Politicians of all parties recognise that the long emasculation of local councils has damaged our democracy and our decision-making – but all efforts to redress the balance have failed. While the national assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are thriving, repeated efforts to create stronger or more democratic local leadership at the regional and city level have come to little.
John Prescott kicked things off, losing his referendum on a North-East regional assembly. As today’s politicians recognise, such referenda are seen as asking the question: ‘Do you want more politicians?’, and the answer is always: ‘No!’ Even most politicians don’t want more politicians: the fiercest opponents of new elected figures are councillors, who see such plans as taking their own powers upwards rather than bringing national powers downwards.
Following Prescott’s defeat, Labour introduced a mayoral council model to personalise leadership – but when its own candidates kept losing to colourful, single-issue independents, it lost heart and decided not to begin handing down central powers to these local mayors. So it turned its attention to the city-region, the most coherent sub-national economic and social unit for strategic decision-making (the coalition knows this: its local economic partnerships, the council groupings that replaced regional government, are city-regional, as will be many of its elected police commissioners). But Prescott’s experience had made ministers allergic to referenda: instead of introducing city-regional structures, they used vague promises of future devolution to encourage councils to work together voluntarily. Unsurprisingly, most councillors remained opposed, and progress was slow.
The coalition’s city mayors policy combined all these mistakes so efficiently that outsiders might suspect sabotage. It refused to say what powers mayors would have, leaving councillors with much to lose and no reliable gains. It put mayors at the council level rather than the city-region, robbing the concept of much of its potency. Above all, it held referenda.
Recall Prescott’s experience, and Nick Clegg’s on the Alternative Vote. Observe how the Eurosceptics call for a vote on EU membership, and the Lords’ defenders demand a poll on an elected second chamber. Remember that councils have had the option of installing elected mayors since 2000, and that only a handful have done so. Now ask what how people were likely to vote on the introduction of a mayor with unspecified powers, elected at the council level after a campaign that was almost invisible to the human eye. .
It didn’t have to be like this. Had the government planned a major devolution of responsibilities from the centre to city-regional mayors, rather than a new but undefined power sitting directly above councillors, local politicians’ power profit-and-loss calculations would have looked quite different. And had it actually campaigned for the change, recruiting non-aligned local people to help, it might well have won its referenda.
And so to the government’s latest experiment in local democracy: elected police and crime commissioners. No referenda were held before introducing them – perhaps because the government genuinely wanted this scheme to succeed – and the plan’s democratic credentials now look decidedly shaky. Voter turnout is likely to be risible: the recent local elections only drew 32 per cent of the electorate, and commissioners are to be elected in a stand-alone November poll. What’s more, most candidates appear to be Westminster politicians and senior councillors, rather than the charismatic independents who’ve won so many council mayoral contests. This is not a model designed to enthuse an embittered electorate – and if the turnout is tiny, it will be very doubtful whether democracy has actually been strengthened at all.
The coalition says it wants stronger local democracy. But like its Labour predecessor, it doesn’t trust sub-national government enough to hand down its own powers. Instead, it has given away the powers of police authorities, in a move that is not obviously either democratic or localist. Does CSW back the election of police commissioners? Let’s have a referendum on it! ?
Footnote: CSW survey and The Guardian
On Thursday 17 May, The Guardian carried an article that claimed to examine our Special Report survey – but it was riddled with errors, misinterpreted and twisted the findings, and attributed to me quotes that I did not give. The Guardian has since corrected its factual mistakes, acknowledged that the published article “contained multiple errors [and] was published by mistake”, and run a letter from myself pointing out the biggest inaccuracies. The letter, corrected story and correction notice can be seen at http://cswne.ws/KXlEfc. Better still, read the real story at cswne.ws/Jwd37g ?
Matt Ross, Editor. email@example.com