SOME people rush into activism at the first opportunity, but Kate Linnegar isn’t one of them.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I did not want to get involved with this. Really.
“I could think of much better and more fun things to be doing on my day off from work than standing in town, waving banners and trying to engage people, to be honest.
“It’s not great fun, especially when it’s freezing cold, but there comes a time when you have to stand up and be counted.
“You cannot look around you and see people being treated in the way that they are in what’s supposed to be a civilised society and say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with it and it’s not very good, but you can’t do anything about it.’ “Some say we can’t change anything, but I believe with people power we can.”
The need for change, she insists, is pressing. Her own friends and acquaintances alone include people obliged to work 12-hour shifts or lose benefits even though one is terminally ill and another seriously disabled.
Then there’s the MS sufferer in her 60s who was recently forced to learn how to use a computer. Her career before the illness struck? Teaching people how to use computers.
Kate was born in Chobham, Surrey. She has two younger brothers, one a carpenter and the other an environmentalist and yoga teacher. The family moved to Swindon when Kate was five, brought here by her father’s job with the old Swindon Council.
Drove Secondary and Commonweal were followed by drama school in Richmond – Kate’s ambition was to be an actress, and she joined Swindon Youth Theatre at 14.
Stints as an exotic dancer in Japan and Belgium brought an Equity card, and Kate later worked in community theatre in London, touring schools.
She also worked as a dresser on Evita and as a demonstrator of products in upmarket London stores. She recalls being told she was an excellent saleswoman, but lacked ruthlessness.
“The thing I demonstrated for longest was the mini vacuum cleaner, which was £4.99 a throw. It was a little hand-held.
“I was quite a good sales person but the problem was that I would get an elderly lady saying, ‘Ooh, that’s wonderful because I can’t use my big Hoover anymore,’ and I just had to be honest and say, ‘The batteries would only last about three square feet of your carpet – please don’t buy it’. I’d rather sleep, comfortable in my bed, knowing I’d sold it to people who actually needed it.”
Kate has had a commitment to fairness for as long as she can remember.
“I think most people are people of principle – I think it’s part of human nature. I’ve had this discussion with people recently because of being involved with the people’s assembly.
“There are so many people who say to me, ‘Greed is human nature; that’s how people are.’ And I say, ‘Well, not most of the people I know.’ “I think I was brought up like that. My parents are very community-minded. My dad worked for local government; he could have worked privately and earned a lot more money. He was very, very much involved in the community.
“My mother did Meals on Wheels. I can remember going and helping her sometimes when I was a little girl.
“They brought us up to believe that it’s not what people earn, it’s not whether you’ve got a big car or a big house or the clothes you wear –1 it’s what you do that makes you who you are.
“And I like being like that. It makes you feel good, your community benefits from it and you live in a better place.”
Marrying and returning to Swindon, Kate worked as a taxi driver, an administrator and in a supermarket while her children were smaller, but then set up her own cleaning business.
“My clients are absolutely fabulous. You almost become part of the family when you clean someone’s house. They share their triumphs and tragedies with you. They invite you to their family things. It’s fantastic, really, and if I say I need time off for something for the children, they’re very supportive.”
At around the beginning of last year, Kate became increasingly appalled by issues such as the bedroom tax and the new way of assessing disability benefits claims. She stopped buying a favourite middle-market tabloid even though she enjoyed some of its features, as she was angered by what she saw as its demonisation of vulnerable people.
Kate then became involved with nationwide organisation the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, and the Swindon People’s Assembly was born from a Facebook post shortly afterwards. It has about 190 members.
It’s an umbrella organisation dedicated to fighting austerity cuts and promoting the NHS, education, affordable housing, a living wage, and environmental consciousness. It believes in taxing banks and major corporations more heavily and ensuring utilities are publicly owned.
Members are drawn from a variety of backgrounds. Kate said: “We’ve got a teacher and a retired lecturer, care workers, a financial advisor, a couple of factory shopfloor workers, a bar manager, a nursery nurse, a retired counter assistant from a chemist’s, musicians, administrators...”
Many people respond to the group supportively, although some are hostile.
Kate said: “I find it quite amusing that being called a ‘do-gooder’ has now become a derogatory description, because actually it’s somebody who’s doing something that they believe in – that they believe is something good.”
The assembly’s web page is thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/swindon_group