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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.