Sunday, February 11, 2007

Recruiting councillors

Ruth Kelly has proposed giving councillors 'ward budgets' of up to £10,000 as a way of increasing the diversity of councillors.

I think ward budgets are a good idea (though £10,000 doesn't even cover a proper refurbishment of a play area, so doesn't exactly give councillors masses of power), as part of an initiative to persuade councillors that their role is about improving the area that they represent, listening to local people, improving local services and working together with the local police, PCT etc., instead of being judged by how many meetings they go to. But it won't do anything at all to change the mix of people who become councillors.

I was one of the 0.3% of councillors who is aged under 25, and the reason I stood was nothing to do with the details of the role of a councillor. In my area there was a strong organisation which involved younger people in campaigning and encouraged them to think about standing for the council if they wanted (as I did) to have a chance to help some of the people who we met each week out campaigning. After being elected, I didn't think that going on about being a young councillor was a good idea, partly out of a deeply held belief that anyone who does so sounds like a nob, and partly because I reckoned that it was not a clever strategy to advertise that I was in my early twenties when trying to get highly paid and experienced officers to agree to prioritise projects in my ward or redesign their services according to what I thought was best. But if the people doing the review are looking for an example of a Labour Group where younger councillors continue to be recruited and are given a chance to use their skills to the fullest, they could do worse then look at Oxford Labour Group - currently one of the members on the exec board (a Muslim) is under 40, the other is under 30, as is the deputy leader, and the group has a wide range of ages and backgrounds. When I was a councillor, about half the councillors in my group were under 40, many worked full time and there was therefore a culture where it was possible to combine full-time work with being a councillor. Getting this 'critical mass' of people is important - it is no more fun being the councillor in a group who is thirty years younger than everyone else than it is being the member of the branch who is thirty years younger than anyone else.

In many areas changing the profile of councillors necessarily involves political parties taking action, because there are few if any independent councillors. One particular challenge for the Labour Party is that we have many fewer safe wards than the Tories, and most of those are occupied by people who have been councillors for a long time. As we will presumably discover again this May, many of the wards that used to be safe for us are no longer so. Someone who wants to be a Labour councillor, therefore, also has to commit to doing a lot of election campaigning, which appeals more to some people than to others. There are many people who would be great councillors, but who can't or won't do all the different and often hateful things which people who are successful candidates need to do, like going out to talk to strangers night after night even when the news is full of scandals about our party. It also means that positive action to increase diversity amongst selected candidates has less of an effect in changing the make up of our political groups, which at a parliamentary level has been the main way of changing things for the better.

The review should also note that it is much less likely that someone in their twenties will be a councillor for a long time than someone who is retired, whether it is because of changing jobs, deciding to try out new things or whatever, the turnover amongst younger councillors will always be high. Political groups need to plan for this - even if they manage to recruit two or three keen young people to stand, they need to build on this and find ways of using their younger councillors to build up a good youth organisation which can provide a steady stream of people who are interested. This is much easier in London or university towns than in other parts of the country, for obvious reasons. I also suspect that nearly all of the 0.3% of councillors who are under 25 have a university degree, and finding ways of making the prospect of standing as a councillor appealing to people who aren't current or recent students is something well worth investigating (not helped by the fact that people without degrees are more likely to be working in jobs where taking time off for campaigning and councillor duties is difficult if not impossible).

The New Local Government Network had one of their more stupid ideas (no mean feat) in suggesting that councillors ought to be offered the opportunity of one job interview with a local authority per year of service. A better, though related, idea, would be to give councillors opportunities to take up training or develop skills which would help them not just as councillors but in whatever career they wanted to follow - recognising that by spending 15-20+ hours on council duties means that councillors who are in work will be missing out on opportunities to develop skills and pursue career opportunities. If nothing else, these might be more popular and useful than seminars on how to be more effective at scrutiny or whatever drivel they choose to inflict on elected members in your local area.

One other point, while I'm on this stream of consciousness ramble. It sometimes seems like these kind of government initiatives are based on the view that councillors are all old incompetent time servers, out of touch with their communities and so on. I found that the opposite was the case. One of the best things about serving as a councillor was being able to work with and learn from Labour councillors who had served their communities with considerable distinction for many years - people like Bill Buckingham, Bill Baker, Bryan and Beryl Keen, Bob Price and Val Smith. I learned more from discussions in group meetings and just the chance to chat to and work alongside them than from every single local government seminar or piece of training put together, and I think that any time a government minister talks about local government they should make the point that without people like this up and down the country and the patient, often difficult work that they've done, then there wouldn't be a Labour Party, let alone that we would be in government.


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