Features: February 22nd, 2008

By Christina Dykes

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Without political conviction our local representatives would at best be mere managers and we would lose some of the checks and balances that a democratic system brings. But all is not well with local representation. The recruitment and selection of councillors leaves much to be desired. The result is an unbalanced mix of local representatives, mostly white males. The situation is compounded by inadequate training. These are challenges for political parties and the new Councillors Commission.

Are we in danger of forgetting what democracy is all about? It is still best described as ‘A government of all the people by all the people, for all the people’. Of course what Abraham Lincoln did not say was ‘a government of elected people’, when he reused Theodore Parker’s original quotation. Perhaps he thought this was obvious but in both his country and in Great Britain, this fundamental concept is being challenged.

More is the pity. The essence of democracy is that those who want to be politicians put their views before us on how they want to govern. Then we, the people, choose by voting them in or out. Through historical and philosophical development and expediency politicians of all sorts have found it easier to band together, so that they can offer a combined vision and more easily propagate their mission. Hence the emergence of political parties.

From the beginning their main raison d’être was to win elections and by so doing ensure the dominance of their political ideologies. They do this by requiring us to vote for what they believe are credible and skilful candidates. The majority of those who stand for elections now come to us mainly through the doors of the main political parties. Independents do exist but as the results of the 2007 local government elections showed, 162 independent councillors were lost and there are fewer independent members of parliament now than there were in previous days.

So if one of the main tasks of the political parties is to select, recruit, and train candidates it is legitimate to ask how well are they doing? Not good enough might be on the report. There has been much rhetoric from David Cameron’s Conservative party in particular about the need to have a good cross-section of MPs in Westminster, but there is no corresponding interest in the makeup of local councils by any of the three major parties. Recruitment is done locally, often through cloning techniques—a tap on the shoulder at the golf club, union, local bar, or charity shop. There is little rigour in selection techniques (although to be fair there is some use of a structured interview by Labour and the Liberal Democrats); and little to no knowledge of using a competence framework. Small wonder that few of those selected have any idea of what they have signed up to do, although the Liberal Democrats do ask their candidates to sign a job description of sorts.

What is also clear is that there is a great gap between theory and practice. Political parties may busy themselves laying down rules of recruitment and selection but, in reality, local parties are so weak there is often no choice of candidates, no hustings and vetting is past over with a sigh of relief by a man and his dog.

We have ended up with a composition of councillors best summed up as ‘pale, white and stale’. Figures from the IDeA/LGA Councillor Census 2006 showed 69% of all councillors were male, with 29% being female—compared to women representing 52% of the population. The average age of councillors increased from 55 years in 1997 to 58 years in 2006. Don’t get me wrong, I am not prejudiced against older people who, on the whole, I admire for their insight, expertise and experience. But it is the dominance of any one group which is the worry. More starkly, 96% of councillors were white with only 4% coming from a black or minority ethnic backgrounds, although nearly 10% of the adult population is made up of BME people. The danger is if people do not feel they are represented by those who they feel understand them and are able to reflect their views, then they will simply become disinterested in politics or feel alienated.

Once selected, the position does not get much better. What training has been offered for would-be councillors from political parties has tended to be generic and general and confined to canvassing techniques. More recently, and under pressure from outside organizations such as the IDeA, the Leadership Centre for Local Government and the Local Government Information Unit, political parties are being stimulated into providing more in the way of best practice guidance on the role of being a councillor.

Councils do offer induction courses for the successfully elected, but these tend to be about car-parking, the whereabouts of the local conveniences and IT. Moreover, these induction courses can be splendid opportunities to indoctrinate the unwary or innocent in the way the officers expect business to be done.

Governments may have been slightly naive leaving all the responsibility for recruitment to political parties. While they have the most to gain from having competent candidates they are not, nor can they be, professional recruiters or professional trainers. Therefore the setting up of the new Councillors Commission under the chairmanship of Dame Jane Roberts is to be welcomed. Local government needs to be revitalized if it is to take advantage of the renewed emphasis on localism prevalent in today’s political thinking.

I hope that Dame Jane does not forget the distinctive role that political parties offer. For all their imperfections what would politics be without political conviction? Without it our representatives would at best be mere managers and we would lose some of the checks and balances that a democratic system brings. Political conviction is what we ultimately vote for, and ultimately it is the political parties who are the custodians of their respective political traditions. They need to be involved, but they need better habits to retain the electorate’s interest and enthusiasm.

Christina Dykes is Political Director, Leadership Centre for Local Government, London