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May 16, 2006

The Joy of Local Politics II: Harry Phibbs on being elected as a councillor

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs has previously described the joys of being a local party ward chairman: The Joy of Local Politics: Harry Phibbs on the recherché pleasures of being a local party ward chairman. On 4th May 2006 Harry Phibbs was elected as a Conservative councillor on Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Here he describes his hopes for the Conservative administration of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the hard work which got that administration elected. The views expressed here are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Having been interested in politics since the age of about twelve I have finally, at the age of forty, achieved elected office. I have become one of three Conservative councillors for the Ravenscourt Park ward on Hammersmith and Fulham Council. In itself this would have been of little consequence but it was one of a number of wards in the Borough where the Tories gained seats and thus have taken control of the Council. If you drive along the Great West Road, or walk along the River Thames you can see the Union Flag flying over the Town Hall.

I have very high expectations that I, and my colleagues, are going to make a difference. Given the strong inertia of local government that is a brave ambition. But in hoping that we will make a difference I mean a difference of a seismically greater degree than achieved elsewhere when there has been a change in political control of a local authority. The Conservatives are now the largest Party in local government by a considerable margin. But typically the difference achieved in the hundreds of other Councils where millions of other people live which used to be Labour, or Lib Dem run, and are now Tory run has in my view been disappointing.

It is true that the election of a Conservative administration on a Council has nearly always resulted in the Council Tax being lower than it would otherwise have been. But I'm afraid that it is also true that it is often not by much. Four years ago the heroic people of Richmond voted out the Lib Dems. With a song in their heart and a spring in their step they decided to change to a Conservative administration, to vote for a lower Council Tax. The Council Tax went up and the Lib Dems are back in charge of Richmond. There is a sobering warning there not just for me and my colleagues but for all the other Tory councillors suddenly enjoying the heady thrill of power.

In Hammersmith and Fulham we have a target of reducing the Council tax to the level in Wandsworth over eight years. Already we have frozen recruitment. The term "natural wastage" is an ugly one but the effect is benign. Reducing staff by not replacing those that leave has a significant impact cumulatively and is cheaper and less unpleasant than redundancies. Another early decision was for us to dispense with a team of Special Advisors. We the elected councillors should engage direct with the officers and take the decisions without people getting in the way.

All this maters to people living in our borough but the example could also matter nationally if it transpires that other Tory Councils are thinking what we're thinking. If the average level of Council Tax in Tory Councils was, say, half, that in Labour Councils that would be an important achievement in itself. It would also transform the credibility of the Tories as a tax cutting Party which could be cited at the next General Election when voters are contemplating whether electing a Tory Government would result in their other taxes being cut too. This is all the more important given the tax raising activities of Ken Clarke and Norman Lamont at the Treasury under the last Conservative Government.
The national media attention given to our local result gives credence to this.
Certainly the Tory leader David Cameron felt it was important enough to come out campaigning on polling day by the Shepherd's Bush Road and then to turn up the next morning at the Clem Attlee Estate in Fulham for a photo call with us, even though we and he had had little sleep. Cameron told us:

I was up at five this morning with a baby's milk bottle in one hand and a Blackberry in the other.
Our determination to deliver change is certainly strengthened by the size of our majority which in turn was strengthened by the extraordinary campaigning zeal we managed over a period of years. During the campaign I would often get up in time to give out leaflets to commuters on their way in to Ravenscourt Park tube station arriving at 7 am. If a cluster of people arrived and the first one took a leaflet so would the others. If the first didn't neither would the others - an alarming insight into the conformist nature of human psychology which seems to overwhelm political allegiance.

What made the activity easier was the camaraderie of one of my fellow Tory Council candidates leafleting the second entrance, the Station's policy of blasting out rousing classical music (drives away the yobs apparently), and the wife of one of our supporters who lives in a house opposite the station bringing out mugs of coffee.

Then I would rush off to work sometimes nipping back at the lunch break, perhaps to canvass a sheltered housing block where the frail residents were nervous of evening visitors. Then back to the newspaper office where I work. Then back to the campaign trail in time to start canvassing for votes at around 6.30 pm. I worked hard but no harder than my fellow candidates.

What was even more impressive was the work put in by those who weren't candidates - for instance those local supporters who used a day's "holiday" allowance from their jobs to come and campaign on Polling Day.

The Conservatives success in taking control of the Council followed the election of a Tory MP Greg Hands at the General Election last year. This was all the more of an achievement because he is the first Conservative MP for Hammersmith since 1964. You will be hearing a lot more of Hands. Probably the most famous previous Hammersmith MP was one William Bull. Mr Bull represented the area for 37 years between 1892 and 1929. He had the unusual and tragic misfortune to lose his wife to pneumonia after she had been out canvassing for him. For someone who died of pneumonia, Mrs Bull is ironically commemorated with a sundial in Ravenscourt Park.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist. To see how Harry Phibbs has got on as a councillor, see: The Joy of Local Politics III: Harry Phibbs gets down to work as a councillor.

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Excellent article, Harry! The only thing to add is to let people know how very hard you and your fellow councillors worked as candidates - and are continuing to work as our elected representatives!

Posted by: Sally Roberts at June 17, 2006 07:16 PM
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