‘I want to champion democracy on the doorsteps and get women voting’ says Leeds’s youngest councillor Alice

CHAMBER MADE: Leeds city councillor Alice Smart, 25, pictured in the council chamber at Leeds Civic Hall...26th February 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Alice Smart’s political awakening came as a teenager, but the seeds were sown much earlier.

“My earliest political memory is the 1997 General Election,” she explains.

PROUD DAY: Alice Smart with her proud parents Kath and Ben on '23rd May 2014, when she was elected as one of the youngest Leeds councillors aged just 21.''Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe JG100302/3.

“I would have been about five.

“I remember being with my mum and my little brother, and we were making a wish at a wishing well.

“And I asked my mum what she had wished for, and she said that she wanted Labour to win the General Election. At the time my brother and I thought it was a really boring wish. But who was to know?”

Something must have stuck in her young mind because fast forward a decade and a half, and a 21-year-old Alice was elected for Labour in Armley, becoming one of Leeds’s youngest ever city councillors.

Now 25, she is getting ready to defend her seat in May’s local elections.

The daughter of an NHS nurse father and a comprehensive-school teacher mum, she is an ardent defender of public services who was clearly destined to have some sort of political career.

She joined the Labour party aged just 17, having studied politics at A-Level.

University cemented her political passion, and soon after graduating, she found herself thrown into a life in politics proper.

It came a decade earlier, she admits, than she had expected or hoped, after winning the Armley nomination on an all-women shortlist.

She has enjoyed her four years so far as a councillor, especially the grass roots campaigning and door-knocking side.

And she is especially proud of being part of one of the country’s few truly gender-balanced local authorities.

“We have got just as many female councillors as male in the Leeds Labour group,” she says. “We have got a woman leader, a woman Lord Mayor of Leeds, one of our deputy leaders is a woman as well. So I think we are doing really well – but you can never be complacent.”

That complacency is something she does admit has crept its way into the party at national level, despite her belief that leader Jeremy Corbyn “has been really good at listening to women in the party”.

“I think we are going in the right direction,” she says.

“But we do have a bit of an attitude of ‘we’re so good on equality, we have done so much’.

“We have done good things and we should shout about them. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do.

“We have got lots of great women in senior positions in the Labour party who would make great leaders. The time hasn’t come yet, but I hope it does soon.”

Coun Smart was speaking to the YEP as part of our series of articles celebrating 100 years since women were first granted the right to vote with the advent of the Representation of the People Act.

On Thursday, the city - and the country - will also mark International Women’s Day.

Coun Smart is passionate about representation of women in politics, and admits disengagement on the doorstep can be frustrating.

“It’s really important that we use this year to encourage women,” she says.

“Even though all women can vote, they don’t all vote or register or feel able to stand as a councillor. We need to target those women who are – either because of background or circumstance – less likely to engage. “I have a lot of conversations with women on the doorstep, and I always find it disheartening when they say they are not interested in politics.

“They don’t think politicians do anything for them.

“There’s no quick fix solution. You just need to keep having those conversations and show them that local politicians are there for them.”

She admits there are still times she herself faces prejudice – as much for her youth as for her gender – and there is still the occasional presumption, before people have met her, that their local councillor “is going to be an older man”.

“I’ve had emails when it’s said ‘Dear Sirs’,” she laughs.

“Little things like that. But never from fellow councillors, and I have never had any serious discrimination.

“It’s been a very positive experience. And there have always been strong women role models on the council.”

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