Behind the stats about what the local election results mean for Labour nationally is the reality this week of hundreds of new Labour councillors getting to grips with their new roles. I was elected a year ago, and with only 16% of councillors nationally aged under 45 and only around 40% female, it’s fair to say I’m in a minority as a 32-year-old woman. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my first year and feel I’ve managed to combine it with a full-time job and a life outside politics. But it’s been a steep learning curve, so in the spirit of advice-giving, I thought I’d share, as it were, everything I know about local representation (after 12 months).
Firstly, be clear how much time you have for the role and what your priorities are. Contrary to perceptions, you can combine being a councillor with a full-time job and/or childcare responsibilities, but it’s a question of degree. The role can mean everything from leading your local authority to being an opposition backbencher focusing on your ward, with a commensurate sliding scale of time commitments. I sit on a scrutiny committee and have a role in our shadow cabinet, and the rise of hybrid working has made this easier; I can take a Teams call with officers during my lunch break or work from home before an evening meeting. But just being an effective and responsive local councillor is a vital civic role, so don’t feel pressured to take on a hundred extra commitments if you aren’t able to.
Local government has a crisis of representation, with the average age of a councillor still 60 (!) at last count, which can only change if the workload is manageable around other commitments. It’s hard to be exact, but I think a requisite amount of casework, canvassing and council meetings can take fewer than ten hours a week – which incidentally is the amount of time I used to spend commuting pre-pandemic. Most additional commitments are for a year at a time, so it’s possible to take on bigger responsibilities some years, and step back in others, depending on what else you have going on.
Secondly, it’s more important to respond to constituents regularly than immediately. Occasional crises will pop up that need immediate action, but don’t feel you should be on call 24/7. Set yourself a target for responding to emails and stick to it – I try to respond in batches once or twice a week. Nail down some dates and locations for surgeries as soon as you can, and be proactive about advertising them locally – not just on social media or through leaflets, but ideally on public noticeboards and through official council communications. People should know who you are and how to contact you.
Your working relationship with your fellow ward councillors will make a huge difference to your experience and your ability to get things done. Wards have two or three councillors so the work can be spilt; take the time now to discuss with them who will lead on different issues and how you will support each other. Keep a log of casework so you can see who is responding to which issues and ensure you aren’t duplicating the workload. There’s no need for all of you to attend every residents’ meeting (unless you really want to!). Play to each other’s strengths and interests.
A large part of the job is understanding how to navigate the council’s complex bureaucracy for the benefit of residents. Like any politician, your power lies in your platform, your understanding of a system and how you argue your case – so whether it’s fixing potholes or persuading the council to change a strategy on something, half the battle is in knowing who to speak to. Sometimes officers do fall short, and it’s your role to push them to do better, but most are just trying to get their jobs done, so don’t let the minor power of your position turn you into local government’s very own Dominic Raab. You’ll get more done if you work with them constructively.
Try and make friends in the group, even if, this being the Labour Party, not everyone corresponds to your exact ideological disposition. One of the joys of being involved in local politics is getting to know people in your community from different backgrounds and life stages – as a new councillor, you will (hopefully!) be bursting with enthusiasm and new ideas, but your colleagues who’ve been there since before Clause IV was abolished will have a huge amount of knowledge you can learn from too. Council meetings tend to go more quickly when there’s the promise of a pint or two afterwards, and you often find out as much in the pub as during a group meeting. Make the effort to accept social invitations at least occasionally, or take the initiative to issue them yourself.
You will have a small budget, known as NCIL (Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy) to fund improvements to your ward. No one will explain how much NCIL you have, what you can use it for or how to bid for funding, but start thinking about what you’d like to use NCIL for now, and hopefully within a year you’ll have managed to secure some funding. There are also a surprising number of funding streams for community initiatives, so get to know local community groups, and do some research about how you might be able to support them.
Lastly, full council meetings are not where the work of local government really takes place or where anyone’s mind is changed. Increasingly (much like in parliament), the real audience isn’t in the council chamber, but on social media. If you aren’t in administration, your best bet to get the council to act is through the mechanics of cabinet questions or by working cross-party on initiatives. Yes, this can mean working with Tories. Some of them (whisper it) can be alright.
Overall, I’ve found being a councillor a rewarding way to get more involved in my community, to help people and to grow professionally. It doesn’t have to take over your entire life, and you can combine it with being a reasonably normal person (or normal for someone in politics). As with any role, your confidence will grow with experience, and it’s normal to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing at the start. So don’t feel daunted by this new responsibility, but do take every opportunity to learn more. So at the end of the first week for our new councillors, I’d like to say congratulations on your well-deserved victories, and good luck!
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