Ben Cooper - Local Dartmouth Politics
Local Politics - Ben Cooper
'I've always been interested in politics: it affects everyone,’ says Ben Cooper as we sit down in Café Alf Resco at the end of his shift there on a cold Monday. ‘You can see that young people are interested again.’
‘After a Government of any political persuasion is in power for a long time, apathy kicks in. There were 13 years of Labour Government and people started to think they couldn’t have influence, and then with the change in Government and the cuts I think people see how vital it is to be engaged.’
And engagement is key to his frankly remarkable election to the South Hams District Council seat in Townstal – and he achieved it with social media. He credits Facebook with his victory, and is hugely active on the Twitter each and every day.
So thanks to his social media connections, Ben is a Labour Councillor in the South Hams – the only one.
He has worked at Café Alf Resco on and off for 11 years and it strikes me there are few places better to keep your ear to the ground on public opinion.
‘I speak to a lot of people here,’ he says. ‘I’m a bit of a rarity as a Labour councillor, so I have Labour supporters from other wards coming to speak to me, because they feel I might be more sympathetic than their actual ward member. But in truth at South Hams Council party politics has to disappear because we have to work together for the good of the area. I’ve been impressed with the setup at South Hams Council – it’s very well run, frankly.’
Born in Plymouth, but moving with his family to Dartmouth just a few weeks later, Ben went to Dartmouth Primary School, Dartmouth Community College and the KEVICC Sixth Form in Totnes.
He studied Criminal Justice and Psychology at Plymouth University and then moved to London as a consultant. When he returned just over a year ago, he was looking hard at his future and wondering what to do next.
A member of the Labour Party for a number of years, he was approached by the local party to stand as a district councillor candidate in early 2010 for the Townstal ward where he lives.
He was not sure if this was the right move for him.
‘I spent a long time thinking about it,’ he said. ‘In the end I handed in the papers to register as a candidate one and a half months before the election. I never thought I’d win, but put together a campaign. I started a Facebook page and used twitter to publicise the fact that I was standing.
‘I also stood outside the polling station for the whole day from 7 in the morning till 10 at night basically. Seemed a bit stupid at the time but it all worked. I was elected by 34 votes.’
Ben’s Facebook campaign was, he feels, the key to his victory.
‘Through the Facebook page I convinced 50-60 young people to vote for me, so I see that as the reason I won.’
As a non-driver, Ben is now doing a lot of travelling, both to South Hams Council in Totnes and West Devon in Tavistock, which shares many services with South Hams in an attempt to save money.
‘It’s been a steep learning curve for me, being a councillor,’ he said. ‘It’s really hard work, and balancing it with a job is a real challenge. But I believe that I can help make a positive difference in my role, helping people here to build a strong community with employment opportunities and good housing.
Ah – the hot potato of the moment: housing. Where does Ben stand?
‘We need new houses to make the community viable,’ he says, ‘but it won’t be the 450 people are talking about, perhaps 150. But if we can build them, have a community here which is vibrant and hard working, hopefully we can attract the right investment to bring more jobs to the area, which is the key to our future. I grew up here and think we have to keep young people here.
‘I have to believe that I’m making a difference, but I am realistic. I want to try to canvas wider public opinion than just those people I talk to regularly. We want to organise teams to go into the community, knocking on doors, finding out what is important to people, and how they feel about local issues.
‘In the coming years the cuts are going to be tough, so we have to work hard to know what people want and how we can make the budgets work.’
With all that hard work ahead, does Ben see himself as MP material? He laughs at the suggestion.
‘I don’t want to be an MP. I’d like to be involved in writing policies for the Labour party, but I’ve been lucky so far and don’t think I would want the responsibility an MP has to have. I enjoy being a councillor, you have the chance to meet and help a lot of people, and I’ve loved that.’
First published March/April 2012 By the Dart