We are not courtiers and cronies. The case for Political Assistants
As the Chairman of the Conservative Political Assistants' Network (CPON), which represents the 70-or-so Conservative Political Assistants in local government, I read Cllr Harry Phibbs' recent piece on political advisors with interest – as well as the ensuing comments - and was concerned at the apparent ignorance that still prevails amongst Conservative ranks about the work of Political Assistants.
Cllr. Phibbs has therefore, very generously, given me space to provide a bit more background, and to put the case for Political Assistants.
In the first instance, Cllr. Phibbs' description of "courtiers and cronies" bore no resemblance to Political Assistants. I would not like to surmise why Hammersmith & Fulham had originally employed so many advisors - nor am I suggesting Cllr. Phibb's criticism of the advisors extended to Political Assistants - but these 'advisors' were certainly not Political Assistants. We are a different breed entirely and should not be tarred with the same brush.
The role of local government political assistants was formalised under Margaret Thatcher's premiership in 1989. Concerns about "jobs for the boys" led to government legislation being introduced to combat these worries. As a result, the role of the Political Assistant was politically restricted and their pay capped by statue.
If a council wanted to appoint political researchers, they could not just do it to benefit the ruling group – there had to be one for each of the three largest parties, providing that they had at least 10% of the council's membership.
Today, Political Assistants play an important role in supporting councillors to run efficient and effective councils. In my role at Tameside Council, I support the Conservative Leader and his Group of ten. In other local authorities, a political assistant may be employed to support a group of 40, 50 or even 60 councillors. Compare this to a single backbench MP, who may employ three or four researchers.
In recent weeks, Cllr. Phibbs has brought to light of Gloucestershire County Council's policy to fund an extra 63 police officers for the county. This is a general policy idea that was born amongst CPON members back in 2002. As a former Special Constable, I could see the value for money that this idea could offer, in comparison to expensive warden schemes.
This was an idea that gained credence amongst CPON members, one of whom was (and still is) Gloucestershire's brilliant Richard Coates. When Gloucestershire Conservatives seized control in 2005, it was a pledge they pursued and have now implemented. While all credit has to go to Gloucestershire Conservatives for their bold vision, it is of immense satisfaction to know that the earliest discussions of this idea took place within CPON's ranks.
Amongst CPON members there are no "courtiers or cronies" that I am aware of, nor are there any "jobs for the boys". Many Political Assistants come from a research background as opposed to a political one. Indeed, I was appointed to my role at Tameside Council with no previous political experience. Greater importance was placed on my research skills and my first-rate local knowledge rather than political experience.
Furthermore, CPON is proudly independent from the Conservative Party. The network acts as a forum where political assistants are free to discuss policy and ideas free from political interference, so that we may provide advice and guidance to our political masters that is balanced and thorough.
There are certainly those who don't like the role of Political Assistants. In my experience this is either down to an individual's simple lack of knowledge about our role, or their inherent distrust of council officers. There is this vague thought that we are using the role as a springboard to scale the Machiavellian heights. It's utter nonsense. The reality is that the vast majority of political assistants are honest, hard-working council employees; who work long hours and provide excellent research support for their local groups, for relatively low pay and no political reward.
For more information about CPON and the work of Political Assistants, please visit www.cpon.info.