My first few weeks in parliament were daunting. Mainly because the journey from selection to election just over a month later had been a little quicker than I had anticipated. I was still a sitting councillor, cabinet member and deputy mayor, so there was very little notice given to my Labour group – sorry guys!
Having served as a councillor for 14 years, I had a fair idea of what to expect being introduced into an elected role. It had helped me prepare for what I was embarking on, from being a candidate and knowing how to campaign, to hitting the ground running once I got elected – something that could be incredibly daunting for those without similar experience.
My first day as a new MP was similar to my first as a newly elected councillor. You collect your credentials, laptop, handbooks and reams of different information booklets that explain everything from how divisions work to where you can find the loos. You want to know everything about your new role. You queue up in the canteen and start talking to anyone who makes eye contact, to tell them you are new and with the hope they may share some pearls of wisdom. It is like your first day at school or university.
One thing that was very different to my local government experience was the sheer number of Tories! It took me a while to get used to the fact that we were in opposition, because I had spent 14 years in an authority where we were in power. I learned many things in my role as a councillor, but the biggest lesson it taught me was the importance of being in power – to not just talk about great Labour policies, but be able to implement them. Being in opposition, when you are used to being on the coalface of local government, is an incredibly challenging experience. Most of all it is deeply frustrating.
I was part of a council that transformed all the schools in the borough, both their physical buildings and education standards. We built new homes, including pioneering the construction of new council homes for the first time in a generation. We transformed the services offered to residents, developing policies that delivered everything from adult social care and children’s services to drop kerbs and planting trees to improve the environment.
For me, losing that immediacy was the biggest challenge. This is not to say local government moves rapidly, but when you’re in the parliamentary chamber discussing everything from education policy to foreign affairs there is the risk of feeling somewhat remote from the residents you represent.
I still think of them as residents, which is a very local councillor mindset, but for me that is one of the biggest takeaways from having served as a councillor before becoming an MP. You remember the individual residents you worked with and helped across the years, and it keeps your mind focused on the outcomes of the decisions you are being asked to make. As an MP, these decisions come thick and fast and can often, on the surface, feel enormously abstract, yet have the power to transform the lives of millions.
As a councillor, I learned what good policy should look like. Almost ten years as a cabinet member also taught me how to govern, the importance of working with stakeholders, charities and residents to deliver positive change that works and is meaningful to people on the ground. This has been immensely helpful when scrutinising the legislation that government brings forward.
Being a councillor prepares and equips you for becoming a MP more than most people will let on. The experience of debating and public speaking as councillor helps with making contributions in the Commons that little less daunting. Much of the set up in local government helped me with adjusting to my new role. From the structures of the internal parliamentary party groups, meetings and commitments to the scrutiny function you deliver on select committees. Most importantly, you develop the killer instincts and skills as councillor when advocating for your constituents, which come in very handy as an MP.
Serving as a councillor was one of the most significant leadership roles I have held or will ever hold. It made me resilient and gave me the experience I will rely on for years to come about how to be an effective public servant. I may no longer be a councillor, but you can never take the councillor out of this MP.