By Poppy Askham
Govind Nair recently assumed the role of parish councillor for the ward of Durham South following this month’s bumper crop of local elections. The second-year PPE student at St Aidan’s College joins the council as a representative of the Labour Party and more broadly, Durham University’s student voice. Palatinate spoke to Nair about his vision for the future both locally and nationally, for the wider Labour Party.
Parish councillors are essentially “the middleman between the residents and the County Council.” Nair explains, “We represent the views of the residents of the City of Durham.” He adds that, despite limited decision-making powers, parish councillors act as vital advocates for the locals and students they represent. The City of Durham Parish Council came into being just three years ago and is made up of 15 councillors.
“I’m the only one representing students – I’ll make sure that I fight for our side.” Amid pandemic-related limitations on campaigning, reduced student presence in Durham and lack of awareness about dual registration, Nair was the sole successful candidate out of five students running for local positions.
“I think all the student candidates were excellent,” Nair said, expressing regret that more had not been elected. He hopes that his election “makes more students want to get involved in local politics,” eventually leading to a more representative division of students and locals within the parish and county councils.
Despite exam season, Nair has hit the ground running to fulfil this role: “I’ve already had the AGM meeting with the parish council,” he enthuses. “I’ve been nominated for the licensing committee, the personnel committee and the business committee.”
The current parish council is made up of three Labour councillors, eleven Liberal Democrats and one Green Party councillor. “Some parish councils have reputations for getting quite toxic,” Nair acknowledges, the name Jackie Weaver heavy in the air. But, he clarifies, “The whole parish council seems to be quite cooperative” despite different party allegiances.
First up on his list of priorities is the city’s housing problems, an aim facilitated by his seat on the licensing committee. He and his fellow Labour councillors hope to establish a licensing fee and register for landlords in an attempt to tackle the exploitative rental practices many students face. Post-lockdown business recovery and environmental concerns are also key focuses for Nair.
As he enters his third year this October, he will have to balance academic pressures with these priorities. But it’s a juggling act he’s confident he can maintain. “It’ll be a challenge to keep everything going at the same time, but it will be worth it – final year’s not easy but it will keep me on my toes.”
Whilst Nair may have secured a Labour win in Durham South, the May 6th results were generally disappointing for his party. Nationally, Labour lost 327 councillors and control over 8 councils, whereas Conservatives made considerable gains. Despite its status as a traditional Labour strong-hold, County Durham was no exception to the trend – Labour lost 21 county council seats, failing to secure a majority within the Council for the first time since 1925. Although City of Durham’s parish and county elections had already been dominated by Liberal Democrats in previous years, Labour’s position was further weakened in the area.
“I was quite surprised,” Nair says, although he admits that he “wasn’t expecting amazing results.” The County Durham results were likely influenced by the strength of several locally popular Liberal Democrat and independent candidates, according to Nair, but nationally the elections seem an indicator of a changing political climate.
“It’s something that’s been happening for quite a while in the Labour Party,” Nair explains. “There’s a lot of hostility and there’s a lot of factionalism. I think it’s an image thing and people don’t want a party that looks like they’re just fighting each other all the time and don’t have any common goals.”
Nair does endorse the competing accusations that the results are either a reflection on Kier Starmer’s current leadership or an overhang from the Corbyn years. “I don’t think its anyone’s fault,” he contends, explaining that Starmer faces something of a poisoned chalice in the post-Brexit political atmosphere.
He also refutes arguments that the British public isn’t ready for a ‘soft-left’, pointing out the Socialist aspects of the Government’s pandemic response. “A lot of the policies that the Chancellor has been doing are very similar to what was in the Labour Party and people really liked them.” Nair cites furlough and the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme as prime examples.
“I think it’s just a changing cultural tide to be honest and Labour hasn’t been able to keep up with it,” he comments, concluding that the answer to this shift is renewed unity: “We need to make sure that we don’t try and ‘infight’ as much – we need to make sure that we all know what our common goals are.”
But for now, Nair is keeping his focus on local issues rather than national; he looks forward to being able to “see what local politics is like and make a difference” even on a small scale: “I’m excited to work with the other councillors on the county council to help make Durham better.”
Image: Govind Nair