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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.

[ image:
"Understanding the hierarchy is important": Diana Maddock
Joining a political party locally, then being elected onto the council, is the traditional first step into politics. For some, it is a stepping stone to the supposedly-glamorous world of Westminster.

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.

[ image: David Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council]
David Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council
Today, well-known examples of those who have followed the traditional route to Westminster include Labour's Education Secretary David Blunkett - former leader of Sheffield City Council - and Ken Livingstone, former leader of the Greater London Council.

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.

Apprenticeship advantages

Baroness Maddock believes there are advantages to both politician and constituency in a local government background.

[ image: Eric Pickles had plenty of experience as a councillor]
Eric Pickles had plenty of experience as a councillor
"I would have found it mind-boggling to arrive in parliament not having had a career in local politics," she says.

"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."

'Parochial' warning

Her Lib Dem colleague, trade and industry spokesman David Chidgey, a former Winchester district councillor, agrees on the benefits of the traditional route.

[ image: David Chidgey believes cuts have hit councillors' ambitions]
David Chidgey believes cuts have hit councillors' ambitions
But he warns: "If that's all you've ever done, the danger might be that you have a skewed view. The experience needed for parliament is different - it's not just local issues. You risk being a bit parochial if you've done nothing else."

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.

[ image: Only the very able win top jobs, says Teresa Gorman]
Only the very able win top jobs, says Teresa Gorman
"It's a tremendous training ground," she says. "Parliament operates on certain routines and unwritten rules which nobody tells you about when you join. If you don't know what standing orders are, for example, you're lost.

"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."

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