Sunday, 20 January 2013

Pots, kettles and an unseemly squabble about expenses

Conservative Party co-chairman Grant Shapps has attacked a report calling for the allowances paid to councillors to be increased as a way of encouraging more people to take part in local politics as a ‘cynical and sleazy’ attempt to benefit Labour.

The report was produced by the communities and local government select committee, chaired, you might have guessed, by Labour MP Clive Betts. Amongst other things it recommends that political parties do more to support councillors and that the Local Government Association’s ‘Be a Councillor’ programme be expanded.

Mr Shapps condemned the rules obliging Labour councillors to pay part of their allowance to the party, saying that ‘local taxpayers’ would be ‘shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids in from demands for more taxpayer’s money to be used fro councillor’s allowances.’ In my experience many local taxpayers would be shocked to learn they’ve even got a councillor so low have levels of political engagement sunk.

Clive Betts refuted these claims saying the committee had found politicians ‘achieve more when they work together’ and the public were turned off by ‘shallow point scoring.’

Quite so; which means he probably wasn’t all that glad to see Labour Party vice chair Michael Dugher riding to his defence by, erm, scoring a few cheap political points; oops.

He laid into the Tories, accusing them of ‘hypocrisy’ and drew attention to Tory councillors in Walsall who had recently voted to increase their allowances. Warming to his theme he asked if ‘Grant Shapps will now call on Conservative councillors to hand back their allowances.’

The phrase ‘calm down dears’ springs instantly to mind; this seems like one of those squabbles between the kettle and the pot that nobody ever wins, but manage to leave all concerned looking foolish. No wonder the public find such things a turn off, I’m inclined to reach for the off switch myself and I’m actually interested in politics.

There is clearly something rotten in the state of local government, turn-outs at elections are dwindling, it’s ever harder for parties to find willing candidates and those who do come forward are seldom of high quality. I’m not sure that simply paying councillors more is the answer though.

A straightforward rise in the level of allowance paid coming at a time when most councils are cutting services to the bone would be deeply unpopular. Trying to sneak some extra cash in through the expenses system is a non starter too; that was tried years ago when MPs were, relatively, underpaid and created the culture of fiddling that caused such a scandal in 2009.

The idea that the three parties should do more to support their councillors is not an entirely good one either. They can certainly provide the training needed to make a good councillor into an outstanding one; but the downside is that it will further wrest control over who gets to be a candidate in the first place from the hands of local activists.

This will result in the mavericks, the paid up members of the awkward squad who seem like trouble makers at the time only to be proved right a few years hence being pushed even further to the sidelines. Their place will be taken by the eager battalion of men and women with elastic principles for whom the town hall is just a stepping stone to Westminster. All of which is just about the last thing out sickly local government system needs right now.

What is needed isn’t the sort of mild reform proposed by commons select committees so much as a total transformation in how local government works. A new deal where power over who stands as a candidate is returned to grassroots party members, with the trade off being that any allowance beyond what is needed to cover loss of earnings disappears. Councils need both the money saved itself and the influx of people for whom politics is a calling not a lucrative sideline.

Sadly none of this will come to pass because the three main parties long ago turned themselves first brands and then ‘ghost brands’ kept alive by a trickle of votes when what we most need them to be is agents of real change.

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