Keith Wakefield: My story... the orphanage boy who slept rough and rose to be £2bn council chief

Councillor Keith Wakefield and below with his children.
Councillor Keith Wakefield and below with his children.
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What sort of man is steering Leeds through a difficult era of budget cuts? Rod McPhee reveals the life story of the city council’s leader, Keith Wakefield.

Sitting in a Civic Hall office, he’s looking remarkably relaxed for a man who heads up one of Britain’s biggest cities with an annual turnover topping £2bn.

But then Councillor Keith Wakefield has just chronicled the first 15 years of his life which, by anyone’s reckoning, were tumultuous.

He was barely a toddler when he was taken into care in a Birmingham orphanage – his single mother, Aileen Mable, was unable to cope after separating from his father. The future leader of Leeds City Council was eventually fostered at the age of seven and moved with his new parents to Leicester, but in time he became deeply alienated from the couple after years of neglect at their hands.

Perhaps inevitably, the adolescent Keith was, in his own words “a bit of a bad lad, who could have gone either way.” Amid smoking, drinking and playing truant, he left his secondary modern at 14 without any qualifications and fled the unhappy nest shortly after that.

A job stacking shelves and cleaning loos in a Co-op store followed, the start of 11 years as a working man which saw him do everything from engineering to collecting pennies in public toilets. During his teens there were moments of adventure, including the day he and a mate travelled to Southampton and tried to stow away on the QE2.

“We were quickly discovered,” he laughs, “and promptly booted off.” But there were also real lows. During a spell when he was out of work and unable to pay his rent he was forced to spend weeks sleeping rough in a train station. But he was still determined not to return to his foster family.

They say your parents mess you up, yet the complete lack of any responsible maternal or paternal figures in Coun Wakefield’s life appears, on the face it, to have left him unscarred. Which is incredible, given the fact that he was never reunited with his biological parents. It was only when he was in his 50s that he discovered he had an older sister and brother, the latter died before they could meet.

“I’ve had to build up the protective layers to get me through,” he says. “And, in the main, I just don’t look back at all. Occasionally I do, and I’ll wonder, ‘what if?’because I could have had a better childhood. Sometimes I wonder what the outcome might have been if I’d stayed in the orphanage.

“Because it wasn’t exactly Oliver Twist in there. Yes, it was highly regimented and there was a lot of bullying from the older boys. But in the main the people behind it were well-meaning. It was the state intervening to take responsibility where needed. Quite how I ended up in there I don’t know for sure – there are huge chunks of my history missing. But my childhood toughened me up and prepared me for difficult times ahead.

“Now I just remind myself that I’m in a much better place – I have a great partner, a fantastic family, one of the best jobs in Britain and I live in a fantastic part of the country. Though sometimes I do wonder: how did I get from that to this? The only answer I have is that I’ve just got my head down and got on with things.”

Coun Wakefield’s late teens and 20s helped define his ascent into the Labour party and the trades union movement. He was never particularly academic or practical at school and unlike a handful of kids on his Leicester council estate, he wasn’t lucky enough to get into grammar school. This was a first brush with the iniquities of society.

Coun Wakefield says: “All my school did was produce workers for factories, of which there were many. You were pretty much guaranteed to get a job, but there were no wider aspirations.”

Yet within a couple of years he was forced to work in a factory. In the Midlands manufacturing still ruled in the 1960s and the bosses had absolute, often unfair, power.Coun Wakefield had a defining moment when he had to have his knee surgically removed and, after getting a job working a lathe, he was told he would have to work with a plastercast on his leg or quit.

He says: “I think that’s what triggered me off in politics. There was the realisation that it just wasn’t fair. People could sack you on a whim, or change your shifts in an instant and there was no holiday pay for the first year.

“I also remember the rule in engineering was that if you came in late twice in a week you’d be sent home for the rest of the week without pay. There was a very strong sense that we had to fight back. There was also a more raw exposure of the difference between the working class and middle class, not just in terms of work but also lifestyles too. For example, football and pubs were all homogeneously working class, only later did those barriers blur.

“We felt much more politicised by events going on in the world too. I can still remember walking to the swimming baths as a kid chanting ‘No War in Cuba’ because the missile crisis was unfolding and we all feared a third world war would break out.”

His life experiences also helped ensure he was unlikely to become a conservative. From the gay man who brought him and his friend food and clothes when he was sleeping rough to the Polish family who took him off the streets and, for about six years, gave him the closest thing to a stable home.

But the real turning point came in his mid-20s when he met Cherry, a young girl whose family had emigrated from Jamaica, and they started a six-year relationship.

“She worked close to me,” he recalls. “She’d always walk past my office, look in and wave. She was so attractive, so I just decided I was going to speak to her one day. And that was it.

“But back then it was still a big no-no for a white guy to go out with a black woman. We were unusual. As you can imagine, there were quite a few comments made to us and probably quite a few comments made behind our backs too.”

Two years into the relationship, gossip no doubt heightened when Cherry fell pregnant and along came their daughter, Dawn. However, by the age of 25 Coun Wakefield had already been studying for years to get the O-Levels and A-Levels he’d failed to achieve in his teens. Then he went on to take two degrees.

He says: “Cherry was very home-centred and by the time I was 30 I had all these big ambitions. I had to go where the jobs were and I didn’t know where I’d end up.

“But Dawn and I have always remained close. I’m very proud of her. She’s my daughter and I wanted her to be a part of my life. In fact, she was the thing which made me study, to be more responsible and ambitious. After what had happened to me with my family, I was never going to let that happen to someone else.”

After heading north in his 30s, Coun Wakefield went on to marry twice. His first marriage, to Ruth, produced another daughter, Jessica, and a son, Michael. Although both relationships ended, he continued to play a big part in the lives of his children, and still does.

He was elected to the city council in 1988 and among his proudest achievements are the setting up the one-stop shops (the local initiative providing benefits and services under one roof) and helping to secure 2014’s Yorkshire leg of the Tour de France.

Given these achievements, and the fact that he turns 65 later this year, you’d expect him to consider resigning as leader. When probed, his answer is guarded.

But even though he’s a working class man leading a middle class life, even though he’s a socialist in a post-New Labour world, even though he’s battling poverty in a post-Harvey Nichols city, he feels he faces retirement content that he’s always done the right thing by the people Leeds.

“I welcome all those things that have attracted investment,” he says. “But I’ve never forgotten what we should be about: addressing inequality. I don’t believe in the trickle down theory that success in the city centre will spread out elsewhere, but that’s what politics is about: making sure those links are there.

“A lot of our communities love coming into the centre of Leeds and they should have the same opportunities as everyone else.

“People should make the choice: if, for example, they don’t want to go to Harvey Nichols because it’s too flash, then fine. But they should be aware of their options. They don’t have to constantly live their lives in little pockets of poverty and I’ve never believed in containing people like that.

“I hate snobbery but I also hate inverted snobbery. So, I’m not ashamed to say I now like going to the theatre as much as I like going to see football.”

And it is perhaps this belief in social mobility which has finally convinced Coun Wakefield to make his past public, a past which proves that aspiration can triumph over adversity. After all, he could ostensibly be viewed as another middle class, middle-aged white man with little or no real experience of the real world.

The fact that his life story is something of a political ace card is precisely why he’s never chosen to play it over the past 25 years: he viewed it as the cheapest of shots.

“Of course, someone could still claim I’m trying to play the ace card now,” he says. “But since I’m now pushing 65, it’s a little late in the day to be playing it.”


BORN: July 27, 1948, in Herefordshire

LIVES: Garforth, Leeds

SPOUSE: Twice married and separated, now in a relationship with partner of 20 years, Sue

CHILDREN: Dawn, 39; Jessica, 30; Michael, 27

GRANDCHILDREN: Sinead, 21, and Kyle, 13

EDUCATION: BA Hons in Government from Birmingham University; MA in Industrial Relations from Warwick University; PGCE from Hollybank college, Huddersfield

EMPLOYMENT: Lecturer at: Solihull College (1980), Warrington College (1980-82), Open University (1982), Wakefield College (1983 to 2003)

POLITICAL CAREER: Elected councillor for Kippax in 1988, became deputy leader of the Leeds Labour Group in 2001, leader of the Leeds Labour Group in 2003 and leader of Leeds City Council in 2010.