By Paul Wheeler
Local democracy, or the combination of local political intelligence provided by elected councillors and high-quality service delivery provided by professional managers, is one of the most effective forms of local governance.
The three main political parties in England provide over 95 per cent of all councillors. At a local level the parties jealously guard their independence and powers of selection from outside influence, including their own national parties.
This project aims to persuade political parties to take the issue of local councillor selection more seriously, and to provide examples of local initiative by political parties and effective examples of ‘talent scouting’ by other organisations that recruit ‘civic governors’, such as health and housing trusts.
The project will focus exclusively on possible improvements to the recruitment and selection of councillors but also acknowledges that other factors, such as the existing powers and funding arrangements of local councils, may well influence the willingness of many to become councillors.
The existing selection processes of all the main parties are similar in that they operate a ‘closed selection’ with a preference for existing active members. The system does have merits, as it focuses on the party connection of local councillors, encourages complex leadership rather than simple advocacy and has provided a number of excellent political leaders.
However, the existing selection systems fail to provide a diversity of candidates with a severe bias towards white, middle-aged, male candidates. There are also related problems with the reputation and visibility of local politics. As the exclusive source of candidates, political parties, with declining and ageing memberships and limited resources, cannot provide a range of candidates, offer effective role models or effectively challenge the performance of existing councillors.
Political experience in other parts of Europe indicates similar problems but with a much greater willingness to challenge them. More political parties operate voluntary quotas and in a number of countries there are also statutory quotas for all parties. In France the introduction of statutory quotas in 2001 increased the number of women councillors from 25 to 47.5 per cent in one election.
In England the recruitment of civic governors has also addressed the issue of diversity more positively. A number of organisations have run imaginative targeted campaigns to increase the number of people under 40, women and those from ethnic minorities. These organisations are more willing to positively profile the role of their civic governors and provide clear descriptions of the work and time involved.
If the political parties are willing to change, there is a five-point plan that can assist them to attract a wider group of active citizens willing to be councillors and also to more effectively promote and define councillor roles.
- Open recruitment for candidates going beyond the activist member base and looking at both ‘talent spotting’ and direct advertising. The opportunity for ‘political group reviews’ to bring advice and guidance to the party selection process in each locality and to examine the support that local authorities can offer to elected councillors. Open recruitment will lead to consequential changes to the screening process for all existing candidates and a clearer definition of the time required to be an effective member, and will provide ‘performance pressure’ on existing councillors.
- Party selection: a willingness to consider changes to the present selection rules, at both councillor selection and nominations to executive positions, to ensure that selection is based on merit and that small and possibly unrepresentative groups do not dominate selection meetings. A willingness by political parties to consider voluntary changes to their selection processes to improve diversity of the councillor population.
- ‘Roles and responsibilities’ – selling and defining the role more effectively: the need to define more clearly the role of councillors at a non-executive and executive level, and the skills needed to perform these roles effectively. Such definition will allow the councillor roles to be better promoted. The political parties can learn from other sectors in positive promotion of the governance role and help sell the role as ‘political entrepreneurs’ – activists who, with the support of their parties, can work as informed advocates for their local community and effectively support and challenge a range of local agencies.
- ‘Restoring civic pride’: a recognition that local democracy is a combination of political and civic leadership. This provides a challenge for councillors to work with a wider range of local interests and to champion the citizen over the provider. It also offers leaders the opportunity to provide effective and visible leadership for a range of local public sector agencies.
- Improving the supply of candidates of working age: discussion with business organisations and government to provide more support for candidates of working age. Draw on the experience of the Industry and Parliament Trust and trade unions in encouraging more MPs of working age. Emphasise the skills and experience gained from the role so that being a councillor becomes a ‘career enabler’
While there are several reasons why political parties will not properly define the role of councillors and advertise more widely, the consequences are damaging to local democracy. There is no self-correcting mechanism in the current party selection process. At a time of competing claims for community leadership and the need to build greater social cohesion, local government may not be able to make the best case for greater devolution of powers and funding if its councillor population continues to be drawn from a narrowing section of society.
Political parties bring many advantages to local government. If they are willing to respond to the need to be fully reflective of their local communities in the recruitment and selection process and change the perception of the role of a local councillor, they can gain access to a much greater source of local talent and provide reassurance to central government and local partners in any bid for increased powers and funding.
Download the full report: Politcal Recruitment (pdf file, 135kb)