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Quality Streets

Andrew Stevens looks for excellence in local democracy

Picture 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 illuminatory.

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 the millions.

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