…Everything happens within a specified boundary, according to a set of rules largely made in Westminster, and to the unitiated it often looks like one load of balls after another. All of which is merely by way of introduction to a tortuous analogy I have been mulling since Councillor Kevin Lynes (Kent, so I hope the cricket analogy isn’t a sore point) challenged me on my links over there —> listing “Councillors” separately from “Politicians”.
Of course, Councillors are clearly politicians – they achieve their position through a combination of selection and election. Even those elected without a party label are engaged in electoral and administrative politics. Nonetheless I suspect that across much of the country someone who became a Councillor primarily because they enjoyed the cut and thrust of party politics, and wished to advance a strong ideological position would find the frustrations of office very keenly; the central government prescription, the practical limitations of ‘the art of the possible’, and the sheer hard work of dealing with small decisions of limited political controversy, and helping constituents through their problems. A school admissions appeal may well result from mistaken national education policy, but the parents and child will come to their local Councillor seeking specific help now, rather than proposals for long-term reform under another Government.
Councillors who aspire to higher elected office can still be a good thing, of course, and I am certain that Parliament would be a better place, or would at least make more sensible legislation on local government, if it contained more MPs who had served at a more local level, as is common in many other countries. My experience of Councillors is that they fulfil three key roles, each to differing degrees – some are very strongly focused on one, others spread their energies more evenly.
As an officer, it can be very useful to know what sort of Councillor you are dealing with. The balance can, and usually will, change through a Councillor’s time in office as their experiences, ambitions, and offices held shift. A Councillor I know well once described Councillor training to me as “The ultimate experiment in mixed ability teaching”. While that is a good line, very few people become Councillors without well-developed skills in one area and competence in several more – the key is identifying what those skills are, and helping them to use them in the most effective way.
The functions of a local authority have been described as “service delivery, community leadership, and democratic engagement”. Less intellectually, I would like to describe Councillors as Batsmen, Bowlers, and Fielders.
The batsman has a vision for change in their area, and is out to deliver it. They might believe that fundamental change is needed in how the commercial centre is made viable for local business, or that serious investment in infrastructure needs to be made to improve local economic vibrancy and quality of life, or that their Council can only deliver for local people if it radically rethinks its service delivery methods, or the nature of its partnerships with other parts of the public sector. From the start, a batsman is likely to aspire to a senior Cabinet position, and champion the Council’s cause in Westminster and Whitehall. Prominent batsmen would in my view include Merrick Cockell, Lord Hanningfield, and Sir Albert Bore.
The bowler thinks some of this hasn’t been fully thought through, or will have unintended side effects, or simply that, while they are fully supportive of the big picture, they are strongly placed to help make sure the detail is right by taking a ‘second look’ at proposals. They may have become Councillors because of the particular impact a Council policy was having, or could have if enacted, on their community. The Liberal Democrats have been particularly skilled at finding local community activists and recruiting them as Council candidates, regardless of their prior political involvement. Bowlers will find themselves as opposition spokespeople (“spin bowlers”) or as Chairs and active members of council Scrutiny Committees (“pace bowlers”). A bowler may aspire to be a batsman in the future, or have been one in the past, or may have too demanding a career outside the Council to commit to the full-time Cabinet role at this time. Bowlers, even very talented ones, will have less famous names – Albert Atkinson, Saxon Spence, and others. It is no handicap to future leadership ambitions to acquire these skills, however – for example I would argue that the late Sandy Bruce-Lockhart was a bowler first, and a batsman later.
The fielder deals with individuals who need help, advice, or to let off steam. Every Councillor will receive a significant amount of casework, and all deal with it in slightly different ways. The most effective will have strong empathy and lateral thinking, understanding why their constituent has a problem, and how they might set about identifying the root cause of the problem. They will build a good working relationship with officers across the authority, so that they have someone to advise them whether the problem is a persistent pothole, an incorrect social care bill, an inadequate bin collection service, or a controversial planning application. Good fielding is vital for Councillors and local government – if they drop the ball regularly, they will suffer at the hands of their electorate, and the repuation of local government will suffer as constituents go directly to the local MP. However a Councillor is also required to have a strong knowledge of the limits of intervention, and to know when helping someone solve a problem risks crossing the boundary into helping someone queue-jump – I think overwhelmingly local Councillors know where this line is, and stay on the right side of it.
This is obviously caricature at best, and frivolous at worst – the job of a Councillor will take in aspects of all of these – I have come across people involved in local politics in London who hold to the fantasy that a system of having three Councillors for each area means you can have one in a Leadership role, one in a Scrutiny role, and a sweeper (mixing my metaphors here, maybe wicket-keeper?) to do the casework. I regard this as nonsense of the worst kind, as any Councillor who isn’t capable of at least competent performance in all three roles is unlikely to excel in any of them.
There is of course no doubt that Councillor Lynes is a consummate all-rounder – his blog demonstrates a mix of strong political opinion, ambition for Kent, leadership for Tunbridge Wells, and action on behalf of frustrated constituents who come to him for help. (See, link to me and I say nice things, there’s a lesson for you all in that).