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.