really? honestly?

Spoiling the party…

A great day at Reboot Britain today. For me, one of the highlights was FutureGov’s “Learning to Love Local Government”. I can confess to some previous form in this area – my first public sector job was as a local government officer in the mid-90s, and though I’ve been far more wrapped up in the central government world since then I have an interest – perhaps increasingly so in recent months – in the role and relevance of government at the local level.

A very good panel – knowledge, creativity and passion in equal measure. Credit to Dom for pulling it all together. A top-quality panel always helps me to focus my mind on the killer questions I’d really like to see addressed in a session. This post looks at the first of my burning questions:

What relevance does national party political affiliation have at the local level?

I’ll say up-front that I don’t actually know the answer with any certainty, but here’s where I’ve got to so far: do pitch in if you have more to add…

An easy answer could be: because it gives a training ground, feeder pool and substructure to the parties somewhere between grass-roots activism and Westminster (or devolved administrations). There might be a grain of truth in this, and certainly there is plenty of evidence that this happens, but I doubt it’s actually the real reason. If it were, this would certainly be of some service to established political organisations, but arguably less so to the people whom they represent.

It may just be about making local government manageable. Assume as an alternative that your council chamber is packed with perhaps 70 locally-active, vociferous individuals all representing their wards as hard as they can. You know the shy, retiring types who make very good independent candidates? Fancy trying to form committees or other organising structures out of that?

Or is it just that – irrational and irrelevant as we might find foreign policy positions when we’re more concerned about the state of the roads – we find it much easier to deal with the broad coding we get from party political labels. ‘Conservative’ translating as “taxes kept low and more provider choice, but you’ll find free stuff gets cut”; ‘Labour’ = “redistributive social policy and a stronger safety net for all”; Lib Dem = “caring, greener, maybe even more socially redistributive”? [Don’t take these thumbnails as any form of political analysis – that’s not the point of this post!] UKIP and BNP speak for themselves – but I suspect there’s nothing like the organised local machinery of the main parties – their goals don’t currently embrace actually running administrations AFAIK. (Not sure about the Greens. In some ways they already have just the sort of label that should be really effective locally…)

Or is perhaps just that without a local ballot-box to whack every year we lack a vital venting mechanism in counterpoint to the General Election polling cycle? Perhaps we keep national politics in our local backyards just to show we can exercise feedback?

Perhaps it’s even time to grow up more and review some of these arguments. Are good, capable, independently-elected People Who Care really incapable of forming useful governing structures without bold blue, red and yellow labels? Or is it true that – other than foreign policy – all political positions only really make sense where they’re actually experienced: at the local level; making it completely natural to see our local representatives in those clothes?

Should we be aiming for a new non-partisan local democracy supported by organising structures (cabinets, committees etc.) which are designed to be fit for that purpose? Find people with passion to really represent localities – with far less likelihood of being driven by the self-interest of eventual advancement to a seat in SW1?

Whichever might be true, it seems that we hardly ever hear the issue of national-politics-at-the-local-level raised, nor much from the local politicians themselves on what value it actually adds. So do please join in and tell us.

Coming next: what you could do if you really wanted to transform local government…


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3 Responses

  1. I grew up in Northern Ireland, and 12 years ago I stood in the council elections for the Alliance party of Northern Ireland. Since councils are so limited in their responsibilities in NI (housing, education- NO, dogs, bins, leisure-YES) allegiance to political parties who primarily defined themselves along constitutional lines rather than a left-right axis might seem even more bizarre than the situation you describe above.

    Most people will not personally know the candidates that stand in local government elections. So how can you decide who might be the best representative for you? Publicly alligning oneself alongside a larger party maybe a short-hand way of doing this. It’s a way of ‘tagging’ yourself.

    Incidentally, I didn’t get elected. But my father did as an independent councillor quite a few years before.

  2. You ask the question from a citizen perspective as though we as citizens have a choice.

    Political parties dominate local authorities because it is the path of least resistance.

    Voters faced with a choice of choosing between a major party about whom they know some basics and with an independent are either going to have research the independent or vote along party lines.

    Consider the other side of the election business.

    Say you’re a community activist and decide that being a councillor is a good way to serve your community. You can stand as an independent or if you have some affiliation stand for a party. One path involves forging a path on your own whilst the other has the backing of a national organisation to provide help and support.

    Getting elected is not the end of lonely path. As an independent you are on your own in the council. Were there three of you from the same “independent” party you could at least get classified as a “group” and be able to sit on committees. Gather seven independents into your party and you’ll get a political assistant to help you with your work. (Numbers vary from council to council).

    So although some “independent” parties have sprung up in various councils such as Mansfield where they are the ruling party, the numbers are against them. If you are an aspiring local politician the path of least resistance will take you to a major political party.

    So if we agree that perhaps the major parties are not relevant to citizens how do we encourage more independent parties? Before looking at the mechanics we should how likely a change will be. Are elected local politicians going to make it easier for independents? Unlikely. Is central government going to step in? Unlikely as we consider the training ground / feeder pool argument. That leaves us citizens…

    How many people read a manifesto for local elections, never mind a manifesto for an independent.

    Finally to avoid finishing on a negative. A spin off from a project called CampaignCreator that I worked on was to be an Independent Councillors Campaign Kit. It was to be a simple website and templates for leaflets to help level the playing field between independents and major parties in terms of communications. Nationally we should be able to provide more resources for independents to help them be credible candidates. We’ll just leave the local issues for them to decide.

    • Anonymous says:

      Local Government…. Who are you talking about? What nameless and faceless mechanism does those 2 words conjure up… There are a lot of dedicated individuals working long hard hours in thankless professions who come under the umbrella of local Government employees… They are governed and curtailed by red tape and their enthusiasm and passion is stiffled by conformism.
      Policy and procedure is blindly followed without questioning the absurdity of the actions. We are the architects of our own society. We the public dictate, at various levels, the governence we have. We spend more time deciding which topping to have on a pizza than ticking the boxes to decide who will
      make decisions on our behalf which will affect our choices and well being for the next few years… Why is that?? Is it ignorance, the unconscious humiliation of not fully understanding the implication of our actions or is it an inherant complacency borne from the historic knowledge that the passionate man on the hustings spouting your ideals will become a political animal as soon as he has secured your vote….. From an observor on the political world this may appear ad cynical I dont so… I feel it is more disillusioned at the whole process.

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