Councillors face a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy

Six months into the job, I'm trying to do things differently.

The queue for my last council surgery stretched around the hall. I sighed at the sight. Not because I mind hard work, but because I'm not sure how much the council can do to help. Since my by-election in May, I've found myself spending large amounts of time answering calls from Peckham constituents who are upset with a system that feels remote and often fails to deliver in the cuts. I do all of this on an email system that makes MS-DOS look like some kind of high-tech fantasy. I sometimes find myself writing to officers not because I believe they can make a difference, but because I want residents to know that I've tried.

But there is a deeper problem here, beyond resources. For many of the people in my constituency, the council has become the only vehicle they can see to improve their position. Ringing the council's phone, bidding for housing on inflated waiting lists, seeing through complaints that take years to resolve, has become a full time occupation. There is a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy from people who have lost faith in their ability to change things for themselves. As a new councillor serving as a secretary to this bureaucracy, I suddenly realised I was in danger of feeding into that.

That's why I'm trying to do things differently. It's an experiment that starts with a new opening question. "What can the council do for you?" has become "what can we do for each other?" Don't get me wrong, I am under no illusions that many people are in need of professional support and material help, but in many cases, people are capable of more than we give them credit for.

So when a single mum entered my surgery saying she was suffering from anti-social behaviour on her estate, I didn't ask her if she'd reported it to the council's overstretched helpline. I asked if she could get her neighbours together. She can't write, but she's a born leader who will make a difference. Unlike officers, residents are there 24/7 - they can keep an eye out for each other. As a group, they also become harder for the council to ignore. This is not some fluffy version of the Big Society. Anyone who knows the Friends of Warwick Gardens or the Peckham Residents Network in my ward knows that networks achieve things. Similarly the power of the residents on the Consort estate, who gave young people a safe place to party this Halloween, was better than anything the council could have organised.

Achieving change in this way can make a bigger difference, because it stops one of the biggest problems in my ward: isolation. For many elderly, disabled and workless people, interacting with the council is one of the few chances that they get to meet another human being. When that interaction is reduced to complaining about something they feel entitled to, it can be humiliating. Meeting other people and working with them to create change builds confidence in a way that some council services don't. As Maurice Glasman says in my book, if Blue Labour had a slogan, it would be "relationships are transformational".

Of course a lot of people don't have the confidence to meet their neighbours alone, but councillors can help with that. They can introduce the youth worker to the young unemployed guy on the estate who thought about running a football club but didn't know how. They can make sure that the head of the mosque knows the mum who sits on the board of the local school. They can play a part in great initiatives like the Peckham Network, supported by the Peckham Settlement, which are already encouraging residents to knock on five doors and invite their neighbours around for tea and a conversation about how to make things better.

If people think I'm anti-state they have misunderstood. Many council services are necessary and worthwhile, and I'm well aware I need a councillor allowance to do the work I do. Nor is it to slam my fellow councillors and officers in Southwark, many of whom are doing a much better job than this newbie. I'm simply saying that when you become a councillor, it's easy to think your role is just about bureaucracy and complaints.

The best politicians know that to be a good councillor, you need to be a community organiser. Labour Values is full of positive examples and Movement for Change is starting some phenomenal work around the country. Caroline Badley's work in Edgbaston and Sam Tarry's in Barking and Dagenham is famous for a reason. These people get that government shouldn't be something that is done to you - it should be something we do together.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.