A day in the life of a ‘shadow’: our first journal of the week

“For me …politics had always existed in some virtual world far away where politicians meted out decisions that affected people’s lives either positively or negatively.? Celina Mbwiria records her reactions to a first full council meeting.

celina meets phil 1 2

Thursday 26th October 2006
A lovely autumn morning. I woke with a purpose and a spring in my step. My colleague and I were to visit the City Chambers in Edinburgh, to observe for the very first time, the workings of a ‘full council meeting’.

We arrived at the City Chambers at 10 am and my mentor (Councillor Phil Attridge) took us to the café area to meet other Leith councillors while a lady with a register came in and out checking which councillors had not yet arrived – like school roll call. The atmosphere and the banter were relaxed and helped relieve any anxieties we may have had about participating in such a venture.

For me the whole experience was a momentous one as I had never done anything like it before. Politics always existed in some virtual world far away where politicians meted out decisions that affected people’s lives either positively or negatively. And while I have most times exercised my democratic right to vote, I had never thought deeply about how such things affected my personal life. Through programmes such as this, I am stimulated to question things more, which I think is a very good thing.

In the public galleries, I was quite surprised to see so many ordinary people come to observe such proceedings. My colleague and I were the only people from the BME communities there and only because we are in this programme. This brings home to me the importance of programmes like this in raising awareness within the BME communities and encouraging them to come and witness decisions which affect them.

Heated debate

Below us sat all the councillors with the Lord Provost chairing the proceedings. Labour councillors were furthest away, Conservatives just in front of us and Liberal Democrats just underneath us. The acoustics were quite bad and it was hard to hear what was being said. Issues of great interest were discussed and I could catch one word here and there – I made note of these: a heated debate about council money being inappropriately spent; housing affordability; inequalities and reducing the gap; carbon emmissions, global warming and parking charges. My mentor gave me a copy of the report and that helped to a certain degree.

Some time was spent discussing the furnishings of the chamber – whether to buy new chairs or refurbish existing ones. This is the only debate I could follow because we could quite clearly hear the Lib Dems and the Conservatives as they made their argument for restoration of the chairs to preserve them for posterity against Labour’s case to replace them with more storage-friendly ones to reduce mounting storage costs.

Gender balance and BME representation

It was clear from the start that great gender imbalance existed in the chamber and there was only one councillor visible from BME communities. In fact I could only count three female Labour councillors and two Conservatives and I was informed that there were four female Liberal Democrats. Of 56 councillors present there were 9 female councillors – equivalent to 16%. Clearly there is a big gap here and I can’t help but wonder why this is so. When I later inquired from our host I was told that there was a time when women councillors were labelled the Knitting Club, a term women took in their stride and turned to their advantage. Still, it’s sad to see the glaring gender imbalance and I hope something can be done about it. As regards to BME communities, there is great need for programmes like ‘Opening Doors’ to inform and encourage BME communities to become more involved and claim their rightful place in the national politics.

Lunch with councillors

Over lunch we had a chance to talk with Leith councillors about issues that affected us individually or as a community. Later our host took us to see the office he shares with another councillor, with many pictures and photographs on the walls. Two pictures stood out for me. A South African one showing a tiny black man being kicked about by four burly uniformed white men – the other was of a dessicated body of a human victim of hurricane Katriona hanging on a barbed wire fence like a ragdoll. Seeing these pictures was poignant for me because they clearly indicated what the powerful few are capable of doing to the majority poor who have no voice.

Is the developed world as civilised as it claims to be?

At the end of the day, the whole experience was worthwhile and I enjoyed it all immensely and would encourage others to take part in such projects. I would like to thank the organisers of the project and my mentor for organising the activities and for looking after us through the day

Celina is one of six ‘shadows’ taking part in the Opening Doors programme to encourage black and minority ethnic representation in local and national politics. For more about Celina see the Local Heroes section of this website.

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