A while back, 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 Duwayne Brooks.
For many people Duwayne Brooks is best known as the friend of Stephen Lawrence, the man whose murder triggered a major investigation into racism in the Met Police and a long-running series of legal actions that finally, at least in part, saw justice done.
Duwayne has however since carved out an impressive political career, being elected as a councillor in Lewisham, becoming one of Brian Paddick’s nominees for Deputy Mayor posts, occasionally talked about as a London Mayor candidate himself and being a very likely future Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of Lewisham.
He is also at the forefront of a new generation of urban Liberal Democrats from ethnic minority communities, alongside colleagues such as Jennifer Blake in Peckham and Pauline Pearce in Hackney. All have achieved much outside politics, battled difficult personal circumstances and brought a richer understanding of the issues at the heart of their communities to the Liberal Democrats.
Duwayne’s work outside politics has included running a charity supporting victims of crime and he praises both Brian Paddick and Cllr Chris Maines for encouraging him in to party politics, starting with a 2009 council by-election in Downham, Lewisham.
He credits the experienced Lewisham team with rapidly introducing him to local political campaigning, including leaflets, action photos and door knocking. “It was like a different world”, he says. Winning in 2009, he was re-elected top of the poll in 2010, helped by the most important lesson he learnt: “Talk to people on the doorsteps”. Leaflets warm people up, but the 1 to 1 personal contact wins them over, he says in an echo of the comments made by many of the others featured in this series.
For all that ‘traditional’ campaigning path in the Liberal Democrats, Duwayne says, “I cannot get away from that label” of being “Stephen Lawrence’s friend”. But he views it as a positive opportunity – to show people what he has done with his life since and how that can be a role model for others, especially male teenagers in south London. He is too modest to revel in the role; it is more one that he accepts circumstances have given him and “the onus is on me to deliver”.
No surprise then that when it comes to policy, he speaks passionately about jobs, crime and housing. He is impressed with what the government is doing on apprenticeships, with record numbers created. “They’re the way forward,” he says, adding that for many the availability of apprenticeships is more important than higher education opportunities.
On crime, he says people are too reluctant to admit the scale of the problems with knife crime, bullying and robbery. He wants to see more work involving the community, councils and local schools actively cooperating, especially to help the many repeat victims and to break the cycle where people are scared into carrying a knife themselves. Criminalising such people does not really help, he says. Breaking the cycle of fear is what would help – as would creating a Lewisham Youth Parliament, so more of the people involved in these issues are teenagers themselves rather than middle-aged councillors doing their best to work out what teenage life is all about.
When it comes to housing, he is particularly concerned about what happens to people coming out of care. Too often he sees support systems fail them and then return to care rather than starting to make their own life again. He particularly has in his sights landlords who leave their properties in a poor state, exploiting tenants who have little in the way of choice to escape such properties. Again his emphasis is on how people can be helped to put their lives back together, something where he sees punishment can be just as much a problem as a help, as when threats of taking the home away from problem families means parents cover up for their children rather than seek help.
Across all these policy areas, Duwayne recognises the link between local communities and national policies. It is no coincidence that he is an active member of both the wider Liberal Democrat and local government communities, including being Deputy Chair of the LGA’s Safer Communities Board and Chair of the Lib Dem group in Lewisham.
Looking at what he has learnt from being a councillor, Duwayne is a great enthusiast for encouraging others to seek elected office too. “You don’t need to have been to Eton,” he says, pointing out how the main skill is a willingness to learn. Top politicians do not start knowing everything, but they do start with that desire to learn, he says.
Get out there, be pro-active, work hard and learn – that is the path he has taken and it is the one he wants many more to take too.