Tuesday 25 March 2014

Local Democracy: It's local, but it ain't democratic

Local Democracy: It's local, but it ain't democratic.
It's fast approaching April, which means my news feed will be dominated by local media stories pertaining to council tax.  Every year we see the same types of stories repeated over and over.  A typical example would be this one where in one authority alone, 20,000 homes were sent a "summons" in just six months. That's the equivalent of a small town.

We will soon see similar stories on a daily basis from other authorities, as indeed we did last year.  This is a subject I will return to as the noise ramps up, but if hauling 20,000 people in one authority in front of the courts isn't a manifest policy failure, I'd like to know what is.  But this is symptomatic of a much wider malaise in local government.  It starts and ends with a fundamental crisis of democracy, and we cannot begin to tackle it until our leaders understand what the word means.

This brings us to a piece last week, by Nick Golding, editor of the Local Government Chronicle, which as far as I can make out is the trade rag for all those anonymous officials sucking up hundreds of thousands in pay and perks each, with little or no democratic accountability.

He opens his piece with a swipe at Ukip: "One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them."

That much he has right.  We may have all the furniture of a democracy, but democracy; people power, we do not have.  Golding complains "Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all."

Not much to disagree with there. Essentially, local elections have been reduced to an opinion poll on the popularity of central government, and consequently all we voters have is an opportunity to protest.  Ukip being the dustbin for those protest votes means that they will do well, assuming Farage does not blow it for them. As the numbers willing to cast a vote diminishes, for reasons Golding outlines, Ukip becomes a self-selecting minority and councils will be returned on the basis of meagre turnouts.  That is not democracy in action.

Golding goes on to ask how then local democracy can be reinvigorated. Hilary Benn, shadow Communities Minister, "proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes."

Brendan O'Neill in Spiked today says that Labourites calling for a ‘bold and radical’ agenda need a dictionary. "They say there should be ‘devolution of state institutions, by giving away power… to our nations, regions, cities, and localities’. One should always be suspicious when well-paid politicos call for the ‘giving away’ of power - you just know that, in keeping with the whole pseudo-radical modern-day devolution racket, what they’re really talking about is the movement of aspects of power from the great halls and chambers of Westminster to people like them, in think-tank offices and public-sector buildings, all just itching to exercise more political clout."

He is not wrong.  Insomuch as our politicians need to look up what radicalism means, they should check up on the word "democracy" while they are at it.  Local councils as they stand are regional development agencies working in tandem with health authorities, the Environment Agency and a plethora of quangos who are even less accountable than councils. Devolution to these regional agencies is not democracy either.

But it is curious that Nick Golding and the Local Government Chronicle is in a flap about the one true democratic control we have.  He observes that Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums "forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path."

He continues "Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion."

It is of little surprise, as he remarks, "to date no council has successfully pursued this path".  Very few have put the question of council tax rises to a general vote for the simple reason they know with absolute certainty that people will not consent to them spending yet more of their money.  How horribly inconvenient.  Of course that hasn't stopped our "representative democracy" machine circumventing the public will by ramping up charges and fines to cover the shortfall, to the point where "supplementary revenue" now accounts for a third of council budgets. Hence why these referendums are "only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure".

But the central message here is that a council tax referendum "hinders representative democracy". That phrase embodies a misuse of the word democracy. In representative democracy people themselves do not hold power, so that system cannot by definition be a democracy.  In "representative democracy", politicians execute power on our behalf.  What Golding means is that giving people a say interrupts their agenda as revenue collecting entities.

Faced with a system that returns only dustbin vote councillors, who have little power in their own right, elected by a mere fraction of the electorate, with a total absence of any democracy in the proper sense, made up of people who think the role of politicians is to spend money, it is time we cut out the middle man and had our own say - on this, and everything else.

Golding complains "Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government."

What Golding asks as though the notion were reductio ad absurdum, I say say in all seriousness.  Yes, the government should be holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls.  The "democratic representatives of the people" cannot be trusted to take tough decisions on our behalf.  Only cave dwelling primitives could believe that they can.

Neither Golding, Benn or Pickles have any real interest in democracy. The debate surrounding council tax referendums is less about democracy than it is a pissing contest between their respective dunghills, to decide which of them may extort and squander our money.  What we plebs think is neither here nor there. That is why we need The Harrogate Agenda, and that is why, when the council comes knocking for more money, you should make it cost them.  That is democracy.

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