If you’re reading the New Statesman, you probably know who your MP is. You could definitely reel off a handful of cabinet ministers. But it is highly unlikely any of these have much effect on the minutiae of your day-to-day lives: where you can park your car, where your children play, how the roads in your area are maintained and whether they have adequate street lighting. Those duties fall to a much more local level – but most of us have haven’t got a clue who sits on our borough council, let alone who our parish councillors are.
In fact, if we had to name someone involved in the parish council scene, chances are most of us would reach not for our own local representative, but for one woman: Jackie Weaver, star of the viral Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting.
“Every now I get a comment from someone like ‘Really? What on earth have you got to offer?’” Weaver tells me from her home in Shropshire when we talk (by video-link, of course). “And I always reply the same way: I am just brilliant.”
Since the video of Handforth’s December 2020 meeting was posted to social media in February, millions of people have watched Weaver keep her cool as irate men try to bully her into submission. “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver,” yells the chairman, before Weaver, who has been drafted in to act as clerk and tackle dysfunction among councillors, calmly ejects him from the Zoom call. “Read the standing orders – read them and understand them!” bellows another councillor, who is also booted out. The video captured hearts and minds, turning Weaver – the chief executive of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils – into an overnight internet sensation. In the past seven months she has Zoomed her way through the broadcast circuit, launched a podcast, made a guest appearance on The Archers, and even opened the Brit Awards. And now she has a book out: You Do Have The Authority Here!
It’s a self-help manual full of tips, from making lists and limiting social media (great ideas), to keeping cats out of Zoom calls (a terrible one). Her disrupted upbringing in Lanarkshire, Scotland gets a brief exploration, and there are passing references to her tempestuous (some might say toxic) relationship with her mother, most notably in a chapter entitled “Dealing with difficult people”. It’s a bit of an odd mix, from the flippant and light-hearted to the deathly serious, all strung together on the premise stamped on the back of the book that Weaver is “the feminist political icon we didn’t know we needed” (even if she says doesn’t see herself as a feminist).
But any suspicion that Weaver has let her unexpected fame distract her from her main job – ensuring Cheshire’s parish councils are able to operate smoothly – quickly evaporates. I have never seen anyone’s face light up when discussing the power of local government the way hers does, whether it’s about championing diversity (“the same old faces will bring the same old issues”) or highlighting the value to aspiring politicos of getting engaged at a community level if they want to make it on the national scene.
Most of all, she wants people to pay more attention to a layer of political decision-making many of us don’t even realise exists unless a viral video consumes our social media feeds.
“My hope is that the government will prioritise a little bit of legislation – a tiny bit of legislation, it won’t take them long – about enabling virtual meetings to continue, because I think that was something that really made an impact on people,” she says, remarking on how engagement increased during the pandemic when meetings moved onto Zoom.
“It’s very difficult to sell a parish council on the basis of somebody else’s. But if you can watch from the outside your own parish council, look at what it is they’re doing, I rather thing there might be something in the community that will grab your interest. Then we’ll have you.”
People are disillusioned with democracy, Weaver thinks; they know they can’t really influence what happens in Westminster, so they tune out. But when it comes to England’s 9,000 town and parish councils, which range in size from thousands of people to just a few hundred, citizens can have far more of an impact. They just don’t know it.
“If we can encourage people to look back at that very local level of town or parish council, then they can actually see that they could make a difference, and in a timeframe that means you won’t be quite as old as me when you see you’ve actually changed something,” she says, pointing out that the larger parish councils have tax-raising power (which residents pay whether they’re aware of it or not, through their regular council tax bills) of more than £2m.
“Now that’s not a tiny little drop in the ocean. It’s not something that’s just worrying about a few hanging baskets. That is a council that is delivering services for local people, but more importantly paid for by local people.”
Weaver’s 25 years of working with parish councils have given her a granular understanding of the system – no one could accuse this woman of not knowing her way around the standing orders. But for someone whose job is the business of government she’s also refreshingly apolitical. She has robustly pushed back on Twitter speculation that she is a Conservative, and reiterates to me that she’s never had any political aspirations herself, insisting “I much prefer to be what I call the magician’s assistant”.
I accept that I am old but I am neither a Tory nor a councillor https://t.co/ivyooFJOK4— Jackie Weaver (@jackieweaver) March 1, 2021
Weaver even refuses when questioned to list any real-life leaders she thinks are good role models, choosing instead the murderous Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones.
“Life itself is too much compromise,” she laughs. “We have to compromise in order to live with each other. I guess that was one of the reasons I chose Cersei Lannister – perhaps a strange role model, but in an imaginary fantasy world, she was someone who did not compromise.”
Speaking of not compromising, when I ask what one thing Weaver would change about politics today, she doesn’t hesitate. She wants a proper code of conduct of politicians at all levels, from the Prime Minister and his cabinet to parish councillors who talk over other members and don’t allow meetings to proceed. She calls the existing framework “completely toothless” and argues we need one with “proper sanctions in it, so that when you see behaviour like you saw at Handforth, you don’t need someone to eject them from the Zoom meeting just to make it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable.”
And ultimately, that’s why Weaver thinks she became an internet celebrity: because we are so used to those in power getting away with incompetence or aggression or bullying, it caught our imagination to watch someone actually holding bad behaviour to account. We saw an unlikely heroine, a mild-mannered woman in her sixties, ensuring that the rules we are all meant to play by were probably enforced – for once.
“Although I often speak about how you encourage people to do the right thing,” she muses, “there comes a point where you’ve tried all of that. And they’re still arseholes, and something needs to change.”
[See also: How to talk about trans rights]