icture this: a team of canvassers pounding the streets during an election
campaign. Stood on the corner of the street, one turns to
the other and says “Isn’t that Councillor X’s1
house there?”. “Yes,” I reply, quizzically.
“Well I’m fed up of them never campaigning.”
he says before marching up to his door in an attempt to shame
the aforementioned councillor into doing some Voter ID work,
for a change. He returns, giggling to himself and says to
me, “Erm… his mother says he’s not allowed
out…”! I wish I could honestly say this wasn’t
true but, for the purposes of this article, it is entirely
I’ll be blunt here. The calibre of many of our local
councillors is appalling. If you require any further proof
of this, think to yourself why are turnouts in local elections
dropping to such worrying depths? Local government is slowly
overtaking European elections in the battle to provide the
most alarming statistics. Secondly, why are voters increasingly
turning to Independent councillors and mayors? In the 1990s,
Independent councillors were the preserve of rural local authorities
in the shires – now London and several large metropolitan
local authorities are controlled by Independent executive
leaders. And finally, why is the government so insouciant
about the status and prestige of local government, once a
mighty machine responsible for delivering so many areas of
Labour’s social programme? Whether or not a local authority
is Labour controlled does not trouble the Prime Minister for
one moment, he is merely concerned with the delivery of central
government priorities by whatever mechanism is available.
As they read this, I can hear the brain cells of a generation
of municipal socialists slip into gear. “The reason
why turnouts are so low is that both the Tory and Labour governments
have removed so many powers from local government that the
electorate consider it to be irrelevant,”, I hear one
pipe up at the back. But local government is still mainly
responsible for the provision of schooling and social services,
hardly irrelevant services.
The reason why so few people bother to vote in local elections
is the same reason that central government hasn’t restored
the powers taken away from local councils by the Tories. Namely
that many councillors are failing to be representative of
the community in their composition and lack the vision and
competence to get the job done. The problem solely relates
to the culture that pervades the Labour Party in many areas.
First there is the question of representativeness.
A recent controversial study by the local government Improvement
and Development Agency (which in itself is seen as an insult
to many councillors by virtue of its existence) revealed that
the average age of the local councillor in England and Wales
is 57. A closer inspection of the figures makes for more worrying
reading: only 27.9% of local councillors are women, only 2.5%
come from the ethnic minorities and 3.2% are aged between
25 and 342. Hardly a microcosm of British society at large.
The reason why this situation is perpetuated is as much psychological
as political as far as the Labour Party is concerned.
One London Borough this year attracted a lot of controversy
in the likes of Tribune and Labour Left Briefing for the local
party’s “Blairite-led cull” of Labour councillors
from the panel of candidates. The party’s justification
was that those concerned could not demonstrate a sufficient
aptitude or commitment to promoting quality public services.
Meanwhile in a neighbouring borough, a putative candidate
was rejected, despite holding several senior posts in community
relations, for having not attended a requisite number of GC
meetings! Why shouldn’t the Labour Party exercise some
degree of quality control over who should be its representatives?
And by the same token, why doesn’t life experience take
precedence over bureaucratic stamina when selecting candidates?
The reason why local councils do not reflect the communities
they serve is because the party’s selection procedures
are out of date. Most ward selection meetings are either poorly
attended or packed full of payroll votes of certain councillors’
fanclubs. Worse still, tales of sitting councillors and party
activists intimidating party members into voting ‘a
certain way’ at these meetings are far from uncommon.
It is truly remarkable that some councillors, who would not
pass an interview to run a whelk stall in the real world,
are entrusted to run organisations with budgets going into
Even if younger candidates manage to get selected and elected,
they can face intimidation and hostility in the council chamber
by suspicious colleagues. The reason why New Labour is so
attached to the idea of elected mayors is that to become the
Labour candidate for the post the quality control mechanisms
are far more rigorous.
In fairness, ‘the powers that be’ in the Labour
Party sometimes serve to exacerbate the situation. The frequent
party circulars that speak of driving up the quality of Labour
councillors are rendered hollow when articulate and well-heeled
women and ethnic minority councillors who may not share New
Labour’s vision of local governance are deselected,
while incompetent councillors who ‘vote the right way’
are allowed to remain in office. There needs to be some even-handedness
in the search for excellence in local democracy. The possession
of a political vision is better than no vision at all. In
some local authorities, being able to walk and chew gum at
the same time is considered a passport to a glittering political
career on the council.
1 Identities withheld to protect the guilty
2 National Census of Local Authority Councillors in England
and Wales 2001, IdEA/Employers Organisation
Andrew Stevens is author of the Politico’s
Guide to Local Government