York’s longest-serving local councillor is standing down at the May elections.
Joe Cooper from the Local Democracy Reporting Service has been to meet her.
“I always say yes – it’s the motto of my life”. It’s a phrase that will begin to help you understand how Janet Looker has lasted almost 40 years as a local councillor, as well as having a legal career, undertaking lots of voluntary work – and raising three children.
As she approaches 85, Coun Looker is still an active member of the City of York Council, ready to impart her wisdom on the many committees on which she sits.
Whether it’s quoting Shakespeare, reminding younger councillors of battles lost and won in years gone by, or bemoaning the state of national politics – it’s always done with a glint in her eye.
And while she says that her mind could keep going, the physical toll of doorstep campaigning now proves too much of a challenge.
“The misogyny was huge”
“I’ve always been very upbeat, very positive and very open to new ideas – I still am,” she says over a coffee in York Theatre Royal’s cafe – a favourite spot.
“If somebody presents me with a new idea, I always say, gosh, yes, let’s try it. Why not? Sometimes they go terribly wrong, but I’d rather try something. So I think that’s what’s kept me going – I’m just very curious and I’m passionate about York.”
Coun Looker moved to York from London with her husband in the mid-1960s as she was expecting her second child. Her early years in the city were spent raising her children and doing a “huge amount of voluntary work” – particularly in the burgeoning playgroup movement.
This experience, along with the fact she later qualified as a solicitor, gave her the confidence to make her way in a male-dominated world.
“When I came into politics, especially Labour politics, the misogyny was huge,” she says.
Coun Looker became a North Yorkshire County councillor in the mid-1980s before being elected to the first ever York Council before its inception in 1996. She has been a Labour councillor for the Guildhall ward ever since.
Given the education brief at the outset, she helped to create the skeleton of York’s education system which is still – just about – in place today, something she says is her proudest achievement.
“It’s bloody 2023 and we’re still muddled“
A Lord Mayor for three terms (she was often seen riding her bike while wearing her mayoral chains – and she still rides her bike to this day) Coun Looker was also leader of the Labour group for three years.
Juggling children, politics, work and volunteering never fazed Coun Looker, though she credits her law firm for giving her the time to forge her political career.
She grew up in a female dominated household, with women who carved out careers for themselves in an era when they had only just been given the vote. She flirted with careers in teaching and in libraries before children entered the picture.
“I grew up among women who worked very hard, who did things and achieved,” Coun Looker adds. “I always assumed that’s what women did. So I went into life with a very positive, can-do attitude.”
Coun Looker says the biggest change in local politics in her time has been the growing government centralisation of power which has stripped local authorities of their autonomy – and the funding cuts which have devastated budgets over the past decade.
“It’s been very depressing for the last eight budgets I’ve been involved in,” she says. “There are fewer and fewer options – you can only fiddle stuff around so much.”
She fears too that the country is “going backwards”, with issues like childcare still unresolved despite calls for reform for decades.
“We are in bloody 2023 and we’re still muddled – we haven’t got it right,” she adds.
The machinery of local government is slow and the scope for change is often limited, she says. Yet for all that, she remains an “optimistic pessimist”.
“I get very anxious about the climate,” she says. “But it doesn’t stop you just having a go.”
Working to a calendar for the last 60 years of her life, Coun Looker is looking forward to some well-deserved downtime, but admits to mixed feelings about leaving local politics.
She adds: “I still read and I shall do that with enthusiasm and pleasure. It will enable me to actually finish a book more quickly. I shall try to go to the theatre as much as I can and see friends, but yes, it is going to be very odd and I’m going to miss it.”