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 Islington councillor, Tracy Ismail.
The pub where I met Islington councillor Tracy Ismail, the Tufnell Park Tavern, is a great example of the difference local campaigning can make to a community. Long shunned by locals, bedevilled by anti-social behaviour and the cause of regular complaints from neighbours about noisy late night disturbances, it is now a gastropub with a growing number of local regulars and a weekly fresh produce market run in conjunction with a local environmental group.
That transformation was brought about by the owner and community working in partnership. The community made the owner realise a change in manager and approach was needed, including a symbolic return to the pub’s original name at Tracy’s suggestion. This was not just a community campaigning against something, but also helping to come up with a positive alternative.
That immersion in the local community was also illustrated the previous day when Tracy had called on a couple to help them with some casework. On her way home she bumped into the chair of a local tenants’ body. Cue an impromptu two-hour walk around the area, inspecting local issues and generating a burst of letters to council officers and others when she finally got home.
It is those sorts of local encounters that give Tracy pleasure in being a local councillor. “I love knowing so many more people than I did before,” she says, pointing out how hard it can otherwise be, especially in London, to get to know many people in your neighbourhood. “I have formed friendships with people I would never have met until I was elected.”
Tracy Ismail has been elected twice – in 2006 and 2010, both times with the highest vote for a Liberal Democrat candidate in the London Borough of Islington. But she got into politics almost on a whim. She had never thought of joining a political party until then Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate Laura Willoughby canvassed her one day and got talking to her about becoming more involved. On the spur of the moment, without really thinking much about it, Tracy said “I could do that” when they were talking about local councillors – a comment Laura remembered and followed up several months later when the local party was starting to put its candidates for her ward in place.
Previously she had been interested in her local community though had not been that involved in local groups. She started as a bit of an outsider to politics too, bemoaning that in local government, “everyone was speaking in this language I didn’t understand … the language of local government could be Japanese”.
No surprise then that one of her top tips for would-be or actual councillors is to learn the art of prioritising so you do not end up drowning in a morass of obscure terminology and trying to understand voluminous jargon-ridden paperwork.
The skills she had learnt in previous jobs as a shop-front manager for McDonald’s and William Hill (including have a gun stuck in her face during a burglary) turned out very useful. Knowing what matters most each day and ensuring the right people are working on the right tasks are just as relevant to politics and local government.
Her other tip is perhaps more controversial – that it is best if you can be a councillor without a daytime job. She acknowledges there are many excellent councillors who do combine the two but she says “a lot of stuff happens in the day time”, particularly events involving local residents.
If you work during the day there is a risk “you just become a meetings councillor”, shuttling from work to evening meetings and confusing going to meetings with meeting the community. She does her meetings diligently but her style of politics is one where you “try to talk to as many people as possible … get out there so that when you stand for election you are not a stranger”.
. Combine that with a love of talking to people and you can see why Tracy is such an effective Liberal Democrat councillor – and community campaigner.