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 Southwark councillor and Liberal Democrat group leader, Anood Al-Samerai.
Liberal internationalism, whether of the 19th century form with William Gladstone and the Bulgarian atrocities, or the 20th century form with Charles Kennedy and Iraq, has made many people committed liberals. But for Southwark councillor and Liberal Democrat group leader Anood Al-Samerai, such issues have a much more immediate impact for they are also the story of her own family.
With an Iraqi father and a Kuwaiti home, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was grim news, save for one fortunate twist. By chance, her family was on holiday in Britain at the time of invasion and so was able to seek refuge from Middle East violence, settling in Southwark.
Growing up in this South London borough, Anood’s political views were shaped by two main factors: a passionate commitment to civil liberties, contrasting the welcoming Britain to the pervasive fear in Iraq she witnessed on her visits, and a dislike of the way Labour was mismanaging the local council.
She joined the Liberal Democrats off her own bat but got little involved until she saw an advert to work on Simon Hughes’s 2004 Mayoral campaign at the same time as she was thinking of trying out a change of career. Her first taste of standing for public office came in 2006, followed by a victorious 2007 by-election campaign and re-election in 2010, after which she took over as leader of Southwark Liberal Democrats.
That rapid ascent from would-be intern to group leader pays testament to her leadership skills and ability to charm people. Having been out campaigning in Southwark a couple of times with her in the last year, I can attest to how she has that great skill of making even the most repetitive of campaigning tasks fun, especially when there is some gossip or banter to go round too. It is gossip with a purpose: “The joy of local politics is knowing what’s going on … and being able to shape it”.
For her local politics is also about saying thank you: “It is exciting, exhilarating to be able to give back to a community that took us in when we had nowhere to go and welcomed us”.
Saying thank you often comes in the form of helping people with individual pieces of casework, especially those involving housing and immigration where fixing one problem can make a huge different to a family’s life. Being a liberal, however, Anood’s interest is not so much in fixing things for others as in helping people to fix things for themselves, getting more people involved in making decisions over their lives.
Her ward contains huge extremes of wealth – from the ultra-rich developments in Shad Thames (also the location, pre-redevelopment, of scenes for the Doctor Who story Resurrection of the Daleks) through to challenges of large inner-city estates.
That makes giving everyone a sense of equal importance and worth when taking part in local decision making important to her. Leaflets can only go so far with that; face-to-face conversation is vital. “I like talking to people,” she says. “I love walking through my ward and people saying ‘hello’”. Even when a resident contacts her by email, “I’d much rather pick up the phone and talk to somebody”.
No wonder then that her top tip for would be councillors is to cultivate your empathy and listening skills. Then be willing to be imaginative and think laterally to find solutions to the problems people have told you. Turn that into votes by working harder than the other side and making sure you tell people that is what you are doing.