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.