. What stands out too, looking back, was that many of those who were most on my case for the succeeding four years were older white women, often widows. So often it’s women in such communities who keep chipping away trying to get things done, and my ward was no exception. Their unhappiness was rooted in a sense of abandonment by the political and civic institutions which were supposed to be there to represent and provide for them. We had, it seemed, moved on to newer, more worthy community causes. In truth they were no less deserving but, rightly or wrongly, that was not how it felt.
I’m not going to pretend I didn’t encounter racism during my four years as a councillor. I did. Quite a lot of it. And it could be pretty unpleasant. But I made a choice very early on that my the most important thing about my role was to represent not simply those who had elected me but all those who lived in the ward. And that included people who were openly racist and a great many others who were less overtly hostile but whose sense of inequality was inextricably bound up in the very diversity that their middle-class neighbours celebrated.
I have often said in the years since that being a councillor in Tower Hamlets was both one of the most rewarding and the most difficult things I have ever done. All too often I had the feeling that I was not achieving very much. But whenever I have been asked about it since the one thing I cling to is that I achieved a small degree of trust from all three of the micro communities represented by those tenants and residents associations, including the Dorset which it might have been easier to ignore.
It was fragile and at least to begin with rather brittle. It was the kind of trust you get from a cold embrace rather than a warm hug. But it was no less real for all that. And it was borne out of one thing. I listened. Sometimes I challenged particularly when the racism was overt or when the demand was for a sons and daughters allocation policy that would have blatantly discriminated. But I still carried on listening, not least because othering them would likely come at a cost.
I only served one term because I chose not to stand again in 2002. A year later I moved away. I was, it transpired, just passing through. Many of my friends and political colleagues are still in Tower Hamlets and quite rightly they value the diverse community which it remains. But they share a vital characteristic with me which set me apart from many of my electors; if they wanted to move, like me, they could.
I make no claim to have been an exceptional councillor. And I certainly wasn’t the only one at the time or since to have listened to my electors. But I did learn some very valuable lessons which seem all too relevant in the context of Brexit and now in the face of Donald Trump’s alarming victory.
The distance between elected representatives and the electors in their communities is far larger than we like to pretend. And it’s often a distance which is greater for them than it is for us. You can’t always do what people want but listening to them, and carrying on listening, goes a long way. You won’t always agree with those whose votes you seek, but it is their views you are elected to make sense of and represent the best you can. As someone said to me recently there is all too often a temptation to seek the support of people like us rather than people we can work with.
I did carry on having tea with Mrs Walker after I moved and she did get her windows fixed during my term of office. How much I really made a difference I’m honestly not sure but she thanked me nonetheless. And when I look back it is one of a handful of tangible things I can point too. But I suspect even for her the difference I made was not treating her as an irritant like Mrs Duffy.
The ward I represented has able and committed councillors today, one of whom I still follow on Twitter to keep in touch with what’s going on. I hope the community is less divided than it was nearly 20 years ago. But even if it is, one disturbing truth is glaringly obvious. The yawning material inequality that is present in so many communities where such division exists is greater than ever. I bought my small terraced house in Bethnal Green in 1995 for £88,000. I sold it four years later for almost double that amount. You’d say I did pretty well and you’d be right. But I checked on Zoopla last week and discovered that just 15 years later its value is estimated to be £683,000. I don’t know if Mrs Walker is still across the road or not. But tenants like her definitely still are. If they are lucky they’ve had their windows fixed too. But they won’t be sitting on a property pension pot worth half a million.
This is a tale rich and ragged in anecdote. It is not offered as a generalisation for Tower Hamlets let alone the north of England towns which voted for Brexit or less still the Rust Belt of the Mid-West that eschewed the appeal of Mrs Clinton. Rather it’s a cautionary tale about division and inequality and one very small thing we might do in the face of it. In new-fangled language, it’s become known as community engagement. But I think I’d just call it listening. To everyone.