Lord Feldman’s review of the Conservative Party organisation has little to say about the role of councillors. Yet there are 8,766 Conservative councillors in the UK – more than for Labour and the Lib Dems put together. Many of us – indeed most of us – work hard for the residents we represent and for our Party. I do think that it should be easier to deselect those who do not work hard enough. Part of the difficulty is that councillors are paid allowances. My view is that allowances should be abolished, although obviously that is a matter which goes beyond Lord Feldman’s remit.
But the money creates a distortion, with those who have lost interest in proceedings still shuffling along to a meeting every couple of months and clinging on to keep their £10,000 a year. Generally, councillors who are idle when it comes to canvassing are likely also to be idle when it comes to dealing with the casework that arrives in their inboxes on a daily basis. So deselection is not just a matter of self-interest for constituency associations, but a wider duty.
The Party Review says the following:
Selection of local government candidates
Despite having been in government for five years the number of Conservative councillors remains at the very high level built up over 13 years in opposition. Councillors play a major role in the work of the Party and occupy many officer positions within Associations across the country.
Many councillors contribute financially either to their local Association or to a fund within their group.Some Members feel that this should be compulsory whereas others point out that it is the role of Party Members, including councillors, to raise funds for campaigning rather than to contribute directly. Some Members seemed unaware that there are now mandatory forms for council candidates to complete but there were calls from those who were aware for more prescriptive demands in terms of guaranteed campaigning and promotional activity e.g. street stalls.
There were many calls for the “double or treble hatting” of councillor positions to be prohibited. It was said that this practice stifles new recruitment and causes tensions in some Associations. This was not a unanimous view, with a minority claiming that it did not create problems. The decision on whether to allow this is not dependent on the Constitution, and Associations are already at liberty to create a rule to this effect should they wish to do so, either in the form of a rule within the nonmandatory rules of Schedule 7 or a decision by the Executive Council at any given time.
There is general support for the rules on the selection of local government candidates that have now been in existence since 2011 though there is a small minority view that feels that it should be entirely a matter for local decision and a rather larger opinion that would like the rules to be more prescriptive. It is an area that involves more activists than almost any other aspect of an Association’s activities and therefore attracts a lot of contributions.
Targets and rules are all very well but they mean little if they are quietly ignored. It is more of a cultural problem. Conservative Group leaders on local councils, constituency association chairmen, and Conservative MPs (or prospective candidates) often have little appetite or incentive to “pick a fight”. When they do it will often be with a councillor who is active – but felt to be a nuisance – rather than someone whose lethargy keeps them off the radar. However, clear rules should help. No Conservative councillor should take reselection for granted. Nor, by the way, should any Conservative MP. It is certainly reasonable that equivalent rigour should apply.
One area which the Party Review has clearly failed, is with regard to the Conservative Councillors Association. At present its elections are dysfunctional. For example, councillors from outside London can vote on who the representative of London Conservative councillors can be. Rather than being a force for robust Conservative innovation and debate, the CCA ends up as a feeble offshoot of the Local Government Association. This democratic failing leads to organisational failings. Training and communication is weak. The interaction between Conservative councillors from neighbouring authorities is often negligible. Pleas for reform were ignored by the Party review. The only mention of the CCA is that all Conservative councillors should continue to be obliged to be members.
Having an army of councillors is generally a great asset for the Conservatives. But this does not always apply. Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, has written a most useful book, How to Win a Marginal Seat.
Faced with the challenge of retaining his seat after the Conservatives lost control of the council he says:
“Many of our ward branches were run by people who were either sitting councillors or interested in becoming councillors. It wasn’t in their interests to get new people involved because such people might subsequently decide they fancied becoming a councillor too.”
So just as important as a mechanism to remove those who aren’t up to scratch, is a process where all Party members are regularly encouraged to put themselves forward to stand for council elections.
Conservative councillors and other Party members need to help each other to work effectively. In many cases this works well. But the Feldman Review has little to offer in making it work better.