Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Situations Vacant

Jackie Ashley calls Simon Hughes' plan for the Lib Dems to advertise in Good Housekeeping magazine for their candidates 'refreshingly radical'.

I'd call it a quick-fix that will only tackle the symptoms - not the cause - of the current electoral malaise.

Brushing aside the welcome Burkean thrust of Jackie's article, it is worth looking at the ante-room to Parliament: Local government. Local Councillors have the same obligation to focus on the needs of the community as a whole - not just the residents of their wards. I'd argue that the staleness in Parliament is a symptom of a constricted local democracy in Britain.

Find a way of recruiting the right people as Councillors and Parliament will improve hugely within one generation.

The argument against Simon Hughes that was presented by a Labour hack (see David Taylor-Gooby's response in the Guardian letters page) illustrates why the headbutting competition in local government needs to be ended. D.T-G dismisses a local Lib-Dem group that was enticed non-politicos to stand for election. "Most of them got fed up and didn't stand again."

I don't blame them - and I hope that it isn't a note of satisfaction that can be detected in David's letter? (Depressingly, it probably is).

In my line of work, I speak to a lot of local political leaders. I recently met one who, though new to local politics, found themselves elected as leader of their party group and - as a result, leader of the Council. It was a baptism of fire.

With loads of experience managing a business, doing charity and community work, this person was suddenly confronted by a level of negativity and venom that was completely new.

If the need to 'route around' the vindictive obsessiveness of opponents wasn't enough, the other big challenge was to avoid being strangled by the 'can't do' attitude of local civil servants.

Another Council leader reported a conversation with the editor of his local paper. He was quite disarmed by the honesty (and there's a first in local journalism!). Significant successes, he was told, would usually be ignored. Minor shortcomings would be magnified. The only source his paper was really interested in using was 'off the record' briefings from disgruntled officials. This is what sells papers, he was told. Other Councillors have spoken to me about the flat refusal of their Council's press office to give any publicity to successful initiatives because it would be construed as 'politics on the rates'.

The point is this: It's a waste of time tricking innocents into the futile snakepit that often characterises local politics. We need to make elected representation worthwhile. This means that steps need to be taken to increase the power and status of elected representatives. It also means that we will need to diminish their rivals. We need an improvement in the standards of local journalism. Councillors need the resources to match the power of unelected interest groups.

We need to be able to reward virtue as well as punish corruption and incompetence.

This would attract the wider sections of society that Jackie rightly wants to see standing for election. But it is a big job. Bigger than just sticking an ad in the paper.

Apologies to my regular reader. I know I've gone on and on and on and on and on about different aspects of this in the past. I never find anyone who actually disagrees with me on this. This is either because I'm absolutely right or because no-one can be bothered arguing against a monomaniac.


Andrew Brown said...

Hey Paul, its not all bad y'know. In fact in lots of ways it's a very good time to be a councillor.

Carlo Orsi said...