Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
When the returning officer reads out your name as the duly elected Member of Parliament for the aforesaid constituency, there is a moment of elation and exhilaration quickly followed by anticipation of exciting things to come. For many MPs, though, this moment of triumph will not have been their first at an election count, given the now well-established trend where a near majority of MPs have already been elected as local councillors previously. A locally elected background can be an excellent apprenticeship for national politics – I had served three years as a Bradford councillor before winning Shipley at the 1997 General Election. But if you imagine that going from local to national government is an exponential leap into greater complexity, tougher debate, or higher-stakes intrigue, you would be wrong. In my view, there is almost the same amount of these characteristics within a city council as in the House of Commons. Ultimately, the rules of office politics apply to all institutions, pretty much regardless of their scale or stature. So the political dynamics, inter-party relationships and success criteria that operate within local government are a perfect training ground for the Parliamentary experience.
There are many reasons to hope that parliamentarians do not forget their roots. Councillor surgeries, while not as well attended as MP case surgeries, do give a good grounding in the breadth of problems and difficulties encountered by the general public on a daily basis – and these anecdotal learning experiences really do help inform the judgements made by our politicians. It matters where our parliamentarians cut their political teeth, because real life doesn’t occur in the Commons debating chamber – it is out in our neighbourhoods and streets where public policy should be devised and applied.
All constituency MPs have to work with their local authorities and ward councillors, often (and increasingly) of a different political hue. Councils are now motivated not just by good practice, but also by the expectations of the ‘Comprehensive Performance Assessment’ inspection, to have healthy dialogue with their local parliamentarians. In many parts of the country, Council Leaders and Chief Executives have monthly meetings with MPs to thrash out the latest local difficulties and plan for bids to nationwide regeneration funds or to lobby Ministers. These relationships can sometimes be strained, but for towns and cities – especially outside London – there are good examples of campaigns that have been won or lost because of the unity (or disunity) of those elected for that area. For instance, the Liverpool MPs coming together with the local council helped clinch their 2008 City of Culture bid, or the Yorkshire MPs fighting successfully for coalfield community regeneration monies.
So partnership is essential, but so is empowering local communities themselves. At the New Local Government Network, we believe that Whitehall powers need to be devolved where possible, and policy-making routinely better informed by the local experience. This is why I propose bringing a stronger localist voice into Parliament, perhaps using House of Lords reform as a vehicle for setting aside a good portion of seats in a new second chamber for more legitimate, democratically selected local government representatives as happens in upper houses of other European countries. In this way, we shrink the distance between Westminster and our neighbourhoods while simultaneously improving the accountability of our revising chamber in a way that preserves Commons supremacy. However we achieve it, central decision-making must become smarter, letting go of authority and trusting localities to deliver results where it can. Of course national politicians need to oversee broad standards and minimum levels of service and expectation, but the details and shape of public services are usually best worked out to fit local circumstances. These are the aspirations for healthy central-local relations, and our best politicians are those who can recognise when to take responsibility, and when to let go.