Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Democracy Delusion

One of the worst things about getting involved in library campaigning is that it has confirmed my fears that democracy is in poor health in this country. Our descendants in thousands of years (if we are still here) will look back at our adversarial party system and pity us.

We have no-one to blame but ourselves of course, roughly only a third of us bother to vote, to win only a small percentage of the electorate is needed for the candidate to claim victory.

Because of the infantile way our party politics work, parties rarely admit to getting it wrong, make policy up on the hoof based on the way policies will play in the media (even now!) and are becoming more separated from the people than ever. All three leaders are former SPADS, in fact with few exceptions most of the front benches are. I think it shows the system of nepotism and patronage is getting worse in politics not better and the parties are failing to put forward the best candidates for elections. As a system of selecting the people with the best experience to run the country the parties are a complete and utter failure.

In local councils, the parties have all their meaningful debates at group level behind closed doors, unless the council is hung or in coalition then the ruling party will hold power over all the scrutiny committees and the leader of the group is chosen by the group not the electorate. Large councils represent in some cases over a million people and the leader will only have a mandate from a few thousand yet hold all the power.

The scrutiny committees are a joke, they are supposed to be un-whipped but no party member who having had the debate and been involved in the behind closed doors discussion is likely to raise difficult questions on their parties own policy, especially since they can be removed from the committee by the leader and hand weapons to "the enemy". Without any notice the leader can fire a member from cabinet, if the councillor has no outside job and relies on his allowances then he is unlikely to upset the status quo. This puts far too much power in the hands of one person with no political mandate from nearly all the electorate. It depends on the leader in questions but the potential for abuse is there as no real checks and balances exist. I was keen on elected mayors but since the goings on in Doncaster that system isn't right yet, the mayor has the power to make decisions and ignore the will of almost the entire body of councillors which is again very undemocratic. 

Council consultations are box ticking exercises, the decision having already been made behind closed doors they basically are pointless. Filled with loaded questions and ignored apart from any part of the results the party can use to promote the policy they have already decided on. I have never a seen a consultation where the council has put forward evidence, given options, explained why they prefer a certain one but give the electorate a choice on which they prefer. The people are clearly too stupid to decide make informed choices.

Things have improved a bit, councils are being forced to be more open with data but it still isn't there yet. Like religion, the power of the parties in on the wane, as less people bother to vote the legitimacy and accountability of the parties becomes more seriously worrying.

Because of the localism agenda, councils are getting a lot more power over how they spend our money. This really needs to go hand in hand with changes to the local government act to make local government more transparent, democratic and accountable. Here are a few ideas:

  • Councils have to properly consult and give a range of options with the evidence supporting why they think their favoured approach is the best.
  • The leader should not have the power to hire and fire his cabinet and the members of the scrutiny committee, there should be elected mayor in charge who is elected during every four years, but not when council is elected and similar to the president and congress in America can have his decisions reversed by a majority of councillors who control the funding.
  • The scrutiny committees should have a lay element, members of the public should be called up to committees in a similar system to jury duty and their numbers should balance out any one party holding complete sway over the committee system. They should provide a robust challenge to cabinet rather the current system of things going through on the nod.
  • At council meetings, the public should be allowed to question the cabinet, scrutiny committee and the officers. The questions should be put in advance to give them time to respond.

Nationally things are no better, spads parachuted into safe seats, too many government jobs meaning there are few independently minded back benches and the lords is full of cronies and ex-mp's, tame select committees, the vast majority of MP's never ever rebelling against their parties and voter turn out so low that they can just rely on their base in most seats to ensure victory.

Open primaries for candidates, reducing the power of the whips and of course an elected house of lords would be good steps to giving more power back to the people but the parties, despite what they say never seem to get these things done, there are always more important issues.

They like to kid us that because our system is so old it has to be good. Compared to some countries yes it isn't as corrupt and there isn't much vote rigging but it isn't a transparent, open and accountable democracy. More parties are hopefully going to emerge and return MP's in the future, hopefully some independents too, despite my distaste at some of the smaller parties, if they get the votes then the people have spoken and they should be represented, the 2.3 party craptocracy must come to and end.

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