During the interminable General Election campaign, not a single ‘politician’ or canvasser was seen in my neighbourhood nor knocked on my door, yet I am supposed to vote for my local council as well as my MP.
However, I have been inundated with endless literature.
There was a marked difference between these costly missives: the Greens and UKIP sticking to their known agendas on, respectively, immigration and, well, being ‘green’. The Lib Dems and Labour blatantly lying and doing what they always do best – making vicious personal attacks verging on the libelous, on the Conservatives.
In sharp contrast, the Conservative literature was very positive, setting out clearly in tabloid newspaper style format, what our local MP, personally, achieved for his constituents during his tenure, whilst also emphasising what the Conservatives delivered in government (more jobs, stronger economy, support for business and health) and what still needs to be done at a national level.
Remarkably, there are no personal attacks on anyone, which is why (and I would say this, wouldn’t I) I spent time reading the Tory literature before consigning it to my blue bin along with the rest. Judging from the results, I’m sure I wasn’t alone; when it’s obvious that voters don’t trust politicians, it is refreshing to have the facts, without the usual spin. It should also be remembered that people can be offended by personal attacks on candidates, whatever their political persuasion. It undermines our democracy.
It also makes it difficult to find those candidates in the first place. Anyone wanting to become an MP has to develop a rhinoceros hide pretty quickly, but this isn’t easy for people who would like to represent their communities as a councillor, who have otherwise led politically sheltered lives. Their passion isn’t just about politics, it is – or should be – about helping people literally at grass roots level – often on a single issue of local importance.
Without such people, councils like Rotherham and Tower Hamlets can thrive unchallenged, and the more we learn about the way various public institutions ignored issues in these areas, the more worried we should be about how this could happen in the world’s oldest and most successful democracy. Britain is not a third world country, although judging from some recent left-leaning politicians’ rhetoric, we could be! Fortunately, voters didn’t buy that.
Given the difficulties in recruiting candidates, it would be interesting to know how many local authority council seats went unchallenged in this year’s elections, and to know why; in Suffolk, alone, there were 5, and another was challenged for the first time in 40 years.
There is, of course, the fear factor (not merely the personal abuse in literature, and vandalism of property, but the lies about rival policies promoted across local media by opponents) but also the likelihood that there’s no chance of anyone other than the incumbent party’s representative winning, so is it worth the time/effort in putting oneself forward. Like some incumbent MPs, local councillors can also build their reputations as committed representatives of their communities, always available to speak up for them without bias, and actually getting things done – even challenging their own party’s ideology, whilst some councils with overwhelming majorities do such a good job that voters would stick with them whatever the challenge from an outsider.
Regrettably, however, there are people who don’t deserve to be elected or re-elected because they do not look after their local residents; they ignore cries for help, don’t work with their local Safer Neighbourhood Teams, claim illegitimate expenses, and fail to turn up at meetings and, if they do turn up on occasion, they don’t do their homework (i.e. read the documents) or speak. The only time they are ever seen is during their own election, when they knock on a few doors, deliver a few leaflets claiming credit for what other local councillors have done, and manipulate the electorate with undeliverable promises, soon forgotten, whilst blaming anyone but themselves for failures.
Economically illiterate, once elected these people vote on budgets without question when they can’t even read a balance sheet.
But, the fault is not entirely theirs, because candidates are rarely told the truth about the amount of time they will need to devote to the role and what is expected of them. Training is largely inadequate, especially for Planning, generally being confined to a few introductory sessions, usually by officers who certainly don’t want their councillors to be able to interfere in their own priorities or how they do their jobs. New councillors can find it very difficult getting to grips with how local government actually works, and to understand the frustrating ‘silo’ mentality. Experienced councillors could be useful mentors, at least for a few months.
Even councillors in Cabinet positions don’t always get the answers, however hard they try, because there is an ingrained resentment of what officers call ‘interference’, when the rest of us see it as holding people to account on behalf of the electorate! Local authorities (and other parts of the public sector, including the NHS) should actually employ more people from outside their charmed circle, people with business experience and strong financial awareness, who possess vision and who don’t need endless consultants’ reports and worthless public ‘consultation’ to help them make decisions.
Today’s bureaucracy is outdated, expensive, and useless. It only survives because of the Unions and the public sector is their last bastion.
Instead, the public sector should emulate the best of the corporate world, focusing on listening to what people actually want rather than what bureaucrats decide they want, whilst keeping a tight rein on finances, and putting a stop to the duplication of effort between those silos and other public bodies which don’t even talk to each other. Millions of pounds could be saved, and services improved overnight.