From the terraces at Leeds United to the school gates to the corridors of power, Judith Blake’s journey to heading up Yorkshire’s biggest and most influential council has been a far from conventional one. Aisha Iqbal reports.
Judith Blake can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in politics.
But at the same time, she admits she never had any real ambitions for a high flying political career.
That’s some admission from a woman who is in charge of the third biggest local authority in the country, Leeds City Council, overseeing a budget of half a billion pounds (it was nearer the billion mark before austerity set in) and playing a key role in what could turn into the biggest ever transport revolution in the North - and a game changer in the traditional North/South divide.
Add to that her passionate spearheading of the drive for a wider One Yorkshire devolution deal, and it could be argued that she is potentially the most powerful politician in Yorkshire.
It’s been quite a journey for a Leeds lass who grew up cheering on Leeds United at Elland Road.
She still gets along to games when she can, and was cheering the team on at the recent match with Norwich.
Community activism rather than an eye on the corridors of power are what have shaped Councillor Blake’s career and her politics.
And it all started, partly at least, at the school gates.
Already a mum of four - she has three daughters and one son - when she was encouraged by friends to stand for election to Otley town council in the mid 1990s, sweeping educational reform - and the move towards removing education from local government control - was a big factor in her decision to enter politics.
“For a long time I was more interested in community politics, where you could make that difference in terms of getting stuck in,” she says.
“I got involved in local campaigns through my kids when they started at school.
“And then someone said why don’t you for city council and I did and I won in 1996, and it’s sort of gone on from there really.
“I didn’t have a professional political career in mind when I set out. That’s just how it happened.”
Councillor Blake is somewhat of an anomaly in the game of egos that politics at every level can turn into.
An astute and highly intelligent figure, she is at the same time a calm, considered and reassuring presence, without any of the showiness of some of her colleagues in politics.
It’s perhaps these very qualities which have seen her work her way up the ranks to become Leeds’ first female city council leader.
Again, it was other people who recognised her talent and potential before she did.
“Quite a few people had mentioned standing for leader to me over the years,” she says.
“But for me, it’s making sure that you are in a position to be able to take up opportunities when they come, and not being so driven by one particular route that everything else gets pushed to the side.
“I’ve seen so many disappointed people in politics who just can’t cope if their ambition is thwarted.
“I have always held the view that there are a whole range of different ways that you can have that influence. It’s about putting people at the centre.”
Councillor Blake emphasises that her political values are very firmly rooted in the Labour party’s traditional values.
She cites John Smith - the late Labour leader who is credited with shaping the modern party and making it electable - as a political hero.
She is enthused and inspired by the recent surge in grass roots support for the party, especially among young people.
Education and improving things for young people remains one of her key political passions, and helping lift the city’s children’s services from an “inadequate” Oftsed rating in 2010 to a “good - with “outstanding” leadership - rating remains among her proudest achievements.
She recalls the moment it was announced in March 2015 - two months before she was elected leader of the council’s Labour group, and thus council leader overall - with relish.
Asked if she is still enjoying the job of leader of the council, exhausting as it must be, she laughs and says “it’s never dull”, but admits “it’s tough at the moment, really tough”.
Councillor Blake took over at the Leeds Civic Hall helm during a period of stinging austerity which has seen the city stripped of a third of its Government grants in eight years.
As well as trying to keep the city running, she has overseen a difficult, at times turbulent, period for the council, and the party.
The devastating floods on Boxing Day 2015, coming just months after she became leader, were a real test of her political mettle, and her lobbying of Ministers in its aftermath on behalf of the city has been relentless.
The past 12 months have seen five members of her Labour group walk out, but any suggestions of a growing general malcontent are dismissed.
Just a few weeks ago, the European Capital of Culture bid which Coun Blake championed, fell victim to the Brexit effect.
But she is determined to dust herself and the city off from any disappointment, and instead return the focus to where it needs to be - the betterment of the lives of Leeds’s citizens.
And after 22 years as a ward councillor, her passion for grass roots campaigning remains undimmed,
On the day we meet, she has already been out in her working class Middleton Park ward talking to families, and is looking forward to campaigning ahead of May’s all-out local elections in the city.
Asked if she is confident of the Labour administration being returned to power in May, Coun Blake insists “we are working as one”, adding - with a fair few side-swipes at Tory austerity - that it is “so important that we have a Labour council here, standing up for people wherever we possibly can”.
But she acknowledges reaching out to ordinary voters - and winning their trust in times of a wider disillusionment with power - is key.
“We never take anything for granted,” she says.
“And obviously politics generally is a bit too interesting at the moment (laughs) if you look at the national picture. Who would have thought we would be where we are this time last year?
“It’s really important for me to keep that connection, to keep grounded, to keep going out to meet the public, to go out, old fashioned canvassing, knocking on the doors, talking to people on the phones and just being there and being able to be open.
“People know that they can come to me, which I think is part of the style of leadership that I have wanted to put forward.
“They certainly take me up on that challenge I can assure you!”
‘MY TOP 3 PRIORITIES FOR 2018’
1. Working successfully through the election period into May and coming out with a strong mandate from the people of Leeds to continue doing what we are doing.
2. Moving forward on devolution, and getting the money and the powers out of Whitehall right down into our communities.“ There’s a real sense that Whitehall is too distant and us having to go down there for the most trivial of decisions is nonsense. Devolution is about unlocking our potential.”
3. The real icing on the cake would be Leeds United going into the Premiership! We are in the top six at the moment, so we are up there. I am a lifelong, long suffering Leeds United supporter. I do get down there when I can. But I used to go as a kid, when I was very young, and had a season ticket with my kids.”