Brighton and Hove's youngest councillor goes back to school

Posted On 11 Jul 2011 at 5:09 am
By Claire Smyth

Today Alex Phillips takes her seat as an unpaid board member of Brighton Housing Trust for the first time at just 25 years old.

Already she has won a seat as a councillor on Brighton and Hove City Council twice – initially in a by-election and again at the local elections in May.

Her by-election victory gave the Greens their first seat in Hove and she has been credited with a key role in helping Caroline Lucas to become the party’s first MP.

Claire Smyth finds out how a language student from Liverpool ended up as Brighton and Hove’s youngest council member and a director of the city’s leading housing charity.

Spacewords Brighton

And she learns what Councillor Phillips, pictured below, plans to do next.

 

 

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She may be the youngest member of the council but Councillor Alex Phillips is no stranger to politics.

Soon after she left university in 2007 she began working in Brussels for Caroline Lucas who was then a Green MEP for South East England, the seat that includes Brighton and Hove.

She followed Dr Lucas to Brighton to become her campaign co-ordinator in 2008 in preparation for the general election.

Then in 2009 – one year after moving to the city – she stood and won a seat in the Goldsmid by-election after Conservative councillor Paul Lainchbury stood down.

Councillor Phillips said: “I’d never really thought about being a politician before then, even though I’d been really involved in politics.

“I thought: ‘It’s the ward I live in. It could be good fun.’

“I like a challenge so I put myself forward and got selected.

“It was the first ever seat that we’d taken in Hove and it was the first time we’d ever taken a Conservative seat in the city so it kind of paved the way for Caroline’s success.

“People were like, ‘well, if they can take a seat in Hove from the Tories then they can take Brighton Pavilion,’ which is very left wing.”

Doubting

Born in Liverpool to parents who were both members of the Labour Party, Alex Phillips joined the party too when she was 16.

But a decision by Tony Blair’s government to go to war in Iraq left Alex doubting her membership.

She says: “I’ve always been quite political.

“One of my first political memories was when Mandela was released from prison.

“And then when John Smith in the Labour Party died, I remember waking up and hearing that on the radio. I think that was ’94 so I must have been about nine.

“Then when I was 17 in 2003 I hauled my sister on a bus one morning and we decided we’d go to London to march against the war in Iraq.

“We were marching and I thought it’s mad that I am a member of a party that I’m now marching against. That doesn’t make any sense so I’m going to have to leave. There’s a line and they’ve crossed the line.”

She researched the policies of the other political parties before deciding to join the Greens.

And despite claiming that she leads a very “green lifestyle”, this wasn’t what attracted her what has become the largest party on the council at the local elections in May.

She said: “I was really looking for human rights and social justice policies rather than environmental, tree-hugging policies.

“And I joined the Green Party because of those policies rather than the environmental ones – although I do cycle everywhere and I’ve been veggie since I was eight.”

Paris

A year after joining the party she moved to Paris to study French at the University of London Institute where she continued to be politically active, becoming the Young Greens’ international liaison officer before eventually going on to co-chair the group.

She co-ordinated with an over-arching organisation called the Federation of Young European Greens and organised conferences worldwide, including a couple in Turkey on the issue of Islamophobia.

She said: “People always ask me: ‘Did you study politics at university?’ And I’m really glad I didn’t. I would be such a boring person.

“After Paris I thought I was going to become a teacher so I got a place on a teacher training course.

“Then somehow I was taken to Brussels to work for Caroline Lucas, which wasn’t part of the plan really.

“So then I thought the teaching can wait and I pulled out of the course before it started.

“I thought I can do that any time but I can’t really work for Caroline in Brussels any time.

“She’s only going to be there for so long.”

Elected

Since being elected in Hove, Councillor Phillips has sat on the Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Licensing Committee and the Community Safety Forum.

She has also worked with outside bodies such as the city’s Sexual Violence Reference Group and the city’s Age Concern board.

After being re-elected in May, she became deputy chair of the Adult Social Care and Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee and a member of the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

She said: “I think it works quite well being the youngest and being interested in adult social care.

“It’s nice to have that mix of a young person interested in older people.

“And my colleagues in the Green group, or even in the other political parties, particularly the older ones, are interested in young people because they’ve got grandchildren or they’ve got children.

“Although I don’t think you need to have grandchildren or children to be interested in young people or that you need to be the youngest one to be interested in younger people.”

Difficult

Despite being the only council member under 30, Councillor Phillips wasn’t the youngest person to stand in the May elections which attracted a significant number of young candidates.

She said: “All the parties had good representation for younger people in their candidates.

“I thought it was a bit sad really that no one else got elected.

“It is a shame because when you look around the council chamber, it’s just me under 30.

“It’s no good just having one demographic represented in council. It needs to be a proper mixture.

“I suppose it can be difficult to get younger people involved in politics.

“Perhaps they don’t want to put themselves up.

“They might join a protest or they might join a political party but it’s a four-year commitment being a councillor.

“I think that can put people off who are younger and may want to travel or not necessarily be rooted in a particular place for four years.

“It’s a big chunk of their life if they’re in their teens whereas if you’re in your fifties it’s different.”

Future

As well as representing her ward, Councillor Phillips works part-time for South East England MEP and former Brighton councillor Keith Taylor.

She hasn’t ruled out the possibility of moving into national politics in the future.

She said: “I’ve never wanted to be an MP before because I’m in politics to make a difference and before I thought it would incredibly frustrating not being in government.

“That’s the great thing about local politics is that you feel like your actions affect people’s everyday lives and perhaps, in a way, more than national or European politics do.

“If you’re lucky you can get, for example, pedestrian crossings in over the next few weeks and all these people are over the moon, so that’s what I like about it.

“But it is becoming more attractive, so we’ll see.”

For now though she’s decided to go back to school.

She said: “With politics, you work incredibly hard. It takes over your life.

“And campaigns are just so intense that it’s quite difficult to keep a relationship going through them.

“It’s an incredible amount of work, a ridiculous amount of work. I don’t think anything really comes close to it.

“You get up at 6am and you start working and then you finish at about midnight and you go to bed then you get up again at 6am. It’s just relentless.

“And at the same time, I need to earn a living and that’s something you can’t rely on politics for.

“It pays really badly local government and, also, in any politics you’re only there for four or five years – whatever it is – and you don’t know if you’re going to be re-elected.

“So basically at the moment I’m looking at becoming a teacher as well – a French and German teacher.

“You can become a bit of a dull person if your life is just politics and politics.”

No one is accusing Councillor Phillips of being a dull person – and even before she returns to the classroom for formal lessons her life in politics has been quite an education.

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