There needs to be more diversity and northern voices in the Lords, says former Leeds council leader Baroness Judith Blake of Leeds
After 24 years as a city councillor and leader in Leeds, Judith Blake has been elevated to the House of Lords. She spoke to Rob Parsons about entering a new world.
Judith Blake describes herself as the victim of bad timing during her two attempts to become MP in her home constituency of Leeds North West more than a decade ago.
Attempting to hold the student-heavy seat for Labour in 2005, she lost out to the Liberal Democrats as anger at the party's policy on tuition fees saw it ousted in university constituencies nationwide. A second tilt five years later saw her finish third.
"I guess I'd always had a thought about going into Parliament," she says. "And when I didn't manage to do that through the House of Commons it did occur to me that perhaps there was another way to have that involvement."
After focusing her attention on her work as a Leeds city councillor and becoming leader in 2016, that opportunity came when she took a call from the Labour leader's office while working from home amid last November's lockdown restrictions.
"I thought it was about business we were doing with the front bench on the response to Covid," the mother of Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake tells The Yorkshire Post.
"I really could have been knocked over when the request came, '[Labour leader] Keir [Starmer] and [deputy] Angela [Rayner] would like to nominate you for the House of Lords, would you be prepared to consider it'?
"That's where it came from, there was no discussion at all before. I put the phone down and then 24 hours later I thought, 'oh goodness, I'd better go back in and say yes, I would be interested'."
The process went through a committee at Number 10 Downing Street before being announced in December, her elevation revealed at the same time as that of Archbishop of York John Sentamu.
"I got a call late Monday evening, just before Christmas, saying 'guess what, it's going to be announced tomorrow'. You're told you're not allowed to discuss this with anyone.
"So I had to go through this incredible period on the Tuesday morning of just warning people in my political life especially that this was about to be announced. So it was quite dramatic.
"And I have to say that their reaction from people across Leeds has been phenomenal. And I think it is part of that recognition that there needs to be more diversity in the House of Lords, there needs to be strong local voices from the North in particular. There's a recognition that there is a gap."
The move meant she went from being councillor Judith Blake to Baroness Blake of Leeds, introduced to the House of Lords in a ceremony just before Easter and giving her maiden speech a few days later.
Serving on the opposition front bench as a Shadow Spokesperson for Housing, Communities and Local Government and an Opposition Whip, she describes her time so far "as a very steep learning curve".
"There's a huge job to do and it's fascinating, actually really starting to get to understand the importance of the work that happens in the House of Lords," she says.
"It's often not given, perhaps, the profile that it deserves. But it does fulfill a very important function in terms of making sure that the legislation going through is scrutinised, that there are improvements made, and that there are numerous occasions where the debates in the House of Lords actually have resulted in changes being made to legislation and real improvements as a result.
"It's great to be able to take all of my experience from being a councillor in Leeds, being from Leeds, born and bred in Leeds, and then my experience going through to being leader. I think it is very important to get that real hands-on experience into the legislative program.
"And I think too often, perhaps we've seen legislation coming through, that hasn't really fully assessed the impact it's going to have on the ground on real people.
"So there's a huge job to do, and, but I'm very proud to be there as Baroness Blake of Leeds, it means a great deal, being able to have that as as my title and be able to legitimately hopefully stand up and talk about what it's like to live and work and play in the North of England."
The way of working in the Lords is very different to getting things done in local politics in Yorkshire's biggest city. At Leeds city council she had the Labour group behind her and directly represented constituents in the Middleton Park area as well as the regular cycle of standing for election.
In the Lords, she is more likely to be working alone. Among her current tasks is helping to scrutinise the Environment Bill and she is looking for All-Party Parliamentary Groups to join.
"Every day, there's something new that happens that I haven't been aware of," Lady Blake admits. "But I have to say that everyone has been incredibly supportive, particularly of new members and realizing that they've been through it and they know that there are ways of working that perhaps aren't immediately obvious to newcomers.
"And there are forms of address that you have to use in the in debates for example, that you have to learn and those are things that come forward but there is much less of the cut and thrust that you get in the House of Commons, but even in the council chamber, so it is a different style.
"I'm very conscious of people taking part in the debates who have an enormous wealth of experience and knowledge and listening to the debates and and the quality of the contribution really is encouraging and I look forward to to doing more of that and getting involved.
"But actually, I haven't found standing up in the chamber intimidating in the way that perhaps you would have expected beforehand and everyone is incredibly polite and supportive."
She will continue to divide her time between London and her home in Otley, insisting: "I'm a Leeds resident and it's so important to keep contact with your roots, I think when you take on these roles."
"Because I think that's the value of people like myself going in to the House of Lords that you keep people who are rooted and understand what it's like to live and work and the challenges that people are facing at the moment is so enormous and how we can actually make sure that anything we bring forward reflects the needs of people who have been really up against it, certainly over the last year or so.
"It's just been so tough for people and will continue to be so I'm afraid, the impact of what we've been going through is very real."
'Reforming the Lords is a debate that must be taken seriously'
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham this week renewed his call for reform of the Lords to bring in more elected representatives and those from the regions.
Lady Blake says there is "a case for reform" in the historic second chamber but the small numbers of people physically working in the building at the moment make it hard to judge.
"I think I'll probably reserve my judgements on the full working of the place for a little while yet if that's okay because it's so unusual at the moment.
"And I know what I've experienced over the last two or three months is not a normal experience of how the business works. So I'm more than happy to come back at a later time to discuss that in more detail. But it is a very live debate. And it's one that needs to be taken seriously."