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Pothole politics: a Lib Dem councillor on the party’s renaissance in Sunderland

The north-east city is famous for quick election declarations, but residents need action on energy costs.

By Samir Jeraj

This month, UK voters went to the polls to elect councillors to local governments in England, Scotland and Wales (and regional government in Northern Ireland). While the media gaze often fixates on Westminster and the significance of the elections for the major parties nationally, much of the most important public services and decisions are made by councillors. Following the elections, Spotlight approached four councillors – some new, some veterans – to hear what they think are the key policy challenges ahead in their area.

Ciaran Morrissey is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Hendon and Grangetown in Sunderland, where the party now has 14 councillors compared to zero as recently as 2015. Morrissey told Spotlight by email about challenging apathy and showing the value of local government in creating a good place to live.

How did you get into local politics?

I’m 27 and I’ve worked in financial services since I left university. I am currently working as a financial fraud researcher for a motor insurance company, which is exactly as interesting as it sounds. I got into party politics at university and joined the Lib Dems shortly after the 2015 general election at the urging of a mate, but soon found I was less interested in the theory and more interested in the campaigning side. 

Why does local government matter?

Local government matters because it affects almost every facet of our everyday life. I know people can look down on bins and potholes as being boring issues, but living somewhere clean and well-maintained is something most people want, and it’s something only local government can provide. Local government sets the tone and priority for an area. Proactive local government can make the difference between a vibrant, pleasant place to live, and an area stagnating and being left to rot.

What do you think the biggest challenges are facing local government?

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The biggest challenge, in my view, will always be apathy. There’s a perception that councillors can’t do much or that councils don’t matter, and that means you often get very small turnout and you don’t have the right people in charge. This is a vicious cycle – a crap council puts people further off and so there’s even less engagement and scrutiny of decisions being made, which in turn leads to less pressure on councillors to make the right call. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing your constituents?

The cost-of-living crisis. It’s always the bread-and-butter issues that people care about most. While you do get issues like Brexit, Ukraine and “Partygate” coming up on the doors, people’s worries are always immediate: can I put my heating on? Can I feed my kids? 

What is your most urgent policy priority?

We urgently need to address the energy crisis in an immediate way. I’m not talking about wind farms and electric cars – they are important, but they’re a long-term solution. I’m talking about immediate action to reduce energy bills. I don’t care if that takes the form of tax credits, subsidies or a windfall tax on profits, so long as it makes people’s bills manageable. 

Are you happy with the Liberal Democrats’ performance in the local elections in your area and across the country?

In Sunderland we’ve made gains at the last five consecutive May elections and are in pole position to become the largest opposition group, overtaking the Conservatives. If you’d suggested this to people five years ago you’d have been laughed at. I’m very happy with the results, and I think it’s important to note that we’ve scored important victories across the country. We’re back on the up in a different way to the past few years. We’ve maintained our position in Tory-facing places like South Cambridgeshire and made sustained advances across Powys, Wimbledon, Somerset, Westmorland and the so-called “Blue Wall”, as well as taking Hull from Labour and making important Labour-facing victories in Salford and consolidating our position in places like Edinburgh and Fife.  

What do the results say about the state of the parties nationally?

The Tories are down across their heartlands and Labour are barely clawing it back. We are returning to prominence in historic Liberal heartlands (Powys and Somerset as I mentioned, but also the Scottish Highlands) and breaking new ground in Labour-held inner city areas like Salford and Lambeth. Politics in Britain is fracturing, but there’s only one party making consistent gains against Labour, the Tories and the SNP, and that’s the Liberal Democrats. 

Read more: Pothole politics: A Labour councillor’s view on winning Herts

Read more: Pothole politics: A Tory councillor on Croydon in crisis

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