By Shona Jemphrey
In my early twenties, I joined the Green Party. I was concerned about the environment and it seemed like the best way to make a statement. I had witnessed exploitation and inequality first-hand growing up, but didn’t really link them to bigger systemic problems – it seemed like a problem with individual bad eggs, individual companies, individual countries. It was when I began working in advocacy and social care that I started to understand the connection between austerity and misery more clearly, and came to despise the Tories.
Then Labour had a leadership election and a few of my friends started talking about this guy called Jeremy Corbyn who seemed quite exciting. So I looked into it and switched from the Greens to Labour. And I started to get more involved in politics. Being from Northern Ireland originally, politics always seemed like a terrifying minefield that wasn’t worth the energy; and my family’s experiences of political organising had generally been draining and, ultimately, disappointing. So when I went to my first CLP meeting, I had no idea what to expect, and was nervous to even walk through the door.
It was a fiery meeting with fiery debates; but amidst all the arguments, I realised that this was a way to have a voice on real policies and possibly make a difference. Our MP was there, and she didn’t like all we had to say – but she did have to listen. And so over the years that followed I became more involved in politics and started to learn more – about Labour Party history, about socialism, and about the destructive nature of late-stage capitalism.
The heatwave of summer 2018 hit, and the IPCC report warned us that we had 12 years left to curb carbon emissions. The starkness of our future began to hit home. I joined the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign and pushed to make it official party policy, speaking about it on national radio and arguing through a 10-hour compositing meeting at Labour Conference 2019.
We got the policy passed; but the concerns raised in that compositing meeting also brought home to me just how big a change this would be for our society, and how we needed to bring everyone with us. If we don’t make sure that everyone is included in that ‘just green’ transition with good green jobs – and that means the most deprived, the working classes, those currently working in dirty energy because they can’t get anything else – then we won’t get the widespread support to make it happen properly, and we will be betraying our commitments to those who need our solidarity the most. It’s hard to think about 12 years in the future when you are desperately trying to put food on the table today.
Since being selected as a councillor candidate for Lawrence Hill ward, Bristol, two years ago, I’ve thrown myself into serving the community and getting to know its needs. During the pandemic I’ve been volunteering with local organisations to deliver food and supplies to households in need, as well as running a local litter pick when Covid restrictions allow!
I’ve spoken out as part of campaigns against planning applications to build a gas plant and a waste transfer station opposite a local nursery. I’ve chased up issues around fly-tipping and council house repairs. Door-knocking during this election period has brought up even more issues that need tackling.
Lawrence Hill is one of the most deprived wards in the city; and although it is attracting a lot of young families and going through a fair bit of gentrification, there are many, many people struggling to get by. I remember during one Foodcycle shift, I spoke to a lady whose family hadn’t eaten for two days. We gave her three heavy bags of food, which she would need to carry three miles on foot, and she was still desperate to know where else she could get more supplies – because these ones would go so fast. Things like that break my heart and make me incredibly angry.
When we look at the national political picture, it’s easy to get depressed and feel there is little chance of much change any time soon. But then I think about the people I have met and the difference that groups – even small groups – can make. Groups like the parents and teachers at St Philip’s Nursery, who have fought off polluting planning applications three times in a row. Groups like Acorn, who tackle exploitative landlords every day, and have made the future of the region’s buses a key debate point in the West of England Combined Authority metro mayor election. Groups like the National Food Service, who are busy highlighting the crisis of food insecurity, but still managed to distribute thousands of meals during lockdown to people who would otherwise have gone hungry. Groups like the National Education Union, who in January forced the government to U-turn on school closures and likely saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in doing so. Groups like the brave Bristolian protestors who pulled down the Colston statue last year, and in doing so sparked a worldwide debate about who we hold up as heroes and role models.
That’s what I want to do if I become a councillor: give practical support to people and make a tangible difference to residents, while, at the same time, promoting more progressive, left-wing, socialist policies. We need to retrofit thousands of homes to reduce carbon emissions. We need to integrate community wealth building further into local government decisions, so investment stays local and doesn’t go to big CEOs. We desperately need more council housing, not just affordable housing. We need better public transport. We need secure jobs, not just zero-hour gig-economy ones.
And as we build that solidarity, not only do we improve people’s lives, but we build what we need to tackle the climate crisis and the billionaires funding it. We build a trust in each other and an awareness of who the real enemy is. And we stand together to fight them for a better world.
Shona Jemphrey is Labour candidate for council in Lawrence Hill ward, Bristol.
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