Standing, and standing down
In 2019 and 2021 we experienced some comparatively high “councillor turnover” – and we can probably expect similar in local elections this May.
The neutral phrase “councillor turnover” hides a large number of personal stories and experiences of those councillors who will, for whatever reason, not be councillors after the forthcoming election.
Councillors stop being councillors in four ways. They can lose their seat in an election for which they stand as a candidate. They can be denied the opportunity to stand again – this may be because they fail to be reselected by their party in the same seat, or fail to be selected in a different seat (sometimes as a result of boundary changes). Councillors can and do die in office (this is, sadly, not uncommon, perhaps reflective of the average age for councillors in England now being early sixties, with many councillors being significantly older).
The fourth reason why councillors stop being councillors is because they choose not to stand again. It’s this group that I want to focus on in this blogpost because I think those of us who are officers need to reflect on this group, and what their experiences of being a councillor can teach us about how we may need to support councillors differently.
Very little work has gone into exploring this cohort, so what follows is largely anecdote – where possible, informed by the LGA councillor census.
For some members, being a councillor is an unrewarding and unpleasant experience. Local government can be an alienating place, and local politics uniquely unfriendly. New councillors can find it impossible to “get things done”, drowning in a morass of casework while finding it difficult to influence big decisions in Council and Cabinet. Bullying continues to be a feature of member-member relationships in some councils and we lack the tools in the current standards regime to manage this. Parties themselves, with their own disciplinary arrangements, are variably effective in challenging poor behaviour. Finally there is something about the councillor role which fails to take account of councillors’ other responsibilities – employment, caring responsibilities – in how business is transacted.
My impression – which is unscientific – is that young women are disproportionately represented in the cohort of councillors not seeking re-election, and particularly young women who have served only one term. Councils are far more diverse than they used to be (and parties have taken great strides in attracting candidates from a far wider range of walks of life), but many enjoy far less representation from women, people of working age, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities. We may need to explore whether there is something about the member corps in our respective councils which may be unwelcoming to people who don’t fit what is still the traditional model for the elected member – the financially-stable man in late middle age who may already have retired, and who may therefore have the time and capacity to fit their council duties around their lives.
This is not an easy issue to resolve. There is something about the inclusivity of councils for councillors that we need to address. We can only try to understand the nature of the problem and how it plays out area by area. An excellent place to start may well be to arrange exit interviews with departing members – conversation that officers and remaining members can also be a part of, perhaps over the summer. This could also serve to support those ex-councillors for whom suddenly not being an elected member can be quite abrupt – we don’t know that political parties or councils put in place arrangements to support departing members like this.
We are, as a start, keen to understand the experiences of departing members – whether or not leaving local government has been voluntary, and whether, after a break, people can see their way to returning. If this describes you, and you’d like to share your experiences (including anonymously!) either just with us or through our blog with the wider democratic community, please let us know.
Ed leads CfGS’s work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.