The Scottish vote for independence demonstrated mass popular alienation from the mainstream political parties writes Richard Hatcher. A burning grievance that people are voiceless and powerless in the face of the Westminster party machines and their politics of austerity.
This same alienation is all too evident at the level of local government. The local level is where the savage cuts in public services impact most directly on the lives of families and communities. Those cuts are being relayed by local councils, whichever party is in control. But people feel they have no influence over their local council, as the low turnout in local elections demonstrates – often less than one-third, and lowest among the young. The mechanisms of local government are designed to exclude effective popular involvement and influence. A cross on a ballot paper every few years and the occasional token consultation exercise. You can watch council decision-making on a web stream but you can’t make an input into it.
Yet according to an Ipsos MORI report “Almost six in ten of the public (58%) say they want to be actively involved in decisions shaping public services through, for example, activities like deciding spending priorities. They favour the idea of more public control and greater active involvement in service design and delivery.” (What do people want, need and expect from public services? 2010, p32).
The response by the left is local campaigns against the cuts but not campaigns to challenge and open up the council’s decision-making mechanisms which make the cuts. We need to do both, on the principle of participatory democracy: where there is power there must be public participation. Two current developments provide an opportunity.
One is the growing pressure on the political parties to devolve more power from central government to local councils, raising the stakes of local struggles over policy. We should be in favour, provided it does not deepen social and geographical inequalities. It means that the local stakes are higher.
The other is the move within local government, and especially Labour councils, some under the banner of ‘Co-operative Councils’, for more devolution from Town Halls to localities and neighbourhoods. What motivates them is not a sudden enthusiasm for popular power but a strategy for communities to prioritise and manage their own cuts in services and substitute for public provision – ‘austerity localism.’ Nor is it very democratic: while some operational decisions are devolved to constituencies, wards, neighbourhood bodies and community trusts, the key strategic decision-making remains in the Council House, immune from popular involvement.
But it does unlock a door which we should push wide open. For example, in Birmingham the Labour council has held an inquiry into ‘Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose? ’ – the answer was a resounding no – and have now launched a Community Governance Review into the current local area structures, beginning with a whole day Democracy Convention in October.
The wards and constituencies of local government come to life when there is a mass turnout by campaigners against council cuts. That is also an opportunity to press for the democratisation of procedures, and especially to campaign to prise open the bastion of council power, the Cabinet and Scrutiny system, which restricts power to a small minority of councillors in the Cabinet, supposedly challenged by actually toothless scrutiny committees, both excluding public involvement. And here we can learn some lessons from radical reforms in some left Labour councils in the 1970s and 80s. Scrap the Cabinet system and replace it with service committees – still permitted – comprising councillors and also lay members elected from community bodies. Enable public input into and membership of Scrutiny committees to give them some teeth.
We don’t have illusions in what can be achieved in terms of transforming councils into fortresses of ‘municipal socialism’. But local politics poses the question of class power in a very immediate and tangible way in people’s lives, and the experience of collectively challenging the decision-making mechanisms of the local state as well as its policies, linked to campaigning on the ground, can contribute to the formation of new collective class identities. It is also particularly relevant to women, because many local government issues particularly affect women; and also to minority ethnic groups who can utilise their community strength to campaign for change.