Skip to main content

Councillors stepping up

UK Map
Planning Communications and Consultation
general election 2024
local advocacy

It’s a well-trodden path, from the Town Hall (or possibly ‘Civic Centre’) to what one of my former council colleagues called ‘The Big House’ (for information: he didn’t make it there). As well as being home to lifers, local government is the training ground for the political stars of tomorrow, to the extent that councillors are sometimes called ‘wannabe MPs’. Sometimes they go all the way to the top: prime ministers John Major and Theresa May were London borough councillors long before taking the top job. Another ‘PM’ – Peter Mandelson – was briefly a councillor in Lambeth, 1979-82. In the 2010-15 term, an almost comically large number of Islington Labour councillors sought parliamentary seats outside the borough. It’s more mixed this time, but the centre of gravity has shifted not to Camden but to Lambeth and Southwark and Lewisham.  

With the contemporary focus on candidates with ‘life experience’, what do former councillors bring to the Commons and who are the notable councillor-candidates this time round? Do they carry the torch for local government, or is it all forgotten?

When Jim McMahon decided to move into parliament in 2015, he had been feted as the most effective local leader in the country. The hope among councillors was he would promote the needs of local government. He’s now back for a second spell as shadow local government minister. Despite the early talk of housing in this campaign, the specific challenges local government has faced in the last 14 years have not yet reached the top of the agenda.

So what skills carry over? Any council leader will have already managed a large internal group with competing interests and demands, in the interests of the stability of a large organisation. But being an MP is not only ministerial roles and filing through voting lobbies: councillors at any level are much more vulnerable to deselection and closer to the party membership so already know how to manage the local internal wranglings that provide a headache for many an MP. There are other benefits to being a councillor first. If you are standing in your own area, you already know it well. That local knowledge will help in a marginal constituency. The late selections of candidates with strong CVs solely outside on-the-ground politics may or may not have a steep learning curve.

Due to its public prominence, taking a lead in regeneration/development remains a solid choice for those looking to go further. Naturally, this is more so for Labour councillors in London. Names like Shama Tatler, Danny Beales, Jas Athwal and Nes Caliskan will be familiar to developers with significant interests in London. The industry may mourn the loss of these practical pro-development councillors to national government. One friend of regeneration who won’t be joining them will be Barking & Dagenham leader Darren Rodwell. He was selected for Barking but withdrew earlier this week as the Labour Party prepared to deal with complaints against him. He was replaced another leader, Enfield’s Nes Caliskan. 

For councillors, the choice is sometimes a tough one. Being an MP is more money and prestige, but it’s often said that you have more influence and power as a council leader than as a backbench or opposition MP. With Labour heading for government, this framing changes for Labour leaders. The time to get on the ladder to ministerial office is now!

But that’s also why so few Conservative councillors have caught our eye. As the number of reliably safe Conservative constituencies falls away, the scramble for selection is not from councillors but party advisers who expect to be without a job soon. Doubtless this has led to some disgruntlement among local members. Basildon and Billericay members made the news this week for actively seeking the removal of party chairman Richard Holden as their candidate.

For local government watchers, this general election will have lots of immediate fallout. All being as predicted, there will be by-elections needed (eventually), and a fair few leaders’ seats to fill. This could change the strategic direction in some places. Labour councillors will need a new representative on the party’s National Executive Committee, and the LGA may be looking for a new chair if Shaun Davies wins in Telford.
Just some of the (ex-) councillors to look out for:

Already stars

  • Alan Strickland (Ex-Haringey/Newton Aycliffe and Spennymoor): has played the long game and remains eminently connected in the party.
  • James Asser (Newham/West Ham and Beckton) –NEC Chair and prominent Labour moderate.
  • Georgia Gould (Camden/Queen's Park and Maida Vale) – very close with the leadership with family history in the party.
  • Nes Caliskan (Enfield/Barking): a meteoric rise so far, well-liked by the centre, and duly got the nod to replace Margaret Hodge. Has attended shadow cabinet as the NEC rep for councillors.


Returning for a second bite
  • Jess Asato – (ex-Islington/Lowestoft): lost in Norwich North in 2015, former Tessa Jowell adviser, named one of the ‘most influential leftwingers’ by the Telegraph as far back as 2010.
  • Lucy Rigby (ex-Islington/Northampton North): narrowly lost in Lincoln in 2015.
  • Helen Harrison (Con, North Northamptonshire/South Thanet): a cabinet member who recently lost the Wellingborough byelection, now travelling further afield, but may be undone by Reform.


Ones to watch
  • Bayo Alaba (Redbridge/Southend East and Rochford): part of the 2022 intake of councillors, a former para with a refreshingly straightforward approach to politics, in with a very good chance in this Tory seat.
  • Andrew Johnson (Con, Whitehaven and Workington): is unlikely to win but has bags of experience: formerly leader of Windsor and Maidenhead and a cabinet member in Hammersmith and Fulham.
  • Michael Payne (Gedling/Gedling): Deputy leader in Gedling. Prominent in local government circles and very locally focussed in this key marginal seat.