Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Carrots, sticks and timesheets

One of the biggest frustrations of any Agent / Campaign Manager or Deputy Chairman Political is how to focus the minds of elected councillors towards campaigning, especially when it's not their name on the ballot paper.

I always find it astonishing that so many councillors 'go native' (and I am told it's the same in all parties).  Suddenly, once elected (often having worked tirelessly to gain their seats from the opposition, sometimes over two elections) councillors soon become local government apparatchiks. How quickly they forget that this was often their predecessor's similar journey from campaigning politician to municipal apologist that contributed to their defeat.

I envy my friends in London where competition for a seat allows them to impose campaign requirements on incumbent councillors and those who wish to be.  In Croydon, for example, the Agent and/or Deputy Chairman Political maintains a time sheet, recording each councillor and prospective councillor's attendance at constituency-wide campaign days. Each and every councillor or prospective candidate, from group leader to humble back-bencher, must give a minimum of 36 hours campaigning over a 12 month period (excluding what they do in their own ward). This equates to an average of just three hours (or one session) per month, spent of Association-specific campaigning, usually in a target ward. At the end of the cycle, if they have not notched-up their share of hours they are automatically removed from the Approved List and therefore deselected. It's brutal, but it works.

The big difference is competition.  In London, most councillors receive a basic allowance of £12,000+ and Cabinet Members and Committee Chairs receive an additional £30,000.  A recent by-election in Bromley attracted 14 applicants, and in Croydon up to ten people applied for each Conservative-held or target seat. When you have so many hungry people, you can set the rules and impose your own terms and conditions.  If a councillor or candidate cannot or will not play by the rules, there is a long line of others waiting and eager to take their place.

In rural areas the balance is somewhat different. At one council in my patch, the basic allowance is £5,000 pa (or less than £100 per week). By the time they have paid tax (most of them at 40%) they are left with £60 per week for their efforts. One councillor has kept a weekly time-sheet of council related business (meetings at the council offices, ward work, residents' associations, replying to email and phone calls and planning committees etc) and has calculated that he spends between 15 - 25 hours per week working for the community; this equates to £3 per hour. I have no doubt these figures are accurate.  It is true that no-one asks them to do the job, but to claim they are doing it to 'line their own pockets' or they are 'in it for their own ends' is clearly nonsense, especially when those who usually make such remarks have seldom lifted a finger to help their local community.

What is clear, however, is we need to fish for our councillors in a deeper pool than the one available to us now.  As always, without naming names, members of one of the Conservative Groups I work for have each received three letters (one from me, one from the Association Chairman and the third from the Group Leader) asking them to commit to three nights campaigning activity for our Kent County Council candidates.  Most have willingly done so, many offering to do more than they were asked, but despite three requests there are still 12 elected members who have not responded.  Some of these are genuinely ill and I know are stepping down in 2015 for this reason, many others simply cannot be bothered.   Perhaps the message from the Association should be: if you cannot be bothered working towards our collective goals, perhaps the Association shouldn't be bothered when you come up for re-selection!

To do this, however, we need a deeper pool of talent. Councillors who work hard, serve their communities, contribute to the work of the Council and play their role within the political and campaigning life of the Association have nothing to fear from a selection contest. Those who do not do so should at least face the rigours of competition. If nothing else, it focuses the mind and smokes out the idle. 

Ultimately, it is for the paid-up membership of the Conservative Party to choose who is selected, and it is for the voters to decide who is elected.  It is our duty to ensure the names we place on the ballot paper are there as a result of their talent, ambition, effort and, most importantly, ability.

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