London Assembly member Roger Evans helps to coach potential politicians on getting selected for Parliament. Here he warns how being a councillor can be a liability.
Last month Eveleigh Moore-Dutton wrote a piece asking why more women councillors did not become MPs. As someone who coaches women in the selection process, I could think of several reasons. Some of the most important apply equally to male councillors with higher ambitions:
Local government has its own language and a bewildering list of acronyms that mean nothing to people outside the public sector. Eleven years of New Labour target setting and interference has worsened the situation. Council experience is valuable but it also fosters a tendency for in house terms to slip off the tongue, and the more senior councillors are often the worst offenders. Public sector jargon bewilders selection committee members and may even alienate some. Ambitious councillors need to relearn the art of plain speaking which got them selected in the first place.
In many associations the relationship between councillors and activists is tense. Elected members all too readily become defensive when the tabloids or the Taxpayers’ Alliance finger their council for wasting money or over regulation. Standing up for your authority is admirable – with a few exceptions – but candidates for higher office need to stand back and consider how the situation appears to hard-pressed council tax payers. Selection committees are made up of councillors and activists and the chances are that they disagree strongly on some issues. The clever candidate will understand the wider picture.
Compromise is inevitable in the business of running councils, particularly where there is no overall majority or senior officers are ‘difficult’. Unfortunately, compromise is also habit forming. When councillors are first selected to stand, equivocation is not a quality they display. For their future selections candidates need to practice taking a position on important policies and defending that position tenaciously.
Other parties tend to promote their councillors more often than we do, although the record has been improving recently. The irony is that to make the leap to Westminster, Conservative councillors often need to rediscover their activist origins.