Thursday, July 24, 2008

Unfamilliar ground

Er.... Simon Jenkins has written a quite-good piece on local democracy. I missed it a few weeks ago, but in the interests of balance, I should add it here.

I suppose the only major criticism (there are a number of minor gripes) I can have of it is that it can't have been written by the author of this. However, back to the current piece. Jenkins says:
British people still regard their local council as their first port of call for public services: by two to one, compared with central government (according to Mori). Yet these councils are, to the centre, mere agencies. Their elected representatives are superfluous as conduits of accountability, and their voters not to be trusted with policy, taxes or priorities.

Empowerment is empty without accountability, and accountability is empty without fiscal bite. There is no communal governance in Britain at present and no intention, on the part of either big party, to introduce it.

To the government, Britons are considered incompetent to shoulder the democratic responsibilities considered normal elsewhere. Ask why, and ministers all give the same reply: "But have you actually met any councillors? They are useless." Were it true, which it is not, they do not ask what has made them so.

When Jenkins says "..were it true, which it is not..." he is at least half-wrong in my experience (and I believe that if any commentator were to do any field-work on this, they'd agree with me rather than Jenkins on this). By way of credentials, I'd say that I've met a great many councillors in recent years - probably a good many more than Jenkins, or indeed, most journalists.

He either knows he is half-wrong or he hasn't done much field-work. Interestingly, we see no mention from Jenkins about the quality of local public sector management - another elephant in this particular room.

A better question would be to ask what can be done to change this? Because, being half-wrong on that point, Jenkins would like to see power handed to a group of people who simply would not exercise it very well. That would further damage the case for strong local representative democracy. Is Jenkins arguing, for instance, that .....
  • Councillors should be given resources and assistance with research in order to frame policy more effectively
  • Councillors should be given assistance in publicising themselves, their work, and in meeting the public in a way that they can benefit from the undoubted wisdom that the general public can impart to elected officials
  • Councils should go out of their way to make standing for the council an attractive and fulfilling civic duty
  • Council officials should be trained to understand that councillors are the most important people in the local government decision-making chain - and that the democratic services team within a council should generally have a pro-councillor (rather than a pro-Chief Executive) orientation
Certainly, there are very few local authorities that have any record of doing any of these things - even though none of them are problematic under current legislation. Would Jenkins, for instance, ask that the odious Standards Board should be scrapped so that councillors are not subjected to petty humilliations every time they have the nerve to remind an unelected local government officer about who should really be in charge in the Town Hall?

Reading him is a bit like playing Mornington Crescent. You always end up back in the same place. Jenkins has something of a track-record of using dishonest arguments in support of direct democracy and in opposition to representative government, so ... he's still the most objectively reactionary columnist writing in any British newspaper.


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