Brigid Jones, Deputy Leader of Birmingham Labour Group, writes:
If leadership is lonely in normal times, leading from behind a computer screen at your kitchen table can be desolate. Four months into the Coronavirus crisis many town halls and work places are no closer to returning to being fully staffed, if open at all. For all leaders, it is hard; for political leaders, the challenges of home working are unique, and both professional and personal.
Our Council House, like all others, is usually a hub of activity. Our Cabinet occupy one corridor; our Labour Group are at the other end of it. On a day like today, an ordinary Thursday, that stretch of offices would be alive with Councillors darting in and out, doing business and musing over coffees together. Much is achieved on the margins of full Council meetings; when you have a Labour Group of 67 to lead it’s an effective way to see people, keep in touch and solve problems. There is a kettle and coffee machine in the Cabinet Office where you’ll always find some of us; it’s where we decompress from a tough meeting, or let out the adrenaline from a TV or committee appearance. It’s where we bounce ideas around with office staff and take action on things. It’s where we chew over tricky policy issues and give each other advice and, ultimately, some solace and solidarity in what can be an extraordinary responsibility to shoulder.
As councillors we come in as lay people, and find ourselves quickly responsible for, in Birmingham’s case, 12,000 staff. When I started it was 18,000; as councillors we got through the pain and heartbreak of letting people go and handling the government cuts together, taking decisions as a team, looking out for each other in often viscerally hostile public meetings, usually debriefing in a pub afterwards (believe it or not, we are human). Those staff provide services to just over a million people; people who can get upset, desperate and angry, and won’t hesitate to tell you so in emails, tweets and in person. It’s even more acute if you’re running a service that is deeply personal to someone’s life, like Adult Social Care, or my old portfolio of Children’s Services. After a particularly personal bout of harassment last year I weaned myself off a lifetime of living for work and banned myself from looking at emails and social media after I got home, preferring to work very late in the office to keep a small space in my life safe from it all. Home, and time with non-political friends, became an escape from the demands of a very difficult job; somewhere I didn’t have to be Cllr Jones, just Brig.
Abruptly, in March, for councillors up and down the country that team support was ripped away, the walls of that safe space smashed down. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – working from home meant living at work. When a colleague was accused of killing residents in a recent online public meeting, I had to tell her I knew what it felt like over the phone, we couldn’t escape for a mug of tea and solidarity together. When we have to make decisions like the ending of food parcels to vulnerable people, we agree in the chat bar of a Teams meeting and stilted structured conversations, without being able to see each other’s faces. When we get tweets accusing us of harming our staff and residents, there is nowhere else to read them than in our own kitchens and living rooms, the same places we try to live and relax.
While most meetings are technically possible through Teams and Zoom, most human interaction isn’t. Meeting with other Birmingham leaders at our City Board, or in our new virtual Labour Group, most presentations and statements are met with a wall of blank silence, because that’s how these platforms work. And in politics, human interaction is the key to understanding the people you represent and being able to represent them; you can’t lead properly when you’re cut off from the people you’re trying to lead. For senior officers operating under emergency powers, there is a particular nuance to this: unlike us, staff don’t have to live in the local authority they represent. With personal shielding requirements and local travel restrictions, it is perfectly possible for emergency decisions to be taken by officers who may not have set foot in the area they are deciding about since before Easter. The need to involve members in such decisions has never been stronger; these were powers designed for an overnight flood or the digging up of an old unexploded bomb, not the year long pandemic they are currently being applied to. We’ve had to navigate a new landscape of accountability and expectation, each of us on our own.
As lockdown eases, so do some of these problems. My first instinct as a ward Councillor in lockdown was to want to visit local residents and hold local meetings; which of course was the exact opposite of what we were allowed to do. Now individual visits are possible again, albeit as socially distanced individual front garden conversations; but public meetings still are stuck behind the frosty wall of Zoom. Normal business will not resume for some time.
But getting back into offices is still slow, and in many places with increased local restrictions, impossible. Our needs and wants clash with those of staff; processing grant payments might be more efficient from your own lounge, but being a councillor isn’t. When the LGA sought advice on whether we could return to formal meetings like parliamentarians, counsel’s opinion was that as we were neither explicitly mentioned in the legislation nor legally recognised employees, we could not. Even when hybrid meetings became a legal possibility, they remain technically impossible for many places. And if we legally can, would many be physically able to? At 33 I’m just over half the age of your average councillor. We estimate around a third of our group has been shielding.
There are some things to celebrate about the new way of working; reclaimed commuting time being the main one, not to mention the initial freedom of a diary freed from many suddenly impossible commitments. But the novelty of most of the advantages has long worn off, and as more and more things cancelled in the early days of the pandemic are reborn online, we are left with diaries as busy as ever, and greater challenges than ever, but no one to share them with.
Local intelligence, decision making and leadership are the only ways we are to get out of this crisis. If we’re to make it, we need to find ways to make it work and to let our local leaders lead – with their teams around them, their ears to their residents, and resilience reserves to cope. My kitchen kettle will make me a significantly better coffee than I’ll get in the Council House, but standing there as it boils won’t help me laugh off a faux pas, won’t tell me how someone’s day was, won’t give me advice. Like many councillors, I’ll happily take that ambiguous caffeinated stuff the office machine churns out if it comes with a side helping of humanity. Just as soon as we can make it legal and safe.