Democracy: Getting Respect into our Councils

Issue section: 

Michael Lavalette tells of his puzzlement when first elected as a Respect councillor in Preston.

Just over 18 months ago I was elected to Preston council. Winning was great. But it presented me with a very immediate problem: 'What do I do as a councillor?'

My previous experience of councils was a bit one-sided. I had been on plenty of lobbies of council meetings. I also knew many of the councillors and had spoken with them on numerous occasions at protest rallies. But what did these people do?

Immediately after the election I started by putting up notices in my constituency telling local people when my surgeries would be - if nothing else I knew politicians held surgeries. But this is where my preconceptions started to break down. No other Preston councillor held a surgery.

How do constituents get in touch with their elected representatives, I wondered? The answer soon became clear - they don't. The vast majority of people would be hard pushed to name their councillor or know how to contact them.

My second shock arrived when I went to my first council meeting. First there was the council's profile - it was completely unrepresentative of what modern Britain looks like. At the age of 42 I am one of the younger councillors! It is overwhelmingly old, white and male.

More importantly, councils have changed dramatically in recent years. When I was 17 and a Labour Party member, I worked with the councillors. I knew council meetings could be boring - but they were the place where policy was eventually decided. Further, a series of council committees took place where parties fought to get their policy adopted and recommended to the full council. The officers were, in theory, meant to simply carry out policy adopted by committees and councils.

Of course, this picture was always mythical. The full time officers represent a very well paid layer of local state functionaries. In their daily activity - their links with local businesses (large and small), their relationships with the national state and regional unelected quangos - they have a huge impact on what the local authority does. But in theory this was all subject to democratic scrutiny at committee and council meetings.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that there were only six council meetings a year and that the committees had been replaced with 'review boards' whose task is to carry out 'studies' on particular themes and which have no powers of scrutiny over local decisions.

At each council we are presented with a huge agenda. The committees used to provide a collective forum, of sorts, to scrutinise reports, but this has gone. Reports on highly specialist issues are debated, but with little detail. Most councillors don't know much about the issue, don't speak and, in any case, are all whipped to vote a particular way.

Preston council is run by a cabinet. As a result of local government reforms introduced by the Labour government all local authorities have had to adopt either a cabinet or a mayoral system. The result has been to diminish local democracy.

All decisions are made by the cabinet. In Preston there are 57 councillors and six cabinet members. The cabinet members work with the full time officers in a particular area to implement policy. The one cabinet member (for housing or finance, for example) therefore replaces the previous council committee dealing with that policy area.

This leaves the full time officer in much greater control than before. They are an expert in a particular area, have years of working in the field and have a whole department at their disposal. The cabinet member is there because of their experience in the political party they represent. I have sat through several council meetings where cabinet members cannot answer a question about the area they have responsibility for. They promise the questioner a 'written response' - in other words a response provided 'with the help' of the full time officer.

With the cabinet development has come 'professionalisation'. Now councillors get paid, though not huge amounts for ordinary council members. I get £3,000 before tax - about £170 a month that we use for leaflets, meeting costs and other expenses. But cabinet members can be very well paid. In Lancashire County Council the leader gets a whopping £45,000.

At this month's council I was one of only four councillors who voted against councillors getting pensions. There are many reasons to vote against councillor pensions, but we also have to recognise that a pension on £3,000 will be insignificant - on £45,000 it will be very attractive!

These changes are all part of the government's agenda to turn councils into 'enabling authorities'. Their job is not to provide and directly run services, but to ensure that services are provided 'cheaply and efficiently' by a variety of partners and providers. Here the cabinet's or mayor's task is to dole out contracts to local 'providers'. This is the local state form most suitable for a system of privatised local service provision.

Finally, the last mechanism available to debate real policy is via the councillor's 'motion to council'. Here we can bring political debate on substantial issues to the council and try and use the council chamber as a platform to raise a wider political agenda. Motions supporting twinning campaigns (as we initiated for Nablus), local strikers, raising civil liberties issues can only be raised in this way. We need to utilise this mechanism to bring relevance to our council work.