English councils need to recruit a new breed of councillors

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A new approach to persuading
local talent to serve on councils

By Paul Wheeler*

9 February 2007: After decades of neglect the issue of where to find local councillors has become a burning topic in England. The UK government and the Local Government Association have announced a commission to be chaired by Jane Roberts, former leader of Camden Council in London, to look at the barriers and incentives into serving as a councillor.

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More

As a long standing advocate of local democracy I welcome this interest and not only because I have just finished a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into how the main political parties in England recruit councillor candidates. Local democracy desperately needs confident and capable advocates as local councillors if we are ever to shake off the shackles of national targeting and prescription.

So how are to capture the imagination of the best and brightest in our localities that not only attracts them into the council chamber but encourages them to stay there and resist the bright lights of national politics.

Well fundamental to any change are the main political parties. Over 90 per cent of existing councillors are members of the main political parties in England. But (and it’s a big but) if our political parties are going to retain their monopoly of local politics they have to do much more to prove it is for the public good. Since the collapse of communism the main political parties in England are the last bastion of centralism. The concept of democratic centralism is alive and living well in London! So the first step is that the main political parties have to learn to let go and encourage more innovation and risk-taking in their local organisations.

Apart from anything else we have to recognise that there is a ‘missing generation’ of 25-50 year olds in our council chambers and have to ask how the political parties can attract them.

My report ‘Local Talent’ indicates five strategies for local parties to adopt to become more inclusive and efficient as recruiters.

The first is the simplest but also the most radical. Simply put, local parties should openly advertise for candidates. All parties currently operate a ‘closed selection’ system, which simply excludes all but the most active of members. Open advertisement allows more party supporters and voters to be considered as candidates. It happens already. Ealing Conservatives advertised in their local paper for candidates for the May elections. Far from creating problems they are now running the council!

Secondly we need to ask the parties to be more transparent in their selection processes. Traditionally councillors have been categorised as the 3R’s (rich, retired and redundant). Well in the modern age we need a new set of categories – ‘Representative, Reliable and Reputable’ on which we can judge existing and potential councillors. Here some care. Local Political Parties are voluntary organisations who guard their independence well not least from their national parties! So we have to lead by example and encourage local parties to change and create a momentum for improvement.

As part of this momentum we need to promote and define the role of councillor more effectively to a much wider audience. I don’t think I can exaggerate the degree of current ignorance and confusion that exists about the current role of councillors. In a recent MORI survey 40 per cent of the population of Birmingham had simply no idea what councillors actually did. We need a high profile ‘mission to inform’ that can attract the best into this role and also challenge some of the cynicism that pervades the national debate on local councillors.

The fourth strategy is to promote Civic Pride. Whilst it is true that the vast majority of councillors are members of political parties for a large number membership is often a means to an end. We have allowed the civic role of councillors to be undervalued in recent years and we need to create a vibrant local political culture. For instance we have a Parliamentarian of the Year Award but no equivalent for local councillors. There is no local equivalent of the Hansard Society or Industry and Parliament Trust.

The current debate on place-shaping as part of the recent White Paper ‘Strong and Prosperous Communities’ is putting more focus on the community leadership role of councillors. There is a real opportunity to attract into local politics those who want to improve their own localities and have no great desire to move off to the ‘Westminster Village’.

And so on to our final strategy. Put simply if we want to attract the ‘missing generation’ we have to change the way that councillors work and the demands that local government places on them. Councillors with jobs and families will have to be better supported in the future. Critical to this is to pay a living wage to those who seek the councillor role especially at senior levels.

But we have to be careful about the money. Many talented and ambitious people may want to be councillors for a time but not at the expense of their families and overall careers. We need to make sure that we attract those into local politics as part of their civic duties and not necessarily as career politicians. In particular we have to change the perception of being a councillor from being a ‘career destroyer’ to being a ‘career developer’ for those of working age

None of this will be easy and there are hundreds of reasons why local political parties and councils won’t change. There are big implications for the LGA, IDeA and Leadership Centre in how they support the elected member role. But if we are serious about challenging the central state and providing effective local leadership sustained change is vital.

Paul Wheeler is Director of the Political Skills Forum – an independent advocacy organisation for local councillors. You can download the full report ‘Local Talent’ on www.politicalskills.com

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