Departing Leeds councillor Alison Lowe talks Labour, diversity and mental health

Councillor Alison Lowe.
Councillor Alison Lowe.

Openly weeping is not something politicians are in the habit of doing.

But during a farewell interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post, it is clear that Councillor Alison Lowe never wanted to simply slip into a safe, stoic mould created by those who came before her at Leeds City Council.

Alison Lowe outside the Touchstone headquarters.

Alison Lowe outside the Touchstone headquarters.

What is more, she has always intended compassion, honesty and a drive to diversify to be hallmarks of her near 30-year career in the city’s civic chamber – which she was the first black woman to be elected to in 1990 aged 25.

Now 54, at the local elections in May she will bow out as a member for Armley, which she has represented since day one, to concentrate on her job as chief executive at award-winning Leeds-based mental health charity Touchstone.

“You get overwhelmed, because it’s just so hard to keep on fighting the fight,” she admitted.

Coun Lowe grew up in Seacroft, a working class area with real poverty issues.

Her father, Alf Henry, was from the Caribbean island of St Kitts and her mother, Kay, was a Leeds-born trade unionist of Irish descent.

She decided to try politics herself after Conservative MP Sir Keith Joseph represented Leeds North East until 1987, a position she could not understand because of the conditions she was seeing in that constituency.

“I was just so shocked that we had all this poverty – even though the riots were in the 80s – [that] it just felt wrong that we didn’t have a Labour MP.”

Before then, the first person she had voted for was Denis Healey, the bushy-browed former Leeds East Labour MP who served as deputy leader to Michael Foot and Chancellor to Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.

And she would like to see the party return to what she calls a “politics of risk”, where members can talk straight and put forward a clear message.

Despite stressing that she is not against business or wealth, she said: “I voted for Jeremy Corbyn, of course, because I’m old Labour.

“I wanted a party that was more reflective of the people that I represent, so the people of Armley.

“I think it’s brilliant we’ve got a diversity of MPs. I think it’s great we’ve got people from Oxbridge, but I didn’t want everybody from Oxbridge.”

She added: “I thought there would be a bit of a revolution in the party where I thought there would be room for the old and the new.

“It felt [before] like there was only one kind of Labour.

“We’re a broad church. I’m a massive proponent of difference and diversity. When we bring different voices together, it’s amazing what you can achieve. [But] I wondered whether the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Ed Miliband was becoming a bit pale blue. I also think we lost our way in terms of our message, our passion in terms of our risk-embracing message.”

Such values have informed her own contributions to local politics, through which she has helped vulnerable people even when it was at odds with the position of the council itself. One example she remembers is when she fought the eviction of a council house resident who was having personal problems.

“My job is clear – it’s for that vulnerable person,” she said.

“If I think the council is not acting in line with its values and the law, I will fight until the bitter end. I’ve always been a fighter and I’ve been my own worst enemy.”

Poverty and housing problems have continued to be pressing issues ever since she was elected to the council.

“[Back then], lots of people were housed, but not necessarily housed appropriately. Now people are just not housed.”

When she first became a councillor it was her age, not her race or gender, which some council colleagues had a problem with, she said.

Members at the time still suffered a “1970s ideology” where “there was quite an old-fashioned way of doing things and I hailed a new dawn.”

In terms of ethnic representation on the council, though, she believes Leeds is now one of the most equal nationwide.

“It’s probably about the most diverse in the country,” she said, adding that around one third of the council are people of black or minority ethnic heritage.

And on budget cuts, she said: “I think we’ve really pushed against austerity. I think we’ve been able to do fantastic work in the worst of circumstances.”

But she is concerned about what she refers to as the “Brexit influence” on social exclusion across the country.

“[Politics is] not about potholes and crime [any more]. It’s all about how many black people we let in the country.”

Diversity has been a great passion during her time with the council, and one aspect has been working towards better conditions for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people, as well as other marginalised communities.

She said: “It’s not [really] about black people or gay people or trans people. It’s about saying to everybody, ‘You matter, we can help you and you can help us make Leeds be the best city it can possibly be’.”

But it is thinking about leaving the council which brings her to tears. “I will miss Armley and I will miss my constituents so much, but I’ve got to have a life and I’m just so tired. It’s going to be a massive break and, just thinking about it, I’m in bits.”

Mental health

Coun Alison Lowe has said she is open with her staff at the charity Touchstone about her own mental health struggles.

“I experience depression, anxiety. I have panic attacks,” she said.

She added that “I tell everybody everything” so that they feel able do the same.

Coun Lowe took over the chief executive role at Touchstone in 2004 after working with ex-offenders at Foundation.

Since then, the mental

health charity, which helps people in West and South Yorkshire, has grown from a staff of 50 to 200.

It also won the diverse company award at the National Diversity Awards in 2018 and is a Stonewall Top 100 Employer, among other titles.