Friday, November 28, 2008

How the Congestion Charge could be decided in a way that improves the quality of governance

Here's Steve Platt on Boris' 'consultation' about the western extension of the Congestion Charge Zone:
"The problem is that Bojo’s consultation exercise, in which he promised to ‘listen to the people of London’ and go along with whatever they said, has about as much to do with democracy as a phone-in talk show. Those who bother to express their views are those who feel strongest on the subject.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s those who were being made to pay more for the privilege of driving their petrol combustion engines through any semblance of a sensible transport and environmental policy who shouted loudest. Out of 28,000 responses (London’s electorate numbers 5,044,962, by the way), 67 per cent of individuals and 87 per cent of businesses said get rid of the zone, let us drive for free. You’d have had a similar response if you’d proposed abolishing car insurance.

Much less well-publicised has been the response to Transport for London’s mini-opinion survey on the subject. This was organised to see how representative the responses to Bojo’s consultation exercise were.

The answer is: hardly at all. In the TfL survey, only 41 per cent of individuals (out of 2,000 surveyed) favoured getting rid of the western extension and only half of businesses (out of 1,000). Thirty per cent of individuals favoured keeping it as it is and 15 per cent said they would keep it but make changes to the way it operates (such as easing restrictions in the middle of the day).

On a crude reckoning that makes a 45:41 per cent majority in favour of keeping a modified scheme – which is an odd sort of popular mandate for its abolition."
Boris should have just said this instead:
"Blinking flip! I put it in my manifesto. I won the election. I'm going to jolly well do it .... er jove."
Aside from the waste of energy and resources that this consultation caused, this is the kind of abuse that we can expect more of as long as we have this illiterate demand to be consulted and 'have our say' on any contentious issue.

A properly structured (televised?) public debate based on evidence, (and not one of those 'have-your-say-a-thons' that TV debates usually consist of) and then voted on by the individuals who have been elected to the London Assembly would have been a different matter altogether. Or even better - a weighted vote of the Assembly (reflecting the London-wide interest) and the relevant local councillors in the boroughs and wards effected.

When people talk about a "disenchantment with existing democracy", the answer isn't to cook up some scheme whereby the usual suspects - the fanatics, if you like, have a shouting contest.

It's one where we find ways to make votes at a local government and a regional government level count. Where the best decisions are the result of a distributed moral wisdom - not the diktat of a handful of powerful players using their aggregated power.

That means that we need elected representatives to be more communicative - to show their working, and to explain their decisions. And here's the big question; I suspect that - if you got most of our senior politicians into a Chatham House seminar with a few political scientists, that this is the conclusion that they would eventually reach (though probably with an understandable lack of enthusiasm) as well.

But there is no sign that this model of democracy is being promoted or facilitated either by the political parties, the government, or by many individual politicians. It is not the system that the permanent bureaucracy expect to have to work for, and in my experience, they actively undermine anything that looks a bit like it. This new study offers some confirmation of this view.

This is a representative democracy solution - not a direct democracy one. The improvement and logical trajectory of the world's most successful model of governance is - and will be - blocked by incumbents, both political and bureaucratic. And there isn't a popular movement anywhere speaking truth unto power about this.

Why? Bigger fish to fry?

1 comment:

mikeovcentralmanchester said...

Keep your eye on the current excercise in direct democracy going on in the Greater Manchester area Paulie. We are currently voting on congestion charging, in a referendum that covers all GM boroughs and which is counted on a borough basis.(A proportion of the boroughs have to vote in favour for it to be introduced.) This, along with some comments from a serving council officer (on another set of issues) I spoke to earlier in the week lead me to ask; perhaps we might need a Greater Manchester County Council? An idea whose time has come?