As a local councillor in Ealing, in west London, I have been more than a little irritated by the coverage of the elections on Thursday.
Is my fate in May 2014, when we next have local elections in London, really down to the relative standings of four men I have never met nor spoken to: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband?
Have I no control over my own fate?
It is more than likely that the European and London local elections next May will be held on the same day so we are likely to get the same excited extrapolation from local to national politics then too – probably more so as the European elections will cover the whole country and we will be only a year away from a national election.
The reason I am irritated is because I really enjoy doing what I do and find it very motivating. I like being a local councillor because you really can help people and improve your area. I will be happy to leave local politics when I have had enough but I don’t want to be kicked out due to some shift in the national mood that I cannot influence.
The difference between a bad councillor and a good one is immense.
Bad councillors pocket their allowances, turn up to as few meetings as they have to, they don’t bother to read reports and just sit mutely through meetings. Sometimes they jump up and read a statement or question someone else prepared for them earlier. E-mails, letters and phone calls go unanswered. They take no part in the local debate.
Good councillors are all over their wards like a rash. They often fix issues before 99% of residents realise there is a problem. Doors are knocked on regularly, people are listened to, issues filed away and acted on. Casework gets done even if sometimes, often even, people don’t like the answer they get, they get an answer. Local issues are discussed and policies are tested by talking to voters.
The difference between the bad and good councillor is probably 15 to 20 hours work a week and a lot of energy and perseverance.
I don’t need nor expect praise or sympathy. I love being a councillor. I would hate though to go back to civilian life because of a turn in the national mood. Sure, if I start talking nonsense or get complacent then kick me out. If I ignore you or talk down to you give me a poke in the eye.
If I take a lesson out of last Thursday it is that for too long, since the seventies, local government has been very much the poor relation to central government. Margaret Thatcher was notorious for her imposition of central control of councils with rate capping and the abolition of the GLA. Gordon Brown was just as big a centraliser – he demanded Gershon efficiency targets, ring fences, complex measurement systems and central assessment of councils.
In some ways the Coalition has been better, giving councils more flexibility and moving to a finance structure where councils are less dependent on the centre for income. But, the Coalition has been tempted to meddle, for instance demanding referendums on council tax rises over 2%. This has been a strategic mistake I think.
The government really should have allowed councils to show their true colours and then given the voters the privilege of holding their own councils to account. If the council is merely the tool of the centre then a plague on all your houses is a reasonable democratic response.
I don’t think that we can take the politics out of local politics but we can enhance the local. In a saner world UKIP’s entry into local politics would have happened already and would have started with tiny numbers of people who proved themselves doorstep by doorstep. If UKIP’s 139 new councillors come and go in four years and don’t change their areas for the better it will be a bad experience for everyone.
In a saner world we would have far fewer party placement in council chambers and a wider range of talented people who were all about their area. The only way to get to that saner world is by giving councils more power and allowing them to go their own way. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
I had better shut up now and go out and knock on some doors.