Meet Thomas Nearney and Katie Corrigan, the fresh faces of the Labour Party in Durham.
Elected to the County Council in May earlier this year, they are Durham’s youngest political representatives and are already hard at work serving the local community.
Fresh from meetings at County Hall that day, we sit together drinking coffee in Chapters Tearoom as glorious autumnal sunshine bathes Elvet Bridge outside.
We chat about politics and Thomas, who went to St Bede’s School in Lanchester and is now entering his 2nd year studying Law at St Mary’s College, starts animatedly on his work as a councillor in his ward, Annfield Plain.
‘You never find yourself doing the same job twice,’ he says grinning, ‘which has its benefits and its drawbacks.
‘It is so varied but sometimes you have so many issues to deal with that you have to learn to delegate. It’s a skill you have to learn quickly.’
Katie, who studied at St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham and has just finished a degree in Sociology and Politics at Sunderland University, represents the Belmont ward and nods in agreement.
‘The work can be about anything,’ she says, ‘ranging from pavements to potholes. There are lots of individual issues to deal with and each day can be completely different.’
But what inspired them to go into politics in the first place? And why Labour? Katie needs no time to think. ‘I’m Labour because my family has always been Labour.
‘My father was a miner so obviously I come from a strong Labour background. I’ve always been interested in politics and I wanted to get more involved in the community.’
Thomas takes up the theme. ‘For me, my values are Labour values. I believe wholeheartedly in people working together and in fairness.
‘Once you step out of Durham City, which is a lovely place, there are some really tough areas that need help and need work to get better. ‘
He also speaks passionately about the educational opportunities he feels he received as a result of his party’s work. ‘To be honest,’ he confides, ‘I’m the first person in my family to go to university.’ Katie nods too.
‘I feel like if it hadn’t been for a Labour government investing in my school, a good school in the past but one that you could feel was improving because of the investment, then that wouldn’t have happened.’
Working for Durham County Council puts Thomas and Katie at the heart of an organisation that has annual revenues of over £1 billion and employs around 18,500 people.
Yet they have come into power at a difficult financial time for the Council, a reality Thomas sees every day in his work.
‘The financial pressures we’re under now are enormous,’ he explains. ‘£200 million is being cut from the budget by 2015 due to the reduction in funding from central government.
‘‘This is the one big downside of our work. It’s fantastic to be able to make a difference in your community, but we also have to make savings whilst fulfilling our statutory duties.
‘When you’re looking at whether or not a vulnerable woman can have a home care service, that’s not nice. That’s not what I came into government to do.’
Despite the difficult decisions they need to make, Thomas says he can still take heart from the actions of the Labour Party in County Durham.
‘We still manage to pay a living wage to all our employees and we have no zero hour contracts. Although we don’t have much money, we’re trying to set an example of how things should be done.’
Our conversation turns to Labour on the national stage. What do they think of Ed Miliband? Katie’s response is qualified. ‘I think he’s good, but I think he could do with some work.’
‘I think he could be stronger in terms of how he presents himself. The public want to hear a strong voice and know that they’ve got someone who’s going to represent them.’
Locally, Labour will have control of the Council until 2017, but there’s certainly no mood of complacency in the party ranks.
Katie and Thomas already have their eyes set on campaigning for the elections to the European Parliament next year and the general election in 2015.
‘Sometimes in the North-East people think,“It’s a Labour safe seat, there’s no point in campaigning there”, but I don’t think we take anything for granted,’ Thomas says.
‘In 2010 the Liberal Democrats came close in Durham City,’ Katie adds, ‘and were only a couple of thousand votes behind the Labour candidate, so everyone was quite worried. We’ll start campaigning for the general election soon.’
Such campaigning will look to draw upon the energies of young people in Durham City. How politically engaged are the youth in this region?
Katie is optimistic. ‘I think Durham has got good youth participation. I’m involved with County Durham Labour and we campaign everywhere.
‘Durham University also has its own Labour club that is doing well. They’ve done a lot of work for the living wage.’
With politics clearly in the blood, my final question is about long-term plans. Is this the career for them?
The answers are mixed. ‘I don’t want to be a councillor forever,’ Katie admits, ‘and I think I’d like to work in Social Research.’
Thomas is different. ‘Up until 2017, because the people have put their faith in me, I’m obviously sticking with the council. I’ve got to work for them. They’re the people that matter.’
‘But long-term, who knows? I’ve got to get the law degree out of the way, maybe train as a barrister, and then I’m always going to have an interest in politics. Whether I pursue that as an MP or stay with the Council, I don’t know.’
Whatever they choose to do, Councillors Corrigan and Nearney clearly have bright political futures ahead of them and the constituents of County Durham are in safe hands. Watch this space.