It often seems to be my fate that I find myself only truly ready to take on a particular role at the point when that role is no longer available to me.
I was for three years a member of the Executive of Luton Borough Council back when the Liberal Democrats formed a minority administration. Having only been a councillor for a year before taking on the role of a portfolio-holder and not having done anything remotely similar in the past it involved a huge amount of learning on the job. To say it was a steep learning curve would be an understatement. I was very lucky to receive some excellent training. I owe a huge debt to Erica Kemp and the others involved in the Next Generation leadership programme on which I had the good fortune to be invited to take part. I also got to work with some talented and dedicated council officers who were often very tolerant of my beginners mistakes. I know that I did achieve things but I also know that I would have achieved a hell of a lot more if I had had more of a clue about what I was supposed to be doing when I started the job. I feel I only really developed a true understanding of what that role involved and how I could make it work at around the time when we lost control of the council.
I’ve had a similar experience this year.
Politics can be a very odd thing to get involved with. Standing for elected office doubly so. To put yourself up in front of your fellow citizens and say my talents and abilities are the ones you should put your trust in and that my ideas and opinions are the ones you should vote for requires developing a somewhat unusual mind set. Lets be honest it can require a degree of self confidence, some would say arrogance, that in other situations would be seen as an unattractive character trait.
Also it is a combative activity. You may feel that in your life or at your workplace others are out to get you. This may or may not be paranoia. But if you go into politics, by definition, this will be true. All politics involves a degree of conflict. Where this conflict is over matters of principle and substance and offers a genuine choice to the electorate then it can be a healthy, often vital, thing. But it is often too easy for that conflict to drift into being about petty or trivial things, to become a personal row about slights and hurt feelings, or develop into a cycle of conflict for its own sake. I’ve found that Luton politics has a very combative, a very party political, culture and has too often involved the latter form of conflict.
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with these two aspects of politics. I’ve accepted them and I’ve learned to deal with them. From the outside to some people it may have seemed that I have relished them. But the truth is that putting myself forward and dealing with the resulting conflict has always involved burning up significant amounts of emotional and psychological energy. I am not a natural politician. In order to do the things I have wanted to do I have had to invest heavily in developing a series of learned behaviours. So I have often felt ill at ease with the idea of being a politician.
I have found that this unease is most keenly felt at election time. A lot of campaigning can be very pleasant. Getting some fresh air and exercise delivering leaflets on a sunny day, often listening to music or catching up on podcasts while I do so, and then meeting up with colleagues for a beer afterwards can be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But canvassing, knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for you, has always been something I’ve had to steel myself to do. I’ve always had a degree of sympathy for Jehovah’s Witnesses and those people who try to persuade you to change your utility supplier, even as I am turning them away, because I know how draining it can be to go from door to door.
I’ve also at times worried about the impact that all this politics was having on my personality. There is a stereotype of a local councillor being someone whose great love is the sound of their own voice. I fear there have been too many occasions when I have appeared to embody that stereotype more closely than I would care to admit. One of the real dangers of long term exposure to local government is that it can make you, well, boring.
Now you may find all this introspection and self doubt a little trying. So you will be pleased to know that this year that changed. This election was the first election in which I have taken an active part in when I truly felt comfortable in the role of a local politician. I even felt keen to get out there and knock on peoples’ doors. I don’t whether this is greater self confidence or something else, but it felt like it fitted in a way that it never had done before.
Now you could take the view that this is evidence that I had finally been “captured by the system” and that my losing is therefore actually a lucky escape. But it does feel more than a little frustrating that the year in which I first felt fully comfortable in the role of being a local politician is the year when I stop being one.