I had to laugh. “Vote for change!” said David Cameron, launching the Conservative Party’s county council election campaign this week. Er, has no-one told him that his party holds 19 of the 27 shire counties of England and Wales up for election?
Like East Sussex, for example. I’d be happy for people to follow Cameron’s example and vote for change. Get the Conservatives out of County Hall in Lewes where they’ve inflicted enough damage for the past eight years.
But this column isn’t actually an attack on the Conservatives. David Cameron is just the latest national figure to have put party tactics before the realities of local government, and thereby to have kicked in the teeth the thousands of lay councillors up and down the country – councillors of all parties – who put in loads of time for little thanks.
Think about it. If our democracy is to function, if we’re to have real people making decisions on behalf of their communities rather than faceless Whitehall mandarins, people need to volunteer to be councillors. Most councillors are members of a party, though many of them aren’t ideologically attached to their party – it can be a convenience thing, or even a reflection of who most of their friends are. When the friends of a community-spirited individual ask “Why don’t you stand for the council?”, the party label is often just that – a label.
And so, thousands of councillors spend lots of time doing good work, often in amicable cooperation with councillors of other parties, and at the end of their term of office ask the voters to approve the work they’ve done by giving them another term. Except that then national figures jump in and hijack the whole process, asking people not to recognise the hard work done by councillors but to use the election as a stick with which to beat a rival at national level.
I have seen countless good councillors put in four solid years, and then lose their seats, not because the voters are ungrateful (though they frequently are), but because a party is going through an unpopular phase. It can be heartbreaking, and a real turn-off to those considering whether to stand.
So when I hear David Cameron asking people to “vote for change”, knowing full well that he means change in Downing Street, it makes me very angry. How dare he make the hard work of county councillors – for it’s mostly county councillors who are up for election next month – a pawn in his battle with Gordon Brown! These elections have nothing to do with Brown, nor with Cameron, but with local issues.
I would like to see the Conservatives lose control of East Sussex, because I believe they are leading us in the wrong direction on vital issues such as waste disposal and transport, and frequently have their priorities wrong. For those reasons I hope voters vote Liberal Democrat, but I would never dream of degrading the work put in by our four dozen county councillors over the past four years by saying people should vote on national issues. That is an insult to them, and to our democracy.
I hope it backfires on David Cameron – either by people voting for the change he doesn’t want, or by Labour being so crushed that they get rid of Gordon Brown in favour of a more electable leader and the Tories find they’re not such a shoo-in for election next year as they thought.