Tuesday, April 6, 1999 Published at 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Wise council for the Westminster route
Ken Livingstone is one of the best-known MPs from local government
Some 23 years ago, Diana Maddock received a knock on her door, from election campaigners in Southampton asking whether she would vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming election. When she gave them a favourable answer, they signed her up to the party.
It was an inauspicious start to a long career in politics, and today, Baroness Maddock is party president.
Next month, millions of people go to the polls to vote for their local councillors - and, potentially, a new generation of members of parliament.
So do local authorities provide the best training for MPs?
The pattern of rising up through local politics to national stardom has been repeated ever since the days of Joseph Chamberlain, a businessman who was elected mayor of Birmingham in 1873.
His radical social policies, such as educational reform, slum clearance and improved housing brought him to the attention of the nation.
A well-worn route
Popular with the people, Chamberlain's next natural step was to be voted in as an MP. His political career then appeared unstoppable. He held a string of cabinet posts under both Liberal and Conservative administrations, even holding his seat when his party was defeated.
Among Conservatives, Eric Pickles was leader of the Tories on Bradford Metropolitan District Council and Paul Beresford used to be leader of Wandsworth Borough Council, although a business or legal background - Douglas Hurd and Michael Howard were both lawyers - is more common.
Serving the local authority is also a well-worn road to parliament for Liberal Democrats.
Baroness Maddock believes there are advantages to both politician and constituency in a local government background.
"Understanding the political hierarchy of this country is important and a lot of the things people come to you about as an MP are actually local government matters."
She says a tremendous difference can be seen between those MPs who have followed that route in, and those who have not.
"I was amazed at the ignorance of some MPs who knew nothing about local government," she says. "Local councils are a good grounding - occasionally we had better debates than those in parliament.
"Though it depends where you are - coming from a large metropolitan city is good practice for parliament but not so much smaller places."
Her Lib Dem colleague, trade and industry spokesman David Chidgey, a former Winchester district councillor, agrees on the benefits of the traditional route.
Mr Chidgey also fears that cuts in funding of local government may have deprived the Commons of talent.
"People get frustrated with underfunding so give up after a few years and we lose a lot of good councillors. Twenty years ago, people felt they could make a difference to the community; now they get disillusioned."
'Make a splash - don't drown'
Veteran backbencher, outspoken Teresa Gorman, who served on Westminster City Council before joining parliament, is a big fan of the council apprenticeship.
"It may be better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond - which parliament is, as it's much more competitive - as you may be out of your depth."
Mrs Gorman's experience has led her to conclude that there are three prerequisites for Westminster success: a background in local government or law; having contacts close to the party leadership and, of course, being bright enough to actually do the job well.
Stereotypical young, middle-class career politicians, who come straight from university into a ministry, rarely make an impact, she says.
Her advice to anyone in local politics considering the next leap is: "Unless you've really got what it takes - an outstanding talent - forget it. Enjoy local government, where at least you have some authority and the opportunity to change things."