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Politics Matters

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Christina Dykes on the importance of party politics

In their latest cabinet reshuffle both Gordon Brown and David Cameron made a point of bringing to their political table people whose contribution has not been grounded in party politics. Similarly, John Healey recently said each local authority should establish a “town hall of all the talents”.

There may be a case for such a measure in national politics which has tended in recent years to spawn from a narrowing recruitment pool but should council leaders do the same? No, is the short answer.
The whole officer/politician balance rests on both sides having different but complimentary experiences and skills. On the officers’ side it is continuity, managerial capacity, technical and legal knowledge and an instrumental attitude to public participation.

Councillors’ skills on the other hand are influencing, inspiring, listening, mediating, vision setting and, above all, answering and leading public concerns. Such skills are all too often denigrated by commentators as Machiavellian, or cast as dangerously self-seeking.

While there is always a risk in any walk of life that position or influence can be misdirected, we should not let the odd bad apple spoil our view of the pile. The vast majority of councillors in this country, without fanfare, do what they are elected to do which is presenting and defending their electorates’ interests. This is what they will be held to account on every four years.

Elections may be a nuisance to the smooth strategic running of a council but they are the voter’s lever of power that makes this country a democracy. This is what we mean by a democratic mandate. It is unique to elected politicians and it gives authority.

Elections offer more. They make councillors leave their desks and literally walk the talk. By doing so they gain an unparalleled knowledge of the area and people they come to represent while officers can tuck themselves away for the period wherever they wish.

It tends to be councillors who are the ones who know their neighbourhood by every alley, byway or street.

A final word on the importance of elections. Voters give their mandate based on a set of convictions a would-be politician espouses while campaigning for office. Political conviction rests on a set of values which govern choices and priorities.

Knowing on what basis a politician is being elected allows the electorate to have a say on how they want their locality to be run. Without conviction, the electorate has no way of knowing for what they are voting and by extension how they want their lives to be governed.

In the post-Lyons agenda of greater localism and place shaping this will be all the more important. Local politicians will have to combine vision and political principles into a narrative that will allow people to judge not only how public services will be delivered but also on the future wellbeing, prosperity and organisation of their area.

For all these reasons it is right that councillors should be at the centre of any place shaping agenda and for the same reasons council leaders luckily are not able to appoint their chums to their cabinets.

Christina Dykes is political director (Con), Leadership Centre for Local Government and special adviser to Dominic Grieve MP, shadow attorney general, and party spokesman on community cohesion
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