The next Best thing?

Jayne Dawson meets the woman who is aiming to take over from retiring Leeds MP Harold Best and become only the second female MP in the city's history

THE thing about Judith Blake is that she doesn't do anything by halves. When she goes for it, she really goes for it, if you know what I mean.

Ten years ago Judith was new to politics. In fact, she was a mother of four young children in her early forties who had just joined the Labour party – not your usual rising star material.

But a decade later she is aiming much higher, hoping to become the first female MP in Leeds for more than 30 years and only the second woman ever to represent the city in Parliament.

It's been an eventful ten years, what with one thing and another. There was the second divorce which, as these things have a habit of doing, came in the same year that she was temporarily shoved out of politics, losing her seat on Leeds City Council.

There have been great moments, like when she not only got back on the council but became deputy leader and there has been great sadness because Judith has just lost her sister Ruth, who has died of cancer aged 58, and is having to cope with her death as well as an election campaign. Then there are the four children, of course.

But it's still all systems go because, like I said, Judith, 51, is a driven person. She puts it down to several factors but mainly down to an unusual childhood and an awful event that happened when she was 17 and proved to be one of those defining moments.

Childhood

The childhood was spent in Leeds where Judith grew up as the daughter of two doctors.

Her father was Frank Parsons who was in charge of the kidney unit at Leeds General Infirmary and who – after a bit of a battle with the authorities – introduced kidney dialysis into Britain.

Judith said: "My background was one of public service. My parents were Methodist and the ethos was one of community and support, of looking out for people."

"My father was totally committed to public service, he would never do any private work, he didn't even let his staff call him Sir.

"He spent a year in Chicago learning about dialysis when I was a baby and when he came back he introduced it into this country, although a lot of people were against it.

"Someone wrote at the time 'Parsons, try it, but remember the country is against you'.

"My mother ran family planning clinics as well as looking after the family."

So that was the background that gave Judith her sense of public duty, but when she was 17 a terrible accident added to her sense of purpose.

She was a back seat passenger in a car which crashed, killing her best friend who was in the front passenger seat. Judith had a badly broken leg and was in traction in the LGI for three months.

"It gave me a sense of needing to give something back. My friend died simply because she was sitting in the front seat, it could so easily have been me. I questioned why it was her and not me. It definitely made me more driven."

Once she recovered Judith, who attended Leeds Girls High School, went on to Kent University to study modern history. She became a left-wing campaigner, as befitted the politics of the new universities in the 1970s, but she refused to join a political party believing she could achieve more without that restriction.

After university she travelled in the Middle East doing casual jobs to pay her way – she is still keenly interested in the politics of the area – but by the 1980s Judith was leading a more conventional life; settled in Birmingham, married, looking after two young children born 14 months apart, and teaching refugees to speak English.

Marriage

That period didn't last long though and when her children were aged four and three, Judith's marriage broke up. As Margaret Thatcher's Britain produced the Yuppie boom and threw up fictional icons like Gordon Gecko, who famously believed greed was good, Judith was in a different phase – being a jobless single mother back in her home city of Leeds.

Not one to stand still, she took a post graduate diploma in information administration, married again and had two more children.

Her family now are Emily, a 23-year-old teacher, Ed, a 21 year old student, Florence, 16 and Olivia, 15, both at Prince Henry's School in Otley where the family lives.

It was an education issue that finally made Judith officially nail her colours to the Labour Party mast. She campaigned against Prince Henry's opting out of local government control – she was successful of course – and decided that, after all, she would be more effective if she joined a political party.

Those who stood back in admiration during the school campaign also encouraged her to stand for Otley town council and later Leeds City Council – and so a political career was born. Judith went on to hold a clutch of top posts in education and planning.

There was a blip when she lost her seat as councillor for Weetwood, but she filled the two years she was out of the game with a variety of jobs, including introducing a car sharing network to the city, before clambering back on as councillor for Middleton.

But what about the family? Divorced fathers of four don't necessarily get asked that question but divorced mothers of four always do. The answer as far as the kids are concerned is that she wouldn't do it if they weren't supportive. Her two teenage girls are desperate for her to get elected so that they could come to stay in her London base, wherever that would be. Although her dad has now died, her mum is in Leeds to help make sure they are OK and Judith is friends with both her ex-partners.

But still, it hasn't been exactly perfect and Judith thinks her politics probably did contribute to the breakdown of her second marriage.

"It happens a lot in politics. Partners can be supportive in theory but living with the day-to-day reality of it can be difficult to cope with, I don't have any regrets though. I've still got a good relationship with both my ex-partners."

Now she is in the midst of political battle, having been chosen from an all-women shortlist to fight for Leeds North West because the previous MP, Harold Best, is retiring – she feels positive discrimination in the form of all-women shortlists is necessary to help women break into political life .

Marginal

The seat is Labour but is regarded as a marginal that could be taken by the Conservatives but Judith is enjoying the fight, she says.

"I love campaigning, people do often have fixed ideas but if you give them the information they often change their minds."

Out of politics, Judith is a big Leeds United fan and always has been. Her loft contains not only a set of signed programmes from the Revie era but a packet of PK chewing gum that goalkeeper Gary Sprake once threw into the crowd and a young Judith eagerly scooped up.

Finally, if she is elected next month there is one point she is completely clear on – there will be no Blair's babe-type image transformation, no coordinated lipstick and neckscarf type of a thing going on.

"I find the whole idea of trying to put someone in a category according to how they look deeply offensive, no-one has attempted to change my image, it just isn't an issue. It is values that matter."

• Other candidates standing for Leeds North West are: George Lee, Conservative party; Greg Mullholland, Liberal Democrat; Martin Hemingway, Green Party.