“Gareth, how did you do it?” read the uncommonly short text I received from a fellow councillor before Christmas. He is in his mid twenties, has been elected to our council for 18 months now, and was coming to the end of his first term of teacher training; a situation that closely resembled mine when I was first elected in 2002.
Doing your PGCE is undoubtedly a tough experience. You are learning a new profession, usually in the alien environment of a school you have never heard of, working with teachers who are eager to help you but pressed for time, facing students who are trying it on because you’re the new adult in the room, drowning in masses of meaningless new Labour-inspired paperwork, and writing lesson plans until the early hours, all whilst trying to lead your normal life.
If you then add on being a local councillor, and a new one at that, your head can easily feel a bit mashed-up.
The most recent census of councillors showed that the average age was 59 and only 13% were aged under 45. When you can both vote and stand for election at 18, that figure is pretty shocking. Younger councillors are also much less likely to stand for re-election too.
But it isn’t rocket science to both recruit younger people to stand for election and then keep them beyond their first term. The Conservatives here in Cheshire West & Chester have a better than average record; five of us are 30 or under and two of us have already faced re-election.
So here are my top suggestions to get new, younger blood onto your council:
1. Don’t keep Conservative Future members separated from the rest of your local party; we don’t bite! I was very lucky that my local Association was totally supportive and from day one included me in everything even though I was a mere 16 year old when I joined.
2. Start younger activists on the campaign trail early and listen to their ideas. Pair them up with a sitting councillor or selected candidate. Get them to know the ropes and learn the local issues. People like having a young face canvass them, it’s a pleasant surprise! As well as creating that website you were thinking of doing they could come up with that killer new way of campaigning that might just win that marginal ward.
3. Don’t assume that people under 30 are only good as paper candidates and would not command public support. I won my seat off Labour at the age of 22 and I have been re-elected twice, each time with a greatly increased majority. Residents like having a mix of age and experience on their council.
4. When we are elected, be flexible with how you work as a council. There is no more certain way to disenfranchise a new councillor than to hold all of your meetings during the day when they are probably at work. It is no coincidence that many County Councils who hold daytime meetings (often for good reasons of geography of course) have an older average age of councillor than many districts or unitaries which hold most of their meetings in the evening.
5. Give younger councillors meaningful roles and not just the crumbs. If they are able they can do the job irrespective of age. Younger councillors can have just as much to offer on adult social services as they can on “yoof issues”. My own group elected me their Deputy Leader at the age of 24 and I drafted our first ever full alternative budget the next year.
Having a real mix of councillors from across the age range, those who work as well as those who are retired, can only make local authorities more effective and dynamic. The same goes for the Conservative Party itself. To gain the respect and support of our electorate we not only need the right policies, but the right mix of representatives too, and age is one area where the entire political system is falling down.
And to my colleague who asked the question that started all this off, I could only reply “I have no idea how. I just sort of did.”