Should parish councils be "completely apolitical"?

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2009

An intriguing row has broken out in Shoreham, West Sussex, in the lead-up to a by-election to fill a vacancy on the parish council. The local paper tells all:

CONTROVERSY is stirring in grassroots politics, with the nomination of a Liberal Democrat to stand in a Rustington Parish Council by-election. Jamie Bennett’s punt at parish politics has rippled the normally tranquil waters of the council, on which all 15 current members sit as independents.

Lib-Dem Jamie will contest the West ward seat vacated by former parish council chairman Mike Warrington, who has moved away from the area, in a two-horse race with Andy Cooper, described as the “Keep Rustington Council Independent” candidate. The by-election is on Thursday, September 17.

This kind of debate isn’t unusual at parish council level – the size of most parishes, and their limited budget powers, tend to mean the decisions they can make are small-scale: what place does party politics have in such circumstances?, goes the argument.

This argument is put forward by former parish council chairman Graham Tyler, who has written to the local paper to urge villagers “to ensure that the parish council retains its independent status for many years to come”:

For as many years as I can remember, the parish council has been completely apolitical, and that is the way I presume the local community would want it to remain. Unlike other town and parish councils, politics do not play a part in any decisions made by the (Rustington) parish council.”

Fair enough, you might say. (Though it’s worth noting that Mr Tyler is also a Conservative councillor on Arun District and West Sussex County councils). But it strikes me as a peculiar and wrong-headed argument – this notion that parish councils are and should be “completely apolitical” – albeit one that you’ll hear from lots of the public, too.

I assume what is usually meant is that petty, partisan, squabbling, tribal politics has no place in decisions about improving bus shelters or play areas – in which case, I can agree. But the idea that politics itself has no place in such decicions is nonsense. Even small-scale decisions are – consciously or not – underpinned by individuals’ views (their political philosophy, in effect). Should the parish council’s council tax precept be increased to pay for improvements to the village green, for example: your view on that is likely to be influenced by your view on the size of the state. All politics is local, after all.

This argument gets to the heart of whether independents make good politicians. Though I’ve known some fine individuals who traded under the political label, ‘Independent’, they all had their own political views – they simply preferred to brand themselves as people who would make decisions in the best interests of the local community; which, by and large, is also what motivates members of political parties to stand for election also.

For myself, I’d rather know in advance of casting my vote the political views of the individual who will be representing me, whether on a parish council, or in Parliament. Quite simply, it’s more honest.

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I do not know of any individual party member who can honestly claim to subscribe to all of the policies of their chosen party.

And no political party has a policy statement that can be said to speak to every issue that will arise at Parish level

Local people standing on local issues is the best way for Parish Councils. There is no need for party groupings. What’s next? Appointing party whips ?

Leave it to the independents – they are the ones who are really committed to an area. Not someone trying to stake a claim for the next District Council seat that becomes vacant

by Simon on August 29, 2009 at 12:19 pm. Reply #

It is the Shoreham in West Sussex Stephen not the Shoreham in Kent. [Editor’s note: thanks, Duncan, duly corrected.]
On the substantive issue Stephen is right. It isn’t a question of whether a party hat policies at that level, it is about identifying your overall stance on issues such as funding services. Keep politics out of decisions is a common condependent line.

by Duncan Borrowman on August 29, 2009 at 12:50 pm. Reply #

Leave it to the independents – they are the ones who are really committed to an area. Not someone trying to stake a claim for the next District Council seat that becomes vacant

Are you saying that no other label is as committed to an area? Let’s face facts all decision making is political albeit non tribal. I go into the supermarket I choose fairtrade coffee over non-fairtrade. To some it’s an innocuous act – I call it political. I sometimes think the the label `Independent` is a cover for a great `Christian Democratic ie Cameronite amorphous mass` that is about keeping the status quo. Along comes a Lib Dem and oh horrors it might break up our cosy arrangement.

by John on August 29, 2009 at 1:10 pm. Reply #

It was a Liberal Government that brought in Parish Councils, against considerable Tory opposition. One of the ammendments the Conservative opposition tried to get through in the debate as the Bill went along was the “press should be banned from attending Parish Council debates” – a move the Conservatives made when they realised their opposition to introducing these councils was doomed to failure.

I came across this little-known item of former party history in a leather bound book of minutes of the Federal Committee.

by Philip Young on August 29, 2009 at 1:19 pm. Reply #

Being ‘apolitical’ is a misnomer beacuse it is also a political stance. I think I agree that it is a term used when non-partisan is meant.

I also don’t see why so-called ‘independents’ are necessarily more committed to an area, perhaps someone can clarify that for me.

by Oranjepan on August 29, 2009 at 1:38 pm. Reply #

It is a common conceit amongst so-called ‘independents’ that they are ‘apolitical’. But anyone participating in politics, regardless of how ‘local’ they think they are, is ipso facto a politician because decision-making is intrinsically political. That applies just as much to a parish council as it does to any other tier of government.

When it comes to electing parish councillors, that is surely a matter for the electors to decide. If they prefer a member of a political party to an ‘independent’, who is to deny them that choice?

At least a member of a political party has the honesty to put their ideological cards on the table.

by Simon Titley on August 29, 2009 at 3:59 pm. Reply #

An independent is much more likely to be someone committed enough to stand without prompting from a local party organisation. Too often I have seen Parish Councils where parties do field “official” candidates and it is those people who fail to turn up to every meeting and who stand down earlier than their independent counterparts,

I have seen this over a number of years and in a range of different settings – both rural and more suburban.

Indepedent candidates who put themselves forward and win support on the basis of their own ideas and concerns rather than appearing under a party banner are the ones who will offer a greater commitment to their communities over a longer period.

There will be party candidates who do have exactly the same committed nature as the best independents but on the whole, the better PCs that I have met have been the ones who are dedicated to their community, who have put in the hours, who have helped improve their areas and they have ALL been independent of any party.

by Simon on August 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm. Reply #

No one person should be allowed to sit on more than one council, whether it be parish, town, district, unitary or county. At present there are councillors who sit on several and are even MPs. Where is the democracy in that? I can remember the time when party politics were not involved in local politics and the councils were better for it. Freedom to vote for anything your electorate want is very important, but today councils usually split along party lines. Not good for councillrs because they lose their individuality and certainly not good for the electorate. Many councillors are ‘in it for the money’ these days – while collecting high salaries from the council, many continue at another career. We do not want professional councillors. It is the professionalism that has ruined local government. It is now as corrupt as National Government, because they are councillors for all the wrong reasons. I do not agree with Parish/Town councillors receiving allowances and I do not agree with political interference in local local government . See page 4 on http://www.isitfair.co.uk/Newsletters/newsletter%2022.doc
for details of the increasing misuse of parish and town councils.

by Christine Melsom on August 29, 2009 at 4:21 pm. Reply #

I think the OP and most of the comments have it right:

1. An apolitical council is an oxymoron.
2. A non-partisan council has no intrinsic merit.
3. It’s up to the voters.

by Paul Griffiths on August 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm. Reply #

Are these councillors in Shoreham actually “Independents” as claimed, or are they “no description”?

And do they include members of political parties who choose – for whatever reason – not to identify that fact on their nomination papers?

As for the view that “Independent” councillors are more committed/ better/ more effective, well what is the record of councils run by “Independents”? Perhaps we could start with Anglesey ….

by crewegwyn on August 29, 2009 at 9:48 pm. Reply #

I stood as a Liberal Democrat and won a seat on Keighley Town Council (which serves a population of 51,000). All the others on the council claim to be independent, although some of them palpably are not. When I dared to continue to make my allegiance clear I got a lot of flak and was threatened with the Standards Committee. In fact there is no law that political allegiance must not be declared. Any such arrangement is just a “gentleman’s agreement” and has no validity. I stood up to them and got support from several Lib Dems, including the Bradford Group Leader. It raised my profile quite a lot which wasn’t a bad thing from my point of view.

The “independent” hue and cry soon stopped and I get on very well with my fellow councillors. I am always given a fair chance to speak and help from the clerk with issues I need support on. I get round any pettifogging so-called rules by sometimes writing letters to the local paper as a Town Councillor and sometimes about wider matters as a Liberal Democrat.

Some voters with no allegiance to the Lib Dems voted for me because they knew from my political label that I wasn’t BNP and so felt they could trust me. People have a right to know what they’re getting. “Independent” can be anything.

All the best to Jamie Bennett with the campaign. Get as much help as you can, fight to win, and be a great Liberal Democrat councillor.

by Judith brooksbank on August 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm. Reply #

As a Lib Dem Town Councilor (a parish council in a town) on a council that is Labour controlled, I do wish that Parish Councils were less political. What I mean by this is not that people don’t have a Political opinion or label but that they put tribalism at the door and work together to use the councils limited resources. This should be the case at all councils and indeed at Westminster but is particuarly so in a council which typically looks at issues such as grass cutting, flowers and cemetaries. A lot of Independents on councils I have come across have quite extreme political opinions. What people want is for councillors to work together for the good of the community. The misunderstanding encouraged by “Independents” is that not having a political badge helps this happen.

by Neil Bradbury on August 29, 2009 at 10:09 pm. Reply #

Neil Bradbury says, “What people want is for councillors to work together for the good of the community.” Actually what they want is a choice. The biggest complaint that people make about politicians is that they all sound the same.

Of course there is no case for fatuous tribal disagreements but neither is there is a case for denying that choices have to be made or denying that real argument is needed to resolve genuine differences of opinion.

One of the wisest political quotations is by the eighteenth-century French general François-Gaston, Duc de Lévis:
“Gouverner, c’est choisir.” (to govern is to choose). Politics is ultimately about making moral choices, not burying one’s differences.

It doesn’t matter whether the issue is nuclear weapons or grass cutting – there are competing values, competing interests and competing priorities. Pretending that there is only ever one “common sense” option is a denial of democracy.

by Simon Titley on August 29, 2009 at 11:46 pm. Reply #

Mark – Maybe, but it’s the sameness of politicians that depresses voter turnout, not the differences. Present people with a stark choice, and they’ll turn out in droves, as the 85% turnout in the 2007 French presidential election demonstrated.

by Simon Titley on August 30, 2009 at 6:00 pm. Reply #

The difference between Parish Councils and the French Presidential election is that most parish council elections are uncontested. Simon says that on all issues there are competing values. Even on a parish council that is the case but I would say that on my parish council 95% of decisions are fairly obvious and if there is a choice there isn’t a natural Liberal, Labour or Conservative approach. Even on the unitary council I serve on (and which the Lib Dems run) there are lots of issues where traditional tribal politics don’t work.

by Neil Bradbury on August 30, 2009 at 8:22 pm. Reply #

I have observed over the years that the only person who is a genuine independent as far as the LDs are concerned is one who votes with us!
I disagree with Stephen that the size of the”state” is the defining issue as far as Lib Dems are concerned. In my opinion it is whether the voters are empowered, whether they have a say in the decisions that effect them. It is more about the state being decentralised than delimited.
I have no idea how this parish conducts itself. But if for the sake of argument they make decisions without involving their constituents in the decision making process, then there is a case for a Lib Dem to stand against an Independent.

by Geoffrey Payne on August 30, 2009 at 8:58 pm. Reply #

Neil – You are conflating moral choices with “tribal politics”. As I said previously, there is no case for fatuous tribal disagreements. But even on issues where there are no party positions, moral choices are still being made. These choices should be acknowledged as such, not presented as “obvious”.

What I object to is so-called ‘independents’ passing themselves off as somehow value-free or neutral or the ‘common sense’ candidate, when in fact each of them has a distinct moral outlook. I want to know where a politician is coming from and at least with party candidates I have a reasonable idea of their outlook on life.

by Simon Titley on August 30, 2009 at 11:33 pm. Reply #

You shot my fox early on by revealing that a so-called Indenpendent Councillor was a Conservative. I remember a Councillor telling me “There is no politics on Blaby Rural District Council we are all Conservatives here.”

by fdp100 on August 31, 2009 at 5:54 pm. Reply #

Yes, but I’ve seen the consequences of town councils/parish councils developing party groupings. The results can be catastrophic. There is of course a differene between a bona fide independent, a member of a political party who for whatever reason dishonestly stands as an independent and people who stand merely with no description on the ballot form. My own belief is that town/parish councils, while being political, should try to steer clear of becoming party-political forums.

This doesn’t mean of course that people have to be dishonest about who they are and what they believe. If, for parish councils, no-one is required to stand under party labels then it also negates the need for “independents” to stand against the main parties’ candidates.

by James Robertson on September 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm. Reply #

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