Democracy and politicians – never the twain shall meet?

As Whitehall politicians become more and more impatient with the drain local democracy places on the public purse, successive governments are finding ways to marginalise local politicians and insert those in their own image into that level of government, to do their bidding.

Labour attempted it with regional assemblies, with a sop to local democracy being made via the quality parish council initiative.  Regional government would emasculate every democratically elected body that currently existed outside of the Westminster bubble, with parish councils taking on parochial service delivery, thereby offering their local electorate a facade of local democratic power and control.

The current government has offered local government the ‘carrot’ of devolution.  The stick comes via the wresting away of democratic decision making and therefore wider than local spending powers, from directly elected local representatives, with the introduction of elected mayors.  These mayors would apparently see the bigger picture and establish a more direct line of ‘communication’ for their areas with central government.

Having failed to get these in place in a number of areas, they now appear to have come up with another cunning plan to do away with these pesky councillors.

Copied from The MJ Online Thursday 25 May 2017

Strengthening local democracy
By George Jones and John Stewart | 24 May 2017
Few have commented on a strange proposal in the Government’s Industrial Strategy green paper. It states: ‘We will work with local government to review how to bring more business expertise into local government, for example through the creation of a modern “alderman” type of role within local government’. There is no explanation of what this sentence means.

The use of the title alderman clearly repeats the use of the title mayor, which used to be restricted to the person indirectly chosen by the council to perform the politically-impartial role of chairing the council and carrying out ceremonial and social functions. But now it also refers to a person directly elected by the local electorate as the executive leader of the authority. The use of the word ‘mayor’ was intended to make this new role attractive to voters, but instead it confused the electorate as to what the role was to be. Now the term ‘alderman’ is perhaps seen as a way of making the new proposal (whatever it is) acceptable.

Whoever thought up this word may have misjudged how most people think. Aldermen have long been forgotten. They were abolished in the 1974 reorganisation of local government with little regret. They were seen as often frustrating the democratic will of the people, since they were appointed by the councillors, not the voters, and served for a six-year term.

Aldermen were usually senior councillors protected from defeat by the electorate. The position had been created in the 19th century as constituting a kind of House of Lords in local councils, acting as a constraint on the dangerous democratic processes of elected councillors.

The Government is intensifying its attack on local democracy. It is following its previous demotion of elected councillors into only the role of scrutiny of executive mayors by now proposing to diminish them further by inserting into councils aldermen, appointed not elected locally, with full voting rights.

This proposal signifies that in the culture of central government there is little interest in local representative democracy and no concern for its principles. It shows talk of local devolution is a sham.

The result of central government’s neglect of local representative democracy, or even of understanding its importance, has been that in a series of initiatives it has undermined elected local government.

Over the last 20 or more years, functions have been removed from elected authorities and placed under appointed bodies. The outstanding example is education, where schools are increasingly under the control of ‘chains’ which have emerged without any clear legislative basis.

The essence of local representative democracy is expressed in the direct election of councillors by citizens of the area they represent. But in combined authorities the mayor is the only member who is directly elected. The other voting members are appointed by their own councils.

The principle of direct election has been replaced by indirect election, usually of the leaders of the separate authorities. The principle of equal representation of areas is undermined by a restriction to a single individual for each authority, despite greatly varying populations.

The creation of directly-elected mayors undermines the position of councillors. The concentration of power in a single individual weakens local democracy. The council, as the expression of local representative democracy can alter policies and the budget only if there is a two-thirds majority, which is impossible in most local authorities.

The introduction of such ‘special majorities’ is a recent development in legislative bodies. It means the majority of a council can have no power even if a majority has voted for a proposal.

Local representative democracy is the principle on which our local government has long been based. It is the only effective way in which citizens can ensure accountability. Some, however, urge the merits of participatory democracy, and see it as opposed to representative democracy. We are not opponents of the techniques of participatory local democracy, but regard them as ways to strengthen representative democracy.

In a variety of ways local representative democracy is being eroded, leading to greater centralisation.

These developments have rightly led many, including The MJ, to argue for the start of a discussion on the future of local government, hoping it would help to reverse the process of centralisation, which has been a feature of the last 40 or so years under various governments.

Local representative democracy must be the basis on which effective and accountable local government can and must be built. There is no alternative if local government is to have the authority of responsibilities that can challenge the process of centralisation.

Centralisation cannot deliver effective government, since it thinks in terms of uniformities, whereas reality consists of diversity. Local government is the government of difference: it can respond to messy reality in ways that reflect the diversity of local circumstances.

Critical requirements to strengthen local representative democracy are for all concerned to recognise its importance and understand that political representation is an active role, involving interaction with the electorate, seeking out its views and ideas, and not merely waiting at surgeries for people’s complaints and specific problems to be aired, important though that is.

Indirect election and special majorities should be eradicated, as should the focus on single individuals as directly-elected mayors. Councils should be recognised as the supreme body locally and not regarded as requiring mechanisms to constrain its operations.

One basic constitutional change is needed to strengthen local representative democracy, ensuring it is truly representative, and that is to introduce proportional representation into local elections. The case for local government proportional representation is stronger than for Parliamentary elections, and it grows stronger in an increasingly multi-party society.

These ideas and more are set out in a book written in collaboration with Professor Steve Leach of De Montfort University, entitled Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

John Stewart is emeritus professor of local government at the University of Birmingham. George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, died last month, shortly after writing this article

A tribute to George Jones, originally published in The MJ, can be viewed here

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