Sue Williams with fellow Gloucestershire County Council Greens Cllr Cate Cody (left) and Cllr Beki Hoyland

Gloucestershire County Councillor Sue Williams created controversy when she defected from the Conservative Party to the Greens in May, putting GCC into No Overall Control. Sue’s move came less than a week after the Stroud District Council election results, which gave the Greens a record 22 seats, making the party the biggest group on the council and allowing them to form a minority administration. Sue, a former nurse, who lives with her family on a farm near Stroud, spoke to Susan Fenton and explained why she changed political allegiances.

How did you first become politically involved, and why the Conservative Party?

I’m one of those people who always voted the same way their parents voted, which in my case was Conservative.

When I gave up my nursing career about six years ago to look after my widowed mum, I got so caught up in caring for her that my own life was put on the back burner and I lost touch with who I really am and who I wanted to be.

More recently there was a void in my life. I had always been involved in community activities so when a Conservative contact suggested in 2020 that I should stand for the County Council, I saw it as a way to get more involved in my community.

I was never ‘political’ – I just wanted to make a difference. Unlike some county councillors, I’d never been on a parish or district council; I went straight to the county. Until I joined the Conservatives so that I could stand for the council, I’d never belonged to a party.

I thought that belonging to the biggest party would give me a stronger voice. And from what the Conservatives said, I thought they were going to be proactive about the environment.

How did you realise you were in the wrong party? Was there a defining moment?

It was an evolution, a gradual realisation of where my true calling was as I became increasingly upset by Conservative policies. Today’s Conservative Party isn’t the same party that people like my parents voted for; there were lots of little things that were so wrong and that didn’t make sense.

Something has gone drastically wrong when even people with full-time jobs need to use food banks. I think some Conservatives don’t understand the real world, the level of poverty.

Then there was the Covid situation. People’s lives were turned upside down; some were not allowed to say goodbye to dying relations. People did what they were told by the government only to find out that the government was partying. Politicians’ morals should be whiter than white; if you’re in a position of power you should set an example.

Locally, one key issue was a planning application for sand and gravel extraction. I voted against it – as did some other Conservatives – as it would have a huge impact on local residents. We have to find more sustainable building methods. I know of someone who lives in a straw house, for example. I’m not suggesting we all build houses of straw, but we can’t keep ruining the environment by digging out gravel.

The applicants won on appeal, based on national planning policy, which over-rode local considerations, and that made me angry.

Another issue was changes to the benefit system. People who are not computer-savvy or who can’t read well now find it really difficult to get the information and help they need and are entitled to. The system is discriminatory against people who earn a lot one month but very little in other months; they can’t get help for the months they don’t earn anything.

Then there’s the underfunding of public transport. There are hardly any rural bus services, which makes it impossible for elderly people to go anywhere if they don’t own cars. And people who have bus passes can’t use them to get to college or work because you can’t use them before 9.30 in the morning. Again because of national policy.

Education and health underfunding is an issue too. I’m passionate about children’s education and wellbeing and recently became a governor for the Hospital Education management committee. As a county councillor I see how many children are struggling, particularly those with special educational needs. I appreciate that funding is limited but the systems that we rely on, like the NHS and county council, are under such strain.

Most recently, the Rwanda deportation plan. Everyone has a right not be persecuted, and all that tax-payers’ money is going to inflicting more misery on people risking their lives to come here for whatever reason.

And now the idea of national service for 18-year-olds. This is not the answer. The money spent on the scheme could be used much more usefully in other ways.

Did the ‘whip’ system make it difficult for you as a Conservative wanting to do the right thing for your residents?

All the Conservative councillors I know just want to work hard for their communities. On committees, I have always voted for what I thought was best for my community. That often-meant voting with the Greens, but on a motion about striking, for example, I voted with the Conservatives, feeling that a minimum service level should be maintained through strikes.

But at full council we were told ‘we’re voting this way or that way’ on motions and this was a problem for me when we were voting on a motion associated with trail hunting on county-owned farms. My husband and I have never allowed hunting on our farm and we never will. I told the Conservative group that I would abstain, rather than be forced to vote for hunting.

Did you feel able to talk through your concerns with your local party?

I didn’t talk to anyone from the Conservative group. Partly because I wanted to process on my own the way I was feeling, but partly because I’d got from the Green group the answers I was looking for. When I met the leader of the Conservative group to hand in my resignation he was understanding; he said he wished I’d talked to him before resigning. But if I had it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Had my party colleagues talked to me about my voting behaviour they would have known the way I was leaning. Councillors from other parties certainly did.

Why move to the Greens? It seems like a big shift from the political right to the left.

A lot of people have asked why I joined the Conservatives in the first place; they thought I was always really a Green at heart. I was always passionate about the environment, having had an idyllic childhood in rural Gloucestershire. Being outdoors in nature all the time was a gentle way of life. It meant I felt in touch with the seasons and it made me very aware as an adult of the environmental crisis and the effects of climate change.

There was no single Green policy that influenced my decision. I looked carefully at all their policies and at the manifesto and it just all made sense. If the Greens were in power we would have a great public transport system, apart from anything else.

One thing I love about the Greens is that their councillors are never whipped; they are allowed to make decisions on what they think is right, and usually they reach consensus.

My husband Martin, a farmer, had changed his farming practices; he’d stopped ploughing and was doing a kind of no-dig Claydon system instead. And started planting hedgerows to help create a green corridor from Bisley village, and planted a wildflower meadow. We must be doing something right as the soil is so much more productive and we have more wildlife than ever before.

I met people like Lesley Greene (former Bisley district councillor and a current parish councillor), and Martin Brown (Green district councillor for Bisley) who are amazing people. The first time I voted Green was for Martin to be re-elected to Bisley.

But for a long time you had certain misconceptions about the Green Party, didn’t you?

Yes, I naively believed the misconception that the Greens were trendy, anti-establishment activists, middle-class people who hypocritically bought organic vegetables from Waitrose then took them home in a four-wheel drive car.

That perception came out of my ignorance and lack of understanding, and I didn’t dig any deeper. But over the last three years it evolved. When I actually met Green councillors and talked to them – and, more important, was prepared to listen to them – it changed my whole understanding of what the Greens are about.

You thought Greens were ‘tree huggers’?

Yes, I suppose I did, but I hug trees too, so that was OK! I love to go and sit in the woods and contemplate, clear my head and ground myself.

Are you glad you joined the Greens?

I did a lot of soul-searching over the past year or so. It was almost like being two people: a Tory and what I truly am. Though I have evolved, I have also gone back to the real me. I feel so much happier in myself, I don’t have that inner conflict anymore.

I switched because it was the right thing to do. That won’t stop me from working hard, from representing my residents, I will continue to do all of that. When I die I want people to remember me as a gentle person who was community spirited and wanted to make a positive difference.

I have felt really welcomed into the party and I feel like part of a team at GCC, part of a family who do what’s best for their areas. They’re very supportive.

But I feel I need to prove my worth to other Greens, that I’m genuine, and it will take time to gain their trust. People who know me already know I’m a genuine person, but people who don’t know me might be sceptical.

What differences have you seen in the working style of Conservative and Green councillors?

The GCC green group have catch-up meetings every Friday. They’re very proactive; we’re going to visit a farm next week, for example. They’re curious and interested; they investigate and question everything. They go out and find out what’s going on in their communities, find out how things work and exchange ideas.

For example, Cate Cody [Green county councillor for Tewkesbury and leader of the GCC Green group] told me about a scheme where residents can find out about nature and folklore in her area, to get children immersed in nature, and I thought we could do something like that in my division. According to a 2016 survey, 75% of children in the UK are getting less time outside than prison inmates. And they’re losing the ability to communicate with each other. I find that really troubling. I’d love to help children get out and understand the environment better, and our effect on it.

The Conservative group is nowhere near as cohesive. We had a team day once a year but otherwise I didn’t see them from one meeting to the next. There wasn’t the same team spirit.

Is there anything the Greens do particularly well, that Conservatives might benefit from learning from?

When I was campaigning for the Tories, I was envious of the Greens. Their campaign was really slick. Their postcards, for example, showing local nature scenes and with handwriting-style font on the back, which said on the tin exactly what the Greens were about.

I didn’t enjoy canvassing for the Conservatives – I didn’t feel comfortable about having to answer questions about their policies – but I’m going canvassing soon with Chloe [Chloe Turner, Green County councillor and parliamentary candidate for North Cotswolds] and I’m looking forward to it.

Your defection came less than a week after the Stroud District Council elections, which saw the Conservatives lose many of their seats and the Greens become the biggest party on the council. Was the timing deliberate?

Not at all. I originally intended to resign before the SDC elections, but then I felt it would distract from the elections. Then I was going to wait a couple more months so that people didn’t think it was a knee-jerk reaction to the Conservatives doing so badly in the local elections. But in the end the inner conflict was making me ill.

Had I resigned my seat there would have been a by-election, which costs a lot of money, and a Green would very probably have won the seat. It would have simply highlighted publicly the reduction in Conservative support, and I didn’t want that.

I felt I needed to resign so that I could get on with being the person I really am. The timing probably wasn’t ideal, but I felt I couldn’t wait any longer.

What was the reaction from the Conservative group and from residents?

The first full council meeting after I resigned was difficult. Some of the Conservative councillors wouldn’t speak to me – or even look at me.

But I have been re-elected as vice-chair of the council, so there are plenty of Conservatives who still support me.

I had emails from residents saying, ‘good for you; that was brave’. But I had one really vile email from a resident who called me a traitor. I offered to meet him face to face to explain why I did what I did – I’m willing to meet with any Conservatives who were unhappy with my decision – but he refused to meet me. I guess that says more about him than about me.

I totally understand that some Conservative voters are angry; they feel they voted me in as a Conservative and therefore I should have stayed a Conservative. But others have said they understand why I did what I did, that the system is broken.

On the whole, people seem to think I made the right choice; it was certainly the right choice for me.

What do you say to people who accuse you of switching sides to cling on to power?

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown [current Tory MP for the Cotswolds] accused me on TV of being self-interested. But I have no guarantee of retaining my seat at the next election, or even of being selected by the Greens to run again. Where is the self-interest? Where’s the personal gain?

If I had wanted to hang on to ‘power’, I would have kept my head down and stayed as a Conservative until next May or become an Independent for the last year of my term.

What did your family think of your switch to the Greens?

My husband Martin wasn’t surprised at all. He has voted for me as a Conservative and will vote for me as a Green. He’s not very political. He thinks that Labour and the Conservative party are ‘as bad as each other’.

My son Timothy actually stood as a Conservative in the SDC elections, for the Painswick ward now occupied by three Greens. We brought him up to be independent in his thinking so I would never tell him what he should believe politically. But I’m hoping to persuade him to join the Green Party too; he’s non-committal but I’m working on him!

Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsey was on BBC Radio Gloucestershire, talking about you, and he invited other disillusioned Tory councillors to join the Greens. Do you know any other Tories who might be tempted?

I don’t know of any but, like me, they might keep their feelings close to their chests. But what I did might give other people courage to do the same. If anyone wants to talk to me discreetly, my door is always open.