I think the article is full of the usual woolly thinking we usually get when anyone starts talking about councillors. So we start with a fallacy:
Backbench councillors are already marginalised by local government. They have too little power, too little profile and too little support to influence council decision making on big issues such as education or planning, or to tackle neighbourhood problems.
If my nine years in local government taught me anything – seven of which were as a backbencher – its that power is always circumscribed in one way or another, and that ( in any case) it’s a red herring to achieving things.
I never let the fact that I wasn’t the cabinet member for social services or education get in the way of my agenda for improving corporate parenting for children in the care of Lewisham council. Indeed I think that being the cabinet member might well have meant I made less progress; I’d have been too tied up in KPIs and budget issues to have made headway.
Nor did I find it difficult to get profile for tackling the issues that mattered to the community I represented either. Whether it was council officers, the local police or the myriad of other services (voluntary and statutory) that are the glue for civic society I mostly thought I got a reasonable response.
But, maybe I was a prototype of the sort of councillor that Ms James calls for in her article.
They must be younger and more representative of our increasingly diverse communities than the 50-year-old, white male that is today’s average councillor.
Tomorrow’s councillors need new skills and support systems to deal with the challenges thrown up by representing diverse interests – conflict brokering, mediation, understanding equalities and community cohesion issues.
I don’t have anything against councillors having that skill set, but if anyone thinks that conflict brokering is going to be a new thing for elected members they can’t have been to many housing meetings.
Anyway moving on. We’re told next that’s there’s two things getting in the way: political parties and local government officers. What a load of tosh.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, political parties are just as much about accountability as they are about control. Even in the area of applying sanctions against councillors that break the whip.
Every single time I’ve been involved in disciplinary decisions about councillors (in my party discipline is a matter for the whole group not the Chief Whip) it’s always been on the basis of mutual understanding that there is a way back for both sides. Parties do not wish to loose their councillors, particularly as when they do they tend to defect to the strongest opposition party, so draconian discipline is kept to a minimum.
As for local government officers, sure we all have examples of where we didn’t get our way, or of particular officers who don’t seem as keen on the democratic mandate as you might want, but so what? You could equally say councillors who can’t create their own networks, or find other channels to achieve the ends they’re looking for don’t deserve the mandate.
If I were given a magic wand to improve the effectiveness of local democratic engagement it wouldn’t have anything to do with any of the suggestions that are in the article, and will no doubt be in the research paper that is coming out on Friday. Instead I’d magic up more time for councillors; its the lack of time that means they don’t make all the meetings they’re invited to, or leave early from one to go to another; it’s having to compromise family time that means that so many don’t make it past a single term; and it’s time that means they let service delivers off the hook when things go wrong.
If you’ve been invited to the launch event, perhaps you’ll bear these thoughts in mind.