Conservative Rob Light stepped down from Kirklees Council earlier this month after 30 years in local politics. He spoke to Local Democracy Reporter Tony Earnshaw about a career which has featured triumphs and failures.
A farmer’s son from the West Yorkshire village of Birkenshaw, Robert Light can trace his political “eureka” moment back to Margaret Thatcher’s response to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. He was 18.
“That was the trigger – that principle of standing up for the islands against all odds,” he recalls. “There was no political history in my family, although both my parents leant towards the Conservatives. I wasn’t a firebrand. There was just the desire to make a difference and do things. I’m a progressive Conservative.”
Four years later he took his seat in the council chamber at Huddersfield Town Hall, the start of 30 years’ service to local politics which included a three-year spell as leader of Kirklees Council. He stepped down from his council role on November 16, though he doesn’t rule out a return and believes he could still “make a difference” as council leader.
The intervening years have been tumultuous, turbulent and transformative. As Mr Light admits, there have been good times and bad, triumphs and failures. And as he anticipates a life outside politics he looks back to evolving from an “exceptionally shy” youngster to a respected public servant.
Between his late teens and early twenties, Mr Light joined the Young Conservatives in the new constituency of Batley & Spen. Within a year, he was branch chairman, later becoming Yorkshire regional chairman. And in 1987, aged just 22, he became a councillor for Birstall & Birkenshaw, meaning he was treated by some as a “young whipper-snapper”.
He recalls: “I had to earn my credibility. I did that through the work that I did but also by showing good judgement.”
He breaks down the three-decade span of his political life into chapters: the early years; the “golden year” of 1992 when the Tories won half the available seats on the council, leading to no overall control in 1994, which bucked the national trend as Conservatives locally were losing; and the “dark years” of 1995/96 when John Major’s government was extremely unpopular.
In 1995 Mr Light lost his seat and was re-elected in 2000. He dubs the period “my wilderness years”. Within six months of re-election, he was made Tory group leader.
Mr Light sufficiently impressed the big guns to be nominated as a parliamentary candidate. Between 1992 and 2005 he stood three times: in Doncaster North, Halifax, and Batley & Spen.
There are pangs of regret that he never made it to the House of Commons. “I think I would have been good. I would have liked the opportunity to have been a minister. If you want to influence things then one way to do that is to get into a position to make change.”
Instead he made his mark in Kirklees, becoming council leader in 2006. Over three years, the Conservative administration laid the groundwork for Huddersfield Leisure Centre and the new Kirklees College.
It also delivered the “radical initiative” of Kirklees Warm Zone, which offered free loft and cavity wall insulation to thousands of homes.
Of his tenure as council leader he says: “In those three years we achieved more than the council achieved in the previous 10 years and the following 10 years.
“The evidence is there in bricks and mortar,” he says. “We didn’t lay the bricks but we did the work to make it happen.”
Mr Light says the way forward, and to avoid overt politicking, is via dialogue. He reserves special praise for three stalwarts: former mayor John Holt along with council leaders Sir John Harman and Lawrence Conlon, who also led West Yorkshire fire authority.
He harks back to a budget debate in the mid-1990s when, to the surprise of Labour and the Conservatives, both parties found common ground.
“We were going through issues and negotiating with John Harman. Suddenly there was a scary moment where both ourselves and Labour realised that when we put away the banter there wasn’t a lot between us. It showed me that you can make a difference by working with other parties if you have common ground. That’s how to operate – by talking to people.”
He is scathing in his criticism of the current Labour administration and its reaction to the effects of the Government’s austerity programme that followed the financial crash of 2007/08. And his great regret is that the Conservatives are no longer in control in Kirklees.
“The council would be in a much better place. We wouldn’t have the service reductions and the cuts that Labour has done in a totally irrational way.”
Mr Light was removed as council leader in 2009 during protracted arguments over the scrapping of middle schools and his refusal to back the closure of his local site.
“The bottom line is that I wasn’t prepared to sell out the community I had grown up with to cling onto power. I sacrificed my career for my principles and I would do it again tomorrow.”
The memory is a bitter-sweet one, mixing sadness with a sense of having done the right thing .
In making his resignation speech to a packed full council meeting, Mr Light revealed that he and his wife, Sharon, would be fostering children in future.
And in quitting politics he’ll be able to spend more time with daughters Jessica and Rebekah and son Matthew, a former soldier in the Yorkshire Regiment who was seriously injured on active service in Afghanistan.
He will also continue working at Moorhouse Farm, an equestrian farm with 30 horses. His role at the site is something he has long combined with his political life.
Would he ever consider a return to the council chamber? “Never say never. I care passionately about the borough. Would I like to lead the council again? Yes, I think I could make a difference.”