Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Mimi Harker OBE for her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.
Mimi is a wife, mother, politician, radio and television presenter, trainer, speaker and campaigner. She has been a district councillor for 16 years, a role she took on after fighting a major community campaign. She is best known for her campaigning to make life better and improve her local area, saving greenbelt, preserving catchment areas, saving post offices, the Chesham Bois Post Office battle becoming the catalyst for the national movement. Nationally, she helped create the 12A cinema classification, and has worked on the Cross Party Task Force encouraging women to participate in public life.
You are a political pioneer; we owe the 12A film rating to you. Please take us on your political journey that also holds you as the first Indian-origin Mayor of Amersham.
When I finally write my book, it will be called either ‘The Accidental Politician’ or ‘Everything in Heels’. The first title describes my journey perfectly. If you had asked me 25 years ago how I saw my life, where I am now was never a part of that vision. It couldn’t be further from the quiet life in the suburbs somewhere, with keeping a beautiful home, cooking delicious food for my gorgeous family, and book reading being at the centre of it all.
Instead, I ended up with a life of complete unpredictability, of campaigning, of changing lives and total chaos! And I have loved every second of my personal journey, knowing, looking back, that I would never have been a local councillor, the Mayor of Amersham, the Chairman of Chiltern District Council, a cabinet member, a Parliamentary candidate – none of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t taken that initial opportunity.
Campaigning has been a huge part of my success and the 12A cinema classification is one that has probably benefited most families in Great Britain. It started when my six-year-old became ‘Spiderman’ obsessed – you know how it is with children. You buy them the toys, the duvet cover, the underpants and socks, the costume, literally everything that makes them feel they are their mini superhero. He was so excited for the film to be released but when it was, it was a 12 classification, meaning my son was too young. I went to see the film, couldn’t see anything in it that was distressing to a six-year-old, so I created a survey, lobbied hundreds of people coming out of the cinemas having seen the film, and sent all my findings to the British film board via an officer at the council. A few weeks later they came back to us stating that they agreed with our findings. The 12A classification was born!
This meant that although the film board thought the film was suitable for age 12 and over, with an adult present, someone younger could also view the film. Tada! Campaign success and hopefully most families will have benefitted from this. And a very happy boy! Twenty years on, this is still one of his favourite films – he was too young to understand what I did to get him in but he knows the story.
However, it was a campaign against Banner Homes that got me into politics. They were breaching restrictive covenants, and we ended up in the High Court of Justice six years later, where we won our case and changed land laws across the country. This is what brought me to the attention of the local Conservative Party. They approached me to stand for election, which I initially politely declined. All those planning meetings had taken their toll on me and I wasn’t interested. However, after a couple of years of gentle persistence and an arm held firmly behind my back, I was persuaded to stand for the elections in 1999. I’ve never looked back! Being involved in politics, has really widened my horizons, opened my eyes, and has propelled me into a world I didn’t know existed, nor would I have ever picked to be in, given the choice. It has been a fantastic and a devastating journey at the same time. I have had so many opportunities presented to me which I would never have experienced in the life I dreamed of as a child! Politics is exhilarating and heartbreaking simultaneously.
I’ve also campaigned to save our post offices, taking the fight and the petition to no.10 with my band of merry men and women, mostly pensioners – we all trundled up there on a coach and made a real day of it. That campaign resulted in the rural post office closure programme being suspended at that time.
‘Everything in Heels’ came about because on a 6am visit to post office workers at my local depot one Christmas, one of the two ladies working there as posties, asked me if I did everything in heels. I replied that yes, I do everything in heels. It sounded like a good title!
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What has been the lesson you have learned during lockdown and the covid-19 pandemic?
The biggest lesson I have learnt during lockdown and during this pandemic, is how incredibly generous people are when the community needs them. I have been bowled over by the enormous amount of volunteering I have experienced and seen. I have been literally blown away by people’s kindness and caring, especially for the elderly and our most vulnerable citizens. And I have been simply astonished at how we’ve adapted to working online and using the technology at our fingertips, some of which has always been there, but we’ve never had the need to use it, therefore we’ve never learned how to use it!
As a result of the pandemic, I hope as a planet that we have learned that we do not need to be spending hours travelling to destinations - we have worked perfectly well and efficiently from home. And one of the best lessons for so many of us, has been experiencing a fantastic balance between our working lives and our home lives. Surely that has to be the way forward? A happy blend between the old and the newly discovered. That is the future! Save our planet; save our sanity; save ourselves.
What has been a low that has been your teacher?
The greatest low for me is not succeeding at something. I mentioned before that politics has been the most exhilarating and the most heartbreaking field I have ever worked in. Perhaps it’s because I care so much. For me it has been the discovery of a vocation to serve communities and people, to make life better, to campaign for change, to be the challenge, to make the change happen!
With every heartache after not succeeding at something, whatever that might be, when I look back I realise that being in that position forced me to look at other options. It forced me to evaluate my skills, lessons learned and how to make the best of that situation.
One of the phrases that used to make me so angry, when I had one of my disappointments, was ‘when one door closes another one opens’. That used to drive me mad because it didn’t feel as if it was helping me with the current situation. It felt trite and uncaring and unfeeling – a casual brush off from someone who didn’t understand the heartbreak I was going through, but felt they had to say something. However, that adage has actually turned out to be quite correct. Not succeeding at something you wanted to do, forces you to re-evaluate and to make a decision on which direction your going to take. That in itself is a good opportunity to try new things, use your skills in a different way, and reevaluate what you can and can’t do – it focuses you more. As I am writing this, we are heading towards local elections. I am standing in a completely different area where nobody knows me, or the work that I’m capable of doing for the community. I am not expecting to be elected because of the party’s decision to back HS2. That has been the biggest vote loser especially as the works programme has ramped up and the devastation is now blatantly obvious.
We will not be forgiven for this disaster especially as Covid has proved we absolutely don’t need to travel in the way we did. What a waste of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. But being elected is not the be all and end all I have realised – finally.
All the networks I have built, all the skills I have honed, everything I have learned – this will all help me to build another world in another sphere. Of that I am sure. This is the greatest lesson I have learned from the many, many lows I have experienced. Never give up; never give in!
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What is the one lesson or words of wisdom that you try to live your life by that you would recommend to the next generation?
I work a lot with young people, and I also mentor young people coming out of care. Sometimes the circumstances we grow up in make us feel unable to cope or have any value in this world. As a youngster, I always felt inadequate, not up to the mark, not good enough, somebody out there will be better than me therefore probably best not to try and be disappointed again. I was afraid of everything and everyone.
Well here is what I say to all those young people I work with. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t apply to do something. There are always going to be people who might be more qualified, less qualified, more able, less able – but if you don’t have a go, you have no chance at all. I encourage young people not to be their own worst enemy. I tell them to go for their dream and that there is no such thing as failure, only learning. When you learn you grow. My mantra is “Every day is a school day!“ I really believe this.
Believe in yourself and believe in what you have to offer. People buy people first and by being hard-working, honest and yourself, people will see what you have to offer. Have faith in yourself and go for your dreams. Don’t let ‘you’ be the reason you never succeeded. Life is for living so grab every opportunity and step through any open doors – you never know what lies behind that door unless you step through. Once you’ve stepped through those doors, you can choose whether it’s for you or not. But if you never step through, you won’t know what you’ve missed. Go for it!
*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.