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YOUNG TURKS - LOCAL GOVERNMENT FACES A SHORTAGE OF TWENTYSOMETHINGS

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Gareth Gardiner Jones speaks to the exceptions to the rule. ...
Gareth Gardiner Jones speaks to the exceptions to the rule.

The typical image of a councillor is of white male in his late 50s. You do not have to look far to find the source of this stereotype. Those of working age may be ruled out by the daytime commitments council work requires. The evening work excludes many women with families. Young people and many ethnic minorities seem to be turned off by local politics, perhaps believing it is of no relevance to their lives. Those who see the relevance may be unwilling to sacrifice their social life.

The quest for local government twentysomethings is not an easy one. Yet a profile of the few who are willing to try their hand emerges after speaking to local government departments of the three major parties and some young councillors. They are generally ambitious, middle-class, male university graduates with successful careers, who are looking for a career in Westminster. This may be why, despite a near universal dislike of the Local Government Bill, they wish to serve on cabinets.

In ethnic minority representation young male Asians are adequately represented in local government, but try finding a young Afro-Caribbean of either sex, or a young Asian female councillor.

These young councillors seem to be as devoted to their work as their older compatriots, are full of ideas, and are devoting a large part of their full schedules to the work they say they all love.

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Muhammad Mohib Uddin, Liberal Democrat member of Oldham MBC (Liberal Democrat controlled)

Age: 26

Occupation: Revenues officer

Education: I studied business administration at Huddersfield University, after leaving school with no qualifications

Hobbies: I started Peacemaker, a club which helps kids from different ethnic groups work and live together, which won the Queen Mother's Award for Urban Regeneration. I am also chairman of Shajall Unity football team

Home life: I am married with twins on the way and live in my ward of Coldhurst in Oldham

Politicals: I've been a party member for five years and was persuaded to run as a councillor by wanting to make a change in the local area, which is socially deprived, lacking in resources and with declining schools.

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Mr Uddin is convinced his age has interested local young people and won him his seat. 'Since I got elected a lot of young people have become more interested in local politics. I partly won my seat, which had always been Labour-safe, because I captured most of the under-30s vote. Young people feel I can relate to their problems more.'

But he underlines the failure of his council to be truly representative: 'Oldham MBC does not reflect the diverse community the town is. We have white and Bengali councillors but no Indian or Afro-Caribbean ones. The Labour group has only one female member and 24 males.'

Mr Uddin foresees conflict with his council work: 'Now there is no problem for me work-wise, but it could be difficult when my children are born this year. It is difficult to attract full-time workers.'

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Laura Willoughby, Liberal Democrat member of Islington LBC (Liberal Democrat controlled)

Age: 26

Occupation: Press officer for lesbian and gay lobby group Stonewall

Education: Studied communication and media at Loughborough University

Hobbies: Stand-up comedy and theatre

Home Life:I'm single and live in Islington North ward, I could not afford to live on my own

Politicals: I got involved in student politics and ran the NUS campaign for the Liberal Democrats. I am Parliamentary candidate for the next election.

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When it comes to council representativeness, Ms Willoughby is content: 'We have a 50:50 split between men and women, and the same between party hacks and community leaders. We also have rich, poor, young, old, gay and straight members.'

But she believes each party should do its bit to encourage young people to participate: 'I think the parties have a duty to find and nurture members. Vacant local government positions should be advertised, and the career benefits of councillors should be highlighted. Youth councils need more support.'

Ms Willoughby views the Local Government Bill's effect of 'inhibiting democracy' in an immoral light: 'It is very wrong to stop local people from being involved or consulted.'

For her, the conflict between council work and a career has meant one has succumbed. 'It is very difficult for me as leader of the Lib Dems, especially when cabinets come into use - I am the only press officer at Stonewall and cannot just have time off, so I'm having to look for a part-time job.'

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Jake Turnbull, Labour member of Camden LBC (Labour controlled)

Age: 27

Occupation: Parliamentary officer, in Westminster, for the Countryside Agency

Education: Studied English at the University of Central London

Hobbies: Plays saxophone, reads modern American and English literature, and enjoys walking in the countryside

Home Life: I am married to a gorgeous blonde bombshell and we live on the Old Kent Road

Politicals: I joined the Labour Party after I saw Margaret Thatcher's handling of the Falkland crisis, and have been a councillor for two years.

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Mr Turnbull has radical ideas on reform, calling the system of voluntary councillors 'democracy on the cheap', and supports the post becoming a full-time career.

'We need leaner councils, with one full-time paid member for each ward. With the size of the average council budget, if you were a company you would be in the FTSE 100. And no FTSE 100 company would entrust its decisions to part-time volunteers, voting on multi-million pound budgets after a hard days work, at 10pm.'

According to Mr Turnbull, it is these evening meetings, rather than the individual parties, that are to blame for councils' failure to reflect society. 'They exclude anyone who has evening family commitments. It is the structure, not the party, that is failing to reflect society.

'Camden has a relatively good male:female ratio. But we are poorly represented in terms of ethnic minorities, and there is a shortage of young blood, because young people find it difficult to juggle the high cost of living in central London with the time commitments of travel to evening meetings.'

The Local Government Bill gets a rare thumbs up from Mr Turnbull, but he believes it will suffer democratically through not being 'a family-friendly structure'.

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Mohammed Iqbal, Labour member of Pendle BC (Labour controlled)

Age: 29

Occupation: Deputy team manager for Rochdale MBC's revenue division

Education: Studied for a BTEC in business and finance after school

Hobbies: Cricket, swimming and current affairs

Home life: I have three children and live in my ward of Bradley in Nelson

Politicals: I realised young people's voices, especially Asians, were not being heard. I became a Labour member at 16 and was elected to be a councillor in 1998.

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Despite being a Labour member, Mr Iqbal is against the new local government legislation: 'Local government will be a closed shop. We need some kind of shadowing system, or for meetings to be held in public. The views of the general public need to be sought.'

He sees his age and attitude as identifiable with local youth. 'Young people see politicians as a waste of time. When I come across young people I invite them to committee meetings to say what they want and I promise to help them. We cannot dictate to young people - they just switch off.'

Mr Iqbal faces a difficult juggling act between career and council work: 'I could never afford to concentrate more on council work than I do as I have to work full time to feed my kids.'

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Barclay Stainton, Conservative member of South Lakeland DC (no overall control)

Age: 23

Occupation: Self-employed. I run both a printing bureau and a Volkswagen spare parts dealership with my family

Education: I started working at the age of 15, but also managed to study computer systems engineering at Lancaster University

Hobbies: I am a member of a Rotary Club and enjoy rebuilding old Volkswagen Beetles

Home life: I am single, and I live with my family in the village of Kirkby-Lonsdale

Politicals: I became a Young Conservative member at the age of 12 and was 22 when elected as a councillor.

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For Mr Stainton, local politics needs more than just fresh young blood: 'We have to get more people in general involved. Many in their 30s and 40s seem to think local politics makes no difference in their lives.'

He believes the Local Government Bill could work on a hung council, but is worried that at other councils 'there will be no check on its power'. He has witnessed the 'disastrous effect' of the committee structure on his council, which has 'led to many councillors feeling excluded from the decision-making process'.

Concerning time for council duties, Mr Stainton sees his luck in being self-employed: 'If I had a 9 to 5 job it would be impossible.'

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Glenn Murphy, Conservative member of Ealing LBC (Labour controlled)

Age: 24

Occupation: Project development for IT at the BBC

Education: Left after second year of physics degree at Coventry University to work in IT

Hobbies: Pubs and paint-balling

Home life: I am single and live with my family in Acton

Politicals: I was actually prompted to join the Conservatives after the general election defeat in 1997 and was elected in 1999 in a by-election.

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Mr Murphy knows what makes young people today tick politically: 'They are generally more interested in single issues not party politics, so we should focus on issues more. For example, I've found that four out of every five young people are in favour of keeping the pound.'

He is scathing of the Local Government Bill, which he sees as unnecessary. 'It was obviously designed by people who were not councillors and is creating one step of devolution too far which residents see as a waste of money. I worry many councillors will be shut out with no voice. There should be safeguards introduced to encourage greater openness - why must the press and public not be allowed?'

Despite a lack of young, Irish, and Afro-Caribbean people on Ealing LBC, Mr Murphy is supportive of its representation. 'Ealing is quite representative of the borough; Southall is the most Asian area in London, and we have many Asian councillors to reflect that.'

In juggling council work with a career, he believes himself lucky. 'The BBC are more than supportive and have safeguards in place for councillors. The main problem is having a social life.'

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