In this series, we’ll be chatting to some young Labour councillors around the UK. Local councillor applications have opened in Havering, and as Labour members you should have received emails about applying to be a councillor. If you would like to find out about what campaigning to be a Labour party councillor is like or what it’s like sitting on a local council, follow our series for interviews with young people already in the job!
Hiya Vaz, thank you for agreeing to talk with us! Tell us about yourself…
My name is Varinder Singh Bola (aka Vaz), I’m 27, and I currently work as a senior aide to a backbench Labour MP and separately as a parliamentary officer for a Whitehall based security think-tank. You can follow me on Twitter @vazsingh or via my website at www.varinder.uk
When and why did you decide you wanted to be a councillor?
I thought about becoming a Councillor shortly joining after the Labour Party in 2011. At the time I was away at University studying towards my undergraduate degree but I was heavily involved in student politics and the National Union of Students (NUS). I used to come home on the weekends and started noticing that my town was going downhill – cuts public services and lower standards across the board were becoming the accepted norm. This new norm wasn’t acceptable to me. As early as 2012 I started researching about the role of a Councillor and I began seeking information on how the selection process worked. I was known to be an active member of the local party and quite involved with the award winning Redbridge Young Labour so I felt comfortable asking for advice from some of our longstanding Labour Councillors.
I knew that if I became a Councillor I’d be able to bring something to the table and at the very least bring a young person’s perspective. I wanted to give back to the community and be in a strong position to help people including some of the most vulnerable in our society. Simple things that used to take ages to arrange can now be done with a few short e-mails to the right people in the council.
When and where did you stand to be a councillor?
I successfully contested Cranbrook ward in the 2014 local authority elections. When I stood it was a marginal ward with only one Labour Councillor – a historic result achieved earlier in 2010 in what was a solid Tory seat. It’s probably worth pointing out that Cranbrook isn’t the ward I live in but it’s close enough to have some connections with and is still in the same parliamentary constituency with Mike Gapes as our fantastic MP. When I won, we increased our numbers in the ward. In fact the Tory Councillor I unseated was a former Mayor of the Borough and incumbent Cabinet Member! Cranbrook is still a marginal ward with the Redbridge Tories only just holding onto their last seat in the Ilford South constituency.
Did you address specific issues when campaigning in the ward?
Cranbrook ward doesn’t really have any major contentious issues as such. Residents are generally content with life – many own their own homes, hold academic qualifications and are self-employed. So, our local campaign was more focused around residents’ concerns about the worsening quality of life in the area under successive Tory administrations and the then Tory-LibDem coalition administration.
Redbridge Labour stood on a very progressive manifesto (titled ‘Ambitious for Redbridge’) which resonated with the views of a broad cross section of our residents. That in itself helped us with our campaign and shaped the conversations we had on the doorstep. In our manifesto we promised introduce a landlords licensing scheme, free bulky item removal service, 30 minutes free parking and build new swimming pools – all costed and ready to be delivered. And that’s exactly what we’ve delivered since taking control of the council. I would say that having an ambitious manifesto that people can believe is incredibly important if you’re standing in a marginal ward like Cranbrook. But the more important than that is to keep door knocking and having conversations with people who might be undecided or even inclined towards other parties.
How much time did you have to set aside for campaigning? What did you enjoy the most on the campaign trail?
I have lost count of the number of hours, days and weeks I put into winning in Cranbrook. For a period of time my family thought it was becoming an unhealthy obsession! I think it’s fair to say that it was solid campaigning for at least a year with all three candidates being present and a handful of other activists helping. Anyone who is serious about wanting to win needs to show their face to the same person at least four times in the short campaign in order to win their trust/confidence/sympathy – call it whatever you may. If you want to win badly then you’ve got to work the ward hard and not hold back anything.
As a candidate it feels great meeting residents and receiving praise for dealing with an issue they’ve previously raised. Hard work always pays off.
When elected, how many labour councillors do you work with in your labour group on the council?
In 2014 we took control of the council (a historic achievement in the borough’s 50 year history) with 35 Councillors. Since then we’ve grown to 36 Councillors after winning a by-election in Roding ward (Ilford North). As it stands the Tories hold 24 seats and LibDems hold 3 seats, so that’s 63 in total for all three parties.
Do you sit on any committees within the council?
I have sat on the Audit Committee and now abolished Planning Committee (South). I am currently Vice Chair of the Neighbourhoods Service Committee, a member of the Standards Committee and a member of the Strategy and Resources Service Committee. I have previously served as Chair of the Equality & Diversity Standing Advisory Committee. I have external appointments to the Redbridge Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education and the RSPCA London Animal Welfare Champion Forum.
I have also been appointed by the Local Government Association (LGA) a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. I serve on its Current Affairs Committee and have been appointed by the Congress Bureau as the substitute spokesperson on cultural diversity and inclusion.
How often do you attend council meetings?
I reckon there is at least one meeting every fortnight. The Service Committees and Full Council. And for each one of those meetings we have a pre-meeting on the same day. So essentially, three council meetings with three pre-meetings and on top of that there are the other Labour Party meetings (branch, CLP, etc). A new governance structure is coming in so things are likely to change somewhat in the coming months.
The reality is that an effective Labour Group needs to have a planned approach to council business and unfortunately that often means meetings.
What is your favourite thing about being a councillor?
My most favourite thing about being a Councillor is being able to influence decisions about the future of my hometown. Of course, your impact depends on the strength of your arguments but nothing beats having a seat at the table. I also feel fortunate that in some way I am able to help vulnerable residents who are at the sharp end of the government’s cuts and decimation of public services.
What words of encouragement would you have for young people thinking about standing? Why do you think it is important?
The young people I have known are incredibly talent, energetic and are great ambassadors for progressive politics. My belief has always been that young people need to get on councils, school governing bodies and be visible in all walks of public life. They need to stay true to our clause one principles and have that appetite to contest and win elections because at the end of the day that’s what the Labour Party is about. If getting more Labour Party representatives elected at levels isn’t the end goal then why are we here?
Being a Councillor offers an excellent opportunity to make social change. It also presents a fantastic opportunity to gain governance experience. At the very least it’s a good way to cut your teeth in politics. In the words of a famous rapper, “look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”
I’m always happy to provide practical advice to any young member considering standing. Get in touch.
Thanks for your time Vaz!