Thinking about a parish council meeting conjures up images of a poorly attended occasion on a Tuesday night, in a village hall somewhere, with a selection of stale biscuits served up as refreshments. They don’t usually go viral on Twitter and catapult their members to media stardom – but that’s exactly what has happened to Jackie Weaver, and she’s keen to use her newfound platform to challenge those preconceptions about local government.
Jackie Weaver’s name is now famous across the country, after the video of her efforts at facilitating a meeting of Handforth Parish Council went viral online, leading to appearances on Sky News, BBC Woman’s Hour, and The Last Leg – among many others. “It has been literally non-stop since that first day,” says Weaver, speaking to The Bubble, “somebody expressed it quite well as being a perfect storm. If any one thing been missing – the meetings hadn’t been held, the youngsters hadn’t picked it up, we hadn’t been in this desperate lockdown, none of this would have happened.”
This conversation takes place only a short while after the video went viral, as Weaver is keen to point out when asked how the last few weeks have been – “you said the last few weeks, but actually it’s only been two! It seems like an awful lot longer than that.” When asked how the experience has been, she replies: “Tiring, but I have enjoyed it. I feel like this is something that won’t last, sadly, but I hope it continues. I don’t mean my own media career,” she laughs, “but this opportunity where people have started to show an interest in what does last, and that is the town and parish council movement, something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time.”
We were keen to press for details of what exactly what was going on in the infamous Zoom meeting, and Weaver spills the beans: “There had been problems at Handforth for some time. Clearly something like that doesn’t blow up on a sixpence. The Chairman had unilaterally suspended the Clerk back in November, and then unilaterally declared himself Clerk. We now had three councillors on one side and three on another – but the Chairman had a casting vote, and we inevitably had an imbalance of power. The three you hear from in the meeting were passionate about Handforth issues – the local bus service, the local transport plan, the neighbourhood plan – but none of this business was getting done.”
The disgruntled councillors eventually asked the self-declared Clerk to hold a meeting but were refused. In exercising their right under the Local Government Act 1972 to call a meeting, they found they were without anyone to chair proceedings. When they contacted the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, an unlikely hero answered the phone. “I knew it was going to be problematic, so I thought I would go myself.” She chuckles at this – “go myself,” she reiterates, and rephrases: “walk all the way over to my desk and switch on my computer!”
In the meeting (available to view on YouTube in a 20-minute highlights package), a number of colourful characters pop up – Sue, with her no-nonsense attitude, John Smith with a nominatively deterministic everyman appeal and Member-Of-The-Public Alan Murdoch, unaware of the carnage into which he has entered and, frankly, having the time of his life. Weaver had the most to say about the self-titled Handforth PC Clerk, though (of “you have no authority here” fame). “He made much about “are you here in your capacity as Clerk? Or are you here as Proper Officer?” She says to The Bubble but directed firmly at the mystery man at the council’s helm: “pet, I’m neither! I’m literally here to take the notes, like a meeting secretary,” she emphasises, “but that was a concept that seemed to challenge him.”
When quizzed on whether the behaviour exhibited by Mr “READ THE STANDING ORDERS” on Aled’s iPad was particularly common in local government, Weaver replied: “Definitely not of that intensity. You can’t go into democracy at any level without some thickening of the skin around the edges, because you will be talking with people who feel passionately about their local area. But there’s a way of arguing your case – even forcefully – without it being what you see on the video.”
The behaviour itself is one half of the problem – but the other side of the coin is the lack of sanctions for it. “Nearly 20 years ago, the Government launched an inquiry into standards in public life. From that, we’ve been left with a standards code – the code itself is fine, but it really doesn’t address the issue of what to do when it goes wrong,” she explains. When the code has been breached, you’re currently supposed to mention it to the person who committed the infraction. The issue with this is self-evident to Weaver: “If you are saying to somebody whose conduct has been abysmal, “I think you should behave better,” are you really dealing with the sort of people who will go “oh my goodness, yes, I should”? No,” she emphasises firmly, “of course not.” She goes as far as saying that what had occurred would be classed as a public order offence – “had we actually been in a physical room, I hope I would’ve had the presence of mind to make sure our PCSO was there and could have invited the main involved to leave.”
Did this behaviour reflect an intimidating culture within local government? Weaver hesitates to answer and admits that “the fact I hesitate so long to answer the question probably means that I want to say no, but my heart says yes. I think that we have an issue with the demographic.” She partly means the fact that 63% of the UK’s local councillors are male, but also that “whether men or women, we are older.” The numbers support this – as of 2018, the statistics reveal that 45% of councillors are retired, with the average age being 59 and only 15% being under-45. A number of other issues of underrepresentation arise, such as the fact that 96% are white. Despite recognising that both sides of the age divide “find each other scary in one way or the other,” Weaver insists that she has been faced with an opportunity to bring the younger generation into the fold.
Initially, it was only the Twitter generation that was even aware of the video going viral. “I really don’t engage with social media, I don’t mean as a policy, and someone sent me a message on the Thursday evening to say “you’re trending #3” and I thought, “well that sounds lovely… I actually have no idea what it means.” After going to waking up the next morning with a mobile phone in “meltdown,” a landline ringing off the hook, and three news vans outside her front door, Weaver had to quickly adjust to newfound fame.
After the dust settled, however, she recognised an “opportunity to engage with the groups that we’ve been trying to break into for such a long time.” Being an internet sensation brings access to a new demographic – and “there’s hope that it’ll continue! A number of universities have asked me to speak, and let’s hope that it does actually have a legacy, that people do take an interest in their local Parish and Town Councils. It’s very difficult to influence national policy – I think that’s what turns us off democracy, politics and so on, but it’s not so difficult to influence local democracy if you get involved. So get involved!”
When asked for suggestions on how to get started, she points out the website of the National Association of Local Councils, nalc.gov.uk, and their “Make a Change” campaign.