'It feels weird': How councillors in Wakefield have swapped the campaign trail for stay-at-home work and political truce

Less than a month ago, Wakefield's decision-makers were gearing up for one of the most intriguing rounds of local elections in recent years.

Coronavirus has forced the local elections to be postponed and councillors are now working exclusively from home.

The local Conservatives were ambitiously targeting as many as 10 Labour seats on the council, buoyed by the recent election of their first MP in the city since 1932.

Labour themselves were hoping for a poll boost from the announcement of a new national leader, to be confirmed this Saturday, which could have maintained its status quo grip on Wakefield Council without much hassle.

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The Liberal Democrats' probable leader-in-waiting Ed Davey was plotting a visit to the district to try and enhance its reputation as the so-called "party of local government".

The local election campaign had been due to start last week.

But just a few weeks and an international crisis later, priorities could not be more different.

The elections are off and councillors who'd been planning to stand down in May have been persuaded to stay on, in the interests of stability.

Former leader Peter Box's old seat, located in an area where the Yorkshire Party came a surprise second last year, remains empty and will probably have been vacant for 18 months by the time a new member is elected.

Conservative opposition chief Nadeem Ahmed, who clashed so fiercely with Mr Box on many occasions and many issues, has forged a truce with the new Labour figurehead Denise Jeffery - both sides perhaps recognising there's little to be gained from sniping during chaos of this magnitude.

Local Tory and Labour leaders Nadeem Ahmed and Denise Jeffery have forged a well-received political truce following the crisis.

But for councillors not in the senior ranks, there is now no campaigning and for the next few months, no more face-to-face surgeries or community events to get involved with.

Some say it's been a big adjustment, but they are, like most of the rest of us, still working from home and helping constituents as best they can.

Councillor Les Shaw backs the truce and says he's thought little about the fact that, in a normal world, he'd be out campaigning to defend his seat for Labour now.

"It's going to be a long time before we get back on track," Airedale and Ferry Fryston representative Coun Shaw says.

Councillor Les Shaw had been expecting to defend his Airedale and Ferry Fryston seat in May. Instead, it will be contested next year.

"If we're pulling together now I think that's a positive. I think for the first few months after this is all over it will be like that.

"I think the crisis has brought out the good in people. We've been talking to our neighbours a lot and they've offered to bring us any shopping we need."

"I've still had one or two emails from local people which have been fairly normal matters. We've got (IT) equipment at home and I've been able to get through to the council quite quickly to be able to help with those things. "

Independent councillor Ian Womersley, who won his Hemsworth seat last year is still communicating with the local public, both directly and on social media.

Hemsworth councillor Ian Womersley says his caseload has dropped, but he is still receiving messages from constituents about people flouting the lockdown.

"My caseload has reduced, and I think that's because people have bigger worries right now," he explains.

"But there's still emails and messaging and I'm dealing with them on a daily basis.

"One of my biggest concerns is that I'm getting a lot of messages reporting people, mainly the younger generation, who aren't taking self-isolation seriously and are still going out.

"I've passed those onto the police as we're supposed to do and to be fair they have responded to me.

"These people are either very, very selfish or they genuinely just don't care and it does concern me because we've not been put in lockdown for the hell of it."

Noting that he's working closely with the likes of Labour ward colleague Pauline Kitching, Coun Womersley says: "This isn't about political differences. It's about supporting people as best we can. I think people can see we're pulling together now."

Greengrocer and councillor Simon Fishwick has been distributing isolation boxes, packed with essentials, out to the community.

Some councillors are coming to the aid of their communities in different ways.

Greengrocer Simon Fishwick and his staff have been ferrying isolation boxes packed with essential foods around Horbury and beyond.

"I've been working 18 to 20 hours a day," Coun Fishwick says. "It's been crazy, honestly.

"I've got my business as well as being a councillor so it's been twice the effort."

The former soldier is thriving on helping people through the crisis.

"It’s crisis management and selfless commitment," he explains. "That’s what’s drilled into you in the military.

"I think there's such a close-knit community spirit in Horbury that you don’t get elsewhere. Everyone has their position in society to do their bit.

"We’ve served an 87 year-old lady this morning who’s not had milk for a week. Helping her out, that's a great feeling."

Other councillors have played their own part in getting essential goods out to the needy, with many retaining their connections with local food banks.

South Elmsall councillor Steve Tulley has played his part and along with ward colleague Michelle Collins, having helped constituents caught up in the Next warehouse controversy last week.

"As a local community we’ve been getting meals out and about from the Westfield Centre to the vulnerable and elderly," Coun Tulley says.

“I’m normally out and about on council business so I’ve had to rein it in.

“My missus works in the intensive care unit at Pinderfields Hospital so I have to be particularly careful because I’m more at risk of spreading than other people.

"It’s our job nationally that we don’t make the NHS' job any harder by putting more people at risk."

Pontefract councillor David Jones says he's finding the transition from surgery work to home work "weird".

But he too is keeping busy, and as chair of Wakefield's children and young people scrutiny committee, is concerned by reports of a spike in domestic violence since lockdown.

"There's been a surge nationally, so we have to make sure that our children are as well protected as they can be," he cautions.

"It's a major worry.

"On other issues there’s quite a lot of questions coming in from people. It’s difficult to keep up with because it’s changing, quite literally, by the day.

"I had one the other day from someone who works in a shop that’s been allowed to stay open and they’re worried about social distancing because it’s so busy.

"(It's a) strange feeling because you're acting as a go between and responding to cries for help and clarity on government decisions."

Coronavirus may have caused the biggest disruption to public life since 1945, but for local councillors work of one kind or another goes on.

After two years of heated and frayed local election campaigns, a very different political atmosphere has settled over the Wakefield district.

They may not be able to see you, but the message from those who represent you is clear - "We're still here for you".

Local Democracy Reporting Service