Being Young in Local Government

Councillor Christopher Burden

Image: risingthermals

According to the Local Government Association, the average age of a Councillor is 59, with only 15% of Councillors being under the age of 45. Nationally, 88% of Councillors identify as straight. Being a young gay councillor brings with it a dual status. Not only are you an elected official, but you also become an item of curiosity.

Six months ago, I never laboured over my identity. I was who I was and questioning this self-perception never crossed my mind. But upon election, I found the world questioning that status. Briefly, I ceased being “Chris Burden” and became a nameless entity. “The Youngest Councillor”. “The Gay Councillor”.  Concepts which were previously unspoken facets of my personality, were now my entire self. This change began while I was on the campaign trail.

Getting selected as a candidate was my first experience of the battleground of local politics. Independents don’t need to face this process, of course, but the vast majority of Councillors in the UK are party political except for notable exceptions in places like Stoke on Trent or Middlesbrough. It was here I encountered the first resistance about being young and in politics.

“Do you think that you possibly understand politics at your age?”

“Won’t you be too busy with University?”

“Will people actually vote for a person younger than them?”

To an extent they’re simple valid questions. Equally, they have simple and valid answers. Yes. No. Yes. There is a distinct Wulfrunian brashness in my response. Although this stems from a fundamental and irrevocable simplicity. Young people, just as any other community, deserve to be represented in their local areas.

Selections are a curious process in local government and effectively form the first experience of gatekeeping in the sector. Candidates aren’t necessarily rewarded or encouraged for their dedication, skill, or contribution, but rather their popularity or experience. This will vary from party to party, but the general trends are pervasive. These aren’t job interviews, in which the best candidate gets the job, but rather the candidate who is most able to convince the panels are the ones who succeed. Those who have lived long lives, or previously held positions are naturally endowed with the advantage.

This is the void where the sector must intervene to encourage youth participation and progression within political structures. Parties and councils more broadly must increase their programmes of support for those seeking election. The “Be a Councillor” programme from the LGA is an exceptionally good start, but is implemented with vast differences around the country, and does little to tailor exposure or training to poorly represented groups. As with many industries there exists a fundamental roadblock. Those who have the knowledge to look for this support, are broadly those who are less in need of the support. Professionally, I started my career in the classroom, teaching French and German. It’s here that we need to instil democratic values, but to also promote the value of local government and representation. Local government influences every facet of young people’s lives, from schools to youth centres, yet they aren’t taught to understand it as a political element. Is it any wonder that youth participation in local democracy is weak?

For those young people who do want to seek election, it’s an immensely rewarding field, providing a whole host of new and transferable skills. Even candidates who do not succeed in election learn an enormous amount about political communication and local government operations. I’ve been elected for five months and I’ve already been able to make an impact on the lives of ordinary people. High-level impact like adjusting the council home inappropriately adapted for a disabled resident, all the way down to low-level issues like supporting local charities to engage with social media. Local government is a field in which your impact can be immense, and everybody has something to give.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there’s challenges around every corner. But that’s exactly why we need more young people in politics. The West Midlands Growth Company estimates that 32% of the population in the West Midlands is under the age of 25, yet we could not say the same thing about our Council Chambers and Civic Centres. The lack of youth representation directly translates to a lack of understand of youth issues within politics, both locally and nationally.

Why do students find themselves at the mercy of rogue landlords?

Why is the night-time economy so poorly managed? Why are youth engagement services emaciated?

The answer is simple. When the service users are not represented in power, those making the decisions fail to recognise their impact. Young people have vital positions which they should be taking up within local government. They should be taking seats in council chambers up and down this country, and they must be supported in their ambitions to do so.

Chris Burden is the youngest councillor elected to City of Wolverhampton Council, and a University of Birmingham Alumnus. He is currently completing a PhD at Aston University, where his research concerns voting intention trends within the British and European young community.

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