Small conversations in small northern towns and other ways to change the world – an interview with Ruth Alcroft

For a woman that says she loves small northern towns, Ruth Alcroft doesn’t half think big.

Having never lived south of the M62, Ruth has moved around the northern towns of England for the past few decades, always staying within traveling distance of her husband’s beloved Newcastle United and St James’ Park. She’s currently settled in Carlisle, Cumbria but the weekend I meet her Ruth is with her two children, aged four and eight, on a campsite in Derbyshire. There has been a bit of poking around the Dales and quite a lot of buying plastic stuff in the camp shop. She says the girls are having a great time. Now the little ones are safely to bed in the converted barn Ruth sits down to talk with me about “doing politics” and the things that drive and inspire her.

Ruth outside Carlisle Town Hall – photo from Carlisle Labour Party

Ruth is part of the first cohort of Labour Party women undertaking a bespoke course in women and leadership; the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, created in memory of the Labour MP who was murdered in her constituency in June 2016. Some of those women have gathered to spend the weekend camping, eating, chatting and laughing together and politics is high on the agenda. Ruth is in her element. For her, politics isn’t an ethereal concept; it’s the stuff of life. “I’ve always done politics. The Labour Party drives me to distraction but I can’t help myself,” she says “I have 101 other things I’d rather be doing than politics but it is everything. You don’t agree with the speed limit? That’s politics.You can’t go to the supermarket at 9:30am on a Sunday morning because it’s closed? That’s politics. Where your kid goes to school: that’s politics. Everything is politics and it can be frustrating to see it like that because you can’t forget about it – but it is. That’s why I have to do politics.”

Ruth wasn’t raised in a particularly party political family but she tells me they were a debating family – noisy and loud. Her father once stood for the SDP but he wasn’t committed to a party the way Ruth is – and has been for 24 years, from her mid-teens. “When I was 16 the environment was a big issue for me,” she says. “It was 1992-93; Maggie Thatcher was elected when I was two and was all I’d ever known. Things were run down, hospitals and schools, and they were big issues for me. A friend said I had to join the Labour Party so I did and when I went to the meeting I thought, these are my people. This is my tribe. I was very active then.” Ruth loves small northern towns and chose to study classical studies at Durham University rather than Leeds because it would be smaller with fewer people. That’s not to say she doesn’t like people; far from it. One of her tutors once told her that she thought Ruth enjoyed being a big fish in a little pond and Ruth thinks that is true. That said, Ruth’s philosophy is that being a leader in a small community, having small conversations in small towns, can send out ripples that change the world.

A ward councillor in the City of Carlisle, Ruth is the only woman with pre-school children on the council. This, she says, is important because without her perspective, issues might be missed by others. “One issue that was more important than people thought was the removal of toilets from Carlisle City centre,” she explains. “Temporary toilets were being put in. Women with children and shopping couldn’t fit in the temporary toilets that were proposed. Nobody else was picking up on this because nobody else in those meetings was a woman in her 30s with young children. It’s so important to have diversity on the Council so it’s representative of the people you serve.”

Ruth doesn’t only change the world through her council role. After training and working as a primary school teacher Ruth is now a director of Susan’s Farm Community Interest Company, a social enterprise farm in Carlisle. All three of the farm’s directors are women and as well as offering top-quality traditional meat, poultry and dairy products, the farm delivers interactive educational programmes for children plus work experience and training for young people, vulnerable adults and users of mental health services. Ruth leads all the educational services on the farm and has gone beyond her teaching qualifications by learning about marketing meat, transporting cows and teaching adults as well as children. The environment is still clearly very important to Ruth and she loves the farm for the opportunities it gives people to connect to their surroundings and their food. Ruth also loves the farm for its own sake. She has a favourite Longhorn cow called Helena. “She is a chocolatey brown and lovely. She’s a really chilled out cow,” she says.

ruth speech
Ruth on the campaign trail – Photo from Carlisle Labour Party

But it’s not all about small conversations in small northern towns. In June this year, Ruth took a massive leap out of her comfort zone and stood for Parliament, seeking to represent her beloved Carlisle. “I like the philosophy of national politics. National is about laws and what we do as a country, why we do it and why we want people to behave in a certain way; how we interact with other countries, and that’s interesting. I’m a big picture person,” she says. Ruth tells me the nature of the snap election meant she felt able to stand when otherwise she might have not. The other women on the Jo Cox course encouraged each other to stand. “Because of the course, everyone was going ’well, here’s the form, here you go’ and it snowballed from there,” she says. But despite this support, Ruth – as do so many potential female candidates – felt a touch of impostor syndrome that she had to overcome during the campaign. “I was selected against two others – an experienced outsider and a local man who has lots of experience and is very good on procedure and wasn’t working so had lots of time to give. It was a month into the campaign – it was nearly over – when I realised that I’m a director of a company, I’m a sitting ward councillor, I’ve got 24 years’ unbroken membership of the Labour Party; I’ve got every right to stand. I know some people didn’t think I was up to it. But, that it was a short election – I knew I could do that. I thought yeah, I can do this for seven weeks.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to Ruth that she might have won, even though at the kitchen table where we’re speaking is Rosie Duffield MP who went through a similar experience to Ruth. She was selected in Canterbury, a seat with a much larger Tory majority than Carlisle, and to widespread surprise is now sitting on the green benches. When I point out that she might’ve been elected, Ruth seems torn between horror at the prospect of winning and disappointment over losing. “Maybe in five years I can do that.”

So what will Ruth Alcroft be doing in the meantime? Ruth loves music, especially 1990s indie rock and so she’s keen to get back to listening to more, which she’s moved away from since having children. Ruth speaks fondly of bonding over music with her late father and she’s still very much a muso, loving Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl’s solo material and Green Day. Apart from this, Ruth says that over the next five years she will continue to “do politics” – talking to people, networking, changing things. She’s drawn to it; she can’t not do it. “I’m quiet in the Labour Party when people are getting things done but there wasn’t a women’s forum in Carlisle and I want one and no one else was doing it” she says. “That’s what got me to apply for the Jo Cox course – to help with setting up a forum. I’m now working with our local party women’s officer to develop it. By being on the course I have got so much; I’m learning to say ’I can do this.’”

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