CIC: Why don’t more people get into politics?


5:13 am - December 12th 2008

by Unity    


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If this whole business of debating the CLG white paper, ‘Communities In Control’ is starting to make you feel like you’re losing the will to live then take my sincere advice and steer clear of the Chapter (7) on ‘Standing For Office’.

The chapter kicks off by pointing out that women, ethnic minorities and under 25’s are heavily under-represented on local councils as elected members compared to broad population demographics, after which we discover that bears really do shit in the woods and that they suspect that the Pope may possibly be a Catholic.

The proposed ‘solution’ for this problem is a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Women Councillors Taskforce, which already exists, and all usual nonsense about training, mentoring, shadowing, networking and outreach events that gets thrown in the pot by the government devoid of genuinely innovative thinking.

This taskforce is even going to strengthen the ‘evidence base’, although it neglects to mention exactly what this evidence base is and why it needs to be strengthened in the first place.

The one upside I can see in all this is that at least Operation Black Vote and the Fawcett Society are going to be involved, both of which have far more about them than the CLG, so those going into the Task Force’s programme will some value out of it.

There’s one worthwhile concrete proposal; extending the right to time off for public duties to members of probation boards, court boards, youth offender panels and co-opted members of scrutiny panels; and one genuinely debatable proposal; amending the ‘Widdecombe Rules’ to allow all but the most senior council officers to engage in party political activity.

As for the rest of the chapter, I’d guess that most of it has been culled from ‘Managerialism for Dummies’ – it really is that anodyne.

For what it’s worth (very little) the chapter also calls for:

  • a bit of tinkering with the existing Code of Recommended Practice on Local Government Publicity to make it bit easier for councils to tell us all how wonderful our local councils are,
  • legislation to allow councillors to participate remotely in council meetings and votes (local government by webcam),
  • greater use of the honorary position of Alderman (or Alderwoman) as an inducement for long-serving older councillors to retire and allow a bit more fresh blood to enter the system, and
  • accreditation for individuals serving in civic roles – think in terms of an NVQ in councillorship and you’ve got the general idea.

The chapter is thoroughly depressing managerialist vision of local government and utterly fails to address how to get more people to take up elected positions in local government.

No thought is given, at all, to simple democratic ideas like opening up the range of public offices subject to elections, using term limits to create a greater turnover in elected representatives or supporting political pluralism via a fairer and more representative electoral system, all of which would encourage more people to stand for public office by the simple expedient of creating many more opportunities for people to be elected to public office.

I’m sure even LibCon readers can come up with better suggestions…

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,CIC paper ,e) Briefings ,Local Government ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


1. dreamingspire

This is more and more a government dominated by people who only help themselves. And, despite Gus O’Donnell being heard this morning on BBC R4 telling the Public Accounts Cttee all about how civil servants are above politics, too many of his colleagues are equally out of touch with the way the country and the world has changed in the last 60 years. CLG, however, seems to be exceedingly out of touch, so much that one keen observer was heard to say yesterday (at a public-private forum) that he has fond memories of the days of the ODPM, despite its fumblings.

The chapter kicks off by pointing out that women, ethnic minorities and under 25’s are heavily under-represented on local councils as elected members compared to broad population demographics………
Now if I were to say such groups were heavily over-represented in making fraudulent welfare claims mugging people and stealing cars you would immediately say that this was a function of class and economic disadvantage ( Together with a raft of statistic s purporting to cast doubt on what everyone knows to be true in New Labour stylee no doubt ). That being the case why make any special provision for ethnic groups .We know white boys are going worse at school and the gap between them and effniks is growing . You may want local councils to look like Benetton commercial but as a taxpayer I would say that this objective , the time and hob knobs consumed in its pursuit and the endless guff vomited up was a waste of money. That money would infinitely better spent taking my rubbish away , the sort of simple quantifiable task which no-one ever manages to achieve .
I`ll tell you who has no representation in either local or national government ( wags finger menacingly ) , and who does not have time for campaigning and otherwise infesting the media space ; it ordinary tax paying family bread winners ! How many of them do you think you will find on the Council .Bugger all is the answer ! The same is true throughout the system with the inevitable result that they end up getting royally screwed. I especially enjoy the sight of teachers who work part time spending my money on long holidays campaigning for more of my money chuckling gaily the over chardonnay by their caravans .

The last thing differently pigmented need is whiny Liberals telling them its everyone’s lese fault and I speak as the husband and father of four mixed race subjects of her Majesty .

I think the central problem with the CLG is that while the policy makers like the whole idea of the perceived legitimacy that goes with the word ‘democracy’, what they dislike is the idea that in a democracy the people have a right to disagree with them, and may well do so on many issues.

Tony Benn posed 5 key questions that citizens should ask about those who hold public office, which should always be at the forefront of this kind of debate:

1. What power have you got?
2. Where did you get it from?
3. In whose interest do you exercise it?
4. To whom are you accountable?
5. How can we get rid of you?

He also said

“Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation “.

5. David Boothroyd

While subjecting more public offices to open elections is a good thing, please note that there are associated problems. Look for example at the LGA’s horrified reaction to the direct elections of police authorities.

Term limits however are the negation of democracy. They prevent a community having a free choice of its representative. The Welsh Assembly’s scheme of bribing long-serving councillors to stand down did actually work quite effectively.

There is no reason to suppose that electoral reform would make the representatives chosen a more diverse group than under first past the post. This is another unfortunate example of the belief by some that electoral reform would be a miracle cure for every ill in Britain.

I should add that I’ve written a review for Lib Con of a new Civitas pamphlet on Direct Democracy by Nick Cowan, who also wrote the pamphlet on lessons we could learn from the Swedish education system, which should appear once we’ve got this CIC stuff done and dusted, and without wishing to gut Nick’s work for ideas before the review is posted, some of the stuff I’ve got in mind would include:

1. Getting rid of the infernal Standards Board for England.

Existing local standards committees are more than satisfactory for deal with minor infractions against a councillors code of conduct, which should be drawn up locally, while, for more serious allegations I’d reintroduce the use of grand juries, as I would for investigations into complaints of serious misconduct against senior council officers and other high level local public officials.

2. An expansion in the number of elected offices just below (and just above for that matter) the level of a local authority councillor.

So, we’d be looking at transferring the governance of LEAs to locally elected school boards, elected local police committees, more parish councils and elected local committees, etc.

As a broad policy, I’d be looking for a default position in which any local non-departmental body that has spending powers, which pulls in all the local regeneration bodies and a fair bit of other stuff, should have a minimum 51% directly elected local members on their governing body.

3. Introduce term limits for most local elected offices.

This would prove problematic in many areas under the present system where its a councillor or nothing, but would present few, if any, problems if you have a much wider range of elected local offices providing scope for a kind of ‘career’ progression as you’ll find in parts of the US where some people do start out on a local school board and then work their way up the system to a seat in the State legislature or the Federal House of Representatives.

I’m sure others can throw a few more ideas of this kind into the pot, but this should illustrate the kind of thing I’m looking for in terms of taking Thomas’ original point on board about trying to be constructive.

Term limits however are the negation of democracy. They prevent a community having a free choice of its representative.

You mean a free choice of the representatives chosen for them by a ‘selectorate’ that, in some council wards, can amount to no more than 20-30 people at most – providing that regional office hasn’t stuck its oar in.

8. douglas clark

Unity,

CIC: Why don’t more people get into politics?

I genuinely admire your fervour. It just does not seem to be shared, much. If the point of the paper was to engage people it is a complete, utter fail. Which is what you said here:

As for the rest of the chapter, I’d guess that most of it has been culled from ‘Managerialism for Dummies’ – it really is that anodyne.

People can see that. I know thee and me have tried to take it to bits, have taken it to bits. But the chap on the Clapham Omnibus isn’t even listening to this nonsensical bullshit. He is already alienated from newspeak, he already knows that all governments do is produce bullshit like this. He is already disempowered and probably going home to watch Strictly Come Dancing and think, when Rachel Stevens wins, that he is entitled to feel good about himself.

Your calls are not free.

We are a listless bunch of humanity so we are.

One of your better posts by the way.

9. David Boothroyd

What is your criticism? If they are the people who turn up to select the candidates and no others do, then they are the people who get to select the candidates. Unlike the USA, there is no privilege for the political parties in actually getting onto the ballot; any independent only has to find ten supporters to stand.

You did not answer the point, which is this. If the entire electorate wishes to be represented by a particular candidate, who is otherwise qualified, why should the fact that this candidate has been representing them for a long time previously be a disqualification?

Term limits might have some logic in the USA where the power wielded by a representative is directly linked to their seniority, but in the UK it isn’t. Term limits deny the electorate the free choice of who is to represent them and that is why they are the negation of democracy.

I agree with David on term limits. I actually think the idea of making alderman/woman a more coveted position might succeed in getting some of the people who stubbornly cling on when they’re well past it to stand down – because I know what these people are like!

I’d like to sound a warning against the idea of career progression in elected office, because that would reinforce the trend that is emerging in Britain towards having career politicians. It tends to prevent people from standing for a higher level of office because they’re deemed not to have the experience, whereas in my view experience of politics should be a secondary consideration and what background/experience of life the candidate has should be a primary one.

At the risk of thread derailing, I genuinely believe there is no better solution than gender, race or class-based shortlisting.

And by the same logic, the deselection of the sitting councillor by their political party can also be characterised as a negation of democracy.

As mentioned above, term limits only present a problem due to paucity of public offices open to election, a problem which can be resolved to a considerable extent by opening up new tiers of elected positions both below the level of a local authority councillor (devolving political power downwards to a more local level) and above (bringing agencies that operate at regional and sub-regional levels under the control of directly elected bodies).

It should come as no great surprise that councillors are desperate to cling on to what they’ve got like grim death when there are so few alternatives open to them, but that situation can easily be changed by creating a greater range of alternatives and decentralising political power.

Unity, I think you’re being too optimistic about the motives of sitting councillors.

Councillors are much more likely to hang on because their faction in their group will be one short if they retire, or because the longer you’re a councillor the more casework you’ve done for people, the more people know you and the bigger a personal vote you have (which disincentives your party membership from picking someone else). Once councillors are past it, they’re unlikely to go for higher office where there’s a risk they won’t get it. Their perception of risk/reward is likely to keep them in the councillor’s role even were there other options available.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t open up other positions that are currently unelected to elections. It does mean that we should do it on a case-by-case basis on the merits of each case and not to create a career ladder. (And we certainly shouldn’t create any positions for the sake of it.)

I actually think the idea of making alderman/woman a more coveted position might succeed in getting some of the people who stubbornly cling on when they’re well past it to stand down – because I know what these people are like!

So do I (know what they’re like), and unless you also attach a financial allowance to such positions you’ll still have a great deal of difficulty in shifting many of them –

-and let’s be honest here and make the point, also, that its often the case that the internal politics of a local party has a considerable amount to do with why some of the ‘past-it’s’ continue to cling to positions like limpits, or should we not admit that there are some seriously piss-poor councillors out there who remain in position only because of their support for a particular individual or faction within the local group.

I’d like to sound a warning against the idea of career progression in elected office, because that would reinforce the trend that is emerging in Britain towards having career politicians.

On the contrary – outside the Westminster bubble, which tends to farm its next generation out to think-tanks and NGOs or employ them within the party machine, the trend towards career politicians is largely being driven by the proliferation of paid governance positions in non-departmental spending bodies, positions that are often hoovered up by councillors who successfully manufacture a near full-time career by mixing and matching their elected position with 2-3 unelected, paid, non-executive offices.

Even without taking into account the increase levels of allowances paid to councillors holding cabinet/senior committee positions, its perfectly possible for some of them to generate an annual income in excess of £25-30K a year just from pulling down non-executive positions which carry allowances of £5-6K a year for a 2-3 day commitment a month to go with what they get just for being a councillor.

Making those positions subject to open elections doesn’t prevent someone making a career out of local politics but it does mean that they have to win more than just the one election to do it.

I agree with you about the route most career politicians take – but don’t you think it would be worse if you had to win a series of elections before becoming an MP? It would basically guarantee that every MP had had exactly the same range of life experiences before becoming an MP.

Who says that anyone has to win a series of elections before becoming an MP?

If anything, the ‘no experience’ argument presents an even stronger barrier when opportunities to gain experience are so limited.

The mere fact that you have a range of elected positions at different levels which some could parley into a long-term political career in no sense precludes the brightest and the best from making their way to the top in double quick time.

Give or take any remaining minimum age limits on certain offices – which should be removed anyway- there’s absolutely no reason why someone couldn’t enter the system at the bottom by running for a school board or local committee, prove themselves to be an effective campaigner in the process and then be quickly fast-tracked by their party towards standing for election to a higher level position.

What I’m arguing is that in the American system the experience argument is more prevalent in political discourse precisely because they have the system you’re arguing for. In our political discourse it isn’t so prevalent and I want to keep it that way.

If you really want more diverse REPRESENTATIVES in PROPORTION to the electorate then the answer is in those words – PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION.

How do I know it will work? Just look to countries that have it – we don’t even need to go abroad – the PR elected Scottish Parliament has 50% women and is more representative of class, age and race than first-past-the-post Westminster, ditto PR elected Wales and London and the UK reps for the Euro Parliament.

We also wouldn’t need any of these obtuse anti-democratic sticking plasters of all-women-shortlists and minority shortlists and term limits and other such guff that causes all sorts of other problems and not surprisingly bad feeling amongst those discriminated against and devalues the achievements of those discriminated in favour.

18. Iain Coleman

And by the same logic, the deselection of the sitting councillor by their political party can also be characterised as a negation of democracy.

No, thats entirely wrong. A sitting councillor who is deselcted by their local party can still be chosen by the elcetorate as their representative by standing as an independent. A recent example that I know of is Cllr John Hipkin of Cambridge City Council.

We are rapidly approaching a situation in which for an individual to engage in political activity, in any sense that might be comprehensible to the Third Charter, is not a particularly bright thing to do

Lawyers select the ‘management’ from among their own inclusive ‘sect’

The rest of us are left to the sort of people about whom the less said is the better

The sooner this One-Party Zimbabwe gets a chili-pepper right up its money-maker the better, ‘n all

In the US ‘business’ is seen as the true, and only, creative force


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New blog post: CIC: Why don’t more people get into politics? http://tinyurl.com/ckhm94





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