On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.
Most political achievement is a collective endeavour. Things are done by groups of people working together towards a goal. Whether this is a campaign team, a council group, a cabinet, or a parliamentary party progress is made by politicians agreeing to work on a shared agenda. It is also in the nature of politics, and of government at any level, that the politicians are involved in the decision making process but that the actual implementation is usually done by others. The civil servants and the council officers.
So identifying individual personal achievement can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
There are things I can point to that I was directly involved in during my time as an elected councillor that I am very proud of. Concrete achievements that I believe I made a significant contribution to. Yet for most of them I share the responsibility with others. It is difficult to tell where my contribution starts and their contribution ends. There are also far more things that I have influenced but couldn’t claim any direct responsibility for. A suggestion here and a criticism there that was incorporated into the work of others. I also reckon that there are loads of things that I have influenced without being aware of it myself.
The above will be true for anyone working in a political environment. From Presidents and Prime Ministers down to the local parish councillor the honest politician will say “we did this” much more than they say “I did this”.
However, there is a problem with the nature of this collective endeavour. Politics is invariably interpreted by the voters and the media as being about the individual. So there is an electoral imperative for politicians to claim the credit for things. Whether it is the local MP, the party leader or the council candidate they are all saying at one level or another “vote for me” because I have done (or will do) this particular thing.
There is also the hugely important issue of accountability. When things go wrong someone will need to be held to account for it. The buck needs to stop with someone and that someone should be a politician. Although a cock up may be the result of mistakes by several individuals, or even the result of bad systems and processes, in a healthy democracy the public need to be able to vote out the individual or individuals who are held to be responsible.
So isn’t it only fair that when things go right it gets to be the same politicians who claim the credit?
When I was a portfolio-holder I made a point of saying to council officers that when things go wrong, even if it is them making the mistakes, it would be me as the politician who takes the blame and has to shoulder the consequences. But that the deal is that in return when there is success, even if it is in large part down to them, it would be myself and my party that would claim the credit.
I don’t like to see council staff, whether in meetings or the media, being attacked and criticised publicly. It is for the politicians to get it in the neck. I strongly believe that it is those who have been elected who should be accountable for the failures, but also the successes, of a government or a council administration.
However, having said all that, I’ve actually been quite bad at claiming personal credit for things. On top of the aforementioned difficulty in identifying those things that are specifically down to you, there is the fact that blowing my own trumpet is something that I feel reticent to do. (Although writing about them on a blog perhaps suggests that I am getting over this problem!)
But there are some clear examples of personal achievement that I can identify. There are a few things that I can point to and say “I did that”. These are things that I am not embarrassed about claiming the credit for and are things I believe probably wouldn’t have, or wouldn’t have happened in the same way, if it were not for my actions.
That said, some of them are quite dull and a bit nerdy. I will start with some of those and then work up to the more exciting ones.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.