Meeting Wetherby’s new Green councillor who convinced Tory voters to break ‘the habit of a lifetime’
At the recent local elections in Leeds, one result stood out above all the rest as a major political upset.
In doing so, Green candidate Penny Stables became the first non-Tory ever to represent the scenic market town on Leeds City Council.
With due respect to the Greens’ growing profile and the Conservatives’ dire national polling figures, given the history and even recent election results in Wetherby it feels a lot like an FA Cup third round giantkilling.
So how did she do it?
“I think there are a number of things,” 58 year-old Councillor Stables reflects, a month on from her victory.
“I think we were helped by everything that’s going on in Parliament at the moment and a lot of people who’ve voted Conservative not recognising the party they’ve voted for all those years.
“But we were also trying to challenge people to think about what they were voting for. With every conversation and leaflet we put through the door, we were saying, ‘What do you believe in?’ ‘Why are you voting the way you do?’
“I had people in their 80s saying, ‘I’ve voted Conservative all my life, but I’m going to vote for you this time’.
“And I’d say to them ‘thank you very much, because I know how big a deal this is for you’. They were breaking the habit of a lifetime.”
Ever since Wetherby became part of Leeds in 1973, the ward’s three seats on the city council have never been any colour other than blue.
Even when Britpop and New Labour fever was sweeping the nation in the mid-90s and the Tories were reduced to just eight of Leeds’ 99 council seats, they could always rely on a trusty trio in Wetherby. None of them ever came close to turning red at that point, when just about everywhere else around did.
For the Greens however, it’s been mission creep in Wetherby since the pandemic. A shift from 22 per cent of the vote in 2021 to 34 per cent last year sowed the seeds of this year’s success.
Councillor Stables recalls conversations with postal voters in the town last year who’d already voted Conservative before polling day, but who were impressed enough with her pitch that they committed to backing her this time around.
A Boston Spa resident since 1988 herself, she says she sensed “excitement” in the town “that there’d never been before around an election”.
“There were people talking about it on street corners, in cafes and in pubs, which is unheard of in Wetherby,” she smiles.
“Normally in the past it’s been seen as very dull – it’s your duty to go along and you put a cross in the box. But someone actually said to me, ‘you’ve politicised Wetherby, in a good way’. Because it’s made people think about what they believe in and value, and how they vote.”
Born in Maidstone in Kent, Councillor Stables is a qualified nutritional therapist, having worked in marketing for more than a decade earlier in her career.
It’s a CV that was not unhelpful when she first started dabbling in politics before the pandemic. A parishioner at St Mary the Virgin Church in Boston Spa, she also credits her Christian faith as a strong daily influence.
“My sales and marketing background and the training I did helped hugely with being able to talk to anybody and being comfortable standing up and talking publicly,” she explains. “My faith helps me too. I couldn’t do this on my own.
“I’m very involved in the church itself and have been for about 20 years. That’s very important to me.”
Public transport, or more pertinently the lack of it, is among Councillor Stables’ priorities for the ward.
On housing, she wants all local newbuilds to include solar panels and ground-source heat pumps, while improving pavements for people in wheelchairs and using pushchairs is also on the to-do list.
“Because the outer north-east doesn’t have a train, our system is purely reliant on buses”, she says. “Our bus service should be better than anywhere else, but it’s failing us. It’s not fit for purpose.”
Beyond Wetherby, it was a mixed picture for the Greens at the elections. The party lost its seats in Armley and Farnley and Wortley at the elections, but leapfrogged other candidates to finish a comfortable second in places like Gipton and Harehills, Roundhay and Headingley and Hyde Park.
“We were genuinely really disappointed we didn’t win more seats,” Councillor Stables admits.
“I think we had the potential to get to six from four (before the election), so to go down to three was a big disappointment. But the flip side of that is the share of the vote went up all over the city.
“We need to get other candidates over the line, and probably be more targeted in our approach, actually.
“I think it’s encouraging that once somebody’s voted Green for the first time, they’re much more likely to vote for them again. So it’s a stepping stone approach.”
Whether or not the approach works elsewhere remains to be seen, but it’s certainly worked in Wetherby.