Mike Fox, former councillor for Roundhay and Deputy Lord Mayor of Leeds, shares his story and thoughts on how we can engage with local politics and this year’s General Election.
Tell us about yourself...
My name is Mike Fox; I have worshipped at St George’s Church with my wife, Lynne, for nearly 40 years. Like many others I came from a Christian home background but at the time of my youth tended to regard the church, like Winston Churchill, as something I could support like a buttress – from outside! Going to University changed all that, as my friends on my course and in the Christian Union prayed for me and invited me to various Christian events. I also heard a number of sermons preached by the Reverend David Watson in York that challenged me even further. I would encourage more people to read his books that are still relevant today. During a placement on my course, which involved helping severely disabled people, I prayed to God - I was out of my depth and had no resource of my own to cope with this requirement. I can only say I experienced a peace which passeth all understanding and not only coped but volunteered for more ways of helping disabled residents at the carer rest home. The Christian faith became real for me and the rest, as they say, is history.
How did you become involved in local politics?
My reference to Winston Churchill points to the fact that I was always interested in politics and as a historian I cannot ignore the fact that politics has an effect on all our lives. When I took early retirement as Principal Careers Officer for Wakefield Council I was fortunate to be elected as a Councillor for the Roundhay Ward in Leeds where we live. I was given an even greater privilege when I was appointed Deputy Lord Mayor of Leeds and will never forget the Civic Service held for Lynne and I at St George’s where there was so much prayer and support for us as we undertook our civic duties.
Our term of office was truly blessed and we still remember it with great joy. However national and local trends were against me and I lost my seat. It felt like bereavement at the time and I could only wonder what would happen next.
God clearly had something else in mind for me. I was totally surprised when the Lord-Lieutenant of West Yorkshire wrote to me and said he wanted to recommend me to the Queen to be one of his deputies. I now appreciate this ceremonial role was right for me at this stage in my life and it has given me the opportunity to see at first hand the amazing work done in the public, private and voluntary sectors in Leeds. All of these sectors say how important the role of Government at national and local level is to their continuing success.
What does local politics involve?
Let’s look at what the Council and its councillors do for residents. Leeds City Council has a budget of over £2 billion which it spends on a variety of services: adult and children’s services, education, planning, highways, leisure services, parks and countryside, refuse collection and much more. Despite recent budget cuts, it still is a major employer in Leeds. I find it to be true that most of us do not realise what the council does until we need it.
Your local councillors are elected to be your representatives and tend to act as advocates on controversial planning matters, road safety, the state of local roads and footpaths, poor housing conditions, welfare and benefits, school admissions and local policing to name just a few. Committed councillors really do work long hours when dealing with issues and the financial reward does not equate to high living! They also hold council officers and the council leadership to account for what they are doing through scrutiny committees, which cover all departments of the council. This can be uncomfortable for those concerned. Whilst councillors are elected to represent particular wards, they also play a major part in devising and voting on the strategic direction of the City and how that strategy can be delivered. This can lead to heated debates in the Council chamber, but for me this was the essence of local democracy.
What sorts of local issues were you involved in?
Whilst I was on the Council a Government report stated that the Local Education Authority (LEA) in Leeds was failing its schools and another approach was required to oversee educational progress in Leeds. Many councillors in my party felt that defiance of the Government was the best stance to take and the LEA should continue at all costs. I must state it was a Labour Government and not a Conservative one that came to the conclusion that the LEA was not fit for purpose despite it being run by a Labour controlled Council at that time. I prayed a great deal about this matter. I listened carefully to the arguments and voted in support of the Leader of Council and the Chief Executive who recommended an arms-length company as the best way forward. I upset a number of my friends in my Party for voting this way but you have to vote according to your convictions and principles and accept there may well be a price to pay. As a Christian I had to tell my colleagues how I felt and what I believed in. Some accepted this, others did not.
This could have led me to be cynical about politics but I remain a convinced voting citizen and local government man and currently I am still chair of a ward political party in Roundhay. I still maintain that Local Government represents you and your ideals for the future of this great City of Leeds.
What would you say to others who are thinking about this year’s elections?
As a former councillor, it is a source of frustration that so many people seem to take little interest in what their local council is doing on their behalf. Turnout in Leeds electoral wards is, on average, 30-40%. Those who do turn out tend to vote mainly according to national trends or long held political beliefs. But as these turnout figures reveal, too many people feel their vote is irrelevant and they believe their vote cannot really make a difference.
That belief is the most tragic thing that can happen in a democracy. By not voting all those who take this option surrender their right to influence the direction of the State and their towns and cities and how they are governed, whether they know it or not. That is the stark reality. As in the 1930’s, States and organisations are now appearing which have nothing but contempt for democracy – not voting gives a degree of credence to their views.
On one of the buses I travelled on recently was a sign that read ‘use it or lose it’. That is the basis of my appeal to all church members to vote – so hard gained, so easy to lose.
What can St G’s pray for? Our church mission statement is sharing life and loving Leeds. I want this to be more than a slogan and actively voting would demonstrate that the church and its members are not passive but very active in having a say in how the country and councils are governed. It will also demonstrate the hollowness of parts of the media who put forward the belief that the church should confine itself to saving souls and not get involved in politics.
The big issue now facing Leeds if whether the city should be run by an elected mayor and possibly gain more devolved powers and monies as a result of accepting this approach. This may not happen immediately depending on the national election result but I still feel it will come back at some stage irrespective of which party is elected. This will mean a profound change in how our city is governed and we should not take this matter lightly. Which way we go depends on you.