I have just come in from a few hours campaigning in my own lovely Church Ward and two others. My little feet are aching and my old back likewise but I’ve had a great day!
I was pondering during the times when I was delivering what made me stand for council in 1975, why I have stuck it for so long and whether I would recommend being a councillor to anyone who asked me.
Times have changed dramatically since 1975. When I first became a councillor the Council was like a miniature Parliament. We ran ‘big beast’ services like further and higher education as well as 95% of all social housing in the city. What the council did not only mattered to everyone but was seen to matter. The press bench was filled for every council meeting and some of them were specialists such as education or social services correspondents.
Now many people really don’t know what the council is for. They assume that everything that happens outside their door is done (for good or ill) by the council and are amazed when they find that it isn’t. They assume we still control schools and colleges and a massive range of other facilities but we don’t.
Actually the fact that we no longer run things does not bother me so much. In those days we spent too much time running things that we controlled and not enough looking at what we should do with them. We didn’t look ahead; we did not coordinate our activities with our partners and were quite insular. We are now able to spend much more time thinking ahead and pulling things together.
Let me start with the positives of my 28 years as a councillor:
- I’ve met loads of great people inside the council chamber, in the ranks of the officers, in the city as a whole and latterly through my own special Lib Dem tribe nationally. I know that the vast, vast majority of people who want to be councillors or already serve as one do it with a very clear aim – they want to make things better for the people they represent. Of course many of them have personal ambitions as well – there is no harm in that. You need that ambition to take you though the hard times and there are plenty of those.
- I’ve learnt a lot. Coming into contact with so many people, so many ideas, so many problems, so many opportunities has rounded me as an individual and increased my intellectual development (ok – not much just a little) and has provided as a real driving force in my life
- I have had tremendous satisfaction. In all the wards that I have represented I can show you things that happened because I was there and worked with others to make them work. At city level I can show you things that I introduced or supported that have made life so much better for many people.
But it’s not all good. There are two things that really have caused me grief.
One is the public perception of councillors. Listen to any popular chat radio or TV programme and listen to lardarses who do nothing for anyone mouthing off about the iniquities of councillors. These people wouldn’t do a hands turn for anyone; have no idea what it is like to give up evening after evening and weekend after weekend for the good of others. This perception is not helped by the changed nature of the media. A good news story is usually bad news for journos. A bad news story is usually good news. To listen to highly paid journos whingeing about us is appalling.
Second is the pay and rations thing. Being a councillor has cost me a fortune. For the first 20 years of my time as a councillor we got absolute peanuts. We were expected to spend day after day at the coal face of council work for very little. My family has suffered because I have been a councillor.
So what would I recommend to people today?
- Don’t listen to the person who told you that a) you mightn’t get elected and b) if you did it would involve one night a week and a couple of phone calls. Being a councillor takes great deal of time and effort. Only do it if you, like me, are a nutter who wants to serve people.
- Always remember that you have to develop your career to fall back on. Politics is a cruel business. One day you are in and important. The next you lose your seat and are nothing. No-one cries for you and the machine goes on remorselessly without you.
- Do the work in your ward. I know many of you think that the press release and the speech in the chamber is the most exciting bit of politics but it is never the most important. I have seldom seen a council swayed by a speech – that’s what whips are for! It’s your ward work that will give you your sanity and your grounding.
So – yes stand for the council. We need new blood and we need young blood. But if you reach the point when you do it because you always do it; when you dread the thought of another night out or yet another phone call from an obsessive constituent then give up. Being a councillor is a calling not a job or profession. Heed the call when it comes but go when it goes.