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FEATURES - LIVE THE DREAM

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For ambitious politicos, winning a council seat is just the first step up the greasy pole to Parliament. Nick Trigg...
For ambitious politicos, winning a council seat is just the first step up the greasy pole to Parliament. Nick Triggle investigates

Thousands of men and women are campaigning to become a councillor this week. Some will be seeking re-election, for others it will be their first attempt to climb the political ladder.

And while many may deny it in public, 4 May could represent another step in a journey to the Palace of Westminster.

Britain's political history is littered with local politicians who went on to become MPs: former prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and John Major served as councillors.

And while the trend is less common than it used to be - the era of career MPs is well and truly here - Tony Blair's administrations have featured ex-councillors such as Charles Clarke and Margaret Hodge.

But perhaps the highest-profile has been David Blunkett. The former home, education and work and pensions secretary spent nearly 20 years on Sheffield City Council, seven of them as leader.

Mr Blunkett may have risen to be one of Mr Blair's most trusted lieutenants, but did his time in local government leave him well prepared for the red boxes of government?

'It was invaluable,' says the Sheffield Brightside MP, who served as shadow local government minister in his early days in Parliament. 'It gave me a good grasp of major policy areas.

'When I was elected to Parliament I was thrown into the debate about the poll tax. That would not have happened without my local government experience.

'I was used to dealing with civil servants, getting decisions taken and building a relationship with them,' says Mr Blunkett, who also spent four years as a councillor on South Yorkshire CC and served on Labour's national executive committee.

Looking back, he believes his time as a councillor was so important that his narrow failure to win a by-election in the 1970s actually benefited him, as it meant he was able to become council leader in 1980.

'Being a cabinet minister is different, but if you were to say 'who has the most impact on the local community, a backbench MP or major council leader?'. I would say leader. You have control over a lot of policy.'

Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather, who won a famous by-election victory in 2003 when she took the former Labour stronghold of Brent East with a 29% swing, agrees council life is a good grounding for Parliament.

The Lib Dem education spokeswoman points out the procedures of Parliament are similar to town hall protocol, while the constituency work also has parallels.

She adds: 'You develop certain skills as a councillor - being able to deal with a range of people, public speaking, knowledge of policy - that are also important as an MP.'

But she admits she was thrown in at the deep end when she entered Parliament after 18 months as an Islington LBC councillor.

'You are somewhat protected when you start life as a councillor, especially when you join an established group like I did.

'It was nothing like that when I became an MP. In the first two weeks I received 3,000 letters. But as I did not have access to Parliamentary funds straight away I had no staff, no phone number, no office. I wasn't sure what expenses I was allowed so I paid a lot out of my own pocket.'

Ms Teather also believes this sense of isolation can be felt when battling for constituents. Since becoming an MP, she has campaigned on education funding, access to GPs and housing matters. 'As a councillor, you campaign as part of a group. But as an MP it is up to you to have an impact.'

However, one aspect of council and Parliament life which does not differ is the level of debate. 'Both are as tribal and partisan as one another,' she jokes.

Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead (Lab) agrees the standard of debating in Parliament is not always as high as you would expect. 'During some debates, you feel you are talking to yourself,' he says.

Dr Whitehead, who served on Southampton City Council for 12 years from 1980, including eight as leader, believes local government experience is important to achieve things in Parliament.

'You sometimes see MPs who get involved with everything, becoming rent-a-mouths. I think if you want to have an impact the trick is not to spread yourself too thinly. Concentrate on a few issues and quite often the ones you see doing that are MPs with a local government background.'

But at a time when it is becoming more common for MPs' researchers and staff to be chosen as Parliamentary candidates, former local government minister Nick Raynsford believes the Commons may be in danger of missing out on experience.

The Greenwich & Woolwich MP, who spent four years on Hammersmith & Fulham LBC in the 1970s, says: 'I regret the tendency for career politicians. One of the strengths of Westminster is that whatever issue crops up, there is almost always someone with practical experience.'

But for every councillor who makes it onto Westminster's green leather benches, there are many more who fail to get elected.

Dover DC leader Paul Watkins (Con) has contested the last three general elections. He believes a council background can be a double-edged sword.

'Obviously if you have achieved something locally it can stand you in good stead. But it can work the other way too. If you have spent a while in local government, you are bound to have some failures.'

But he adds: 'The real challenge for councillors, if they are well known, is being able to step up and take on national issues.'

For others, standing in a general election is very different. Mid Beds DC's Mark Chapman (Lib Dem) says his campaign for the Mid Bedfordshire seat last year left him 'absolutely shattered'.

'The day after it finished, I remember waking up and feeling so tired. The demands are just so much greater.'

So does that mean he no longer wants to get into Parliament? 'If you asked me the day after the last election, I would have said 'never again',' he says. 'Now? I don't know. We will have to wait and see.'

It seems the lure ofthe green benches can be hard to resist.

Dos and dont's of making the leap to Westminster

>> Don't see council life as a stepping stone to Parliament. Do the job in its own right

>> Be prepared for the greater media spotlight when running in a general election and on becoming MP

>> Don't spread yourself too thinly in the House of Commons. Concentrate on a set number of issues that are most important to you

>> Be prepared to have your failures as a councillor thrown back at you during a general election as well as basking in your successes

>> Learn about the process of turning policy into action, the principle is similar at both local and national levels.

From local government to the House of Commons

John Major

Served on Lambeth LBC before becoming a Tory MP in 1979. Was prime minister for seven years.

Aneurin Bevan

Became a Monmouthshire councillor in 1928, before becoming an MP a year later. Icon of the Labour movement for setting up the NHS.

Herbert Morrison

Peter Mandelson's grandfather was mayor of Hackney from 1920 to 1921. He went on to become leader of the London County Council. Served as deputy prime minister under Clement Atlee.

Neville Chamberlain

Followed his father on to Birmingham council. Elected as Tory MP in 1918, rising to become prime minister.

Joseph Chamberlain

Great social reforming mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s. Served in William Gladstone's Liberal government, before resigning over Irish home rule.

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