In praise of…local councillors

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

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6 Responses to “In praise of…local councillors”

  1. Anon E Mouse says:

    Hate to say I’m voting Lib Dem tonight (the councillor lives locally and is OK) and whilst I agree with the majority of this posting I do think that London and Glasgow are the really important issues for the direction of Labour.

    I do not think the public cares about this hacking stuff and Rupert Murdoch and News International just go from strength to strength.

    The most popular newspaper in the country is The Sun. The most popular sport is football which means Sky TV. That’s expensive and those viewers are usually working people who can afford it and those workers are voters usually.

    Blair knew the importance of it all and I just worry that Miliband’s obsession with silly minority pursuits will play badly with the electorate and make the official opposition even weaker than it is….

  2. BenM says:

    “I just worry that Miliband’s obsession with silly minority pursuits will play badly with the electorate and make the official opposition even weaker than it is….”

    What “minority pursuits” is Miliband obsessed with?

    By minority pursuits do you mean the struggles of the squeezed middle to make ends meet?

    Or to point out the unfolding catastrophe that is the government’s economic strategy?

    To condemn taxing grannies to pay for tax cuts for Dave and Ossie’s rich chums?

    And if the Tory part of the government is going to get itself embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving a dodgy media outfit they tried to do massive favours for, then why shouldn’t Ed comment on that?

  3. Anon E Mouse says:

    BenM – Please be polite enough to reply this time.

    Minority pursuits: Phone hacking and then tackling Rupert Murdoch in charge of the most popular newspaper in Britain. Oh and football with Sky Sports. Good way to win friends and influence people. I know Miliband wasn’t chosen by the PLP or Labour members but to alienate such a massive block of voters to impress the likes of the tax fiddling Guardian is bonkers.

    No one apart from a few oddballs in London care about these issues.

    The squeezed middle as you call them are having Child Benefits cut because they earn too much. Boo hoo.

    So Eric Clapton who earns £thousands for 90 minutes at the Albert Hall gets Child Benefit from the taxes of a nightshift Asda shelf stacker under the Labour plan. Charming.

    The unfolding economic strategy is nothing compared to Labour’s fiasco or are you saying the Governor of The Bank Of England is wrong now and Ed Balls is right?

    What is the Labour policy or is tackling “Evil” businesses in Britain more important? (Another minority pursuit).

    Why shouldn’t grannies or Alan Sugar pay their due taxes? I realise that Labour want to give the richest woman in Britain, the Queen, a free bus pass but that is Miliband at his most stupid I’m afraid. And Winter Fuel Allowance for retirees in Spain as well!

    After Britain’s worse chancellor in history, Gordon Brown increased pensions by £0.75 a week I’m surprised you even mention pensioners.

    Rich chums? With Miliband a tax avoiding property millionaire and Harriet Harman the top two in Labour as wealthy as they are I’m surprised you mention wealth. Labour is infested with multi millionaires who have never done a real job in their lives.

    Anyway what right do you have to condemn someone for the choices their parents made?

    Finally Gordon Brown sucked up to Murdoch more than any previous Prime Minister ever had and Tony Blair is his child’s Godparent FFS.

    All you do by uncritically accepting the clear hypocrisy and failings of Labour the nasty party means you end up with no majority in Scotland, Wales and Ken Livingston representing you in London. Keep doing the government’s job for them BenM…

  4. john zims says:

    ‘Clever people will talk about the impact of the ‘omnishambles’ of the News International scandal and the budget on the Tory vote.’

    Are you saying that Labour have no case to answer in terms of the News International scandal?

    After all virtually all the allegations of wrongdoing happened during their time in government.

    Astonishing that with all the allegations of hacking going on during many of the years New Labour was in government, nothing was uncovered.

    While the average voter at the Dog & Duck is concerned about the economy, unemployment and inflation, the leader of the workers party is banging on day after day in his bubble about phone hacking.

    Not sure if it’s a case of having an out of touch Oxbridge millionaire, who’s never had a proper job leading a workers party or just that he’s a one-trick pony,the only other policies I am aware of, is that Labour opposes everything the Coalition does and wants to re-instate benefits for the top 15% of earners.

  5. Peter Watt says:

    John zims – I really was trying to be bi-partisan.

  6. oliver says:

    “in praise of local councillors”?

    I wrote to mine twice over the last couple of weeks and didn’t get a reply either time. It’s not as if he’s busy either; a Labour stronghold with only Conservatives and Greens as opposition this week and no campaigning to speak of. Although, to be fair, (New) Labour were the only ones that I’m aware of even leafletting in my ward.

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