Resources Article

Why I Became a Town Councillor

I became the Arts Council of Wales Clore Fellow in 2013. The year-long programme was truly transformative and I began to allow myself to become the person and leader I had the potential to be. It wasn’t easy. It was an emotional roller coaster combined with a thrilling, stimulating, overwhelming and seemingly never ending raft of opportunities and doors flying open. As I walked/ran through them the imposter syndrome grew and battled against my growing confidence and voice.

There was a theme throughout the year. ‘Why don’t you go into politics’ was a repeated and reverberating phrase throughout the year.  I had heard this before. From as young as eighteen when interviewed by professors at potential Universities was when I remember it beginning. In one interview (in Newcastle Polytechnic as it was then) I was asked to talk about Clause 24. When I had finished and looked at the professor I found him staring at me. After a pause he simply said ‘have you thought about going into politics?’ The answer was no.

Until the Clore Leadership Programme I thought everyone was as politically charged as me. I went to a very politically charged and aware secondary school. We were taught to think and challenge. We had a visionary Head Teacher who encouraged us to understand and debate world affairs and political systems and who put the arts and creativity at the heart of the school. I learnt that art, culture and theatre could harness hearts and minds in a way that could create positive and constructive social change. I wanted to help make the world a better place whilst simultaneously making people think, laugh and cry.

I carried on to Manchester University to do more of the same and continued to meet politically charged activist artists who wanted to use art to positively disrupt, shift and challenge. So I didn’t think I was particularly more political than the next person.

Then fast forward twenty years and I have been selected for a Clore Fellowship. It felt like coming home. I went round the country and Europe collecting parts of myself I had scattered and made myself whole and started to allow myself to listen, to really listen to what people were saying to me.

At a workshop we had in the House of Commons one Clore Fellow said to me very quietly during the coffee break – ‘I would follow you Yvonne. I would vote for you’. It became a theme which was repeated by more Fellows and more people I met. In the end if enough people say something even the most stubborn self-doubting woman from working class roots has to listen. And so during the final Clore Leadership residential course I pledged that I would bump up my to do list the thing which had sat there for thirty years: to join a political party and become politically active.

I kept my word. It wasn’t easy. The branch meetings were my idea of hell. Boring. Poorly attended. Wrapped in bureaucracy. Unwelcoming. Stuck. Not open to new ideas. Slow. Slow. Slow. Or that was how it felt. I gave up and stopped going but kept my card. The Ed Milliband General Election came and went. I was too embarrassed to campaign on the streets more than once. Less than one year later I was out pushing leaflets through every letterbox I could find asking people to remain in a union which had been created to maintain peace across Europe following the horrors of not one, but two, world wars. It was too little too late.

That was it. That was the push I needed. When the result came in I realised I couldn’t shout at the TV anymore. It was time to ‘get into politics’.  I needed to get out and talk to people. I returned to the branch. I joined in and got involved. And when they asked for people to stand in the local elections in 2017 I put myself forward for an interview and low and behold I was selected. I was directing Romeo & Juliet at this point. My most ambitious production yet. And every Saturday in January I was out in the freezing cold knocking on doors all around my town.

I was really nervous before I did it the first time. I thought people might shut the door in my face, get angry, be mean. I don’t know what I thought really. It just seemed like a big exposing kind of thing to do: to knock on people’s doors, to invade their private space to tell them about what I believed in, my values, my vision for a fairer, more equal society and to ask them if they would share them too. I put my big brave boots on and knocked and I was amazed. People came out onto their doorsteps and wanted to engage. They wanted to have a conversation. They asked questions. They answered mine. They wanted to feel listened to. I listened.

In May 2017 I won the most votes in my ward and was elected a town councillor for Penarth in South Wales.

It has been and continues to be one hell of a steep, and frequently deeply frustrating learning curve. For someone with a fierce hurry-up driver I have had to accept I am in for the long-haul and that things don’t change overnight. However I have to balance this daily with the actual need to drive change at a much faster pace than has been traditional and the fact that there is actually a need to challenge in many areas. Some days I feel that I can make a real difference at a local level and some days I feel I will never make a difference and the whole thing is a complete waste of my time. I drown in emails and bureaucracy and it has taken me a year just to understand the mechanisms, processes and multiple layering of working groups, committees and full council; the complex and knotty issue of staff vs councillor roles, relationships and responsibilities. I have learnt and continue to learn a vast amount about local government, democratic structures and processes, communities, civic duty, leadership, the electorate, time management, influencing, networking and myself.

Would I do it again? I think for me, the moment when my daughter aged then 11 said ‘I might want to be a councillor or an MP when I grow up’, was the moment that I knew whatever happened, I had done a good thing. For a working class girl from Irish immigrant parents, the youngest of six and the first to go to University, I lacked female role models in the arts and politics. If nothing else I am that for at least one young female. That’ll do for me.

Now imagine a UK where every Clore Fellow stood for office.

Yvonne Murphy is the 2013/4 Arts Council of Wales Clore Fellow and an independent Theatre Director & Producer. Yvonne also founded and runs Omidaze Productions and is currently investigating the possibility of a future full-time career in politics.

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