I can’t really remember what it was like to be a new councillor back in 1975 when I first got onto Liverpool City Council by knocking off a Tory (there were a few around then) by 56 votes. In fact about 10 years ago I did a programme with the BBC about the problems I had as a new councillor. “At the time I didn’t think I had any”, I said, “It’s only looking back that I realise that everyone, especially officers, were manipulating me.
But I have seen lots of new councillors in my 28 completed years on the council and have been involved in a whole range of induction programmes and training activities with young councillors so let me suggest some priorities and some suggestions.
You have three priorities address them in this order:
- To be a good ward representative for your constituents
- To be a good member of your council
- To be a good member of your Party
In a democracy it’s the relationship that you have with your constituents that is the most important.
Don’t get Townhallitis! Too many councillors think that the important action takes place in the committees and the council chamber. Those are the ones that lose their seats the quickest. It’s being a community leader that is your most important job.
See your ward as a place in which to do things and not from which to do things. Your speeches and leaflets will be better if you actually know what’s going on and feel what’s going on than if you feel that the way forward is always to resort to political rhetoric!
The Council Chamber is the most pointless place for anyone to spend time in. Particularly under the Cabinet system there is little power in the council chamber. Up to 120 people get together every 5 or 6 weeks to ritually abuse each other. Few real decisions are made there with the big strategic documents usually going through unopposed and with little challenge.
Specialise in something and become respected by all for being good at it. My interests when I was first elected was the problems of the homeless – an interest that I still follow and which has keep me involved in housing 36 years later.
Don’t gloat about winning especially if you took your seat from another Party. Remember what goes round comes round. It might be your turn today but it will be someone else’ turn another time.
Most councillors of all Parties have a lot in common with each other. They have a passion for their community and are prepared to do something about it. That sets us apart from those who whinge and moan but do nothing.
I hope you will enjoy being a councillor. I most certainly have. The sad fact is that 30% of those elected for the first time last week will not stand again in 4 years time. Some elements of being a councillor are a hard grind. The grind gets worse without a sympathetic boss and even worse when you have unsympathetic toddlers waking you up.
The experience of being a councillor will stay with you for a lifetime. What you see; what you hear and what you experience will be good for you as you develop a profession or skill. You will be ‘rounded’ more by being a councillor than almost any course of action you might have taken.
Lastly and ABOVE ALL treat MPs with the disrespect they deserve. They are part of a talking organisation – you are part of a doing organisation. Unless they are a Minister you have more power than they do.
Good luck to you all.