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Why party politics has no place in local elections

April 8, 2012

Just like the by-election George Galloway last week claimed was the Bradford Spring, upcoming local elections will be seen as a yard stick for support for political parties on a national level. To many of the die-hard partisans, local elections are just the lastest poll in the build-up to the next general election. This is a great shame.

I have often bemoaned the presence of party politics at a local level and these complaints are all the more relevant at election time. The Cambridge talk on Twitter over the past few days (perhaps sparked by this blog) has been about whether the candidates for the May 3 elections in the city live in the ward they are standing in (not literally). But does that really matter when the council is run more by party politics than ward politics?

Having spent far too much time in council meetings over the past 20-or-so months, I can tell you party politics is always the over-riding motivation when it comes to voting on decisions – be it budget, planning or, well, anything. Councillors may occasionally say something which differs from their party colleagues but when it comes to voting, it is broadly done en bloc according to party concensus. So, what should electors consider when voting in local elections? Are they voting for the best person to represent their ward? The best person to get things done on a micro level (broken street lamps, traffic issues etc)? Or are they voting for a local party governed by national politics?

At councils (and on Twitter) councillors argue about party political points, especially at full council. This normally includes several references to the “ConDem” coalition and the “mess Labour left us” which make me want to jam rusty spoons into my eyeballs. If everybody who voted had to sit through at least one council meeting, I imagine the number of spoilt ballot papers were increase tenfold. They can be full of despair sometimes. But it is normally national party politics which govern the way people vote. But why should it?

  • A Conservative councillor should be no better than a Green, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP, EDL, BNP or any other party’s offering at getting traffic-calming measures put in on your street?
  • No party representative should be more able to doorknock residents and ask them what issues there are in their street?
  • No partisan councillor should be better at writing local newsletters than any other.
  • Unless of course the only councillors who could have things approved by full council are those within the leading party because party politics would other block it. In which case, everyone should vote Lib Dem.

Electors should be voting for the most proactive local representative (I would suggest these would probably be independents) but instead party politics renders local issues insignificant. Seeing as local issues are most closely debated at area committees and, in my experience, many of the smaller issues are of the “talk to me afterwards” types, party politics should have no place in electing a councillor. Unless you want your vote to be part of a broader strategy to change the party with overall power in the council, you should ignore or party-political propaganda in the run-up to May 3 because it is completely irrelevant who the best person is to represent your ward (this makes the residence of the candidate within the ward slightly more important. I think a councillor can represent an area without living there – it probably takes more work though. Cllr Dryden is best example of this as he lives outside of Cherry Hinton but I understand he does a good job representing the area’s views).

I think I had some more coherent points to make but basically party politics at a local level is destructive and renders all progressive, practical discussion pointless. Cllr John Hipkin is the only independent on the city council and his views are not governed by any party line. Subsequently, he can speak his mind and truly represent his constituents’ more-than-likely-politically-mixed views. This is what is best. I suggest for every partisan comment made by a candidate in the next few months, they are ignoring a local issue much more important.

 

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2 comments

  1. Hugh, I think you know I disagree with you about the need for party politics, but I don’t think I have ever gone into why – so here is an attempt to!

    I’m finding it really hard to know where to start, because my overall response will be coloured by where I start, so I’ll start at your end and work back!

    For any reader not aware, I should be honest and highlight that I’m a Liberal Democrat and currently the County Councillor for East Chesterton.

    1.

    “Seeing as local issues are most closely debated at area committees and, in my experience, many of the smaller issues are of the “talk to me afterwards” types, party politics should have no place in electing a councillor. ”

    This is the first example of where party politics is important: the current level of devolving of decisions to area commitees was a Lib Dem one. Labour would, traditionally and by their voting record on planning applications (they often abstain) be more likely to keep centralised control.

    To the voter, the question is: do you think the concept of more local decision making is a good thing, if so, this should colour your choice of party.

    I’m not saying this is hard and fast, I’m just pointing out that party politics does influence things like that, if that is important to you.

    2.

    “A Conservative councillor should be no better than a Green, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP, EDL, BNP or any other party’s offering at getting traffic-calming measures put in on your street?”

    You are correct, but their ideology will influence what type of traffic measures, and whether they get them or not.

    You statement would be true in the simple case where a street all wanted some traffic calming measure, came up with what they wanted themselves, and that work would have no impact on surrounding streets.

    That situation will never happen though.

    3.

    In general membership of a party, therefore a larger group of people who have “been there and done that” is a good thing: if I’d joined as an Independent (quite apart from how I would have got elected) I would have found working my way around how the COuncil (in my case County) operates MUCH harder, and consequently would not have been able to assist my residents as well.

    Having party colleagues also provides the sort of “critical friend” response that hones ideas, and consequently, improves the service the electorate get from their councillor.


  2. […] post stems from posts by Hugh Morris (Why party politics has no place in local elections) and Richard Taylor (Cambridge City Council Election Candidates May 2012) on the looming local […]



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