10 tips to get on as a new councillor.
Here is what I learnt in the crazy world of local politics.
- Join a clique or a faction, and find your allies. I used the term allies purposefully - these are not your mates - they are either like-minded colleagues or colleagues it will be useful to have the support of. A mate, or a friend, suggests a relationship that is based on broad-shared interests and a deep lasting rapport, beyond one’s political beliefs. Allyship is more transactional and based solely on your politics and usefulness. Cliques are normally formed down the pub after a laborious Group meeting so I am sorry if you’ve got young children or caring responsibilities and need to head off home. Avoiding the pub will make it harder for you to grab this important groove on the greasy pole of local politics. This brings me nicely to point number 2..
- See your kids less. Everything about being a councillor is designed for the semi-retired. Allowances are fairly minimal meaning most councillors need to work at least part-time to make ends meet (many, if not the majority, work full-time). Lengthy, often excessive, evenings meetings will devour your free time. The Government literally banned local councils from continuing remote meetings after Covid-19. Yep, we really are that much of a centralised country, local authorities cannot decide how they run their own meetings. Before I went down to four days a week at work, I would use my lunch breaks at work to call council officers to discuss casework with them. Report papers will often be read on your commute from the office to the town hall. Oh, and local Party meetings and canvassing will use take up the nights when you’re not in a committee room.
- Beware of social media. 1. Just don’t use it. or 2. Ensure it is heavily curated. Just use it for photos with you standing proudly next to new bins or throwing out graphics advertising local meetings. Maybe put up a few photos of your pet cat or brag about your new 5km PB, to show that you have some personality but not too much personality. Personality usually means trouble. This brings me on to the next point…
- Be a grey blur. I’d now like to quote a tune from the stage show Hamilton. In offering his advice to a young Alexander Hamilton, Senator Aaron Burr said - “Talk less. Smile More. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” In politics, people will be constantly looking for reasons to oppose you (after all, there are only so many positions at the top) and it is true that “every proclamation guarantees free ammunition for your enemies”. Inoffensive and competent, with the backing of a strong clique willing to do phone-calling or string some deals together for you? You’ll go far kiddo.
- Remember that politics is not meritocratic — Thirty years of experience working within Children’s Services and the education sector, thinking you’re a shoo-in for the coveted position of Chair of the Children’s Services Select Committee? Think again. Countless years working as a housing solicitor, meaning you know the sector inside out and expecting that’ll be enough to put you in place as Chair of the Housing Committee? Don’t be silly. Cliques, factions, political deals, diversity, likeability, incumbency, or good old fashioned “Buggin's turn” — are more important factors in any person’s election to a senior position than one's obvious credentials for the job.
- Remember the long-game — It is rare for a councillor to become an influential committee chair or member of their Cabinet within one term. Your focus needs to be on the long-game — slowly increasing your number of allies and chipping away at your contenders through private criticism (this is where the chats down the pub are so crucial). Occasionally, the political landscape might be on your side. The political leaderships of many councils are understandably conscious that they should reflect the diversity of their local authority. So depending on your protected characteristics, you might be fast-tracked. But again, don’t say such things publicly — grey blur, grey blur, grey blur.
- Don’t expect to achieve anything as a backbencher — A Twitter troll once asked me what I had achieved in my three+ years as a councillor. This question triggered an existential crisis because the only concrete achievement I can think of is my beautiful bollard on the pavement on Kirkdale, Sydenham. However, we should not get too down about our ineffectiveness. After all, one must remember that we live in an absurdly centralised nation. Local authority grants from the central government have been slashed since 2010 and most council budgets have been reduced by over a half. In Lewisham, over half our (now much smaller) budget goes to caring for a small number of very vulnerable people in our social care system. There is not much money to go on anything else, and where that money is spent, is primarily decided on by the Executive.
- Pick your niche. Your first 12 months in office will be pretty overwhelming. You will be bombarded with information, papers, jargon, casework and countless invites, left, right and centre. No experience of processing accounts or running a multimillion-pound organisation? Hardluck. It is now your job and you will be deciding on budgets that affect the services used by thousands. My experience says you’re best off picking one or two areas — social care, education, auditing, licensing, planning & development, transport, environment, leisure services — and focusing on understanding how they work. Pick where your passions and interests lie.
- Be up for a fight or be skilful in dodging one. Unfortunately, some brainboxes in central government believe there to be a housing crisis and that building new homes might ease it. Crazy, isn’t it? As such, you’ll have housing targets and there will be redevelopment in your area. Cue outrage from the adequately housed. You’ll soon find out that you can’t block all new homes so you will either need to 1. Defend your actions or 2. Explain that the planning system leaves your hands tied and you can’t block all new homes, even though you can block some. Moreover, the Government and some of our Metro Mayors also believe there is a ‘climate crisis’ and want to encourage the public to shift to more walking, cycling and public transport use. Cue outrage from most people who own a car. You will be tasked with implementing some national and regional transport policies so you can either 1. Attempt to outline the benefits of a modal shift and defend your actions, or 2. Explain that your hands are tied and fight for the status quo as much as possible. These are two of the most controversial examples I could think of but within your term, there will be a myriad of controversies and unpopular decisions. You will get flack and you will need thick skin. Sometimes it might be worth your while defending your Executive’s actions and other times it might be worth joining the protests (particularly if it affects your ward) but in the most part, it is best to ‘keep ya nut down’. As a backbencher, you’re not a decision-maker, so it is easier to avoid becoming the target of any local ire if you stay schtum.
- Cosy up to the influential locals. Local busybodies make the world go round. 90% of your emails from residents lobbying you for X and Y will be from the same handful of community champions. They’re active in residents groups, amenity societies, local campaign groups and potentially, your local Party branch. Ingratiate yourself with them and try and bend to their whims, if you can. Allies in the community may not help you climb the Town Hall ladder any faster, but they will certainly mean you have an easier ride on whatever rung you may be.