Javaid Akhtar: A trailblazer on Leeds's political scene

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Javaid Akhtar is something of a trailblazer when it comes to Leeds’ political scene.

He became one of the city’s youngest ever representatives when he was elected at the age of 25 as a Labour councillor for the Harehills ward in 1995.

Christened the ‘baby of the council’ by a local newspaper at the time, he’s kept the article to this day.

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Since then he has held seats for both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, variously representing Gipton and Harehills, Hyde Park and Woodhouse, and now Little London and Woodhouse.

Coun Javaid Akhtar pictured alongside Gerry Harper and Kayleigh Brooks at the local election vote count at First Direct Arena in May 2018.Coun Javaid Akhtar pictured alongside Gerry Harper and Kayleigh Brooks at the local election vote count at First Direct Arena in May 2018.
Coun Javaid Akhtar pictured alongside Gerry Harper and Kayleigh Brooks at the local election vote count at First Direct Arena in May 2018.

Those changes in affiliation and the wards represented came about after losing elections in 1998, 2002 and 2007, but he has served as a Labour councillor continuously since his re-election in 2010.

Fast forward to 2022 and Coun Akhtar is now the first Muslim to chair the city’s ruling Labour group – effectively responsible for ensuring meetings of the party’s 58 local councillors run smoothly and efficiently.

It’s an achievement of which he is immensely proud.

“In 1994 I decided to stand because, at that time, when I looked around there wasn’t anyone from the Muslim community in politics,” Coun Akhtar reflects.

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“I took part in the 1994 (local) elections. I didn’t win then, but the year after there was a by-election and I won in Harehills ward.

“In those days I wanted to change the world and that feeling is still the same today.

“My world is where I live and that’s the city (of Leeds).

“I was proud to have made history, because I was one of the youngest ever councillors back in the day in 1995.”

Coun Akhtar is also one of Leeds’ longest-serving Asian councillors ever.

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“There wasn’t much interest from the BAME community when I started,” he adds.

“Now we’ve got 10 or 11 Asian councillors and four or five from the black community as well. It shows how things have progressed over the last 20 years or so.”

Born in 1970, Coun Akhtar grew up in a non-political family and has lived in Chapeltown for most of his life.

Outside of the council chamber he’s been a store manager and a private hire driver, before later helping to start the GMB union’s regional branch for local cabbies.

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It’s a wealth of experience that’s likely to serve him well in his new role.

“Just imagine having 58 councillors in one room and trying to give everyone the chance to speak!” Coun Akhtar smiles.

“When there are 58 people and the agenda is heavy you’ve got to be firm. But give respect and you will gain respect.”

It’s perhaps helpful then that the Labour group is, in Coun Akhtar’s words, a “civilised and friendly” bunch.

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“Every now and again we have to agree to disagree but that’s the business we’re in,” he explains.

“We’re there the to defend the interests of our local residents, but that doesn’t mean we have to fall out.”

Although politics might be getting better at attracting people from diverse backgrounds, Coun Akhtar feels there is more to do, especially in Parliament.

“I’ve huge respect for professional lawyers who became Members of Parliament,” he says.

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“But I feel that ordinary people will make a huge difference too, because they know how much a loaf of bread and a pint of milk costs. That’s where we are at the moment.

“Someone who’s been through that kind of phase will understand the issues better than someone who’s never been to a local shop.

“Working-class people should be given more opportunities in life.

“If you’re from a particular postcode you’ll have more opportunities in your career than people from other postcodes in inner city areas. That’s not only here, I think it’s across the country.”

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Given his background as a taxi driver, Coun Akhtar also has a stake in controversial new rules being imposed on cabbies in Leeds.

Next month, the council is expected to approve potential bans for any driver who clocks up nine points or more on their licence, down from the current threshold of 12.

The change, which is being triggered by new guidance to local authorities from the Department of Transport, has been bitterly opposed by drivers, who fear losing their livelihoods.

Some predict an exodus from the profession, which they say could leave passengers waiting hours for a cab.

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The government and council say the rules are being tightened up in the interests of public safety.

Coun Akhtar has backed the council’s stance on the matter, but suggests the government needs to understand why drivers are upset.

He says, “Safety is the top priority – not just for us as a local authority but for the drivers as well. 99.99 per cent of the drivers feel that way.

“The driver behind the steering wheel is a human being with a family.

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“Once someone loses their livelihood it doesn’t just affect them, it affects their family and the community they’re from.

“If I lose a job, that will have an effect on my family and the money I spend on local businesses. It has a huge knock-on effect on all of us.”

In nearly three decades in local politics, Coun Akhtar has helped smash multiple glass ceilings. You get the sense he isn’t done yet.