I am of the belief that there is something truly romantic in being a local councillor. It sounds like something ripped out of the historiographical works of Macaulay or the poetry of Kipling. You stand in a small, intimate election that requires you to win the confidence of your closest neighbours. You attend meetings that are probably held in an ancient town hall in a cobbled square. It is there that you represent those who elected you at the lowest, least glamorous, level of elected government; carrying on an ancient and peculiarly British tradition. You can almost hear ‘Jerusalem’ playing on an untuned organ. It’s warming, patriotic; if a tad archaic.
Sadly, local Councils take a very different form. I learnt this first hand several months ago when I found myself to be one of the youngest Councillors in the country. All my life I had heard my townsmen complain over pints and the local newspaper ‘I wish someone would do something about that bloody Council.’ So I put myself forward to stand in a by-election. My romanticism was quickly rationalised when the turnout was read aloud. Only 16% had bothered to turn up. My opponents; Labour and the British Empire Party, hadn’t bothered to turn up either. No matter how much people moan about local politics, they don’t seem to care enough to vote.
My Kipling poem view was reduced to the most boring Orwell essay ever by the time my first Full Council meeting drew to a close. I was surrounded by councillors who I knew were card holding activists for parties that would never be elected, but had deceived the public by running on an independent ballot. Clearly attaching themselves to a party would be telling the public too much. I learnt that the role of Town Mayor hadn’t been elected for many years, and was instead co-opted; passed around to whoever happened to want it. Some of the councillors around me had been elected for almost ten consecutive elections, despite holding very little favour with the public. I watched as they huffed and swatted down legitimate concerns raised by the people they were elected to serve, all whilst they treated taxpayer money as a vanity fund to up their popularity. I was sneered at when I voted against budget raises; and when I stood up to talk I was quickly ushered down in a chorus of grunts and deep exhales. I was told not to ‘say something I might regret’. These scenes are regular ones at Council meetings across the country. The people of Britain are being consistently let down by their Councillors. Think about it, how many times have you heard someone say something positive about their local government?
What’s happened to my hymn lyric view of local government? Apathy. Apathy has turned local government into a pool of unaccountable and sneering retirees looking to self-aggrandise. So few people vote in local elections now, it’s incredibly easy to get yourself elected with almost no scrutiny, and then stay there, despite how you perform. We can and should care an awful lot more about who we elect into office. Whilst it may feel unimportant, let’s not forget that councils are responsible for £173 billion of taxpayer money every year. Can we really risk not having a say in who handles that money? Apparently so. Turnout among those who didn’t utilise a postal vote was an appalling 27% in 2016’s local elections. Our refusal to turn out and apply pressure to local governments via the ballot box is a proxy depopulation of wards; they have become rotten. These ‘Rotten Parishes’, much like the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ that were removed in the 1832 Great Reform Act, have so few people actually voting that awful and unrepresentative candidates slip through the net and gain office with ease. It’s outrageous that it’s happening, and even more outrageous that we are letting it happen. This is a beast of our own making. We need a Great Reform for the 21st century; we need to stop complaining, and start voting.
The whiggish, dreamy vision of old stonework Town Halls and noble servants of the people is achievable. We just need to demand something better. We need to realise that we can complain all we want, words are cheap. Unless we are prepared to stand as candidates ourselves, knock on doors, and most importantly get off our arses on election day; then what more can we realistically expect other than a mediocre and inept council? If the youth want to be better represented, if mothers want better parks for their children, if you think you pay too much council tax, if the roads are laden with holes and loose tarmac; you can do something about it. You have something incredibly powerful. You have a vote. The onus is on us to quell Rotten Parishes. It’s time for us to snatch back our councils, and to do that we must wield the ballot box as a weapon of redemption.