Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Councillors should shape up or ship out!

Last year at one of our Associations’ Local Government Committee/Approval Meetings, a grand County Councillor arrived for his interview. He was late for his appointment as he had gone to the wrong building. He had actually turned-up at the office his Association had vacated three year’s previously when they had joined the West Kent Group, indicating that not only had he not bothered to read the letter properly inviting him for interview, but that his involvement with his Association was so insignificant that he had not noticed they had moved offices a few weeks after he was last elected.  

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, the Association’s Deputy Chairman (Political) opened the questions with,

“Cllr Bradshaw (not his real name). I have been Deputy Chairman Political for two years now. In that time we have fought two local elections, a parliamentary election and a critical by-election in a marginal seat. Could you kindly explain why this is the first time I have ever met you?”

Fast forward to another West Kent constituency several months later. Another incumbent was being challenged after the hard-working activists who run his two local branch committees had decided “enough was enough”. These two branches each meet six times a year, between them raise £3,000 per annum for Association funds and rise to every challenge set for them, fully canvassing and delivering their large patch every time they need to do so.

Their incumbent County Member had not attended a single branch meeting nor event since he was elected in 2013. When asked why, he successfully managed to alienate his selectorate even further by starting his answer with, “what you lot need to understand….” And when a popular and respected Borough Councillor asked him to list what he had done to help in a recent marginal by-election in his own patch, he replied, “Oh, I knew there would be enough of you lot running around for me not to have to bother.”  At least he had the decency not to look too surprised when the hands that fed him decided to offer the job to someone who might show them a little more courtesy and respect.

After each round of selections (run in accordance with the National Mandatory Selection Rules) there are the inevitable cries of outrage followed by demands for a review. The fact is that serving councillors already have a significant advantage, both in terms of the power and reach of incumbency and through the rules which state, “For a sitting councillor, preferential treatment will be given in their current seat.”  This preferential treatment includes the right of an incumbent to be in the final, regardless of their work record or local support.

There is an unwritten “constitutional settlement” under which Conservative members are permitted to select their candidates, who then receive their dedication, money and shoe leather. In exchange for this not unreasonable right to choose who represents them at Town or County Hall, they then allow councillors a virtual free hand in setting policy, allocating jobs, running the council and dividing the crumbs. There is a real danger that if Council leaders should try to throw around their weight and dictate who should be selected against the wishes of the membership, then it might follow that the membership might start demanding an input into council policy and who is selected for which job. Personally, I think both groups would be wise to recognise the benefit of maintaining the status quo.

At the heart of dissatisfaction appears to be a reticence (of some) councillors to engage with their local membership, support their branches and pull their weight on the doorsteps. From what I can tell, Party members appear more-or-less content to leave council/committee performance to the Group Leader and Whip. The question we must address is “are members right to expect their elected representative to support the work of the local Association and contribute to the wider goals of the Party?

At the heart of this is the Candidates’ Agreement. This forms part of the official application form, freely signed by both new and incumbent applicants. I will quote just two sections;

Councillors and Candidates must:

Play a full, active and constructive part in their local Association(s) and Branch(es) during the whole of their period of office, including campaigning, membership development, fundraising, social and political activities;

Must co-operate fully with the Party’s campaign strategy for elections, including giving mutual aid to other Conservative candidates when asked and, when themselves a candidate, complying with the requirements of the duly appointed election agent.
I might be mistaken, but surely someone seeking election to office with oversight of millions (and in some cases tens of millions) of public money, should surely have read the words of the agreement before putting their name to it? If not, then should they be councillors? If they did read it they can hardly be surprised when their Association and the Membership seek to ensure they do what they agreed to do when they signed that agreement in the first place?

Several Associations have introduced time-sheets with the doorstep hours of each councillor and candidate painstakingly recorded and automatic deselection for those who don’t perform. This might work in some areas, particularly London, where the average allowance with SRA is over £20,000 and where many see a victory at local government as a stepping-stone to Westminster. But in rural districts where the call to serve is a form of duty and most have no other ambition than to look after the needs of their town or village, and where the remuneration after tax can be below £35 a week, such a draconian approach would be heavy-handed and unfair.

When bemoaning the lack of campaign support from some of our elected members I will often hear, “But you are paid, Andrew, this is your job.” And to a degree that is correct. But what people often choose to forget is I am paid for 38 hours a week and seldom work fewer than 50, so for 12 hours a week I am a volunteer, too. I do this extra work without complaint as we all go that extra mile for the Party. All of us actively involved in politics make sacrifices for the cause in which we believe. We all invest our time, our money and our physical and emotional energy in helping our team win. That is why we are here.

Do those who tramp the streets, receive abuse on the doorsteps, attend meetings, raise funds and pay an annual subscription for the privilege have the right to feel aggrieved when those they elect to represent them fail to do their fair share? Yes, I believe they do!

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