A few months ago, I attended a ‘stand for councillor’ evening at the offices of North Norfolk District Council. It was open to ‘anyone interested in becoming a candidate and would like to find out more about what being a councillor involves’. As a member of the local Labour Party, I will indeed be a candidate in the upcoming District Council election… which I will lose by an overwhelming margin.
I therefore attended the event more of curiosity than to gain information that could influence any personal decision.
I came away thoroughly depressed.
The event was doubtless well intentioned. It was certainly well planned, well marketed and well organised – except for the sausage rolls that were the worst I’ve ever tasted! As someone who spent over twenty years as a training manager, I know how difficult it is to sustain the attention of participants for more than a half hour period. Those planning the event recognised this and prepared the timetable accordingly.
It started in the council chamber with an introduction from a councillor who was responsible for member development, followed by a presentation by the council leader. The former was a little verbose and the latter crowded too much detail into his PowerPoint, but it was a reasonable and appropriate start.
We then convened to another room set out with six tables for groups of ten. The idea was a ‘speed-dating session’ in which participants spent seven minutes at each table with a group of councillors.
A good idea, and quite original. The problem, however, was the councillors themselves.
With one or two exceptions, they proved totally unable to deliver the desired agenda. They were wearing badges bearing the word councillor with no name, and most of them failed to introduce themselves clearly – many did not even try.
What this ‘speed date’ needed was the opportunity to ask questions. Instead the councillors proceeded to talk in tedious detail about the work of their committee and then hand over to another anonymous colleague who proceeded to offer a similar monologue. On at least one of the tables, the participants ignored them and talked amongst themselves; the speaker carried on regardless and may not even have noticed.
Definitely a speed date lacking a bit of chemistry!
If there was one theme to emerge, it was that existing councillors had a dislike of politics.
There are no Labour councillors in North Norfolk and the Conservative and LibDems were at pains to emphasise how they worked together and tried to avoid anything ‘political’. Now, I am intellectually, emotionally and tribally a socialist and would only spend evenings at such meetings if there was an intention, however remote and tenuous, to make the world a better place for those currently disadvantaged.
Who knows what motivates these existing councillors beyond a sense of self-importance and a desire to attend events and sit at the front?
Does any of this even matter?
Local government has been totally emasculated as a result of continued spending cuts that are a consequence of austerity economics. Even today, in Gideon’s final Budget before the General Election, more austerity – and increasingly severe cuts – is promised and local government is squarely in the firing line.
Inevitably, powers are limited and will only become more so under a Conservative-led central government.
However, there is a residual and important influence, but the way that it is exercised is depressing.
Let me give one illustration: In my small village we have a real problem on broadband speeds and are about to adopt an innovative solution involving Wi-Fi transmission from a local church tower. There is some very small local opposition on the spurious grounds that the waves could damage an individual’s health. One of the councillors, who does not represent our area, has aligned herself with this objection and is on record as saying ‘It is not a village where many people work from home so why do you need Broadband?’
Doubtless the landed gentry said similar things about electric light on the grounds that not many people in the village were able to read!
This succinctly shows the negative influence a less-than-progressive councillor can have on a local area. Can you imagine the positive impact a progressive Labour councillor could have in a similar situation?
Not all the councillors in North Norfolk District Council were out of touch to this extent; some were clearly more able than others. However, as a group they scarcely inspired confidence.
I actually felt sorry for the council officers who had put so much effort into the occasion.
Of course I shall still stand and, mercifully for my peace of mind, lose. I still believe there is an important role for the delivery of services at local levels but, judging by this occasion, we have a long way to go.
Martyn Sloman is the Parliamentary Agent for North Norfolk CLP and a District Council Candidate in the 2015 Elections
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.