Free-thinking, free-speaking, free from the party machine
John Wood asks if you have the appetite to seek election as an independent councillor.
Aspiring councillors are getting out their campaign boots and preparing for that long walk up to the first front door – the question is: "Has the political party had its day in local government; is this the dawning of the new age of the independent?"
Elections for a new Cornwall Council are now less than eight months away – 120 seats need to be filled.
What is the tenor of public opinion as would-be candidates weigh up their chances and contemplate whether to become public property?
A potential council candidate will be looking at current issues, like the cost of social care, the future of libraries, 'outsourcing' council services to private companies, economic development funding, how to house the low-paid and disadvantaged with housing costs soaring, the growing clash between agriculture and developers as the 'battle for the land' intensifies.
Potential candidates will be asking if they wish to become embroiled in navigating a path through them, giving time, their minds and their energies in what appears to be a thankless task.
To those who do the job, it is a profound experience, one in which the intensity of contributing to society impresses itself on their lives, and is conveyed to their families. Sometimes, a councillor is confronted with ethical choices which are difficult – it is a challenge, but a rewarding one.
A councillor's job is very varied. It requires as much thinking and reading time, as it does sitting in meetings.
It evolves so that even wandering about admiring the view becomes part of the job. Certainly talking to people, in crowds, rooms, on footpaths, street corners – is a key part of sampling opinion, letting oneself be shaped by the community, explaining, learning. It becomes a job which consumes, delights, preoccupies and fulfils.
A councillor will shift focus in minutes from worrying about an overgrown footpath to considering progress of an EU funding programme, and then will sit in judgment of a planning application before listening and sharing with a parish council meeting – big and small pictures constantly juggle in an often thrilling, occasionally bemusing way.
In contemplating whether to stand, one of the key concerns is whether or not to adopt a label, to accept a party whip, or to resist temptation and to pay your own way, adopt the principle that the best decisions are made by winning agreement, not by controlling votes.
It's a myth that political parties are coherent and deliver manifestos – they can be out of touch, often anonymous, and only about at election time, and more focused on competing with 'the opposition' than on people and communities.
Growing scepticism and disenchantment with politics stems from a public perception that the constant point-scoring, marketing and polling, the negative sniping of the seemingly endless 'battle', all detract from true 'representation of the people'.
More people like the independent candidate – the individual the community knows, who stands to represent people, not party; who chooses to work through building consensus, who has a direct relationship with electors undistracted by party loyalties, pressures of central offices or vacuous election calculations.
The independents of the 21st century are younger, more challenging, computer-literate – they demand accountability and they speak their minds. They consider issues on their merits, and do not bury the real debate in private meetings. They value and understand the communities they live in and represent.
Independent candidates have no 'machine' except friends and family. They pay their own way, and knocking on doors, closing gates, presenting themselves to as many people as possible, some disinterested, some rude, some annoyed to be dragged away from Coronation Street, they find increasing numbers of people who believe the independent councillor is the best thing for local government.
Many relationships are formed on the campaign trail which delight and endure.
Electors are not fools. Nobody likes paying tax, but, once paid, taxpayers want value, they want to be talked to, to be involved, to hear the rough and the smooth – with independents they tend to get all that, and a commitment to values rooted in community experience, not in corporate party machines; they want the truth, not what is spun for PR relations managers.
Being an independent isn't easy, but it is true.
Electors don't want their local government sullied by negative sniping and carping. They want direct diligence, careful decision-making and representatives who do their best acknowledge mistakes and don't crow mawkishly about success.
If you are independently minded, care about Cornwall and your community and want to make a difference, then think about becoming a Cornwall councillor. The election's in May – time to start steeling yourself to walk up that first garden path to knock on that first door.