The annual council meeting is the local government equivalent of New Year’s Eve; an evening that’s anticipated and dreaded in equal measure. We see out the old – the civic mayor at least – and usher in the new; and we do so in a way befitting of the quirks and traditions of our particular authority.
Of course, the annual meeting is also the occasion on which we elect new council leaders. As a former leader, I know only too well that it’s a ‘brave’ individual who offers up advice to those just taking on the role; political leadership is intuitive demanding different skills, approaches and strategies depending on the circumstances of your borough and the timing of your tenure. But at risk of ending up with egg on my face, I’m going to have a go anyway.
Political commentators are obsessed with the concept of the first 100 days, which can place a huge weight of expectation on the shoulders of newly elected leaders. The risk is that in an effort to demonstrate momentum, new leaders fall into the trap of simply defining themselves in opposition to what went before them. In the short term this is a problem because it can come at the expense of setting a positive agenda. But the bigger risk is underestimating the challenge of pulling together coalitions in support of change; its much easier to campaign to stop something or for no change than it is to marshall support for something new.
The other key lesson is that of simultaneously recognising the power of council leadership – a democratic mandate puts a leader or mayor in a unique position to convene people, institutions and resources – while understanding that this potential will only be realised if you have the support of those around you. The goodwill and energy of partners from across the spectrum and that of the council’s managerial leadership are critical to success. At the heart of effective political leadership is strong, trusting, mutually respectful relationships. Working on getting these right should be the top priority of anybody’s first 100 days.
Claire Kober, Director of Housing
First published in The MJ, 22nd May 2018.