Mark Pengelly is a journalist, digital media professional and a former local councillor in Woking.
Away from the hubbub of party conference season, Conservative associations across the country have been busy selecting candidates for next year’s local elections. Those that have yet to do so are likely to complete this task during the coming months.
At a time when the national debate is focused on an issue as impactful as Brexit, the decisions these associations and their branches make may seem insignificant, but in fact they are of the utmost importance.
In the UK, councillors sit on the front line of party politics. General elections, by-elections and referenda are fought and lost on the back of efforts put in by our tireless local foot-soldiers. Many councillors – including two of our living current and former prime ministers – have gone on to accomplish bigger things in the service of our party. For most ordinary members of the public, councillors are perhaps the most outwardly political individuals they will meet.
Good councillors are at once the local champions of our party at ground level, and the local champions of the communities they represent. The best councillors deploy their limited powers in an effective way to help residents, but are unafraid to act as local spokespeople on other issues that go beyond their mandate. The diligent service and attention they provide can help ensure our party gets a hearing when it comes to the major national issues of the day.
Speak to ordinary people across the country and you will find that not everybody is able to tell you the current rate of VAT, explain the intricacies of Brexit negotiations, or unpick how social care costs are allocated. But most people can point you to their nearest library, bus stop or leisure centre. From theatres to meals-on-wheels, councils and councillors run services that keep people fed, entertained, educated and healthy. Moreover, for many of the most vulnerable people in our society, children and adults alike, the assistance and support councils offer is a vital lifeline they can’t do without.
Importantly, councillors have the ability to effect rapid, tangible changes to issues that are close to people’s hearts. Of course, all councillors are called upon to participate in big strategic and financial decisions, while members of cabinets and majority groups will find themselves doing so on a regular basis. Those decisions are weighty and not to be neglected.
But the small things also matter, because the small things often make a huge difference to people’s lives. As they say in the US, “all politics is local” — and that’s certainly true, whether it’s a planning application, a missed bin collection, a road full of potholes, or a play area in need of repair.
I was asked recently, what was my proudest achievement as a councillor? Certainly there were plenty of things that would look impressive on a CV. However, the things that make me proudest are the many seemingly trivial small things that in fact made an enormous difference to local people. It was a great responsibility and a privilege to be able to right some of the everyday problems that, one by one, can gradually erode people’s quality of life. It’s a pleasure that I hope many of our 2019 local election candidates will have the opportunity to share.
We live in an era when many of our fellow citizens are angry and fed up with politics. Ordinary people look at how Brexit has monopolised the national agenda and wonder whether any of the main political parties still care about them, their lives and communities. In this environment, good local councillors can serve as living proof that politicians are public-spirited individuals who wish to drive positive change for their communities. What’s more, they can demonstrate that it is possible to achieve that change – even if it is as trivial as installing a new recycling bin, or effecting a repair to a cracked and broken street.
Recent years have not exactly seen the renaissance in local government that some of us hoped for when our party was in opposition. The clout of local government in the UK remains feeble compared with many other developed countries. As documented on ConservativeHome and elsewhere, many councils now face dire financial straits, while their level of influence over key services has diminished in recent decades. Despite this, councils retain a great deal of power over the lives of ordinary people, shaping the future of their local areas and delivering the services they cherish most.
So councils matter, and councillors do too. Select your candidates wisely.