Cast your vote for me, and I'll cross out my private life

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The Independent Online
WHY do they bother? What drives sane individuals to stand for what are in effect full- time, unpaid posts as local councillors? For some, the town hall is simply a career opportunity, the first - but hopefully fast-moving - step on the political escalator. Take John Major. He was elected to Lambeth Borough Council in 1968, aged 25. Two years later he became chairman of the housing committee. By 1974 he had abandoned local government to search for a parliamentary seat.

But his story is not the norm. Last year, in the first nationwide inquiry* into the experiences and motivations of local councillors, Naseem Khan and I spent several months interviewing hundreds of councillors on behalf of the Local Government Management Board. Typical of what we found is the grinding experience of Valda James, a 66-year-old retired auxiliary nurse from Jamaica. A councillor since 1986, she is up for re-election today in Islington.

When the council asked Ms James to become mayor, she took early retirement from her job, which affected her pension. She then found she could not even claim her modest councillors' attendance allowances - up to pounds 172 a month - because her virtually full-time mayoral duties prevented her carrying out her normal functions as a councillor. Furthermore, the mayoral allowance (unlike attendance allowances), had to be spent on official duties. 'You mustn't even buy a bar of chocolate for yourself,' according to Ms James.

How had she survived? 'I got up at 5.30 every morning to go to work as a cleaning supervisor before begining the mayoral day.'

Today, as chair of several committees, Ms James still bears a mighty burden. 'I'm doing 60 hours' work a week. Every fortnight there's a meeting at 8.30am and I'm never finished on any night till 10 or 11. And the telephone . . . even at midnight it never stops ringing.'

Islington has a reputation as a highly politicised borough with a left-inclined Labour Party. But Ms James's reasons for deciding to stand for office were personal. 'I was a single parent and (I thought) my kids will respect me by respecting what I do.'

This apolitical note is not unusual. Richard Wightman is a 49-year-old Bradford businessmen and deputy leader of the city's Conservative group. When asked about the achievement which gave him most satisfaction, he exclaimed: 'I would say the issue of race . . . I was pleased to be involved in the formulation of a realistic, all-party policy.'

Carole Jones, 42, a former family care worker, who has been a Labour councillor in Nottingham for the past three years, works long hours and finds money a problem. 'I do a tremendous amount of work, probably about 45 hours a week. The idea of paid councillors has got to come. If the council allocation was stopped, then someone like myself, who is not working, would be without an income. I would have to get a job, which would mean my council work would suffer.'

These days Ravi Govindia, 38, a Conservative on Wandsworth council, deliberately restricts himself to little more than 25 hours a week. A professional administrator, he has become ruthless about budgeting his time. 'Before two (electoral) cycles were up I realised I wasn't seeing my friends often, I was getting tired and had piles of papers to read.'

He is straightforward about his own motivation: 'I like the status and recognition it gave me within the party. I'd tramped the streets for someone else and I thought 'Why not me?' '

Not everybody is as disciplined as Mr Govindia. Constantly, we found examples of intolerable stress imposed by the hours and the lack of money. 'The strain on your social life shouldn't be underestimated,' said a Liberal Democrat county councillor in Oxfordshire. 'The burden imposed on your partner is quite considerable.' Many people echoed her words, reporting broken marriages and failed relationships.

According to a Lincolnshire Conservative, six out of his eight-strong group divorced while in office. 'First to go is your family,' said an East Midlands county councillor.

Given the hardships involved, what sort of people carry on year after year, submitting themselves to the ballot-box verdict of the minority of their neighbours who bother to vote? According to Mr Govindia: 'One third of councillors are ambitious (hoping to get into Parliament tomorrow), one third are plodders and one third are dedicated locals.'

In our study, far less than one third gave any indication that they were aiming for national office. Plodders or dedicated, most councillors emphasised personal triumphs rather than naked ambition or ideological fulfilment.

'It's rather nice to help someone get a house,' said an east London councillor.

'After years of fighting,' announced a female councillor, triumphantly, 'I've at last got a library.'

One person's selfless service to the community is another's unappealing patronage. And such patronage is attractive to status seekers and those whose egos need boosting, as well as to the saintly. Even so, I shall be voting today - if only out of respect for those many councillors I met who genuinely do not want to back out of local government at the earliest opportunity.

The pamphlet 'Why Bother?' is free from the Local Government Management Board, 41 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8NZ.