Watch my interview above with Resham Kotecha on how local politics is ‘not sexy but important’ and how she’s been chased down the garden path while canvassing!
There’s no way around it. If election fever has awoken your desire to enter public service, you’ll still have to get blooded in at a local level!
This may come as unwelcome news for those looking for a quick ascendency into the Westminster village and a hand at the national game but it’s an unavoidable hurdle as our MPs are selected from each of Britain’s 650 area constituencies.
There is, however, a growing political class, comprised of the young and overly ambitious, turning their back on tradition in favour of a professional route into the establishment and to be honest, I don’t blame them!
“I never thought I would spend my days looking at pot holes and drawing attention to them for the local council but I think with every job there’s a sexy side and an unsexy side. And yes, the unsexy side does involve pot holes and dog poo.”
As PPC for Dulwich & West Norwood, Resham Kotecha, 25, who will fight the seat of Dulwich & West Norwood at the next General Election, fulfils her public service duties by being at the beck and call of her local constituents
“I got called in by someone who thought their neighbours were poisoning their cat and I had to spend a long time on my hands and knees looking for rat poison. Not something you want to spend all day Saturday doing!”
The majority of people, Resham told me, are genuinely appreciative of her hours spent in the cold getting sore feet but there are always exceptions.
“I’ve been chased down paths by angry people; I’ve had things thrown at me; I actually had a dog jump at me so much I had to turn and run because we’ve had candidates who’ve had their hands bitten by angry dogs.”
Appeasing crazy residents, dodging dog bites and surveying pot holes hardly sounds appealing and it doesn’t get much better when you look at what little reward those who brave local politics get for such hardship.
“Of the 242 MPs elected for the very first time in 1997, 51.7 per cent of those MPs who made it to Cabinet-level positions had this sort of insider experience compared to only 10.3 per cent who had experience on local councils.”
Peter Allen, a professor of political behaviour, identified a growing trend among elected MPs achieving career success earlier by spending less time in their constituencies in favour of gaining “insider experience” in Westminster prior to an election. In fact, MPs with local council experience were found to be more likely to hold no senior positions at all and remain backbenchers for a considerable time longer.
It seems madness, then, someone taking the traditional route into power when the spoils clearly go to those mastering the political arts in Westminster. But, with the activities of parties increasingly focused on the national political scene as opposed to being rooted in local communities, are we seeing – as political scientists Peter Mair predicts – a political class emerging that’s unrepresentative of the wider population?
Faced with this reality, I decided to take to the streets to see if there was a way of making local politics more appealing to wannabe public servants. After offering my services to my local MP, I was thrown in at the deep end, meaning, I was going canvassing!
Meeting at 10am on a Sunday morning – an already unattractive proposition – I was introduced to the members of my local party. After a swift briefing, I was given my leaflets and let loose. Knocking on the doors of strangers is an already daunting task, especially with Resham’s stories fresh in my mind, but interrupting them during the weekend to chat politics was an even more terrifying prospect.
In between polite excuses and unanswered doors, complaints about parking permits, pavements and yes, fox poo, were all common place. These, I thought, were hardly issues I could use to tempt people away from the relative glitz of Westminster, so I attended an assembly meeting to see if things got tastier. Like a scene out of The Vicar of Dibley, the biggest issue of the evening was christmas lights!
The reality is that, from what I’ve experienced at least, there isn’t a way of ‘sexing up’ local politics but as Resham correctly pointed out, the unsexy side can be just as important to everyday life.
Take, for example, my constituency of Lewisham East. Local residents stopped the closure of hospital, helped the plight of refugees in Syria and established an award-winning community food bank. Even the Christmas lights were carbon free!
These are proof-points as to the impact local politics can have on a national and even international level. Those people I met at a local level were also extremely humble, hardworking and compassionate, which made me wish they’d have greater success at a national level!
“A significant proportion of being a politician is engaging with local people. You’re suppose to represent them and their interests. If you don’t want to do that and don’t enjoy talking to people then it’s probably the wrong job for you.”
Resham’s words resonate with me as we need ‘real people’ in government and not a professionalised minority who withdraw into political institutions. The risk is that with one estimate placing the number of people seriously involved in political activism in the UK at only 100,000, this is likely to continue unless we find new ways of attracting them.