“Never meet your heroes” is good advice in politics and in life. But, as we move ever deeper into the twenty first century, I cannot help thinking that that a new maxim; “never tweet at your heroes”, will soon take its place. This was a lesson I learned very recently.
I’ve always admired Michael Crick as an indomitable political journalist who never lets complacent politicians off the hook and who always champions the ordinary people.
This is why I was so disappointed to read the tweet above, posted in the wake of the Sleaford by-election.
Many have already pointed out the troubling class-based assumptions in this tweet. Labour’s candidate in Sleaford was a refuse driver and former postman. He clearly does not fit the stereotype of someone who is “MP Material” in the mind of a Channel 4 journalist. However, I will leave it to someone who does not live in North London to make that case and write that article.
As an elected local councillor, myself, I am interested in, and alarmed by, his use of the term “barely councillor material” as a pejorative. I believe this choice of words is indicative of two major assumptions.
Firstly, Crick is suggesting that the work councillors do is unimportant, or at the very least more unimportant than the work MPs done. In doing so he suggests that it should not be done by dedicated public servants but by people who are not quite capable of becoming MPs.
So, let’s take a moment to review what this work consists of. In the last couple of months alone I have helped a single mother to find new accommodation when the damp in her current flat became so unbearable it began to affect her children’s health. I have ensured that kissing gates were installed at the entrance to a park to prevent youths riding through it on mopeds and disrupting young people playing sport. I have helped to get a drug dealer evicted from a flat where he was making the lives of his neighbours a misery.
I accept that this is not glamorous stuff and perhaps none of it will change the world by itself. However, I am confident that in each case I have changed someone’s world for the better.
In fact, in many areas that really matter to people; crime and anti-social behaviour, housing, the environment; it is arguable that Councils and Councillors have a great impact on quality of life than Parliament and MPs.
Secondly, Crick seems to believe there’s an obvious hierarchy in politics where anyone involved should only be interested in rising to the “top” by becoming an MP.
Many Councillors will go on to become MPs – in fact I’d recommend it as an excellent grounding – but this should really be seen as swapping one form of important public service for another, not as climbing another rung.
Unfortunately, these twin attitudes are evident in our own Party as well as the media.
Andy Burnham never misses the opportunity to attack the out-of-touch Westminster Village. Yet, when asked why he was the best candidate to be Mayor of Manchester Burnham replied: “for me this is a cabinet-level job, which needs cabinet-level experience.”
Saying that only people who have sat around the cabinet table in number ten are capable of running a great city is a kick in the teeth for those people who are already doing it, our Labour Council Leaders in places like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield. In fact, a Council Leader in a big city will possibly, even now, have a bigger budget, and will certainly have more acute responsibilities, than some members of the bloated cabinet in Whitehall.
If we want people to engage in local politics, if we want to devolve power to communities, if we want talented people to take the plunge into party politics we need to challenge these lazy stereotypes about Councillors.
For many, being a local Councillor is a great achievement and end in itself. This is something which should be celebrated and not mocked.