An unexpected defection in Babergh, the District Council which covers most of South Suffolk, has seen Dean Walton, the councillor for Sudbury East, join the Green Party. So far, so uninteresting. However, what is interesting is that he has left the Conservative Party to join them.
From the perspective of Babergh, which is in no overall control, the new composition of the Council is:
- Conservatives - 18
- Liberal Democrats - 16
- Independents - 7
- Green - 1
- No Description - 1
However, given the rather vast gulf between Conservative and Green policy on virtually everything, one does wonder whether his switch indicates a lack of ideology or philosophy. Alternatively, one might wonder if his adoption as a Conservative candidate was based on anything other than living locally.
I've been involved in the process of approving council candidates in the past, and in every instance, we've attempted to ensure that all candidates are actually Liberal Democrats. However, where local community campaigners have been suborned to one or other political party, there is the risk that their loyalty is to their causes rather than their party.
It is a sign of the times that candidates are often adopted because they are willing rather than because there is a choice of options, even where the party has been in power for some time, and even though there is more money available to councillors than ever before. Frankly, not many people want to serve at local level, even if getting elected in some cases is inevitable.
In my own ward, my councillor doesn't live here. She doesn't live in any of the neighbouring wards either, not that this is in itself a criticism. However, given that it is currently a safe Conservative seat, it might be reasonable to wonder why a more local candidate couldn't be found.
Perhaps it is the commitment of time that is required. In a rural area like Mid Suffolk, council meetings and committee meetings don't take place in the evening, thus ruling out most people with jobs. What that means is that councillors are disproportionately self-employed and/or old, and by implication rather unrepresentative of the population.
That lack of effective competition means that voters are likely to be poorly served by their councillors in terms of feedback, in terms of communication and in terms of accountability. After all, what is the incentive to interact if you were the only choice?
I do wonder whether, due to the reasons above and many others, the strength of the link between candidate and party has weakened in recent years, increasing the risk of defections, encouraging early resignations and a lower rate of re-election as councillors grow weary of public service rather sooner than was once the case.
Perhaps we need to worry about the effects this will have on our democracy?