The RSA’s chief executive shares his memories for the benefit of newly elected councillors
Depressing though I find it to acknowledge, it is 29 years since I was elected a local councillor. In my four years on Warwickshire CC there were two things I got badly wrong and one I like to think I got right.
I’ll leave you to judge whether lessons as old as these have any relevance to the hundreds of new councillors who had the honour last month of being elected for the first time.
My first mistake was to play politics. In 1985 there was a lot of it going on in Labour local government. Having never been in power in Warwickshire (our tongue in cheek campaign slogan was ‘end 96 years of Tory misrule’) the leaders of the Labour group took advantage of Conservative losses to form a coalition with what was then the Liberal/SDP Alliance.
Refusing to accept that being the ruling party of a hung council meant sacrificing some aspects of the incredibly detailed manifesto that we had spent months drafting, I joined with four other principled socialists/self-indulgent headbangers to vote against a negotiated budget. Because the group was so small and there were so many portfolios to fill I wasn’t exiled from Labour’s ranks for long, but it was still an act of futility which made me look even more immature than I actually was.
The second mistake was to spend far too much time in the council chamber and far too little trying to understand and champion the interests of my constituents. My ward – which comprised the centre of Leamington Spa – was tiny and I had to compete for attention with three Conservative district councillors. But, still I failed until far too late to recognise the important and fulfilling role that councillors can play as community conveners and social entrepreneurs.
In my defence, ever since – in pamphlets, speeches and research projects – I have championed the community role of local representatives, something which many council hierarchies seem now finally to be fully appreciating. There has been a great deal of interest in the idea of community organising over recent years. Effective local councillors can be the best, and cheapest, organisers.
The one thing I got right was to specialise. At university a friend had got me interested in disabled rights. So, as deputy chair of the schools committee (note to those under 40; this was not a scrutiny body, we actually ran the schools) I set up a working party on special education.
The fashion was for integration but our more nuanced goal was to replace a system in which children had to be fitted into certain, often arbitrarily applied, categories of provision with one in which children got exactly the mix of mainstream and special support they needed. We didn’t achieve all we set out to – partly because to my eternal shame I forgot to attend a critical meeting (if only mobile phones had existed then) – but I am still today proud of the way the cross-party group and its officers worked together to overcome local opposition.
My greatest ally on the working group was an old school Tory. This not only contributed to realigning my politics, it also taught me that that whatever the political differences the biggest divide in the council chamber can often be between those who focus on the best interests of the local authority and all its citizens and those with a more parochial bent. Good community organisers have sometimes to make unpopular arguments to their constituents.
Don’t play political games, focus more on the community than the council and choose an issue that motivates you and on which you can make a difference. Maybe my recollections aren’t so irrelevant after all.
Oh, and one more thing, be lucky; after six recounts my election against an incumbent Tory was declared a draw. Although I won on the toss of a coin, I’ll always wish we had listened to a well-known local drunk who had wandered into the town hall after the fifth recount. As people stood around scratching their heads he shouted out “make them take penalties”.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA