Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.
Make contact with the Conservative Party for the first time, introduce yourself, and say you want to volunteer. Then count how many seconds it takes to get to the question: “So, do you want to be a local councillor?”
Talking about how the Conservative Party contains too many former councillors at this moment in national politics seems like criticising the colour of the deckchairs aboard the sinking Titanic. But one of the factors in the current political crisis is the perception of distance between politicians and the electorate, the belief that politicians are “one of them” not “one of us”, that political office is not something open to anyone but rather a closed shop for career politicians.
Of Conservative MPs elected in this Parliament, 41 per cent are former councillors. This number is surprising, especially since that an MP and a councillor are not particularly similar jobs. Although they both deal with casework and act as a conduit between a resident/residents and public bodies, the primary function of a council is to run a district, town or borough. On an ultra-local level a councillor has a lot of power: they manage housing policy, grant planning permission, set Council Tax, act as corporate parents and make both day-to-day and long-term choices about the running of their area. The job of an MP is about communication and legislation, and they are part of the legislative arm of the state: they scrutinise and vote on laws, push solutions to problems up to the top of the government’s agenda, advocate for resources and represent their constituents to the Government. Although they are both accountable to the electorate, an MP is not a Councillor+. So why is the career trajectory so often councillor then MP?
Potential MPs know that standing for council gives them a track record in politics, a feet-first introduction to the mechanics of winning elections and contacts in the political sphere. And on the flip side, if someone has ticked all the boxes of being a good councillor, including campaigning and accountability to voters, it gives them a background and history, and a reassurance that the candidate is not a complete unknown. To become an MP, an individual has to pass Approvals, conducted by CCHQ then apply to shortlisting panels and Executive Committees of local Associations to be considered for a seat. Because of the influence of local government on local Associations, both these latter bodies will be likely largely made up of councillors. If a candidate successfully gets through the sifting process, they will then face the Association membership for final selection: often less than 70 in number and over 70 in average age. And a high proportion of these will be councillors. Local government permeates the selection process, and so wannabe MPs will focus on local government.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that standing is a councillor is the right experience for a potential MP. The one area of the Conservative Party that is not dominated by former councillors is the Cabinet and those attending the Cabinet which, like the May Cabinet preceding it, is significantly under-represented for former councillors. And it isn’t the case that all the former councillors are selected to the marginals leaving the Westminster politics to those in “safe seats”: the Cabinet is fairly equally represented for marginal seats, and there are roughly as many former councillors in the 30 safest seats as there are in the 30 most marginal.
Local government then has the numerical presence in Parliament but not in the biggest decision-making body: and despite the incredible number of former councillors in Parliament, we have still not found a legislative solution to local government’s biggest problem, adult social care. There is a danger that by presenting local government as a logical career path to Westminster, MPs come in with a local government focus after they should have focussed on effecting change via Parliament, or spend years gaining experience in local politics that could have been used in another industry under-represented in Parliament.
And counter-intuitively, one of the biggest victims of the local government focus is local government itself. Most authorities have 30-60 councillors representing electorates of 60,000 to 90,000 people. Yet depressingly, it is still rarer than not to find a Council that does not contain at least two people who are related to each other.
With the shortage of candidates, when someone new does proactively put their name forward to get involved in the party, the conversation often jumps straight to “Would you like to be councillor?”. And this is an appealing sell because most people new to politics will like the idea that they could become a politician, even when the reality of local government – the long hours and the residents meetings and the committee meetings and the parish council meetings and the endless, endless emails – would be a more difficult pitch.
Local government is a hugely effective mechanism to enact positive change, but like anything else, it is not for everyone: it is hugely time-consuming and focussed on people and organisation more than academic politics. Assuming that becoming a local councillor is the logical fit for anyone who happens to be interested in politics misuses or loses entirely a huge pool of people who would not be good councillors but would be fantastic officers, activists, political school governors, branch chairs, or potential Parliamentary candidates. Conversely, sometimes the best councillors are not those who think of themselves as being political, but are instead the small-c conservatives filling the governing bodies of local schools, charities, churches and community groups and are waiting to be asked to stand.
Yet a councillor is a politician, like an MP or MEP. This presents a problem when it comes to the permeation of local government into the local political parties. The role of the local party is to manage the politicians and pull together a diverse group of people into a functioning team. It is almost impossible to manage a group of politicians whilst being one yourself. As with former councillors as MPs, one or two in the mix as Association Officers is healthy but the influence is all-encompassing. Choose four or five constituencies, look up the Association Officers, and see how long it takes you to count to ten councillors. Or take an area like the East Midlands as a random example: 81 per cent of the Association Chairmen listed publicly are either current or former councillors.
When sitting councillors permeate the local Association structure, talent recruitment and the reapproval process can become colleagues and friends interviewing colleagues and friends. Impartially balancing the local government responsibilities with the membership recruitment, mutual aid, fundraising and national campaigning work of the Association becomes difficult.
There are more than enough talented people out there to fill the separate roles of local councillor, Member of Parliament and local party managers. In any constituency, there will be far more people who want to get involved in politics than there are offices for them to fill. We just need to bring them in. But putting the time and energy into recruitment and training will never be the easiest option while it remains possible to give multiple jobs to the same people. A solution is to force the change by separating local government and the management structure entirely: someone should be eligible to stand as a candidate or as an officer of the local party but not both.
It is often difficult for people outside of politics to put themselves forward and navigate the system. Equally, recruiting and guiding newcomers in is a huge investment in time and effort, with no guaranteed return. The channelling of talent towards the tried and tested paths of local government is a natural consequence. But we could and should do better.
Many of the problems in current politics – a perception of a “closed shop”, too few people rotating between too many jobs, too many full-time politicians – link back to local government, but local government is not the villain here. Instead, the increasingly small party selectorates, the societal change in political party membership and the redefining of politics as a full time job have combined to make local government a symptom of the problem. This is frustrating because local government is a wonderful thing. When you look at what affects most people day-to-day, it is local not national government – from libraries to roads to social care to schools to bins to town centres. Local government covers some of the most important areas of politics, and it deserves a better quality of elected representative than it sometimes gets. If political involvement grew beyond local government, the biggest winner would be local government itself. Local government is the backbone of the country. For its own sake, and for everyone else’s, it should not be the backbone of politics.