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Christina Dykes: Let's treat councillors as politicians

Christina Dykes, who worked as the Leadership Centre’s special adviser on the Conservative Party, is the joint author with Paul Scully, the PPC for Sutton and Cheam, of Tomorrow’s Councillor: Walking Tall. She says councillors should be treated with greater respect

Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 19.05.37A disappointed Alexis McEvoy knew who to blame for the loss of her county council seats last Thursday: it was the Government. The electors had a message for the Government whose members, she wrote in the Daily Telegraph, were “arrogant, out of touch and because of them many good councillors have now been lost."

I live in south Hampshire and I can vouch that Mrs McEvoy is indeed energetic, well known locally and determined.  But she lost.  She lost because the political mood was against her as a Conservative.  She was associated with problems for which she is not responsible and about which she can do nothing: that is, she is seen part of a political class which is out of step with the hopes and fears of many of its core voters.

Some Conservative councillors would have lost their seats last Thursday because they deserved it through their own indifference and ineffectiveness. But what the results show is that Conservative councillors are seen as political agents of their Party and will be judged as such.  What the councillors themselves know, and what so embittered Mrs McEvoy is that the Party pays little heed to councillors as politicians, and that the culture within Conservative ranks does not encourage a coherent effort from pavement to Parliament.

In the report that we publish this morning we warn that tackling this failure is critical to the future success or failure of the Conservative election outcome.   

Too often politics is seen only as battle of ideas (policy).  But important though it is to have a ruling political philosophy, it is not enough.  Any well-run organisation knows success, or failure, depends on having systems (process), and people (workforce), to implement the strategies to win the argument (or market).  This is what is wrong with modern politics.  Policy making is seen as the holy grail almost to the exclusion of process and workforce.  There is insufficient attention given to ensuring that there are well-oiled processes to ensure those in charge of setting the direction know the weather, while the workforce are too often left in ignorance of where they are going. 

This is the bind that Conservative councillors found themselves in last Thursday.  They are in many ways the workforce of the Party, but they are not treated as such.

Paul Scully and I, with valuable support, spent months listening to Conservative Councillors.   Our conclusions, based on what we heard, are written up in the report Download Tomorrow's Councillors, Walking Tall, pub;ished by the Leadership Centre.  The bottom line is that, if councillors are to be the political force that drives through localism, and if they are to be effective in communicating Party’s policies, they should be treated as politicians.   They deserve better systems of selection, preparation and support from the Party. Above all, they should treated as key players on the political stage and not just the chorus line. 

Instead of setting up yet another body of MPs to act as advisers, why doesn’t the Prime Minister encourage Councillor leaders to sit along side them?  Why can’t leading councillors be sent the Party briefing that is sent to weekly to backbench MPs and PPCs?  How can it be Ministers visit local areas sometimes without the Conservative group Leader knowing about it?  Why don’t the names of our leading councillors appear on the Conservative Party web-site alongside those of MPs and PPCs?  The Conservative Party needs to get over its hierarchical instincts and start acting, right now, as a coherent team so that all members are respected for their role. 


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