By Councillor Dawn Smith
At the age of eight I spoke in a Council chamber for the first time. I spoke in support of a petition my mother had set up to save our local public swimming pool in Barking, East London, where I grew up.
In 2019 I spoke for the first time after being elected as a Worthing Borough Councillor in the ward of Broadwater, the ward where I live, about Brexit of all things! I’ve been interested in politics my entire life, having been raised in a working class family where my Irish dad strongly supported the trade union movement as a postman. I studied Politics and have taught it. My A level teacher used to say “If you don’t do politics, politics ‘does’ you.” So I choose to do politics!
I moved to Worthing in 2006 and didn’t think my interest in politics was ever going to see me become actively involved. After all, this area has forever been a Conservative true blue heartland.
In 2015 the political climate was starting to change both locally and nationally. Austerity was directly affecting many people on our doorsteps. It felt as if people here in Worthing were starting to join the dots between how they voted and the outcomes of their actions. Maybe, just maybe, politics was shifting? Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party and he offered the political vision I was raised to believe in: socialism. My family felt hopeful that finally things could be improved for the betterment of our society.
The snap General Election of 2017 saw me stop shouting at the TV and start campaigning. It was time to step up and get involved. I was motivated and signed up to help our local Labour candidate. When I joined the Party, I remember turning up to the Labour Hall and feeling politically ‘home’, a feeling new to me.
That year Worthing got its first Labour Councillor in 42 years with a by-election win for Dr Beccy Cooper, and we finally had a Councillor with a red rosette in Worthing Town Hall. She is our very hardworking group leader now – we are a group of ten opposition councillors. I am very proud to be one of them.
When the local elections came around for 2018, we very much meant business here in Worthing. We had selected wonderful candidates and had target wards that were truly winnable. It was fantastic that we went from one to five councillors. Councillor Margaret Howard became my ward’s first ever Labour Councillor. Her campaign was a massive inspiration to me – and the key motivation for me to put myself forward as a candidate in 2019.
On 3rd May 2019, the returning officer announced that the results were in for the Worthing Borough Council elections. The first ward announced was Broadwater, my ward. I had been told a few minutes before I had won, but nothing could prepare me for how the public announcement made me feel.
This really did matter to me on so many levels. I wanted to stand up for my community, and they had put their faith in our policies. We won this due to many committed activists doing everything possible for two solid months. From stuffing envelopes, to canvassing and everything in between, it was all hands on deck. We won the seat, it was never just me. All throughout the campaigns, we used the slogan #KeepItLocal on all social media platforms. We focused on how we would operate differently from the Conservatives, with real policies and strategies that could work. We won five more seats and became a strong opposition of ten Labour Councillors.
This once ‘true blue’ town is turning red, one set of local elections at a time. Why? We focus on local issues, ward-specific needs, and issues across the town. We help in our communities and have a visible presence. We are organised with ward coordinators, and have high contact rates with residents.
Before COVID-19 came along, we held regular street stalls, listening campaigns, which involved going around our wards street by street, and listening to residents about the issues that were important to them. We are their trusted representatives, and listening to them shapes our policies around their needs. For far too long the local Conservatives have told people how they will do things, it’s their ‘vision’, or lack of it, it could be argued. It’s our offering genuine achievable alternatives that help us challenge here.
In our 2021 campaign, things are very different. We are only commencing canvassing in small groups after Easter. We have been phone banking and relying on encouraging people to vote early, by post and social media. We are keeping our focus local, and at the Borough level hoping to push for at least No Overall Control.
This year I’m standing for West Sussex County Council in the same ward. In many ways I feel like that eight year old girl who stood up in her local Town Hall wanting to see her swimming pool kept open. Only this time I’m a 43 year old woman and trying to stop our children and family centre from closing. Away from the national narrative, the battle lines are clear here in Worthing for Borough and County. We offer the alternative view of keeping community services going, over the Conservatives constantly cutting them.
Dawn Smith is Councillor for Broadwater Ward, Worthing Borough Council.
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