Local Democracy Week: Meet Fran Oborski

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Mrs Fran Oborski MBE has been a local councillor for forty-three years, and believes politics is “people being involved in the life of their community.”

Cllr Oborski believes that being an active councillor has “far more influence over real people’s lives” than a backbench member of Parliament, although she admits that this is not something that is always reflected in election statistics.

Discussing political apathy, Oborski argues that the situation where groups of people can answer who their local MP is but not who their MEP is “a fault of the MEPs not doing their job properly, and not getting about within their constituencies”, rather than a reason for not having electoral reform.

With the advent of postal voting, Oborski claims that “there is absolutely no excuse for not voting,” going as far as even declaring her support for the Australian compulsory voting system, with the caveat to register an abstention where there are no favourable options. Oborski believes that “democracy depends upon people actually having the willingness to commit themselves by voting” in addition to online campaigning and activism.

Reflecting upon the historical struggles that her local district, the Wyre Forest, have had in recent generations, Oborski argues that this was due to the ‘carpet barons’ reluctance to have an “educated workforce”, and that this issue is so entrenched it still has an impact upon the local economy today. For example, Oborski referred to the 2006 Wyre Forest School’s Review which predicted that if Kidderminster had been an educational authority in its own right, it would have been one of the worst in the country. She argues that it is “a real problem even now.”

As a youngster in the 1960’s, Oborski says that she remembers her father resigning from the Conservative Party as an assistant agent when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer put up pensions by half a crown a week. She says that she can always remember her father getting half a crown, sellotaping it to a bit of paper, and sending it to the Chancellor, saying “if you think that is what pensioners are worth, you can have mine back.” Away from the rebellious side of politics, she recalls how her mother took her to the polling station as a child to show her the importance of voting, particularly in light of the sacrifices made by the suffragettes.

Oborski’s first taste of political activism, however, came when she took part in a campaign for comprehensive education in 1967 and stood outside the Guild Hall in Worcester with placards demanding an end to the eleven plus. She recalls how the then Chairman of the Worcester Education Committee told her that if she had those views, she would never get a job in a school in Worcester, to which she replied “if you have grammar schools in Worcester, I’ll never apply for a job in Worcester.”

When I ask her why she was motivated to campaign on this issue, Oborski tells me it was “the total injustice of the eleven plus system”, particularly where she grew up in South Wales where 22% of kids passed the eleven plus, yet in other parts it just only 10% or 12%.

Oborski joined the then Union of Liberal Students in 1965, and then took part in a local election campaign when her late husband, Mike Oborski, stood as a candidate in Worcester in 1968 as a student, to the surprise of many of the city’s long-serving politicians.

Speaking about wider society in the late 1960’s, Fran believes that it was “a time when people realised that you didn’t have to do as you’re told; that you didn’t have to agree with the establishment; that everybody’s views are equally important”, and this has a profound impact upon her political philosophy.

Despite being in local government for almost half a century, Oborski admits that she “never had an ambition to get involved on a formal level”, but knew that she wanted to make a difference. She tells me it was merely a coincidence that she got involved at all when they moved to Kidderminster as part of their careers in education after spending a number of years commuting. They finally moved to Kidderminster in 1971, and was later persuaded by local councillor Anthony Batchelor to stand for local government. She says that the “the rest is history.”

Although Oborski thinks that most people enter politics because they “genuinely want to make a difference”, she is sceptical about people who become “totally dependent” upon their expenses as local councillors as they might become “scared about standing without losing.”

Oborski is known within her local community for working on issues related to education and young people, and believes that this is a campaign for “social justice and social awareness.” Oborski hopes that youth services will become statutory, and believes that it is “absolutely vital” that society doesn’t rely too much on the voluntary sector and charitable donations. Through her local divisional fund, Cllr Oborski has given grants to enable young people from “cash-stripped” backgrounds to take full advantage of opportunities that are out there.

Nonetheless, Oborski does believe that people should have “real jobs” and experience of the “real world” before stepping into politics. “If you’re going to be in a position where you can take decisions that affect the lives of ordinary people, you need to have a little bit of experience yourself of what life is actually about.” She, however, maintains that diversity is an important aspect of effective decision-making, although worries that the “sacrifices” of being in politics can have harmful effects upon one’s career prospects and is not always financially sustainable. She argues that there has to be “the public service discount.”

When I ask whether Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party proves the point that conviction can lead into a political career, Oborski replies that experience of the outside world is fundamental to being a good leader. Indeed, she reflects upon how one of her friend’s whose children went to the same school as Corbyn’s children said that “he only ever hears opinions that agree with his.”

We discuss other ways in which people can become involved in politics. Oborski discredits focus groups as “self-selecting”, and claims that social media platforming allows people to “totally misrepresent motive”, particularly in relation to local governance. The wide range of platforms, she maintains, also means that “an incredible number of people probably never connect with mainstream news.” She does, however, believe that councillors have to be out and about in their communities a lot more, and that public consultation should become a lot more meaningful.

Reflecting upon the role of civil education to rejuvenate political participation, Oborski thinks that a transition towards a baccalaureate system could help to enable young people to become “more well-rounded.” The problem, Oborski believes, is that there is a kind of “intellectual snobbery” within education; a “highly educated minority and an undereducated mass”, where research isn’t always translated into practice, and vocational skills become devalued. She believes that “citizenship should be compulsory.” Oborski tells me that she is worried that “many young people miss out while they are at school then have to catch up later on.” To overcome this, Oborski says that we should make young people aware of the opportunities that are out there.

In looking towards the future, Oborski says that she would prefer a society that “valued altruistic behaviour”, and that rewards should be given to people for the “good impact they have had upon society”, not merely those who have been most acquisitive.

Oborski also believes that we have to “move away from the tribalism of British politics” and get towards a “more inclusive and consensual politics.” When I ask whether consensual politics is the same as an end to ideologies, she claims that although ideologies will continue to persist, there is a “centre ground at which you can coalesce on certain policies at,” believing that this will push things forward.

The one thing which has sustained her during her forty years in politics, Oborski tells me, is “a belief that the vast majority of people want to do things to help others and an absolute passion and belief in equality of opportunity.”

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