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leah 600Leah Levane speaks: a Labour councillor’s ideas for Hastings

Leah Levane, newly elected Labour Councillor for Castle Ward in May 2018, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about her work as a Community Development Worker, and how that experience has helped shape her vision of what she would like to achieve in Hastings.

CM: Congratulations on being elected a Labour councillor. Please tell me about your background and what you have been involved in.

LL: I am 64 years old, and most of my working life has been spent as a Community Development Worker. I worked with local people to improve neighbourhoods. This gave me experience in bringing people together in spite of such  differences as sex, gender, race, religion; helping them find common interests, so they could acknowledge each other as human beings living in the same neighbourhood, and improve their sense of belonging.

I had left the Labour Party in 1984-85 when, under Neil Kinnock, it did not support the miner’s strike. I rejoined in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was elected; he stood up for ordinary people at the heart of his policy-making. I moved to Hastings two weeks after he was elected, and at the end of 2017 I was asked if I would stand for Council. At first I said no, but then I thought why not? I am not someone who leaves things to other people.

leah levane hbc picWhat made you decide to become a councillor?

I have always been passionate about justice. I still remember when I was eight watching news reports about peaceful demonstrations during the civil rights movement, and seeing how cruelly people were treated.

I come from a Jewish background, my family came to England from Poland and Latvia before the rise of Nazism, but still, they were fleeing from pogroms and discrimination. I always knew the depth and horror of what racism could lead to, and so knew that I must stand up for other victims of racism. One of my grandfathers was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in the First World War – he saw it as a capitalist war. People were brave refusing to fight as well as brave going to war. I see myself as a socialist internationalist.

This inevitably led me to standing up for justice for Palestinians. I was active in the Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Now I co-chair Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). Since Corbyn was elected the Labour Party has been vilified as rife with anti-semitism. In fact the figures of its existence are tiny, significantly less than half a per cent. Jennie Formby, the Labour Party general secretary provided figures to Labour MPs, as has been well covered in the national press.

However, any level of racism in any form must be dealt with properly; sometimes it will just need conversations to correct misunderstandings or poor language, sometimes more concerted training, possibly with suspension for a period, and some people should be expelled.

But it seems clear that it is also being used as a weapon by more right-wing parts of the Labour Party, as well as other sources – including Amber Rudd who attacked the local Labour Party, yet is part of a government that has created the hostile environment, the Windrush scandal and intense suffering for poor people. We have a situation in which the richest people, and those in charge of corporations that do not pay their taxes in full, use their vast resources to influence public opinion.

To sum up my answer to your question of why I decided to become a Labour councillor: I want to be part of the change.

What would you like to achieve, and to what extent do you feel you will be able to influence decision-making?

My priority issues are housing, housing and housing, mental health, and connectivity within the community.

The former Observer Building.

The Observer Building.

I am thinking of starting a regular women’s group. I would like us to think about the issues we could work on together – not just leaving things to Hastings Borough Council (HBC). A community can do things. I am very excited about the Observer Building having been bought; there’ll be spaces for small businesses, affordable flats and pop-up shops. That has nothing to do with HBC, it’s a big community initiative, and it’s been taken on by a social enterprise company. Syrian refugees can be involved, for example, I understand that there are a couple who are blacksmiths, they could set up a market stall.

Regarding influencing decision-making, yes, I hope to do so – but it will take time. What interests me most is for the Council to engage with the community. It’s hard learning how things work. Just now I am reading and commenting on papers. I am on the Audit Committee, Coastal Users Group and the Museum Committee.

I will get a better understanding by reading, and the ongoing  discussions with Labour councillors, and then thinking how things might be improved. I think my background as a Community Development Officer can help, though I know finances are horrendously limited.

We are currently starting to develop the next Area Plan for Hastings and St Leonards. This requires a rather lengthy statutory process, but I hope people will get involved, despite the formality of some aspects of the process, as we need local people to help to shape the town’s future.

As well as the way the town looks, we need to consider what services are important – like welfare rights, housing the homeless and how these services are best provided; for example some directly by the Council and some by the voluntary sector, which is often doing amazing work, despite the dreadful shortage of funds.

What do you think of the Cabinet system of local government?

You can have a Cabinet system that keeps people out, or a Cabinet system that is inclusive. Some Councils only have members of the majority political Party on the Council, but HBC, which is Labour controlled, does have two Conservative councillors in the Cabinet. For me, it’s not so much about the structure (Cabinet or committees) as having a culture that is as outwardly focused as possible.

There is no shortage of heart in the town and the Council, but the impact of Conservative austerity is huge. Notwithstanding all the constraints, Hastings is looking for solutions to cut across that – like buying properties that generate a greater income than the mortgage plus interest will cost. That is raising hundreds and thousands of pounds, so that we do not have to cut from the services we continue to provide.

[Council leader] Peter Chowney’s view is that it is really important that people vote as this provides backing for our manifesto and this helps us in our work. We will always do our best. We understand that for many people voting is all they do and further involvement may be expecting too much … and indeed a lot of people don’t even bother to vote, especially in local elections.

Voting is a base line for democracy. I am interested in representative and participatory democracy. We have representative democracy, and I would like to have more participatory democracy. That also requires local people to help shape that vision in Hastings and St Leonards.

Do you feel the general public should have more say in public consultations? And have you any ideas on how townspeople and the Council could together become more engaged in exploring what is best for the town?

What is important is inclusivity – to go as far as possible beyond the council to the community, to communities doing things for themselves. We need things to be committee-led as well as Council-led – so projects and ideas come from the people as well as from councillors and experts.

There is so much knowledge and expertise in our community. There needs to be more listening, and HBC needs to engage with activists. I would also like the minimum of secrecy. On occasion I do not understand why some things are restricted, and I believe that there has to be a good reason for things to be kept under wraps.

In the May elections lots of new councillors were voted in – nine new Labour, and new Conservative ones as well. It really takes time to understand how things work. Some Councillors may be entrenched in an old culture, but there is a real commitment to doing as much as possible for the residents of this town and to change things that are not done so well. I also  think much that is good about what is happening now is also not communicated enough .

I feel that there are broadly two kinds of councillors, the ones more motivated by ‘civic duty’, and those more motivated by a desire for political change, who want to change the world. I count myself among the latter, but the support to local people is vital for all councillors and both perspectives  are absolutely necessary. I am glad to be part of a very dedicated and hard-working team committed to doing all they can to improve the situation for people in Hastings.

 

Posted 11:19 Thursday, Mar 14, 2019 In: Politics

3 Comments


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT
  1. ken davis

    If Leah seriously wants to tackle local housing issues then she is going to have to tackle the, let us for now, say ‘inefficiences’ in the HBC planning department.
    For example there are hundreds of small sites in Hastings which could be developed for housing by and for local people but such use needs a special policy in the forthcoming revision of the local plan rather than having to fight some of the absurdities of how the planning system is (mis) managed locally.

    Comment by ken davis — Tuesday, Mar 19, 2019 @ 09:19

  2. Ms.Doubtfire

    And who IS keen on the idea of a Corbyn-led Government?? Please tell.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Monday, Mar 18, 2019 @ 08:31

  3. Carl

    I had been wondering if the reports in the media about virulent antisemitism in the Labour Party were exaggerated as part of a political agenda. Councillor Levane has confirmed what I had suspected. Antisemitism, like Islamophobia exists in all parts of society but is no more prevalent in Labour than it is anywhere else.

    I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theories but perhaps a friend of mine is right? The billionaire press barons with their off-shore tax-dodging havens are not keen on the idea of a Corbyn-led Government. Despite Tory austerity the rich are getting richer. The Times rich list consistently shows a year on year increase in the wealth of the wealthiest. The owners of the Express, the Mail and the Telegraph have regularly had pretty high billing on that list. Interesting….

    Comment by Carl — Saturday, Mar 16, 2019 @ 08:00

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