Top tips for newly elected councillors

24th May, 2014 12:59 pm

Your feet still ache, you’re sleep deprived, your phone is awash with messages of support and congratulations, many of which you haven’t yet had time to reply to, and you have to pinch yourself to believe that you are actually an elected representative of the Labour Party.  The immensity of it all hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  But after months of campaigning, seeing the same comrades day in day out, giving yourself blisters from knocking on doors, what next….?

Here are my top tips for newly elected councillors:

THANK YOU – two words, massive effect

I know you need a weekend off.  Your family haven’t seen you in weeks and you have, for the past few months, developed into a bit of a social outcast amongst your friends.  But before you do anything else you need to take time to thank the people who have supported you in your election.  Leaflets don’t magic themselves from nowhere, VI data wasn’t entered by fairies and the whole pretty torturous selection process is usually run on the backs of volunteers.  The members and supporters who have taken time out of their own lives to help you get elected did so because of a belief in you and our party, they had nothing to gain personally and have likely also sacrificed much to see you elevated to office.  You probably couldn’t have done it without them.  You’ll need them again if you seek re-election and they will be more likely to help then if they know their contribution is appreciated.  So you need to acknowledge that quickly and sincerely.   A tweet will not suffice.  You need to make personal contact to let them know it matters.

You also need to thank your community – all those Labour voters who came out to support you.  This is non-negotiable.   You stood to represent these people.  They need to know that you can be held to your word.  Do a draft leaflet, liaise with your ward colleagues, if you have some, and get it delivered ASAP (with, again, the help of those lovely members who helped get you elected!).

Have a weekend off! 

Once you’ve done those you can and should have a weekend off.  You need it physically, emotionally and for the sake of every personal relationship you have.  No phones.  No leaflets.  Quality time with your loved ones.  This is an order!

When you get to the council – take up every offer of help, support, and orientation possible to accustom yourself to your new role.  You need to know your way around and, crucially, which officers deal with what if you are to help your constituents.

Befriend your Labour Group Whip

Your Group Whip has a role that lends itself more to support for you as a councillor than simply getting you to turn up to important votes (though that is of course also what they do, they have a duty to make sure you’re there to support the Labour Group!).

The Whip should be your ‘go to’ person on your new Labour Group, your confident if you will.  Your Whip can steer you towards practical support and training, they can give you political guidance, advise you about the party’s rules and explain some of the weird traditions of council assembly.

The rule is – if in doubt – consult your Whip!

Take time to find your place in your new Labour Group

Unless you are the sole Labour Councillor in the entire council (in which case – more power to your elbow comrade!) you’ll soon find that all the fellow candidates that you’ve been out on the #LabourDoorstep with over the past few months are all now jockeying for the same few coveted positions on the newly formed Labour Group.  Your comfort blanket has been unceremoniously nabbed from under your otherwise-distracted-by–the-result nose!

As with any new team there’ll be a bit of ‘norming’, ‘storming’, ‘forming’ going on before things settle down.  Don’t be upset if you’re not elected Leader of the Group immediately…!  If you’re in a council where we’ve won a landslide it’s going to be difficult to give everyone ‘top’ jobs and more experienced councillors might legitimately think they deserve first crack of the whip on any new or higher positions.

Think carefully about the skills and experience you have and those you could develop.  Craft alliances based on what you can contribute and are interested in developing.   It would be easy to get carried away with the political machinations of what everyone else is doing but most political game-playing will only distract you from the very thing you came into politics to do – serving you constituents!  Which brings me to…

Don’t forget where you’ve come from…

When you sat in front of people like me at your long-listing interview and protested so vehemently  that you wanted to change your community for the better, we believed you.  So did those who voted for you.  One of the biggest issues in politics right now is the number of people who feel disillusioned, who feel that politics can’t make a difference and that we’re all the same.  The best way to combat that is to prove them wrong.

Ground yourself in your community.  Their issues are your issues.  Respond to people who ask for your advice or help.  Keep on top of your case work.  Be there for people – a school gates, mobile surgeries, tenants meetings and garden fetes.

Do the job that all those who voted for you thought you qualified for.

 …and remember who put you there. 

Whilst you will have now thanked the Labour members who came out to help you on the doorstep they ‘ll not be satisfied if the next time they see you is in 4 years’ time when you’re seeking re-election.  I’ve met a lot of Labour members in my CLP visits and they’re usually very interested in what their local council is doing, the difference they’re making and how they can help.  Don’t forget that you’re accountable to them.  You are never too big to go to a GC meeting to talk them through what’s going on.

Having said all of that remember you need to prioritise

It pains me to say it but your name is not Barack Obama.  You joined the party to change the world but you’re not going to be able to do it overnight.

So you need to work out how, and how best, you can make a difference to your community.  It’s not always easy if you are juggling your Council duties with paid employment.

You need to quickly work out which meetings, which events and which documents you need to read to be the best councillor for your ward.  If you read, and keep, every document you receive from the council between now and the next election you will have a) done nothing else in that time and b) have enough draft insulation material to fill an entire house.  You will, over time, find out what documents you need to keep, what events you need to attend and what meetings you absolutely have to be at.  If you’re not sure speak to your Whip or another more experienced councillor.

My last tip – share best practice.

You are first and foremost a Labour member.  Of course you want to see the best for your ward, your council and your community.  But you also want to see that for other areas across the country and I know you want a Labour Government returned in 2015.  So, if you or your council are doing something innovative and fantastic please let others know.

Labour Councillors have a dedicated voice on our National Executive Committee through their 2 representatives – Dave Sparks and Ann Lucas.  Do contact them, or me, if you want to share information or to talk about the role, influence or support for councillors across the party.

Congratulations to you all and best of luck for your new role!

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