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Labour councillors and MPs should reflect the communities they represent

PAUL DONOVAN argues that the financial barriers to becoming a councillor exclude exactly the kind of people councils need to represent

THE role of a local councillor is a strange hybrid position, caught somewhere between the voluntary and employed sectors.

Since being elected as a Labour councillor for Wanstead Village in the London Borough of Redbridge last May, the myriad nature of the role has continued to fascinate and frustrate.

On the one hand we are treated as if employed full time in the council role. For example, councillors have to book time off, if they are going to be away and not on call for residents.

In many ways of course it is a 24/7 role. Most would argue that is right, we are from the community, so must be ready to serve at all times – even when trying to catch the bus.

The public often don’t understand the role of the councillor. Some think councillors are paid huge amounts and are responsible for everything from the weather to bin collections.

It has been a dawning realisation that the role of councillor can amount to getting the blame for everything and the credit for nothing. Though how much this dynamic plays out can depend on individual councillors’ ability to communicate exactly what they are doing and why.

The officers are the full-time staff responsible for the running of the various functions of councils. The elected politicians should be representing the electorate, making the political decisions and setting the direction of travel accordingly.

The allowance paid to councillors demonstrates the hybrid nature of the role – somewhere between the voluntary and public sector. Allowances are basic when the demands are taken into account – if the councillor is doing the job properly, then they are not exorbitant.

Whilst people should not be becoming councillors for the pay, too low a level has the effect of skewing the role toward the independently wealthy and those who have retired on a pension.

These two categories can give of their time, without concern about monetary return. However, younger people with full time jobs and families to support can struggle to juggle the pennies.

I stand in admiration of Cabinet members who have challenging portfolios on the council yet hold other jobs outside.

Remuneration of councils can be a thorny topic. Councillors increasing allowances is never going to be an easy sell to the public, especially at the present austere times, with a government determined to cut council services to the bone.

Some councils have thicker skins than others, increasing allowances, sometimes disproportionately for those higher up the tree. Though recent years have seen three rounds of 1 per cent rises, with some councils cutting allowances.

In Redbridge, allowances have not increased for four years. The basic allowance for a councillor is £10,138 a year. There is another £16,000 for cabinet members. The leader gets £42,000 altogether.

That should be enough many would say but take into account the earlier arguments. The councillors I have met since being elected are all hard-working individuals. But do we reflect the demographic of the people we represent? We do have a few young members in their 20s which is excellent but there are far more over 50s (I am one).

Where are the single parents living in the poorest parts of our borough? How do these people come through the party systems to serve as councillors?

A report by the London Councils earlier this year recommended a level of £11,045 for the basic allowance and £57,000 for the leader.

The Labour Party has done more than most to advance the representation of women. The imposition of all women short lists has played a major part in increasing that representation. But the analogy mentioned above can be extended here too.

A former Labour MP I know confessed how he regretted supporting the woman who eventually succeeded him in the seat, who was middle class, well supported and able to give much time to the process of winning the position.

The individual he later felt he should have supported was a single working parent living in a sink estate. She represented an under-represented part of the population but lost out in the selection.

There certainly need to be further steps taken at local and national government levels if the Labour Party is to truly reflect the people we seek to represent.

More positive discrimination, new pay levels, care support and maybe a mentoring process could all be part of such an approach because at the moment in many ways the problem is not being addressed.

Paul blogs at www.paulfdonovan.blogspot.com

 

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