The road to the defining moment of Notwestminster 2017 began in Birstall Market Place the previous June. One of the mountain of TV cameras that were suddenly and improbably crammed into the little town had caught a glimpse of a teenage girl trying to add her bouquet of flowers to the growing sea of tributes in the square. Overcome by emotion, she hastily turned away, flowers still in hand.
But before long she came back. A journalist promptly thrust a microphone towards her and asked “What did Jo Cox mean to you?”
And I looked up from the sofa in my little corner of an increasingly confusing world. I remember that moment, not just because I recognised the voice, but because of the few words that this young lady could manage in her shock and grief. Those few words were simple, and extraordinary.
“She was my friend”, said Emily.
The statue of Birstall-born Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, looked silently on.
“People and the connections between them are the only things that really make any difference, for good or bad.” – from Andrew Wilson’s Notwestminster 2017 workshop pitch
Just over a month later, the Kirklees Democracy Commission began working with local citizens and others to determine what a strong and healthy local democracy should look like. We talked about the relationships between councillors and citizens at all of our public events. We heard that people value the role of councillor, but that their experiences are inconsistent – for many, councillors can seem remote.
I’ve come to realise over the years that my experience of knowing councillors probably isn’t the norm. My councillors are simply part of our community, not something separate from it. In what’s been a dreadful year for Newsome, they have been a constant source of reassurance, advice, determination and honesty. One day I thanked them on Twitter for their humanity, and somebody immediately responded with insults. It’s not easy being a councillor. It matters that they are here, in a way that MPs can’t usually be.
But I don’t hear many people describe their own councillors in this kind of way. I want more people to be part of a strongly-connected community – I know the value of that, and I also know that councillors can do much to help. Andrew Wilson’s workshop pitch for Notwestminster 2017 about councillors as innovators recognised that too.
But for Emily, she found that sense of connection with her MP. I mentioned this to one of my councillors, whilst standing in a field selling jam the weekend after Jo’s death. A little later on, two of my councillors made time to scrape me off the pavement in floods of tears late one afternoon, despite being on their way to a memorial service for Jo. There is something about being physically here, right here, that makes the role of councillor incredibly special. We have heard this whilst gathering evidence for the Democracy Commission too.
In September we began to gather our thoughts in preparation for the next Notwestminster. It was by then clear that our event would be greatly influenced by the Kirklees Democracy Commission, and by a strong sense of place. We talked about the momentous events of that summer, and whether they had a place in our conversations about local democracy.
We wanted to stay true to Notwestminster’s local focus, but at the same time, things were happening nationally and internationally which we couldn’t ignore. What we wanted to do was to explain the impact of this on our local democracy. There was a story to tell here, and I felt that it could only be Emily who should tell it. But I also felt it was too soon to ask, so for the time being we just went about the business of getting the show on the road.
In early November 2016, Emily was one of the Kirklees Youth Councillors who gave evidence to the Kirklees Democracy Commission. There are lots of useful insights to be found in Kirklees Youth Council’s evidence. Emily talked about how young people are almost invisible in local politics. She feels that councillors should meet young people at least half way and make as much effort to connect as they do. Emily said that it isn’t easy to understand what a councillor or an MP is and what they do, especially without political education in schools. She was quietly insistent that there should be some.
One of the most surprising things we heard from all the youth councillors taking part is that they would rather talk face to face with councillors about local issues than use social media. Because they know and understand social media well, our youth councillors also know the potential pitfalls, such as “things coming back to bite you”. Emily talked about how meeting Jo in person had a much bigger impact on her than talking via email or social media would have done. We were back to personal connections again.
What that session also told me was that Emily seemed ready to talk about the people and things that had inspired her to get involved in local democracy, including Jo. I tentatively shared the suggestion with the Notwestminster gang, that we should ask Emily to give a Lightning talk. But I wanted to be sure that we weren’t asking too much. We talked it over and I asked advice from Michelle Ross, who does a wonderful job supporting the Youth Council. By the end of December I had finally decided that it was right to ask the question, and the answer came back quickly that Emily was “super excited” to be asked to take part.
On the Saturday morning of Notwestminster 2017, we heard an extraordinary talk from 15 year old Emily Warrillow, entitled Jo Cox: my MP, my friend, my inspiration (you can watch it here). Emily spoke with confidence about how becoming a community activist at age 13 had changed her. She talked about the support and encouragement that Jo had given her all along that journey, including attending the EU debate that Emily organised at her school, just six days before Jo’s death.
Then, on the wall behind her, up came the photograph of the sea of flowers in Birstall Market Place. And Emily’s voice faltered. And the world seemed to stop.
So there I was sitting on a sofa watching Emily again, the raw grief painfully obvious. Except this time I wasn’t watching down the end of a cathode ray tube on my ancient TV, but I was right there. It took all my strength to stop myself getting up and going to stand with her, because in that moment Emily looked very fragile and very alone.
But the defining moment of Notwestminster 2017 wasn’t so much the moment that Emily let her emotion out, but the moment that she found her voice again. It didn’t take her long. And what she said next was that she isn’t giving up.
“Jo’s murder left me questioning my future in politics. But I didn’t question for long… I found something that I enjoyed and had a passion for and I had to carry on.” – Emily Warrillow
So Emily made it to the end of her incredibly moving talk, which I’m sure has lingered in the minds and hearts of everyone who was there in the room to hear it, and left us all in bits. I tried to ask Dave Mckenna whether I’d done the right thing for Emily, but I didn’t get a reply because he couldn’t really speak. I didn’t look round, but many people told me later that they were feeling similarly overwhelmed at the time. So at that moment, as always, I was grateful for the person who knows how to reassure me without words.
We drew breath. We wiped away the tears. Then we got up and went about the business of trying to create a stronger local democracy. We took Emily’s enthusiasm with us – and our own.
“This is an important moment for our democracy. It’s impossible to ignore recent events, which have left many people feeling uncertain about the future.” – Notwestminster 2017
The strength of Notwestminster is that it’s become a way for many different people tell their stories, learn from each other and get involved in doing something practical to try and improve things. I hope it continues to be that.
Our network is growing all the time and it’s great to welcome enthusiastic new participants like Jenny who first introduced us to the People’s Plan in a pub in Manchester and agreed to come and share her experiences, and James who pitched a workshop on open source democracy, who was also the very first participant to book a ticket. It’s equally fantastic to be able to welcome back people like Joe and Sym from Democracy Club (did somebody say By-election?) and Anthony who as well as offering great insights as a councillor has also been so kind in creating a fantastic photographic record of our Notwestminster events.
Emily’s story wasn’t the only difficult one we heard at Notwestminster this year. At Friday night’s PechaKucha we heard the Sheffugees story from Yoomee’s Andy Mayer, who was participating for the first time. He talked about being on holiday and not realising that refugees were drowning in another part of the same beautiful sea that he was sailing on. When he did realise, Andy wanted to use his skills to do something practical to help. So he and others from the Sheffield tech community worked with refugee organisations to help them share information better. My friend Maggie who was in the audience is already thinking about how we might do something similar in Huddersfield.
Also on Friday, one of my councillors returned to Notwestminster. Andrew Cooper talked about Newsome’s “Year of Fire” in 2016, including the devastating loss of Newsome Mill, which I’ve spent the best part of a decade trying to protect. “Sometimes the bad guy wins” said Andrew, “and it’s about how the community reacts to that.” Andrew is one of our Commissioners. It’s part of our emerging learning from the Democracy Commission that we need to help more people understand that democracy isn’t about always being the person who wins. It’s an ongoing conversation, and people need to feel part of the story.
Our local democracy is a fragile thing. It is no accident that I keep talking about the need to make it stronger. For any local democracy advocate, these feel like very uncertain times. And if you’re someone who is also working in local government, it can feel like uncertainty heaped upon uncertainty, day after day.
But the verdict from the pub this year, whilst people waited for their trains home, was that Notwestminter is special – and it’s special because of the people who participate and because of our positivity. We are full of hope in spite of it all, and we went home smiling in spite of all those tears.
There is a still point in every turning world, like Brent’s little camera sitting quietly in the middle of the room capturing this 3D panorama of the Notwestminster 2017 opening session. Fixed points in the flux.
My message from Notwestminster is that some things are still certain:
You care about the things you care about.
And you care about the people you care about.
I’m not sorry for showing it.
And I’m certainly not giving up.