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'I've been in the Labour Party for 20 years, but I very much wanted to step in now’: Katie White OBE, prospective parliamentary candidate for Leeds North West

I meet Katie at a plant-based cafe in Horsforth and we both order a coffee before we start talking. Upon arriving, I had felt a bit nervous given her impressive career history but her energy was instantly so warm and positive that I felt  my nerves ease. 

In 2013, just ten years after graduating with a Politics degree from Glasgow, Katie was awarded an OBE for services to climate change engagement. I begin by asking her how she ended up there: ‘When I was a student, I felt overwhelmed with everything that was going on and I felt like for me climate was this sort of mission that came through the middle.’ This led Katie to begin her career at Friends of our Earth after graduating from university, a workplace she describes as ‘creative’, ‘slightly eccentric’ and a ‘brilliant place to work, because anything was possible.’ She tells me she is still good friends with her old boss.

Katie only intended to stay for a year, but her interest in the cause only grew. During her time there, Katie co-lead the campaign for the 2008 Climate Change Act. Quite a feat for a recent graduate though Katie says she ‘sort of didn’t see the barriers, and instead just saw that we had to do something.’ In a treasury meeting, she was asked to argue her case for the Act but instead reversed the question and asked how their current plan was working. ‘They were totally thrown off’, she laughs. When she is discussing this period of her life, it is easy to forget she was only in her early twenties. It is such confidence that has likely helped her success. 

Sixteen years on from the Act passing, inching closer to the 2050 date it set out, we have seen subsequent government’s fail to treat the issue with the necessary urgency. I ask Katie what made this specific campaign so successful. She cites ‘cross-party consensus’ on the issue and a network of groups who were engaged in local communities’. Before adding, ‘it was also a really good idea and well-executed’. Rather than faux modesty, her answer feels refreshingly honest. 

Speaking about this time in her life she remarks: ‘I remember my parents going: “What do you think you're doing?” I think they thought “Oh well, she’ll get it out of her system.”’ However rather than getting it out of her system, climate became her longer-term focus. Since then, Katie’s career has included working as Executive Director for Campaigns and Advocacy at WWF as well as various roles for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. 

Climate policy is a huge issue, particularly for young voters and many students in Leeds will be voting for in the upcoming local elections. ‘Is voting for Labour, a vote for the climate?’ I ask. ‘Of course I want them to do more and I am going to say that. But for someone who has green sympathies, for me, Labour is the only party. It’s not perfect but I’m going to try and make it as good as I can. And I think others want to do that as well.’ 

It is going to be a ‘full transition across the whole of government. You've got Rachel Reeves who has said she is gonna be the first green Chancellor. There’s Bridget Phillipson talking about educational opportunities with net zero. When Keir did his speech, two conferences ago, I cried because it was the first time a leader had ever stood on the stage and put climate at the centre of their speech.’

‘This new, desperate attempt by Rishi at the last minute to roll back on net zero is not reflective of where I think the house is, and certainly does not reflect where the country is. It's one of the top polling issues across the country. People are really worried about the climate. But also the corresponding solutions, whatever they are, will mean that we all get lower energy bills if we've got our own homegrown energy. It will correlate with having warmer cosy houses, not old, cold, leaky houses. We've got some of the worst housing stock, certainly across Europe. And so it's really popular’

Katie grew up under the ‘unfairness and injustice’ of Thatcher's privatisation and outrage at the erosion of public services is a key theme throughout our conversation. Given the state of public services, the issues feel more relevant now than they did then. Years of austerity have left things feeling broken. In Hyde Park, the streets are covered with litter because the bins are not always collected, the buses are often cancelled and it is a struggle to get a doctor's appointment. Everything feels at breaking point and many of us students aren’t old enough to remember a time when it was different.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Katie is keen to reassure me: ‘Fourteen years ago, when we left office, we had the lowest waiting times and highest satisfaction rates in NHS history. We had our Sure Start centres, education was different, things were different.’ ‘Fourteen years of Conservative government, and I don't speak to anybody who thinks it's better. There’s not even one thing they could point to as a success’.

After a year away from Leeds, I was upset to find that one of my favourite places to swim 

had erected a sign saying it was a Yorkshire Water discharge spot. Katie agrees that ‘it just feels wrong, how is it that these companies have been making loads of money, but then not delivering on the function we are expecting them to deliver? And at the same time, taking money out and not investing money in. That shows that some sorts of social contracts have gone wrong. We take nature for granted but there are tipping points.’

Locally, there is a lot to be excited about. Leeds recently received an ‘A’ grade for Climate Action by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and Katie mentions Otley 2030, a community climate action group developing a climate and sustainability plan for their town. ‘They've done some really creative projects around a community larder, they are bidding for solar panels on a football roof and actually looking at doing a big initiative in the town. They've really inspired a lot of people. And they're proving practically.’ 

When asked about her own green ambitions for the area, Katie’s excitement is palpable: ‘I've got a list of things that I want to work on. We’re just working on it as a team at the moment because we also need to be realistic. I don't want to promise too much and not deliver.' Particularly given that if Labour win they will be coming with an economy and public services both ‘on their knees’. 

Katie considers herself a ‘positive person’ but admits it can be upsetting to see the ‘apathy and a lack of trust’ people now have in politicians. ‘I think most politicians on both sides go in for the right reasons.’ For Katie there must be cross-party work and pragmatism: ‘Let's be respectful. Let's be grown up. As humans, you know, we have got more in common. There are big challenges that we all know, climate change is a big challenge, social care is a big challenge, and AI is a big challenge. But there are also opportunities within those. Let’s try and work together on some of those, let's try and build a discord where we can have that conversation even if you have an alternative answer, as opposed to just stoking up division.’ 

I ask Katie what gives her hope. ‘Rachel Reeves gives me hope. She genuinely gives me hope. I think she is a tough, strong, driven woman who is going to drive through discipline, get back some of that money from the COVID commission and get the money out to where it needs to be as soon as she possibly can. On the climate side, Rachel Reeves, Keir Starmer and Ed Miliband, that triangle, I think they all get it. And I think there's just a spirit within the country that people actually want change and are prepared to do things differently. People don't want this lack of honesty, they don't want this greed, they want something different. So I think there is a real opportunity for the Labour party.’ 

Katie has ‘been in the Labour party for twenty years’ but ‘wanted to step in now’. If Katie is elected she will only be the third female MP to sit in any of the Leeds seats following Alice Bacon in 1945 and Rachel Reeves in 2010. A fact she labels ‘astonishing’ and ‘baffling’. ‘I remember somebody saying to me, do you think you should go into parliament? Will they take you seriously?’ A question that a man with her credentials would likely not have been asked. 

It was important for Katie to represent the constituency where her family are from and where she herself grew up. She tells me about how she spent a lot of her childhood playing on Otley Chevin with her best friend. It’s evident from the way that she speaks how deeply embedded she is within the area, an antidote to the idea of detached politicians. Aside from her family history, she also just considers it a really ‘cool constituency’ and feels ‘very grateful’ to be able to stand to represent a place she loves so much. 

I ask her for any advice for students wanting to get stuck in: ‘Get involved! Come along. We’ll be canvassing pretty much every weekend from now until the election.’ Voting in the local elections on 2nd May is another way to show your support.

We’ve been talking so much that Katie hasn’t had a chance to finish the date bar that she bought. She wraps it up in a tissue to take with her, and says with a cheeky smile that it wouldn’t be good to have any food waste. Katie's energy is buoyant and I leave feeling excited about the impact this could have on the pessimism rife in politics.

Words: Maddie Bentley, she/her

Image: Katie White, she/her

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