Earlier in the year, I penned a series of posts profiling forgotten liberal heroes (to which a couple of other people also kindly contributed), looking at some of those who achieved great things for liberalism in their time but have been unjustly forgotten – such as Margaret Wintringham, the very first female Liberal MP.
There is also another group of people who I think are often unjustly obscure – those local campaigners who are often at the heart of their local community and local party, delivering liberalism and helping others, but as their stage is a local one they are often unacknowledged in the wider party.
Today it is the turn of Camden councillor, Jill Fraser.
Jill Fraser has been one of the trail-blazers for the Liberal Democrats in the southern half of the London Borough of Camden. Elected in a by-election in 2003, she became the first Liberal Democrat councillor in the Holborn & St Pancras constituency and three years later she was the first Liberal Democrat to be Mayor of Camden.
She came to party politics relatively late in life and her previous experiences heavily shaped the sort of politician she became. Having spent nearly six years at home bringing up young children, she had returned to work with a job in the local fish and chip shop, warmly embracing the opportunity it gave her to talk to lots of different people day after day – a welcome change from the previous few years of her life.
As she puts it, “I got talking and they started complaining”. Hearing not only people complain but also often talk as if it was inevitable that nothing would change got Jill going in community activism.
Issues such as battling for the replacement of rotten windows on the local estate where she lived led to her founding two new local bodies, the West Kentish Town Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, and the Queen’s Crescent Business Association. That combination of building networks of supporters for campaigns and getting stuck into very local issues served her well when she entered the world of party politics.
That came through contact with local councillors who were often the subject of her lobbying, campaigning or nagging. One in particular, Liberal Democrat Flick Rea, was a councillor elsewhere in Camden but had such a good record at getting things done that Jill ended up often going to Flick for advice and help. When a friend therefore decided to join the Liberal Democrats in 1999, it was a natural step for Jill to follow step.
Right from the start she wanted to become a local councillor, so she could do more for the local causes she worked on. “I would be able to fight harder” she says. Her strong community roots meant the Liberal Democrats came from nowhere in the ward she stood in to miss out by just 123 votes in 2002 and then a by-election the following year in the adjacent ward, where she lived, saw her and the team turn a Labour lead of 430 votes into a Liberal Democrat majority of 262. The victory came in a ward at the heart of the local Labour Party machine, for the vacancy was to replace the Labour deputy leader of the council and the other two Labour councillors were the then leader of the council and the former leader.
“I won because people knew me and I had won lots of battles for them”, she explains. “I don’t believe in giving up.”
It naturally follows that her top tip for anyone wanting to be a successful councillor is to “get out and talk to people. It’s not just about knocking on doors as most people don’t want to talk too much then.” Instead, talk to people on other occasions and in other places, where it is often possible to strike up longer conversations than on the doorstep when canvassing.
One of the most important campaign successes she had was getting the first two hour (as opposed to all day) residents’ parking zone introduced in Camden, which protected residents against commuters whilst helping local businesses keep their trade. Such two hour policies have since become widespread in Camden but the first came from her combination of talking and listening – identifying the problem and a practical solution – followed by persistent campaigning that involved both leafleting and mobilising the local community. Not a bad model at all for others to follow.