Thursday, 5th May at 7am begins the latest round of local elections. But what are these local council elections for?
Over the last 4 years or so, I’ve become more and more intrigued about the role of the local Councillor. Prior to that, I have to admit, I would just vote on the basis of my prefered political party, knowing not a thing about what these local Councillors did or what difference it made to me. More recently, I have come to realise that local Councillors hold incredibly important and influential positions which directly affect the local area they represent and the everyday life of those living in it.
General elections are easy to vote in. You believe in one set of party politics or another. Or perhaps something in the middle or independent. You are not (as with our American cousins) voting for a Prime Minister or a figure-head to lead. Each political party votes for it’s own leader in which the public has little say (unless you become a member of the party as was the rush in 2015 to join the Labour Party in order to vote for the leader) and subsequently the public, as long as they are registered and eligible to vote, vote for the part they wish to lead the country.
Local elections – well, I think they are different.
There is an incredibly detailed and informative 12 page document on www.local.gov.org which explains exactly who can, and how to, become a local Councillor. It’s a piece written with flair and passion and really encourages engagement in the local community. At it’s heart, it champions the principle of ‘doing’ – of actually helping local people with the things that they need help with. Not just about representing a political group or organisation:
“What matters to you in your local area? Is it the state of the local park, the need for more activities for young people, improving services for older people, making the roads safer or ensuring that local businesses can thrive?” Opening extract from ‘Stand for what you believe in. Be a Councillor,’ http://www.beacouncillor.org
This, for me, is what local council elections are all about. Folk living in your neighbourhood who want to make it a better place for everyone. The political party they represent may be incidental. If they are working hard to make a real difference to everyday lives then I think that’s what we are being asked consider when we vote in a local council election.
Councillors are also instrumental in decision-making on local government policy. It is local Councillors who scrutinise Council decisions and ask questions on our behalf. They need to be able to understand complex legal and financial matters and make decisions on whether they think our best interests are being met. They also need to be able to explain to us, and answer questions about, these processes should we ask them to.
‘What is expected of a councillor? The councillor’s role and responsibilities include: • representing the ward for which they are elected • decision-making • developing and reviewing council policy • scrutinising decisions taken by the councillors on the executive or cabinet • regulatory, quasi-judicial and statutory duties • community leadership and engagement.’ extract from ‘Stand for what you believe in. Be a Councillor,’ http://www.beacouncillor.org
And it doesn’t stop there…
‘Most councillors hold regular drop-in surgeries each month. Surgeries are a chance for residents to meet you and discuss their problems or concerns. You may also need to spend time visiting constituents in their homes. On top of this you will be dealing with letters, emails and phone calls from constituents. When dealing with casework or council business you may need to meet with council staff. These meetings, and any visits to council offices, may need to take place during the working day. extract from ‘Stand for what you believe in. Be a Councillor,’ http://www.beacouncillor.org
It’s my feeling that Councillors shouldn’t just expect our vote because they are part of a political party that we may believe in or voted for previously. The Councillor role is much more than that. It’s about what happens in our neighbourhood everyday – Councillors have the power to change or influence those things that are important to us. We trust that they will be there when we need them – on the end of the phone, answering an email or at a surgery session. We trust that they have the correct information to hand or know where to get it. We trust that they want to, and are able to, ‘do the right thing’. We trust that they will represent us with honesty and integrity and uphold the Local Councillor’s Code of Conduct.
That simple black cross you place on the ballot paper on Thursday is of great significance. It represents freedom, choice and integrity, not just a political preference. It’s an opportunity for a Councillor to represent you and your interests because they believe in you and your community.