Why you should think of trying to become a Liberal Democrat Councillor

London Region have recently been running a series of Zoom calls for people who are thinking of running for their Council in the 2022 elections. I have taken part in a couple of these and it has made me think about what I enjoy being a Councillor and why I would recommend others think about doing so.

I have been a Councillor for the Dundonald Ward in Merton since May 2018 – the ward runs from Wimbledon to Raynes Park along the railway line and it is characterised by terraced houses occupied by middle class professional families many of whom are from the EU. It won’t be a surprise that it voted strongly for Remain.

It’s a great place to knock on doors and talk to people – particularly in the daytime (I am retired) when a surprising number of people even before the lockdown work from home and often have more time to chat. I have had fascinating conversations about PG Wodehouse, the merits of working for different French banks and the details of train operations on the District Line. People occasionally even want to talk about politics!

I was elected as one of six Liberal Democrats in a Labour-run Council (up from one) and one of the things which most struck us after being elected was how much the other parties disliked us for disrupting their cosy world. There was genuine astonishment on the part of some Tory Councillors when we sometimes voted for their motions and sometimes for Labour ones – the idea we considered things on their merits really was a surprise to them.

One of the themes we have pursued on the Council has been paying our Care Workers the London Living Wage – those directly employed by the Council are but those who work for agencies contrasted to the Council are not. We have kept talking about this and have recently – at the third attempt – got the Labour group to agree to finding out how much this would cost – something they have refused to do in the past. We intend to keep pushing this as it is an utter disgrace that we pay our care workers only £8.72 an hour.

I am on two Council Committees – Planning and Cemeteries. The latter is a joint Committee with Sutton Council so has a Liberal Democrat majority which is nice but Planning is a real challenge. People have passionate views on planning issues which they quite rightly communicate to members of the Cttee and weighing up those views, against the need to build more homes and within the context of Planning Law can be a real challenge.

There is also casework where you can make a real difference to people’s lives. This has ranged from dealing with a blank refusal by a council official to allow someone a visitors parking permit (it turned out that when copying a list of addresses into a computer, hers had been accidentally omitted) to helping someone who lived above a shop and whose landlord had erected scaffolding which stopped their windows being opened. Not all casework of course has a successful ending and I know those who have a lot of housing casework often finding it frustrating.

There is one other reason why people should think about becoming a Liberal Democrat Councillor – it can be an important path to getting more Liberal Democrat MPs. In Merton our gaining five seats in May 2018, followed by another one from Labour in a by election in June 2019 played a key part into turning Wimbledon into a marginal seat – Cllr Paul Kohler missed out by just 628 votes.

My own experience of being a Liberal Democrat Councillor has been that it is enjoyable and allows you to make a real difference to people’s lives and I can highly recommend it.

* Simon McGrath is a Councillor in Wimbledon and a member of the Party's Federal Board.

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9 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 16th Nov '20 - 7:40pm

    Joe Biden: cometh the hour, cometh the man?
    perhaps Joe Biden, will rise to the occasion?
    Think Biden-Harris., much more impressive than Mike Pence
    The VP pick can answer Donald Trumps challenge
    She does believe in law and order, although she does not support judicial execution.
    The junior senator for California is a future President, much more impressive than Mike Pence or some progeny of Trump. There are two vacancies in Kansas for the Senate. Win both of those and the need to compromise with the current Senate Republican leader will be reduced. Lose both of them and the next four years will miss opportunities electors will have wanted.
    Remember what happened to the Obama Presidency when Senator Kennedy died and the party lost the consequent election. Incompetent! He was an expert on health which Hillary Rodham Clinton needed, as she said in her memoirs.
    Winning is a habit. Keep doing it. Go back to the Great Society without spending heavily on wars such as Vietnam. Balancing the Supreme Court should be possible by doing what FDR did, keep winning elections, and a constitutional amendment if necessary.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Nov '20 - 7:53pm

    Peter James 16th Nov ’20 – 7:36pm
    Find out who is standing and wants support. Help deliver their leaflets on a Saturday morning, even if it has snowed or if it has snowed or is raining
    Smile a lot, Find out about the recording of canvass results on your mobile phone. Cheer when we win. Follow what is in the preamble to the constitution and the Alderdice recommendations.

  • Is Joe Biden going to stand as a Liberal Councillor in Tunbridge Wells ?

  • Michael Sammon 17th Nov '20 - 12:43am

    Thanks for writing this Simon. We are short of candidates, it’s surprisingly easy and fun to stand as a paper candidate and all the support is there if selected for a target seat. It’s not even just about winning but democracy and giving someone the choice of voting for Liberal Democrat values.

  • John Marriott 17th Nov '20 - 9:35am

    If you ever do become a councillor of any colour and none, you will find just how little real power you have to change things. If my experience of thirty years attending meetings ruled by Standing Orders and personal vendettas is anything to go by, you are going to get very frustrated.

    The answer to this is to get more like minded people on to the Council, because, operating outside the Council Chamber can bring small but positive results. However, if you do do your job properly you have to compromise as many of your fellow councillors will never admit that they might be wrong, and if, like me, you end up on multiple councils (and for eight years on a Police Authority) you will rapidly find that the time you used to devote to being an ‘activist’ is severely diminished. Then there’s a little matter of the day job, which I had to juggle with for the first twelve of those thirty years, and your family commitments.

    The answer is surely to devolve more powers to local councils, which, together with adequate remuneration, might attract a more professional breed of councillors. No matter what colour rosette you wear, having a functioning brain might help!

    As for the idea of “giving people a chance to vote Lib Dem”, as Mr Sammon suggests, not that potential recipe for electoral humiliation again! For goodness sake, man, change the script! What does it say about the value you actually place in good effective local government? It really isn’t all about partisan politics. It’s largely about people coming together and working things out, something they could do with at the moment at Westminster and on Capitol Hill. As one of my US relatives describes it “A ship of fools searching for a rudder”!

  • As someone who was elected five times as a Liberal/Liberal Democrat Councillor and never lost my seat, I strongly support John Marriott’s comments to Michael Sammon.

    To stand for the Council ought to be a privilege and a responsibility. It is entering into a relationship of trust with the people of the ward. It is, and ought to be, hard work. It is not (and shouldn’t be) “surprisingly easy and fun to stand as a paper candidate”. Indeed Mr Sammon’s comment illustrates one of the things that has gone wrong and deteriorated in recent years in the Liberal Democrat Party.

    It is not the equivalent of a computer game to be indulged at home on an occasional basis. It’s about making a serious contribution and representing the people who live in the ward. I don’t know whether Mr Sammon is aware of the irony of : “giving someone the choice of voting for Liberal Democrat values”.

    All it gives is a that a very few people will have the opportunity to take place in a charade….. something they are unlikely to repeat when they see the predictable outcome on polling day.

    Either this is a serious political party or it isn’t. There are ever increasing signs that it is the latter.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Nov '20 - 9:53am

    David Raw 16th Nov ’20 – 9:56pm
    I have a personal view, which is that I want to work with people who want to be elected. We approached the retired husband of a former borough councillor. She disappeared into her kitchen. He said that he was well know as a local doctor and might be elected. He did not quote a health reason, although maybe that was what his wife was thinking. When she became a councillor, she received some personal abuse, calling her a tory, which would have been unlikely to happen to her husband.
    I did meet once a man who was the only Liberal Democrat member in the ward where he lived. He was very polite and hospitable, but the PPC and a Lancashire County Councillor had stayed all evening until he said yes. We celebrated a bye-election win in the neighbouring seat of Ribble Valley and thanked him for accommodating us overnight. The PM records in his memoirs that he had been advised that he could not lose the seat. The new MP and a cartoonist also celebrated in the NLC.
    One local borough councillor from the afore mentioned ward accompanied me to the seat, researching. She was surprised by the win. I said “Those who were part of it known who they are”. At her funeral a member of her family implied that her political activity had been a waste of time.
    The priest blessed us all. Fundraising to build the church had been generally considered to be impossible., Her late husband had been active locally.
    I also agree with what Lewis Hamilton said this week on BBC1 about what he had been told as a child, by others and their parents, about his prospects of success. He was black. He still is.

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