We need to democratise local government

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.

  1. This article accurately describes the various ways that the local government system across the UK provides the central Westminster government(and in turn the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament too) with a very useful mechanism to camouflage the real (central government ) source of the major ongoing funding reductions to local authorities which drives the local Austerity Offensive in ever reducing provision of local services. Inviting local citizens to participate in a bogus process of “local decision-making” on where cuts should fall – is just another aspect of this ideological obfuscation process – ie, to stop citizens seeing the capitalist system and the transfer of wealth to the capitalist superrich as the real reason for Austerity.

    It is also quite true that the “Cabinet System” in local councils , which has essentially put real power in the hands of a tiny group of leading councillors – leaving most councillors as purely rubber stamps in the decision-making process – has been a woeful reduction in local democracy over the last 20 years in which this Cabinet governance system has become increasingly the norm .

    The danger implicit in this article is in seeing the restoration of, or extension of , more democratic structures in local government as in itself any sort of decisive way forward. I’m afraid that , in a capitalist state, with a ruling class currently very much in the ideological driving seat in winning hands down so far the arguments about the “need for ever deeper Austerity” , and a trades union movement still in headlong retreat from confronting the Austerity Offensive, greater democracy at local level in itself will achieve very little. As the shameful Austerity implementing actions of the Greens in Brighton clearly show (and many supposedly Leftish local Labour Councils too) , winning seats , and control of a council, on any other basis but a commitment to refuse outright to implement any cuts at all , ie, to “do a Clay Cross or Liverpool”, simply leads a leftish or radical council to eventually collaborate in implementing the cuts , no doubt in floods of tears, and with much hand-wringing, but implement them anyway they usually do. This stark reality means that all the verbiage about campaigning to “extend local democracy” needs to be viewed with some suspicion. Is it actually, like the petty nationalist demands of some Lefties in Scotland and Wales, just “political displacement activity”, ie, avoiding trying to build a real anti capitalist working class resistance mass movement, in favour instead of easier campaigns against much more abstract “democratic deficit” issues ?

    If Left Unity is to have any useful role in campaigning in the local government electoral forum, it is of course OK to highlight the undemocratic nature of structures like the “Cabinet System”, but our main message needs to be “Vote Left Unity and we will never implement Cuts which harm local people “. This would of course mean that, should a Left Unity group of councillors eventually get to lead a local council, this principle would very quickly lead to a “Clay Cross/Liverpool council” style confrontation with central government. This confrontation is one that a Left Unity led Council would probably lose in the short term – but as part of a mass nation-wide movement to “make the rich pay, not the majority” involving mass action in communities and workplaces, such a tactic is at least aimed at creating the ideological understanding and class activism which can move the struggle against Austerity and for socialism forward. The struggle for “greater democratic structures and processes” in isolation is simply a diversion from the need to build a real mass class struggle movement of resistance.

  2. The Labour Party have made a big mistake in accepting yesterday the principle of an elected Mayor for Greater Manchester, in return for more supposed ‘devolution’ of power. This policy was rejected by the electorate of Manchester City in a referendum in April 2012.

    An elected Mayor for the whole of Greater Manchester would be even more undemocratic. While Manchester itself is the largest local authority, it has declined massively since its heyday and now only constitutes around 19% of the Greater Manchester area (though it has risen more recently). The conurbation was originally called ‘South East Lancashire/North East Cheshire’ (SELNEC) back in the late 1960s but that was considered too clumsy a title and ‘Greater Manchester’ emerged as the least worst alternative. Local pride in their towns is very high and people in the likes of Wigan, Oldham, Stockport and Rochdale don’t consider they live in Manchester. With Mayoral elections conducted on the basis of a modified First Past the Post system, it is likely that the parties in contention will all chose Manchester-based local politicians to maximise their vote; the mayoral office is likely to be based in Manchester where media also congregates (included just across the Irwell, though technically this is in Salford City). Decisions affecting everyone in the conurbation are likely to be based on Manchester pressures rather than local democratic pressures.

    A council of elected representatives (elected on a PR system or STV) from across the conurbation is far more likely to be democratic.

    Furthermore, unless tax systems for local government are fundamentally reformed, the Mayor (or council) will only be tinkering with the management of austerity. Property-based taxes (the Business Rate and Council Tax) are fundamentally regressive and centrally-controlled – they need to be reformed and made progressive and subject to democratic control, through a local asset and profit-based tax on businesses and a local service charge to individuals based on ability to pay (ie income tax), rather than sales or property taxes. Equalisation needs to be made on a national level to avoid poorer areas being penalised (the demand for which on a London basis was the basis on which the Poplar councillors were prepared to go to prison in the 1920s).

    In addition, local councils should have a ‘general power of competence’ – the ability to do anything that benefits their local residents (during the period of rates, local councils could levy up to the sum of a ‘twopenny rate’ for any purposes – this led to a massive expansion by Labour councils of important democratically controlled services for residents including local facilities like communal laundries and other activities that benefitted the poor).

    Only these more fundamental reforms can really increase devolution and local democracy.

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