MP or councillor? Which would you rather be?


MP or councillor? Which would you rather be?

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Can you do more for your area as an MP or by sitting on the local council? With the election imminent, Councillor Patrick Kitterick compares the two roles. Join the discussion by posting your thoughts in the comment box at the end of the article.

The next general election, regardless of outcome, will see a huge ‘changing of the guard’ at Westminster. Many MPs will go under their own steam, with at least a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party leaving voluntarily before polling day.

The expenses scandal hit the headlines. But there is a much more common reason for standing down from Parliament – that is, to achieve something new. This was illustrated by the headline when Tony Benn announced his departure as an MP:

“Benn retires to spend more time with his politics.”

Ironically, as one regiment of MPs leaves the green leather battlefield, a new army of councillors are ready to change local office for a seat in Westminster. No doubt they are partly inspired to stand because they are frustrated by the lack of power granted to them at the local level from Whitehall.

So as they pass each other on Westminster Bridge who is making the right choice in the power stakes? MPs or councillors?

Most of it depends on temperament. The primary work of an MP is the passage of legislation, which can be a tedious and abstract process. It is no coincidence that members of the legal profession are so over-represented in the Houses of Parliament. For them, the passage of legislation is meat and drink.

Parliamentary commentators often scorn the role of the modern MP as a ‘glorified social worker’ mired in casework and local constituency campaigns. But it is only through this aspect of an MPs work that they can enjoy the sweet taste of direct achievement amid the porridge of the legislative grind.

MPs can influence the famous ‘mood’ of Westminster and, indirectly, the general direction of government. But modern MPs rarely have a direct influence over the rise and demise of senior politicians in contrast to the media jury and wider public judgements of performance.

The main power of being an MP is to hold a ticket in the lottery to achieving ministerial and cabinet office. In the British constitution, with the executive drawn from the legislature, there is a real lack of career path – such as exists in America – as a legislator.

There are few MPs who, having been offered ministerial office, have declined it. Even MPs who are regarded as mavericks – such as Clare Short, Alan Clark, Ann Widdecombe and Frank Field –  all stood at the government dispatch box.

So do councillors have it any better?

The main reward of municipal office is in the ability to influence your local area in a much clearer way.

As a councillor you often have the chance to oversee budget amounts that you would only touch as an MP if you reached senior ministerial office. Even district councils, whose cash is relatively limited, have annual budgets of tens of millions of pounds. Once you get to city council level you can be talking about hundreds of millions.

Even looking ahead at a time of tighter public finances, the amount of money councillors control will be greater than the personal fortunes of most people on the UK’s ‘rich lists’. And that is often before being in charge of a property portfolio that would make Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags blush!

You still need to work to find the power in local government. After all, in the words of Frederick Douglass:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

However, at a local level it is a lot easier to locate and use power for the benefit of the people you represent. It is in improving people’s lives that the real reward of a councillor’s work lies. The sheer range of activities you can become involved in is amazing.

For example, in the last three years Leicester City Council has built a new theatre, a new independent cinema, brand new schools, and created new football pitches across the city. Now, after a generation, councils are building council houses again, as well as being the landlord of choice to thousands of existing tenants.

Leicester, through the city council, has hosted the Special Olympics and runs one of the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India.

In coming years, Leicester is looking forward to:

  • building a new art gallery
  • creating a new 3,000-4,000 home community on council-owned land
  • building a £67 million bus station fit for the 21st century
  • developing a combined heat and power facility designed to cut our carbon emissions and secure the future energy supply for our city.

If you cannot find something of interest and inspiration in all of those activities and projects, then I would question why you came into public office in the first place.

I believe it was Nye Bevan who complained that whenever he thought he had got power it disappeared round the corner. To be fair, that pursuit of power took him from Tredegar to Whitehall and led to the creation of the NHS.

But many of the councillors swapping the parks department for Parliament this spring will leave behind a whole host of possibilities. I hope they don’t regret it.
Page published March 2010.

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