Thank You

IMG_5529Written below is an account of the election campaign in St Katharine’s & Wapping and my first few weeks as a newly-elected councillor for our area. I appreciate it’s a little long but thought it might be of interest to those who might be curious about what goes on! I shall be writing shortly with information about the Wapping issues I’m currently dealing with.

In the words of the great Alan Carr, ‘What a month it’s been!’ After a whirlwind three weeks, I have finally grabbed a moment to put fingers to keyboard and I do so as a freshly-elected, first-time councillor.

It is two years since I attended the Tower Hamlets council meeting that kicked this journey off. Sitting as a member of the public in the Town Hall in May 2012, I witnessed in its rawest form the divisive political culture that has grown up in our borough – the meeting I attended ended in a ‘violent fracas’ between sitting councillors and sparked in me a feeling that perhaps I should stand up and be counted.

I admit to being hugely apprehensive about doing so. Tower Hamlets politics is not for the faint-hearted – did I have the cojones? Probably not, but perhaps I would find them. I consider myself a private person and I would be putting myself out there, even if in a relatively small way, to be judged in an age where the internet has borne plenty of acerbic critics. The notion of my picture on a leaflet was stomach-turning and in my mind, it was deeply unBritish to knock on someone’s door without invitation and bother them for support. Plus the idea of wearing a rosette….my God! All these reservations were hard to overcome for someone who did not consider themselves a natural campaigner.

Yet the election campaign was one of the best experiences of my life. Far from slammed doors and harsh words, fellow Wapping residents were surprisingly willing to engage. I love meeting people, learning about them and their experiences, and trying to uncover more information about how the world really works. Wapping has a fantastic blend of people living in its boundaries, from the firmly established to the newly arrived, and they had much to teach me. I also got to know the ward inside out. For fans of Through the Keyhole, there really is no better way than an election campaign of seeing inside such a wide variety of homes and buildings. I tried to share some of these insights with everyone via my #HiddenWapping hashtag but it did not really do justice to some of the breathtaking views of London and our local area that I found while out campaigning.

I also had the most incredible people helping me. There is an assumption that national parties have considerable resources – functioning databases, access to all kinds of helpful information, armies of eager staff and the ability to print and post lots of leaflets – to win them elections. The reality is far more amateurish.

Working out how to shift 6000 leaflets every few weeks, with no stamps, no established delivery team and a lot of gated or portered blocks, is tricky. The money for leaflets has to be raised locally and my running mate, Neil, did a fantastic job as Association Chairman in the events he organised to help fund the campaign. My one-bedroom flat got swiftly filled with boxes of leaflets, envelopes and maps and I drew up lists of friends who might consider helping distribute them. I could not believe how willing they were to lend a hand and there aren’t the words for expressing my gratitude for the kindness and generosity they showed me.

Until you campaign, you cannot appreciate the quite pathetic joy you feel when you get access to a whole bank of letter boxes in a gated block, or when you get a little bit of money for stamps to deliver to the least accessible buildings. I started making friends with porters, which wasn’t always easy – sometimes I felt like a small-time scammer trying to get into an A-list party. But this is the democratic process. I fully understand why people do not always want literature through their door or to have a conversation with a stranger like me. But people equally feel disillusioned about politics and say they neither see nor hear from political parties. How best to square that circle? Similarly, it is easier said than done meeting residents. In an area like ours, people are often at work and don’t get home til late. Yet before 8pm you hit the prime time for people eating their dinners or putting their kids to bed.

Thankfully Neil was a more experienced campaigner who came into his own when organising canvassing sessions and navigating us through rabbit warrens like the South Quay estate. He also kept us entertained with his flamboyant tales and intimate knowledge of the area’s history and geography. Meanwhile we increased our presence on the web, building this community website for those interested in our work, and I went to residents’ meetings and arranged coffees with people on a one-to-one basis.

Yet even when you have busted your proverbials, you can’t help but fret when you go to bed at night over the ultimate question: ‘Has anybody noticed our efforts?!’

The first time that I came across a resident who had voted for me by post already, I leapt about with joy. Someone ticking your name on their ballot paper is quite a feeling, and a real honour. Election Day itself was utterly exhausting but my parents came up from Essex to help and Dad baked his signature carrot cake as a treat for everyone. It was also great to meet my opponents properly, including Robbie, Denise, Stuart, Grenville and Ahad, as well as residents I had seen on the campaign trail who were now wishing me well.

Unfortunately I got to one South Quay resident just that bit too late. He had already voted for my opponent, he told me, but would have voted for me if we had met before since the dimples in my cheeks were a clear indication that I was an honest person. (While one of my friends had knocked on his door a few weeks earlier, I had been leading a different group of canvassers). We had a great chat, expressed our regret for not meeting sooner and ended the conversation with a fist bump.

I cautiously admit that at 9pm on polling day, after knocking on my final door, I burst into tears – the sheer outlay of energy and emotion hit me all at once! I sat zombie-like at the Town of Ramsgate where we enjoyed a drink after the polls had closed.

The count for Tower Hamlets was to be held the next day at the Troxy in Limehouse. I arrived at 9am for the verification and was not to breathe fresh air again for the next twenty-five hours! The entire process was a master class in Town Hall extravagance. Upon arrival, the assembled crowd of counting agents, candidates and council staff was provided with a breakfast of muffins, coffee, pastries and more, served by waiting staff. Next came a full buffet lunch, again served to us, followed hot on the heels by an afternoon tea of finger sandwiches and desserts. The fact that nobody was actually counting any ballots seemed by-the-by at this great municipal knees-up…

When the mayoral count properly began it was probably 7.30pm, over ten hours since we were let into the venue. Chaos ensued with verbal fights breaking out at many of the counting tables. By midnight, a row was erupting between a group of older gentlemen and the venue security. People were being told that if they left, they would not be readmitted since a huge crowd had gathered outside to herald the mayor and the police were trying to maintain order. The steady procession of food and drink, however, had dried up after afternoon tea.

Everyone was exhausted, irate, hungry and, above all, thirsty. Eventually the police brought in huge bottles of water which were pounced upon by us all, and I am told between 250 and 300 boxes of Domino’s pizza were ordered, with three or four East London branches dedicated just to servicing the Tower Hamlets count with Vegetarian Supremes! Again, I dare not even think of the cost of this enormous operation. I had brought my own food but since we were not allowed to bring bags into the venue, my supplies were in the lobby which the security guard stopped us from accessing. By the time the police brought sustenance, I had not had anything to eat or drink for between seven and eight hours.

By 2am the mayoral result had finally been announced but a further row ensued about whether the wards should have their results counted that evening. Probably an hour later, the count started for St Katharine’s & Wapping ward. Sorting the straight votes was simple enough and when they were tallied, Neil and I were ahead by around 180 votes each. But the pile of split votes was enormous and took an age to be counted. The poor count staff were clearly absolutely exhausted and one had to have several stints outside as he was physically ill and mentally shattered.

I think it was about 9am before it was clear that I had been elected, along with Denise. Neil had missed out by 52 votes and the disappointment at not getting both of us over the line really tempered any feelings of joy I had about my result. Neil would have been an outstanding addition to Tower Hamlets council. A trained barrister, he has the intellect, wit and mental agility to hold those in power to account. As a Wapping resident, he knows the area inside out. And as a pair, we would have complemented each other’s skills very well.

By the time we took to the platform for the result to be read out, most of the crowd in the Troxy had disappeared. But I had in there some of my very closest friends who had backed me all the way and I was so glad to be able to deliver for them. It was also incredible to receive the endorsement of fellow residents. I topped the poll, and I appreciate people putting their faith and trust in me in such a way. Thank you.

It was 10.30am by the time I returned to Wapping. I had been awake for 27 hours. I didn’t know quite what to do with myself!

Over the next couple of days the first bits of casework flowed in, along with my first pieces of addressed mail to ‘Cllr Dockerill’. Very weird! We were invited over to the Town Hall at Mulberry Place for an induction day and I was greeted by the lovely Jan of Members’ Services. She said that the team have to address us as ‘Councillor’ as well, and the formality was all a bit odd. There were then all sorts of forms to fill in and pictures to be taken.

We met the chief officers in the evening for a councillors’ Freshers Fair. They also went over the various budgetary pressures on Tower Hamlets over the coming years and we were told that we were now the state parent of three hundred looked-after children in Tower Hamlets, a duty and responsibility that I had not before been aware of. I later had a fascinating conversation with the head of children’s services and hope this is an area in which I can become more closely involved over the next four years.

We also had our first Conservative group meeting. There are currently four of us, with the hope of more should we take any seats at the Blackwall & Cubitt Town by-election next month. Unusually, we all occupy split wards – Peter in Island Gardens, me in St Katharine’s & Wapping, Andrew in Canary Wharf, while Craig sits as the sole member in Limehouse. We have much work to do and I have a lot to learn.

We have since returned to the Town Hall for other training sessions after work and on Wednesday, we had our first full council meeting where I was formally appointed to the Strategic Development and Human Resources Committees. We get our committee training next week.

I have also been very busy with work in our ward. I shall shortly be writing about some of the issues I have been covering and the meetings I have held in the past fortnight, including with the NHS, Dr Patel, St George, Tobacco Dock and others.

I have now arranged the dates for my first surgeries too. I hope to hold them fortnightly at the Hurtado Centre on Chandler Street, with one evening session on a Monday for those who work in the daytimes, and one morning session on a Friday for those who would prefer a daytime slot. The initial dates will be posted on the contact page of this website.

I have in Denise Jones a friendly and very experienced ward colleague and we plan to work together over the next four years in helping Wapping residents, holding Tower Hamlets to account and getting a better deal for our ward.

Thank you again for putting your trust in me at the ballot box on 22 May. You have given me a great gift and I shall do my very best in return for each resident in every part of our beautiful ward.

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