Popping out for a pint of milk and a piece of casework
When I first got involved with the Labour Party, I heard tales of a legendary councillor who was so well known and well respected on the estate where she lived that when she went out to the shops, someone would spot her and ask for help to sort out some problem or other: their housing repairs, their immigration status or the noisy neighbour making their lives miserable.
But this was no legend, it was just how Val lived her life. I had the great privilege to see her in action, and whenever people asked for her help, she’d always listen patiently, offer good advice and do her best. Even if all she really wanted was to pick up some groceries.
As a local councillor for more than twenty years, and the office manager for her husband Andrew, the local MP, Val was a champion for people who’d had a raw deal and needed someone on their side to help them. Her version of social justice was a realistic, practical and rooted one. Val was particularly proud of Blackbird Leys, where she lived for nearly forty year and represented for twenty seven. As the old saying goes, on the Leys everyone knows someone who’s been helped by Val Smith.
The search for calm
I worked for Val for two years in Andrew’s constituency office. All that Val ever wanted from her work was a nice, calm day. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever worked for an MP or worked in politics will know, calm days are few and far between. Lack of calm could be caused by things such as a day spent on the phones to the Immigration Advisory Service, Pete hiding under his desk to avoid a particularly demanding constituent’s calls, or the time when I left the dial up broadband on overnight.
Managing a group of young men in our early twenties, the state in which we left the office at the end of the working day was often a particular source of uncalmness for Val. She would usually be the first one into the office in the morning to see what a mess we made: not a calm start to the day. Pete and Laurence would arrive at work to hear Val explain what she thought about this in no uncertain terms. This experience was not improved for them when I would then turn up to work a bit later, to be greeted by Val (who by this point had worked off her irritation on them and was in a good mood) like a long lost friend.
If the general working day was a disappointment in terms of calmness, the run up to elections was even worse. Boxes of leaflets everwhere, mess and chaos, Andrew injuring himself on a door while out canvassing...election campaigns provided an endless supply of dramas and annoyance for Val, who ultimately just wanted to spend her day helping people and then get back home to spend time watching Midsomer Murders with her cats. If at the end of the working day we hadn’t got through all the letters or there was still work that needed to be done, Val would just take it back home and make sure it all got done in the evenings or at weekends.
I wish that the people who wrote spiteful articles and went on about how MPs shouldn’t employ family members could just have spent a little time working with Val to see how wrong they were.
“You’ll never get me out of my car”
As well as working for Val for two years, I also served alongside her as a councillor for four years. Her passion was for reducing homelessness and improving housing in Oxford. Anyone living in a council home which was improved as part of the Decent Homes Standard, or about to move into one of the new council homes which are currently being built has a lot to thank Val for. Val was a brilliant councillor. She was kind and welcoming to new councillors like me, and a great role model. When she spoke in council and Labour Group meetings, she was thoughtful and a voice of common sense and reason.
Val was involved in the Oxford Labour Party in the 1980s, and so had a high threshold for dealing with daft ideas. She was targeted by the “Independent Working Class Association” who denounced her as “a traitor to the working class” during the 2000s before they made the discovery that given the choice, working class people would rather vote for Val than the IWCA. But while Val experienced the highs and lows of local politics with good humour and great dignity, just occasionally she felt the need to try to steer discussions back towards Planet Earth.
During one particular discussion in the Labour Group about how much to put up car parking charges up by, I remember Val’s impassionated plea: “Let’s get real about this. You are never going to get me out of my car.” Val was a great champion for social justice, a campaigner against homelessness, and proud to serve on the County Council’s Adoption Panel. But she knew that a rooted Labour Party also needed to be aware of motorists and not lose touch with the majority of our supporters.
The special signal
The election count in 2005 was nerve wracking. Nationally, there had been a big swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats (younger readers: ask your parents what a “Liberal Democrat” was). The results had been counted and the candidates were about to gather on the stage for the announcement of the results. Val saw Andrew give a little wave, and she looked devastated. The wave Andrew had given was the special signal which they had agreed, so that Andrew could let Val know before the results were announced if he’d lost, so that she had a chance to prepare herself.
Except that, in the heat of the excitement, Andrew had forgotten what the special sign was. In fact, he was just asking his campaign team to come up, because the tallies showed that he had won by just under 1,000 votes. We were all delighted when the results were read out, but none more so than Val. What had happened in 2005 was that amongst the people in Oxford who were voting on national policy issues, Labour had lost the argument to the Liberal Democrats. However, amongst people who were voting on which was best locally, and who would make the best local MP, Labour had won massively. Overall, this proved just enough for Andrew to be re-elected.
Five years later, the Lib Dems were back for a re-match. I arrived in Oxford for the final two weeks of the campaign. Andrew’s campaign team were exhausted and facing the prospect that all their hard work would count for nothing in the fact of ‘Cleggmania’ (younger readers: etc etc). When all around seemed dark as night, it was Val who kept Andrew going, made sure we ignored the polls and focused on what needed doing locally. On election day in 2010, Labour beat the Liberal Democrats comprehensively, including winning over 85% of the vote on Blackbird Leys.
Andrew spent seven years as a Cabinet Minister, responsible as Chief Secretary to the Treasury for planning Labour’s investment in public services and as Secretary of State at the DWP for the largest ever falls in child and pensioner poverty. Child poverty rates fell throughout Andrew’s time in the Cabinet, and have been rising ever since he left the Cabinet. This was a true partnership: Andrew in Whitehall helping take 600,000 children and one million pensioners out of poverty and Val in the office in Cowley and at home on the Leys making sure that local constituents got great representation and service. None of it would have been possible without their combined talents.
It is possible to take people like Val for granted, to assume that they will always be there with their kindness, good advice, and her humour. In a fairer and more just world, Val would be able to enjoy her retirement, time in France relaxing with Andrew, and time with Mirai, her granddaughter. And in a better world for the Labour Party, Val would have a big role to play in the debate about our future.
She wouldn’t need to read articles about how Labour might win back the support of working class voters, or pamphlets about how Labour could combine our passion for social justice with an appeal to the majority. We can learn so much more from Blackbird Leys than Oxford University about what Labour should do next.
I will miss Councillor Councillor Councillor Val so much. I’d planned to finish this piece with some rhetorical flourish, urging anyone who cares about social justice to learn from her example, her quiet determination to do good, her commitment to her working class community. But I can just imagine Val reading something like that, giggling a bit and rolling her eyes, as if to say: “what on earth are you boys on about now.”