The first female leader of Lancashire County Council talks about her journey into politics

Blackpool link road, watched by civic officials in 1986. The road follows the old railway line to the site of Central Station and is named after Lancashire County Council surveyor Harry Yeadon (far left), it was opened on the 3rd January 1986. Louise Ellman in light coloured coat
Blackpool link road, watched by civic officials in 1986. The road follows the old railway line to the site of Central Station and is named after Lancashire County Council surveyor Harry Yeadon (far left), it was opened on the 3rd January 1986. Louise Ellman in light coloured coat
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Voting Louise Ellman into office was a ground-breaking moment for women in the North West - the first female leader of Lancashire County Council.

When she first became a councillor, Louise keenly remembers being told to “go home.”

Louise Ellman was the first female leader of 'Lancashire County 'Council. She is now MP of Liverpool Riverside

Louise Ellman was the first female leader of 'Lancashire County 'Council. She is now MP of Liverpool Riverside

The 24-year-old, who was destined to become the first female leader of the authority, was even passed a note by one of the members telling her not to speak out of turn.

But instead of knocking Louise, who represented Skelmersdale, it gave her a steely determination to stick to her guns.

“I became very determined not to go home and to make a difference,” said Louise, who is now the MP for Liverpool Riverside. “But it also made me want to be sure of what I was doing.”

Growing up, Louise had always had a keen sense of justice and a desire to change things for the better.

She had joined the Labour Party when she was just 18 and when she was elected to represent Skelmersdale for the county council she found lots to keep her busy, namely tackling the mass unemployment in the area at the time.

It was not long before she became leader of the Labour group, which was were in opposition in 1977. Seven years later she found herself leader of the entire council in a shock election result. “I remember so clearly thinking this is a shock result and we may never know it again,” said Louise of the 1981 election.

“I thought, we have got to change people’s lives and do things that cannot be reversed.

“It was a very very exciting time.

“There were very few women leaders – I can’t think of any other council women leaders in the North West at that point.”

The first thing Louise did when she got into power was to fund public services.

She said: “There wasn’t much money around, it was the beginning of cuts to Government services so the first thing I did was raise more money to spend on public services. In her time as

leader Louise set up Lancashire Enterprises which brought millions of pounds of European funding into Lancashire to support businesses, re-developed the White Cross Business Parkin Lancaster, New Hall Hey in Rossendale and even brought Icelandic fish back to Fleetwood.

Louise also put a lot of her energy into enabling women who were coming back to work after having children. She said: “We pioneered courses with European money and we ran them to assist women returners. Most women left the labour market when they had families so the various classes were to help them to get back into employment because they needed skills to get jobs.

“We launched the Rosebud Fund for small businesses. It was relatively small amounts of money and the grants went towards people with business ideas and some were very successful.

“Leyland Trucks were going to close down. We managed to save it.

“We also set up a Welfare Rights unit, the first in the country, to help people get the benefits they were entitled to. This was all very unusual at the time.”

Louise credits the team that she had around her with many of the achievements that the council were able to make under her leadership. She said: “It wasn’t just me, I had a good team around me and together we’d made a real difference and we were very revolutionary at the time.

“Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister and we just felt she wasn’t interested.

“Once I got involved I realised what you could do with a team around you as a resource.

“You’re not on your own but there’s a way of carrying it out - expertise.

“You do need to think through what you’re doing. At the beginning I was quite impatient. If you get good advisors and do it properly it does happen.

“I think at first people were a bit taken aback and wondered what I would do but once I’d started to deliver things that mattered then they were happy.”

But for Louise it was not always plain sailing, looking after her two children, Sean and Yvonne, and managing her role as leader could be tricky at times.

“We juggled and survived,” she said. “My husband Geoff was very supportive and I also have good friends.”

She says that her role as leader of LCC has stood her in good stead for her job as an MP.

Asked what she would tell her younger self Louise, who is a grandmother to five, said: “No matter what it is you’re trying to achieve get all the right information and don’t give up. This is not a job for someone who isn’t resilient.

“It’s a great privilege, its hard work but its brings satisfaction. I have just got on with what I am able to do.”

There are still tracks to be made in terms of representation of women in Parliament but she feels overall that the country is heading in the right direction.

She said: “We have come a long way, the year I was elected there was a record number of women.

“We were called Blair’s babes and had a photo taken with him - that was a watershed moment.”And all these years after she first raised money to pay for social services at LCC it is still an issue which is close to her heart as an MP in Liverpool.

The squeeze on pubic services such as buses and libraries is a big issue that she says is reflected across the nation.

“It’s often the women who suffer the most as they are the ones who are left looking after elder parents and children,” she said.

‘Seize the moment’ - councillor

A councillor born just three years after the voting age for women was lowered to 21 – the same as for men – is calling on women to “seize the moment” and make their mark on public life.

Veteran Ribble Valley councillor Joyce Holgate, 86, is calling on women to ensure they are registered to vote and consider standing for election as the UK commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of voting rights for women. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave propertied women over the age of 30 and all men the vote, paving the way for the extension of suffrage to all women in 1928.

Councillor Holgate, who has represented Whalley on Ribble Valley Borough Council for 23 years, been borough mayor twice and received an MBE for services to local government in 2011, said: “A hundred years ago, women could not stand for election or even vote. So what better way to remember and celebrate those who campaigned tirelessly in the face of great hostility for votes for women than by registering to vote and even standing for election? To register to vote, visit gov.uk/register-to-vote, or for further information contact your local council’s electoral registration team.

Mother and daughter lead the way for women councillors

“My success has always been measured by how many chapattis I have out on the table.”

Those are the words of Lancashire and Chorley councillor Hasina Khan.

She feels that as long as she can fulfil all her duties to her family first she can then go out and have a successful career in politics.

Hasina’s daughter Zara, 23, is also a councillor in Chorley but, following in the footsteps of her mother, her transition into politics has been smooth in comparison. “The hard work was done by the time she got in,” said Hasina.

It was Chorley’s MP Lindsay Hoyle who first encouraged Hasina to get involved in politics, but when she was initially elected in 2006 aged 37 her dad was not convinced that the role was appropriate.

She said: “When I got elected my own dad didn’t have confidence in me. He said ‘it’s not for an Asian woman, that’s not women’s work’. All he’d seen me do were my wifely duties. It made me more motivated. I was more determined than ever - I’m a Chorley girl through and through. I’m British and I’m passionate about being a voice for the community that I love.

“He adjusted to it because of my determination.

“My husband Zafar was very supportive from day one. I think he may have had a bit of pressure behind the scenes, though. His friends would say to him, ‘If it was you we would vote for you, but it’s your missus so we won’t’.”

While Hasina said that she received a lot of support from the Labour Party she still had a few hurdles to overcome.

“What was really affecting my confidence at the time was the Iraq war. People felt that maybe I was only out for my own Asian community but my intention was to serve the entire community. But they did support me - they have warmed to me over the years.”

Growing up as a teenager Zara has often helped her mother canvas before elections. For her the path into politics was easier. “Canvassing was just something that would come around and we would help her,” said Zara. “For me it’s much easier I think because I followed on. It was different, she was working while I was growing up - that was the done thing. It was never really out of the ordinary.” While she has not had to break down barriers in the same way, being young and involved in politics is not something Zara’s friends fully understand. “I was 21 when I started,” said Zara. “A lot of my friends didn’t really understand - I think people think of politics on a national level but they don’t understand how it works at a community level.

Hasina said: “It is very important for me as a mother that Zara is leading the way for other young women, it’s all right to be educated and to get out to work.”

Zara, who qualified as a nurse at Royal Preston Hospital, says equality for women is not an issue in her working environment as it in within politics. “Nursing is female dominated but in politics its still male dominated and sometimes you feel like you have to prove that you can deliver,” she said. “I would encourage other women to get involved in politics.”

Being a generation apart the duo say that they do not always see eye to eye over how to balance their British and Asian values. Hasina said: “We are trying to find an even keel between the cultural pressures of being British and Muslim. She can’t go out after nine o’clock. I don’t think its safe but it’s also about having respect in terms of culture.”

Zara isn’t so sure. She added: “It’s ridiculous. To me it shouldn’t really concern you what the community thinks. The most important thing is what you think yourself.”

One thing is for sure: these strong women are leading the way for others in their community.

MPs campaign over voting

Since women got the vote a century ago there are some who live in fear of their lives if they go to the ballot box.

Women who have fled domestic violence are often fearful of even registering to vote. Scared that a perpetrator might track them down using the electoral roll they do not vote at all, missing out on their fundamental right which was so hard fought for 100 years ago. Last year the Government announced proposals for changing the anonymous voting rules but there is still more to do. Lancaster MP Cat Smith is campaigning to make it simpler for women to be able to resister to vote anonymously. She said: “The current rules mean that only in the most extreme cases can women gather the required evidence and many women are instead having to make a decision balancing registering to vote or risking a perpetrator tracking down where they live.

“In a fair democracy all who are eligible to vote should be able to register free from fear.”

Currently survivors are legally allowed to vote anonymously if they can prove their safety will be at risk if their address is published on the Electoral Register. Victims have to have certain types of evidence or a letter from a someone called a Qualifying Officer to qualify but Women’s Aid wants to see the list of evidence that can be used become much wider and, at a minimum, include evidence of a refuge stay, a letter from a health professional and other types of evidence from the police. It also wants professionals working in specialist domestic abuse organisations to be ‘Qualifying Officers’ who can sign letters of support.