An insider’s view on the decline in local government democracy

Copied from local Government Chronicle online

Inside out: Dull politics repels potential candidates
25 June, 2014

‘Somebody else making the case for party politics being excluded from local government.’

I look round our council meetings and see old white men in eight out of 10 seats. I walk through the town centre and see a refreshing diversity – women, and people of all ages, religions and ethnic groups. The comparison is disturbing.

Our councillors are smashing people. They put in more than 25 hours a week on council business and are deeply committed to our community and council. But the internal monoculture has the same problems as acres of barley across a landscape – it is boring and dominates at the expense of everything else. It is not the barley’s fault; the system and the farmer are responsible.

It’s the same in local government. Councillors are not to blame. It’s the system of local government and the political parties that “farm” councillors. I don’t think changing the times of council meetings will encourage young women or men to become councillors. If enough councillors had jobs and kids, it would be no time before we changed meeting times and provided a crèche. We have to think wider.

How does somebody become a councillor? First, they have to be interested in the role. At the moment we are collapsing into bins, bogs and brushes. Devolve real power back to us, including powers over raising money. Open up debate, eg through open committee decision making. Then we might have more chance of people becoming sufficiently interested to want to become a councillor.

Second, the normal route for someone to become a councillor is through being active in a political party. Community activists who become councillors are the exception rather than the rule.

So parties have to change if we are to move away from the current norm. Parties need to look at how they reach out to different types of people, develop a welcoming and flexible culture and way of operating. They need to develop their members to be equipped to be councillors and review the way they are selected to stand as candidates.

I’ve spoken to young people about getting involved in politics and meeting times have not been mentioned ever. The main turn-offs are ignorance about what we do, formal politics is seen as inaccessible and “not for them”, but mostly because we are dull.

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