Thirty-six years old is no age to die – especially for someone with so much potential and so much more ahead of her. Yet that was how old one of my former councillors, Cllr Ruth Bagnall (Lab – Coleridge, when she died in 2004. You can read her obituary here.
Above – Cllr Ruth Bagnall from Inside Housing, 22 August 2003, Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection
I was reminded of Cllr Bagnall by her successor-but-one as Cambridge Labour’s Group Leader, Cllr Anna Smith, also representing Coleridge for Labour, who was elected last week as our new council leader at Cambridge City Council.
Like Cllr Smith, I never had the chance to meet Cllr Bagnall either – which seems strange given that I was at secondary school when she got elected in the early 1990s to the city council. In those days the institutional outreach to us young people was minimal. Local councils did not have the money, and the attitude towards young people generally from the political classes was not a positive one outside of the staged photoshoots. Which makes the election and record of Cllr Bagnall all the more striking because she was still in her 20s when she became one of our ward councillors.
I still wonder today what my own path would have been had I selected different A-levels (I didn’t have the courage to pick politics and had no adults around me making the case for it) and not had to go to church every Sunday at a time when the institution was becoming less and less relevant to the lives that we were living. Had there been a local young labour group from the early 1990s, chances are I’d have joined it. (And have become even more unbearable on all things politics than I am already!)
Nik Shelton, then of the Cambridge Evening News, wrote the article announcing her passing in its edition of 02 April 2004 – two months before I joined the civil service then under Tony Blair’s Labour Government.
Above – the Cambridge Evening News from 02 April 2004, courtesy the Cambridgeshire Collection
“Ruth Bagnall, Cambridge City Council’s Labour group leader, has died after a battle with cancer. Fellow councillors and colleagues have paid tribute to the Coleridge ward councillor who was planning to stand as Euro MP before she was diagnosed with the disease earlier this year.
“Coun. Bagnall, 36, who lived in Greville Road, Cambridge, was a hard working member of the East of England Development Agency and the Local Government Association. She was elected councillor for the Coleridge ward 10 years ago and was the leader of the Labour group for the last five years.
“City MP Anne Campbell praised her leadership and huge dedication to political life. She said.
“Ruth’s death will be a devastating blow for members of the Cambridge Labour Party. She was very much a political leader and had a bright future in front of her. Her early death is a tragedy.”Anne Campbell MP (Cambridge – Labour – 1992-2005)
“Labour group deputy Ben Bradnack said: “She was a star and a lot of fun. That was the impression she made on people. When she came into a room she was able to immediately have an effect without being bossy or overbearing. She always managed to be right there concentrating about what people cared for. The council chamber will be less visually impressive without her. Deeply private and personally unassuming, Ruth has dominated council proceedings by her presence.”
Longstanding Labour councillor John Durrant said: “She was a dedicated individual, to people and to the Labour Party. It is sad that she wasn’t able to fulfil the promise that I feel she would have been able to achieve in Europe. She was standing in the Europ elections and she had put her heart and soul into it.”
“Lib Dem council leader Ian Nimmo Smith [The City Council then under Liberal Democrat control, taking advantage of Labour’s unpopularity due to the Iraq War that hit their support hard] said: “I learnt a lot from her and I think she’s earned everyone’s respect for the way she stood up for her principles. It was quite common after committee meetings to go to the pub together and talk over matters. When we weren’t arguing over matters of policy and performance [of local council public services] we could listen to each other and I enjoyed her company. We all feel diminished by her death.”
Colleagues on the East of England Development Agency [EEDA] said she had been an essential member of the Agency’s Board since joining in 2001. EEDA chair Richard Ellis said: “On behalf of the staff and board members at EEDA I extend our heartfelt condolences to Ruth’s family. Ruth was an ambitious and talented individual who lived life to the full and was passionate about what she believed in – she will be sorely missed”
There are more newspaper cuttings of the life and political career of the late Ruth Bagnall in the Cambridgeshire Collection, who you can contact to arrange a viewing of the files.
Those that knew her were the best place to talk about what she might have gone on to achieve. What the electoral record tells us is that in the years following her death, the Cambridge Liberal Democrats made significant gains in previous Labour strongholds such as Romsey, Peterfield, King’s Hedges, and Arbury. In the 2000s, there were times when each of the wards were represented by full slates of Liberal Democrat councillors, both parties having pretty much vanquished the once mighty Cambridge Conservatives, who would be reduced to only short-lived single councillor presences at The Guildhall following Ruth’s death.
Ruth was a high calibre politician. As a languages graduate from Girton College, Cambridge, it’s a tragedy that she never got to stand for election in the European elections in 2004 and potentially put her French & German skills to use in the European Parliament. I can imagine her making short work of some of her political opponents who were elected to that parliament in that year – a campaign like so many others to follow being lead by tabloid newspaper headlines on Euro-myths and falsehoods. We are still paying a very heavy political price nearly 20 years later.
Sadly Ruth wasn’t the first local Labour politician to pass away before her time. Before her went:
You could even add their predecessors from a different political generation – Professor Henry Fawcett MP, and Professor Richard Jebb MP, and Homerton College Principal John Horobin, all of whom were supporters of votes for women and could well have persuaded a split Parliament to remove the ban on women voting earlier than 1918.
Cllr Ruth Bagnall was not just part of our local history, but was someone who tried to make and shape it too. I hope future generations will take the time to explore the newspaper archives from the 1990s & early 2000s to find out more about a young and rising politician who was taken from our city far too soon.
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