Saturday, September 1, 2012

Why I may not stand again for election

It was just after midday on a sunny Friday in May, 2009.  To my slight surprise, I had been elected as Lib Dem Councillor for Hardwick Division, the well-to-do southern part of Bury St Edmunds near to where I now live.   I had won about 36% of the vote.   Normally Hardwick was, like the town, solid Tory territory but a hard work on the doorsteps, a Tory opponent who never turned up and a renegade ex-Tory independent all translated into a narrow win on the day.

At the time, I was thinking quite seriously, I realise now, about politics as a career.  All of my life people had asked me if I was going to run for Parliament, that I would be good at it.   My experience on the doorsteps seemed to confirm this.   People responded to me, I enjoyed the feeling of it all.   The timing was also good: I had finished off as CEO of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) and a new chapter lay ahead, unwritten.  I was about to turn 40, it was all wide-open.

Then a few things happened.   Firstly, I got a taste of real-life politics in Suffolk County Council.   To my disappointment, the Council, or rather the elected part of it, wasn't an easy place for me to fit into.   It felt deeply 'male, pale and stale' and I just couldn't warm to many of the people I came to meet.  This changed, as time went on, but the overall dynamic of the place I found very unproductive, jeering and unnecessarily un-cordial.   

I also realised, very quickly, that in Councils only a few people actually matter.  These are the senior officers - the CEO and her immediate team, and the top three or four politicians in the ruling group.   This is simply how it is in politics.  I now realised why most MPs, and if Chris Mullin is to be believed, most Ministers, feel fairly insignificant.   The thought of Westminster, even if offered on a plate - which it never would be, especially as a Liberal - suddenly seemed less appealing.   When a scintilla of a chance did arise - to compete for what is now  30 year old academic Julian Huppert's Cambridge seat - I passed. 

A final aspect of real-life politics that hit me hard was just how utterly boring and irrelevent most of what is discussed is to the lives of most people, businesses or communities.   Councils do not, sadly, spend a great deal of time on the big questions, even where Suffolk is concerned.  Debate is limited, normally, to platitudinous sloganeering about the place, not its genuine challenges and choices.  This has improved a bit under a new leader, who has raised the intellectual ante a bit, but on the whole, the Council is not on the page when it comes to leading the county to a successful long-term future.

The second thing that happened was that, as a Councillor, I tried very hard indeed to get a few things done.   Now, anyone who knows me is aware that, as these things go, I have a decent track-record for getting stuff done.   I can normally move the dial.   Not here I couldn't.   My first challenge was getting a white line put outside a woman's house - she had a disability and didn't want folks parking there.  Eight months.   My second was getting some road-humps put in on a road where speeding was a big problem.  36 months.  A decision to designate a piece of spare land as a village-green, to discourage developers.  12 months.  Putting parking restrictions outside a busy hospital that is charging people £15 to park while visiting relatives.  36 months.   And so on.   Everything I did seemed to have to involve too many people, all working too slowly and, in the end, the decision seeming to rest in the hands of one o....f the four people who matter.   Time - the one thing that, for all humans is the same, seems to be the one thing, as a Councillor, you need not to care about.   And, of course, being one of the least patient people ever, I care more-than-a-lot about time.

The third thing that has happened - and this is perhaps the biggest contributor to my present thinking, is that I started a business that has quickly grown.   Growing a business is perhaps as far as it gets from the work of a Councillor.  It's very fast-paced, you see results quickly and you're not buggering about trying to get people to do things at your speed.   There's a sense of movement and, if you need to feel you matter, you get that too.   Growing a business again felt like a sort of homecoming.   I have seen more of my kids than I had before.  It has also had a very positive effect on my finances too, better, it has to be said, than the tight-ship that being an MP is these days once the rail fares and raffle-tickets have been paid for.    I also realised that starting a business at 40, and just out of a full-time CEO role in social enterprise would be a lot easier than doing it at 45 having lost a seat at Westminster.  

Now that my business is two years old I am, frankly, struggling to balance it with the demands of being a local Councillor.  During my first two years, I was probably one of the better Councillors.  I was visible, active and engaged.   During the last year my contribution has weakened.   Not for a key role I play on one of the council's owned-companies, I would not be comfortable with the value-for-money I am providing.  So it's time now to make a decision.

I am sure you can see where all this is going:  I no longer wish to be an MP,  I can see no way of leading a council and, anyway, I am better at many other things than politics.    Although this hasn't been a failure for me, neither has it been a a success.    What is has taught me is that you learn a lot, probably more, about yourself when something doesn't go as you might imagine.   

So what's my advice for anyone thinking of becoming a Councillor?    My simple advice is to do it.  Whether you like it or not, you will get a lot out of it.    Be prepared: it will suck up unlimited amounts of your time and you will be shocked at how little you achieve, however highly you rate your personal effectiveness.  But you will see how things work, you'll get a chance to make relationships across a wide field and, whether you stand again or not, you'll come, like me, to have no regrets.

No comments: