19 April 2015….Who the hell to vote for?!!!! Which party?! Which candidate? Who are these people anyway! Does it even matter? New faces or the ones you already have? What are the consequences?
Almost all focus at the moment is on the Miliband/Cameron tussle for favour. And of course what happens at Government level affects local authorities and how they function…..eventually. New legislation under new policies (if there is even a majority Govt!) takes a few years. But what happens in the local elections will impact much more immediately. And in Brighton & Hove it is going to impact and cost the city financially, from the off, whoever is elected, and from whichever party.
Having recent experience of actually serving as a councillor for at least one whole term of office is probably the best qualification you could possibly have for doing the job even remotely effectively. Re-electing a serving councillor – from whichever party, or independent – will get residents the biggest bang for their buck and do the least amount of damage to the council purse, regardless of political affiliation.
Doing the job: new vs old
Belonging to a political party and standing as a candidate is not a qualification for office. Hanging around your pals in the party and going to Party Conferences is not a qualification for office. Working for a councillor or an MP is not a qualification for office. Having a high IQ or a PhD is not much use either. So what is?
Anyone who regularly attends council meetings (mostly officers, councillors and journalists) knows that members of the public are a rare sight in the public gallery. Only personal agendas gets them out…to ask a public question (preferably at a webcast meeting – for maximum effect), to lead a deputation or to present a petition. Close to elections, prospective candidates raise their profiles by suddenly demonstrating a burning interest in some issue or other through use of these opportunities to strut their ‘worth’. The meeting of choice will either be Full Council or Policy & Resources. Otherwise, it is really only the Planning Committee that gets much attention from the public, and then, by and large, only if it concerns a controversial application that personally threatens their interests. So, never having cared one jot before, there is lot for never-before, newly elected councillors to now learn.
New councillors have to learn how the council works, to acquire a broad overview, to get a handle on the ongoing issues from the council’s operational perspective and to acquire the context view that makes for more effective engagement with the Council and its officers, as well as to start actually reading those doorstep-thick Agenda papers….with understanding. Life is no longer just about The Party. There is a city to run and residents ringing and writing with problems to solve, resident meetings to attend. It takes awhile to learn to do this with grace, and effectively, even to find time to do it (whilst also holding down a full-time job, etc.).
Newly-elected first-time rookie councillors seethe with obvious personal identity and interests that you can actually SEE at their early attendances of Full Council meetings. They arn’t there to ‘fit in’….yet. Over the term of an Administration they will physically and verbally change, will visibly become ‘councillors’. But it costs the taxpayer to get them there! They have to be inducted, trained, guided and cajoled. They have to learn how not to end up in front of a Standards Panel because of ill-chosen comments made somewhere.
After the last local election, Westbourne’s new Tory Cllr Graham Cox was off-the-leash in his own mind, it seemed. No longer trapped behind his identity as a Superintendent copper, he was surprisingly aggressive and sarcastic. But you know, you get to know your colleagues in other parties and discover they are decent. Officers have a word with you. You get a backlash from your own colleagues (Tories are keen on being polite); and he changed dramatically, and for the better. But it took a couple of years for him to ‘adjust’.
It is a tiring and brutal life, a survival of the fittest and toughest life; and experienced councillors have been there, done that; and those that are up to the job are standing again. Few councillors can invest time and exasperation by actually digging to get to the bottom of anything. It is after all just meant to be a part-time occupation, not an actual job. If re-elected, the councillor of some years standing will have a head-start in this area and need to spend less time seeking answers and action from officers and colleagues. Hangleton’s Tory Cllr Dawn Barnett is an example of a good ward cllr who knows her ward well, proactively troubleshoots and problem-solves on that doorstep in a hands-on way that is second to none. How many newbie councillors can claim to have good ward knowledge? New or incumbent, this is an issue, actually. Most councillors sit like whores in an Amsterdam window, waiting for everything to come to them. They only come alive when engaged in verbal combat with the opposition ‘enemy’. But those political point-scoring parlour games are more about political oneupsmanship than being an effective, useful councillor, helping to keep the city machine running effectively.
Experienced councillors already know the culture, capacity and limitations of the officers. Newbies think they are some kind of new broom that will sweep clean. Well. Think on. John Barradell was briefly CEO of this council and his attempts at a major restructuring fell apart in the face of the bedrock culture he could not shift over and above removal of a few Directors. One of his four newly created Strategic Directors remains on staff (Geoff Raw) but the others fled when enthusiasm for implementing the new structure palled; and, eventually, Barradell moved on too, to take up a post in the City of London. So newbie, do you really think you can do better? It is certainly a UKIP aim.
The word omnishambles comes to mind if we get a right Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of a council after the 7th of May. Too many new councillors from a smorgasbord of parties is really, really something to fear. The excessive number of new Green councillors in 2011 tangled and seized up the Green Administration, leading it to a spectacular fall from public grace. We should learn from that.
At the last local election, a minority Administration was formed by a Green Party which had exceeded its incremental gains strategy by unexpectedly doubling councillor numbers. Paper candidates were suddenly councillors. Gulp. Had the Greens been in opposition all those newbies might have learned and made their mistakes in relative obscurity. Instead, they had to do induction training, learn the ropes, learn the council culture, work within the overall Green Party ethos, Chair committees they knew nothing about, run the city as its government! – all in the glare of public and media attention on the country’s first Green Administration, and hounded by trolls commenting behind online Argus articles. Many of the social media/Argus trolls are in fact marauding opposition councillors and party hacks hiding behind silly names-not-their-own. Their very simple aim was to undermine and condition public thinking. And it worked. Ironically, most of what the Greens actually did in office would also have been done by any other Party (the i360 notwithstanding).
Only nine of the original 23 Green councillors elected in 2011 are standing for re-election. Their experience, both as councillors and from the vantage point of having been part of a serving Administration in charge is important. In opposition they would be best placed to challenge any guff from whoever forms the next Administration (not expected to be Green!) because their knowledge of where the council stands organisationally and financially is bang-up-to-the-minute current.
The stability of the council, and best use of ever-reducing revenues is at stake, whoever is in power after May 7th. We can expect to have perhaps as much as 40% of the council made up of totally inexperienced, bolshy, wannabe change-merchants who bring not one ounce of expertise to the job. They will bleed training and coaching resources in order to minimally learn how to be a councillor, when all they really know is how to be themselves and loyal party hacks spinning on doorsteps.
Do the city a favour. Don’t think in terms of political parties and manifestos. Help minimise the damage to come from having a big intake of confused rookie councillors: vote for incumbent councillors, of whatever party, if you have them standing again. They know the ropes and you will get better service from one of them than you have a hope in hell of getting from a brand new rookie councillor. Every penny and minute the council and its paid expert officers have is needed for services, not rounding up and breaking in a load of newbie councillors with provision of ongoing guidance and support being a given for at least the next two years.
If as much as 40% of the intake is untried and inexperienced at being councillors then, as Betty Davis so famously said “Hold onto your seats; its going to be a bumpy ride“. Brighton & Hove Independent, out last Friday, printed a complete listing of who was elected last time and who is standing this time (except they forgot Jenny Barnard-Langston, ex-Tory Cllr Mayor, ex- Lib-Dem, and standing as an Independent, in Hove, for Parliament).