by Peter Watt
It’s a big test today for all of the parties. London and Glasgow will be watched particularly closely but so will the results from Derby, Plymouth, Southampton, Harlow, Norwich and, well you get the point! Will Labour get more than 700 gains? Will the Tories lose more than 300?
Will the Liberal Democrats go into meltdown? Clever people will talk about the impact of the ‘omnishambles’ of the News International scandal and the budget on the Tory vote.
There will be a debate about whether there is evidence that Ed Miliband is convincing voters that he is more than David’s brother and is edging towards Downing Street. The results will all be scrutinised and analysed for their national significance. But to be honest this inevitable focus on the national is a shame because it masks the individual battles and hard work of thousands and thousands of local candidates across the Country.
I once stood for election to Poole borough council. I came within 54 votes of winning what had been a safe Tory ward. But to be honest with hindsight I am glad I didn’t win! Being a councillor is just too much like hard work for my liking! In fact at a time when politics is held in such low regard, local government is a beacon of hope.
Local councillors are the unsung heroes of the political world. They are often part-time holding down a job as well as carrying out their council work. Yes they get allowances, but they are hardly paid a fortune. And for their allowances they are incredibly good value. The endless lists of committees and panels, school governors and board meetings, the residents’ panels, full council meetings and group meetings. This merry-go-round of public service is often interminably boring but really quite important and frankly someone has attend!
But the nature of the decisions taken or scrutinised are often hugely important, no matter how potentially dull the meeting: from the planning application that could transform or blight an area to decisions on fostering, adoption, housing, policing and increasingly, public health.
The budgets that are being scrutinised are not small fry either. Councils spend millions of pounds of our money and it is the legions of councillors who have to ensure value for money on our behalf. And as the austerity bites it is increasingly councillors who have to make the hard decisions as to where the priorities are and are not.
Far from being remote from the decisions it is local councillors who have to live in the same streets as those who will be affected by cuts. Close a library, a children’s centre or service and the local councillor will have to justify that decision day in and day out to the very people impacted.
In fact local Councillors very strength is that they live in the area that they serve. That they understand local priorities and are all too directly aware of the consequences of the decisions that they take.
And then there is the case work, the hours spent in the local library listening to people’s problems. You never know when you might need your local councillor and you probably hardly think about the help that they can give until you need them. When you are sat in the pub or with your family on a Friday night after a busy week at work they are probably drinking crap coffee at their surgery listening to those who need their help. They don’t have paid caseworker staff but that doesn’t stop them taking on the casework.
And right now those candidates who are striving for the right to be a Councillor have been pounding the streets for weeks. Who have been knocking on doors and talking to voters, who have been delivering leaflets and keeping their fingers crossed. Battle has been joined in thousands and thousands of mini-elections as they fight for the right to become or stay a local councillor.
And yet so many of them will win or lose on the basis of things that are out of their control. People don’t always vote the same at national and local elections and differential turnout has an impact.
But national swings will do for many. In the early hours of Friday morning there will be first rate Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors who will lose their seats because of the government’s current problems. They won’t deserve to lose as they will have worked hard, represented their area diligently and often without thanks. But Nick Clegg’s fall from grace and a desire to punish David Cameron will overwhelm them.
A few years ago it was Labour Councillors being swept out in order to punish Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And those that lose won’t go to the House of Lords or get lucrative jobs. In fact many will just focus their energies on some other form of local civic service to fill the hole left in their calendars.
It is easy to be cynical, to believe that councillors are all in it for themselves, they are politicians after all. And there is no doubt that they all have a bit of ego, and that some have a lot of ego! Some hope to go on to be the council leader or a committee chair. Perhaps they want to hang on so that they can be the Mayor or want to be an MP. Some hang on too long to keep their allowances and within groups there are petty arguments, squabbles and the occasional scandal.
But on this, of all days, local politicians should be celebrated. If you haven’t voted yet why not?
Polls close at 10pm.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party