Blog: Political culture: managing party politics

Posted on 13/03/2020 by Ed Hammond.

This is the third in a series of blogs about political culture in local governance and scrutiny. You can find the first and second ones here. 

You can’t talk about politics without talking about political parties. Recent local elections have made us even more aware of this. More councils are under no overall control, or have changed political leadership for the first time in years, or have larger numbers of independents or smaller parties as councillors. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in the May 2020 local elections.

This has proved challenging for some in the sector. A politically stable council is, up to a point, predictable. Roles and responsibilities are likely to be reasonably well understood – driven by long-standing personal relationships. The council’s priorities, too, may be seen as clear.

A sudden shift in the political dynamic may, then, be difficult to get used to – even if the same party stays in control, with a reduced majority, after an election. Senior members and officers used to a particular type of political debate and engagement may experience challenges as they transition to working with a new reality.

We have to embrace political debate and disagreement. It is a critical part of local democracy. Often it will not feel “constructive”, and it will be frustrating. But it is a reflection of the kind of debate and discussion which happens in local communities, and within families; it is a way for us to thrash out differences in priority, focus and ideology.

How political difference and tension play out at a local level is all about the personalities of those involved, and how people’s motivations are perceived by their peers. A councillor may be seen as a “political operator”, taking advantage of the opportunity to turn events to their party’s advantage. This can cause consternation in parts of the council which may have traditionally been seen as non-partisan, like scrutiny. But for that councillor, these actions might seem a perfectly legitimate way for them to exert political opposition and get across the issues that they think most important to local people.

A frustration and lack of understanding of others’ motivations can lead to the belief that those with whom we disagree are acting in bad faith. This can afflict members and officers, and can lead to the development of toxic environments. “Robust” political debate can become a place to hide bullying, harassment and victimisation. The inherent power differentials between those in senior and junior positions, and member and officer positions, can provide fertile ground for this behaviour where this culture is given the opportunity to germinate and spread.

On top of this, we are moving to a new paradigm in how councils engage with the people they serve. It is an environment which will reward those councils able to collaborate – with one another and with “external” organisations. But politics is often seen as a barrier to this, particularly by organisations which might see this kind of democratic accountability as alien and difficult to understand. On the other side, councillors may be unwilling to engage and work with local people and partners because they feel that representative democracy – through them – should be the focus for local debate. We will explore more about these issues in the next post in this series.

How can we work to ensure that the need for political disagreement is understood, and that it is interpreted constructively?

Last year we published “Governance, culture and collaboration”, a discussion paper intended to begin teasing out these issues. One of the things we suggested was that leaders need to think about how they perceive their roles, and how they perceive governance. What role do people have, as individuals and collectively, to take responsibility for good governance?

If we accept that there is a common ownership of good governance – that all of us share some responsibility for making it work – we can start to build political cultures which are more supportive and productive, within the framework of robust political debate. This can include:

  • Understanding what drivers (political and otherwise) motivate both councillors and officers. The better we understand these motivations the better we can understand how we work together;
  • Putting in place formal and informal means of communication, and spaces, to try to build and maintain trusted relationships, open out the way that we discuss and understand others’ viewpoints;
  • Using “civility” (and the Nolan principles) as the starting point for a wider discussion of how people in key positions need to behave in a political environment;
  • Ensuring that our governing documents (the council’s constitution, but also other rules and procedures) reflect these matters accurately, and that everyone signs up to working within those rules because everyone has a stake in them.

This kind of work can be the foundation of one of the main recommendations from our 2019 discussion paper – a “community constitution”, a document which brings together a shared sense of priorities and values to guide joint work across a space. Such a document would need to be framed by a good understanding of the motivations of those involved. We will go on to talk about this issue in more detail in our fourth blogpost.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.