Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
In West Kent, we have just finished selecting our candidates for the 2017 County Council elections. Around 50 per cent of our divisions had contested selections. Of these, half were open seats (where the incumbent had retired) and half were where the incumbent was challenged, often to the chagrin of the incumbent, with supporting noises from their colleagues at County Hall.
It is understandable that incumbents recoil from such challenges though, to their great credit, the majority accept the validity of the process. A councillor is elected for a four year term and surely, just as the electors are invited to renew that contract at the election, so Party members should be invited to renew their confidence in that candidate beforehand.
All but the most intransigent councillors accept that their position should not be a sinecure and, if we accept the principle that others have a right to challenge and that elected representatives have a duty to defend their record, then what other system is there? Those calling for a wholesale review of the national selection rules have a duty to put forward valid alternative proposals which are better than the rules we have currently in place.
At each selection meeting after the Chair had welcomed the members and I had explained the technicalities of the voting system, I said the following:
“I would now like to address one of the questions most often raised by members, and that is why you have been called here tonight, particularly when there is an incumbent councillor seeking re-election. Tonight you will be selecting a person who, with the support of the electors next May, will be part of a team running Kent County Council. If Kent was a stand-alone country, there would be around 30 smaller countries in the world, for it has a GDP of around £2 billion. It is therefore right and proper that Conservative Party members who pay their subscriptions locally, deliver leaflets locally, understand the issues locally and vote locally are the ones empowered to select their candidate. The only alternative is for the person who represents you at County Hall to be chosen by a committee of the “great and the good”, appointed by the Association and unaccountable to those whose lives will be affected locally”.
There is no doubt that some members would like to return to the days when selections were conducted behind closed doors by a committee of chums reluctant to challenge the status quo. I believe that this is wrong. Our members receive few benefits for their subscription and their loyalty; I can see no reason for denying them the right to choose who represents them on the council at election time.
The system as it stands already favours incumbents. They have had at least four years to establish themselves within their ward or division. In many cases, they have been the beneficiaries of taxpayer largess in the form of Community Enhancement Funds, which enable them to finance local projects and build local loyalties accordingly. They have had four years to build support in their branches, raise their profiles with their parishes and put themselves about and, should they wish to seek re-election, they have a guarantee of a place in the final. None of this is available to their challenger, who not only must fight for the right to be heard, but the overcome inherent loyalty of Party activists towards the status quo.
As I travelled across West Kent listening to over 50 hopeful applicants deliver their speeches, the differences between the pitches of the incumbent and the challenger became clear. With unsurprising regularity, incumbents saw themselves as part of the County establishment, regularly using “we” to defend the actions of the Council. Challengers were more critical, seeing themselves as “champions of the people” against what they perceived to be a County elite. I often wondered how long it would take the challengers to “go native” if they were successful.
Each year, before the selection round commences, we hold a series of Open Evenings for potential candidates. At these evenings, applicants hear from a senior councillor about the role and responsibility of local government, and they hear from me about the work they will need to do on the doorsteps to improve their chances of success. I always remind aspiring councillors that they are elected primarily to represent their communities, and to hold the executive to account, and to their credit many do. But it doesn’t take long before many join the club. They are easy to spot; they wear their council name badge inappropriately at social events, and proudly brandish embossed leatherette municipal document wallets at every opportunity. I suspect this is human nature: it is far easier to be part of the club than to be viewed as the difficult outsider.
In over ten years working locally, I have not once accepted municipal hospitality. I don’t necessarily think it is wrong for local government to reward and recognise the contribution of volunteers and community champions, but I am personally uncomfortable accepting sticky buns and wine when local councils have frozen staff wages and are having to cut cash for frontline services. At first, I offered to pay for my ticket, or at least cover the costs incurred, but this was declined as they “didn’t wish to set a precedent”. Now they don’t invite me at all, and I am somewhat relieved to be on the outside looking in.
I have written many times about how I value the work of local councillors. The overwhelming majority are good champions for their community and very seldom would their allowances, when divided by the hours worked, come close to the minimum wage. But there are those (in all areas and of all parties) who regard themselves as part of the establishment, and have forgotten that they have been elected to be guardians of the public purse.
The obligation to defend their record and justify their continued position is one of the few controls our members have to hold their feet to the fire. Any attempt to remove or dilute this right should be resisted.