……. Do they mean us?!
For those voters who do not quite understand local politics, it may well be worth describing that most council chambers are organised along Westminster lines. There is a Council Leader (he is the equivalent of a Prime Minister), a “cabinet”, disciplined Westminster-style voting (so that most councillors only have backbencher status) and various committees. Plus, the whole thing is supported by a permanent civil-service-like bureaucracy.
Since the gradual separation (at local level) of economic and political leadership, the calibre of local councillors has fallen. Nowadays, individuals who are economically important within a community do not necessarily have an interest in local government. Whereas years ago a typical councillor may have been a land-owning or business-owning member of a well-established local family, nowadays, individuals who run substantial local businesses are very rarely long-standing locals.
Nowadays, local companies often “import” senior managers and directors. They arrive from other parts of the country or even abroad and although they may have the skills to manage and govern, they do not have any particular interest in local goings-on, because they know that their job-tenure will be short-lived. In addition, they know that it is central government policy and not local government which is crucial to their company’s profitability. They tend NOT to stand for election – which is a shame, because they have organisational skills which are often lacking in elected local politicians.
In 1967, the Maud Committee on Management in Local Government stated that “many councillors see council work as a supplement to their lives”. Some of the reasons which have been given for becoming a councillor – prestige, recognition, seeking a better social life, vanity, stepping-stone to a career in Westminster, self-improvement. (Yes, I KNOW that I omitted the “to serve” mantra).
Luckily though, there are still people out there who are local, feel strongly about local issues, want to serve the local community and are not on a power-trip or an imaginary (in most cases!) practice-run for Westminster.
In local politics, the “management classes” have largely given way to the “talking professions” because the ability to debate has become a more precious skill than the ability to manage large amounts of money and to organise. The old-fashioned free-thinker has given way to the party pack-animal who will normally vote as the party tells him – the ideology of the party has displaced the common-sense of the independent individual.
In spite of all this, we do need local government . The usual voting turnout during a local election (below 40%) gives strength to the “centralist” argument which is in favour of power being taken away from local councils. That is just one of the reasons why it is important to vote. If we do not vote, we give the impression that we do not care about or want local government. THAT is one of the most important reasons why we should all vote in the local elections.
However, if you do decide to participate in the local election, make sure that you do not waste your vote.
There was a time when party politics had nothing to do with local elections. Hopefully, one day local politics will return to choosing individuals who are best-suited to manage and control local issues and budgets.
Every party has individuals who are good at what they do. “Comeback Kid” Ken Clark (C) has to be admired for his no-nonsense political skills and tenacity. Harriet Harman (L) is universally liked and respected and is a very skillful Westminster operator. Norman Baker (LD) is an outstanding MP who is doing an excellent job on behalf of his constituents. Their abilities have nothing to do with political allegiance. They are good at what they do.
We should not be voting for Liberals because we have a good Liberal MP. We should not be ignoring any able Conservatives because we’re temporarily unhappy with the Chancellor. For those with long memories – the Labour handling of the Iraq problem or the apparent ineptitude of the last administration should not influence us if we have a Labour candidate who looks as if he or she has a contribution to make.
What should influence us at local level is simple – which INDIVIDUAL do we believe can be entrusted with the responsibility of representing us most effectively on the Council.
Blind partisan voting will only give us a random chance of voting-in the finest. At best we will elect a few good people – at worst, we will vote-in a single party, many of whom will just be “ballast”. Remember Blair’s Babes? They sit, nod or shake their heads like Muppets while those with proper views do the talking and decision-making.
There is too much political posturing at local level. Too much energy is given over to political in-fighting rather than concentration on the needs of the rate-payer. Many of our local councillors appear to be playing “Westminster” – consequently a local election result is now considered to be a vote either for or against the Government.
Finally, remember that not all Liberal candidates are vegetarian lecturers or white-collar public-sector workers. Not all conservatives are barristers, middle-managers or skinheads and not all Labour candidates are teachers, media people or union members.