Simon Barrow

The dangerous hollowing out of local democracy

By Simon Barrow
May 17, 2012

With the recent local election results, David Cameron's 60 per cent disapproval rating, dissatisfaction with austerity and the Murdoch tentacles proving embarrassing, the coalition government has hit a mini-iceberg, though not one that is likely to sink it any time soon.

The overall verdict from the local election results across Britain is that the Tories have taken a big hit in England and have become vulnerable to the xenophobic political frame behind UKIP - though the public, according to polling, want them to lean in other directions.

The Liberal Democrats have suffered their worst results since they were founded. And in Scotland and Wales there are contrary trends involving the simultaneous reassertion and crisis of the Labour opposition. The Greens did well in London and elsewhere, but are still not being seen as a sustained alternative. They have more work to do but few resources.

Meanwhile, the narrow demise of ‘the People’s Ken’ in London, the personality-driven victory of Boris Johnson, and the quiet removal of the last peace protest camp from Westminster (while none of us was supposed to be looking) seems to reflect the end of an era in the capital. Or maybe just the twist and turn in metropolitan politics.

It is party conference season in the summer and autumn where the readjustments needed by the three largest parties will be partly brokered. They will follow council polls in which two-thirds of voters did not bother to turn out, but which paradoxically still remain significant in national and regional terms.

As a result of commercialisation, central government manipulation, outsourcing, personality pushes, political blame-shift, lack of proportional representation, the imbalance between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, the demise of effective neighbourhood media and a potent combination of apathy and anger among those who are supposed to be represented, local democracy has been hollowed out disastrously in England. The case for a new governance structure now looks even stronger.

However, the ‘English problem’ is rarely acknowledged as such, and the official answer is that England already has a parliament. It’s called Westminster. That only strengthens pressure for greater self-governance elsewhere in a not terribly United Kingdom. Viewed positively, such trends could constitute a healthy move in the direction of confederalism. No one wants ‘break up’: that includes the SNP, Plaid and the Greens. Subsidiarity recognises that inter-dependence both requires and tempers autonomy.

Sadly, however, these are not the terms by which political decisions among the ruling elites are taken, or upon which referenda are constructed. More than one question at a time is deemed ‘confusing’ politically, while in the marketplace we are cajoled by myriad (often meaningless) ‘choices’.

This rhetoric of choice bereft of real influence and accountability is why voters have been deserting polling booths in their droves. The chief architects of the dominant order promote and acquiesce in systems that put increasing power in the hands of fewer, more technocratic individuals and agencies.

At the same time, the voluntary sector is being made statutory, the government sector is being marketised, polling changes too little, and protest leaks out at the political fringes and in resistance to elected mayors bypassing crucial elements of local democracy.

None of this detracts from the important, difficult work that local councillors and civil servants do. The trouble is that we, and they, are being let down by a series of political deficits which may require a much larger cultural and systemic change than we are currently envisaging.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural comment.

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