posts tagged ‘democracy’

fixing local democracy

local democracy is broken:

  • there is a deficit of trust between the public, councillors and council officers, owing to poor communication and, in some cases, poor performance.
  • the deficit of trust extends to central government’s view of local government, leading to a reluctance to devolve more power.
  • councillor allowances are so low that few people can afford to be a councillor, severely constraining the pool of potential candidates.
  • councillors who have to earn a wage find themselves working an unhealthy number of hours, leading to burnout and strain on their family life.
  • the quality of committee debate, decision making and policy is often unsatisfactory, partly because councillors rarely have time to read, yet alone digest, meeting agenda packs, which can run to hundreds of pages.
  • constituents have a poor understanding of which councillor to contact about what issue.

but it needn’t be this way: a radical reorganisation of local democracy could lead to better representation and governance at no greater cost.

allowances for councillors representing the 14 wards of Cambridge city in 2014-15

Cambridge allowances
councillors basic average leader annual cost*
Cambridgeshire 14 £7,700 £11,747 £22,700 †£164,464
Cambridge City 42 £2,782 £5,756 £13,632 £241,737
total 56 n/a £7,254 n/a £406,201

*not including travel and subsistence expenses (which are not income).
†pro-rata from total cost of £810,577 for 69 county councillors.

fewer, full-time city councillors

imagine that, instead of electing three City and one County councillor per ward, you elected just one, full-time councillor to represent you on both councils. if the £406,201 of allowances paid out in 2014-15 to local councillors had been paid to just fourteen, their average remuneration would have been £29,014. that could equate to a pay scale ranging from around £25,000 to around £50,000 for the leader – livable (though not generous) salaries: £25,000 equates to £12/hour (based on 260 8-hour working days).

by comparison, Cambridge’s MP represents thirteen wards (Queen Ediths is in South Cambridgeshire constituency), with the assistance usually of a part-time researcher/administrator, and receives a salary of £74,000 (as of 8 May 2015). therefore it is not unreasonable to think that local matters could be well-represented by a team of fourteen full-time councillors.

by further comparison in 2014-15, the chief executive of the County Council received remuneration (salary plus pension contributions) of £228,177; and the chief executive of the City Council received £138,820.

benefits

this arrangement would have many benefits:

  • councillors would be committed full-time to representing their constituents, and guiding and scrutinising the work of council officers.
  • having all councillors involved in both city and county councils would ensure more joined-up thinking, and facilitate collaboration leading to cost savings.
  • fewer councillor positions and more people feeling able to be councillors would create greater competition for the best talent, commitment and performance, ensuring consistently high calibre elected councillors.
  • constituents would have a single point of contact for local issues.
  • councillors could be reasonably expected to correspond in a timely manner, to hold weekly surgeries, and to communicate regularly (e.g. via a website) with their constituents.
  • more effective local democracy would argue strongly for more powers to be devolved from central government.

part-time councillors

being a councillor part-time works well for some people, especially those who have caring responsibilities or have their own business. job-sharing could be the answer. in a sense that is what happens now, because each ward or district is typically represented by between two and four councillors, but there is no formal job-sharing arrangement; in fact quite the reverse when councillors are from different political parties.

if each ward or district is to be represented by one full-time councillor, then anyone who wants to do the job part-time would need to arrange a job-share with someone else, and stand together with that person for election on the same ticket. the terms of the job-share should be made public at the time of standing for election so that it is clear who would be responsible for what; how they would split the allowance; and how they would be contactable (ideally offering a single point of contact).

political party organisers should be able to arrange suitable matches, but independents would need to use their initiative. once the principal is established, there should be no reason to stop three or more people standing together for a single councillor position.

beyond the city

outside the city, each district would elect a single councillor to represent them on the relevant district and county council. (in reality many already stand for election to both councils.) since many rural wards have small populations (as low as 1,200 – compared with around 6,000 per ward in the city), there would need to be a radical redrawing of ward boundaries to enable a 75% reduction in the number of councillors across the whole county.

further information

contributors

Edward Leigh

system of government

what’s wrong with democracy?

the fundamental principle of democracy is beyond question: that government is for the benefit of all people, and so must answer to their needs and aspirations. but implementations of democracy are flawed:

representation

  • disempowerment of minorities whose interests (e.g. religion, language and culture) are opposed or ignored by the popular majority.
  • parties elected on manifestos of incompatible or contradictory promises, especially in different areas of government (business and environment, social security and tax, public services and minimal government, law & order and civil liberties); the biggest contradiction, which leads to recurrent disappointment, is the promise of improvements in public services and lower taxes.
  • politicians who assume higher levels of responsibility become unable to honour their obligations for local representation.
  • party line overrides individual views and inhibits proper representation of electors.
  • governments make decisions that have consequences for people of other countries to whom they are virtually unaccountable.

communication

  • unregulated lobbying of elected representatives, with influence correlating with financial resources.
  • public scrutiny frustrated by secrecy, arbitrary application of ‘classified’ status, and controlled presentation of evidence, inferences and decisions.
  • dependence on distorted and partial coverage by the media to present government policy.

professionalism

  • elected representatives having no proven competence to do the job – compare this with the qualifaction requirements for lawyers, accountants, doctors or teachers.
  • poverty of technical expertise amongst elected representatives for assessing scientific and statistical evidence.
  • personality being the principal criterion for candidate selection, tending to favour vain, ambitious, corrupt and sociopathic individuals.

accountability

  • autocratic decision making owing to lack of accountability during a term of office.
  • candidates for election to high office requiring commercial sponsorship, creating obligations that may conflict with constituents’ interests.

continuity

  • periodic hiatus in government in run-up to elections and following changes of government.
  • planning, statistics and decision-making manipulated to improve a governing party’s chances of re-election.

what should a reformed government look like?

government should satisfy the following standards:

  • transparency: there should be total transparency of planning, policy, decision making and spending. government should publish (electronically) minutes of all meetings; details of experts consulted, evidence and counter evidence acquired, assumptions, lines of reasoning considered, and conclusions drawn; detailed accounts of revenue and expenditure and formulae governing apportionment. where security or diplomatic issues are concerned and publication is believed to be inappropriate, an independent body of ‘civil auditors’ should scrutinize information on behalf of the public/media, publishing material as and when it ceases to be sensitive.
  • avoidance of conflicts of interest: potential personal conflicts of interest should be identified, recorded and avoided. this would be made easier if responsibility were vested in groups rather than individuals.
  • taxation policy should follow from other policies: people should vote for policies and feel the tax implications that follow; if people want to pay less tax, then they must vote for policies that entail lower taxes, not vote for lower taxes as a policy in itself.
  • empowerment of special interest groups: special interest groups, such as those that represent the environment, trade, employees, people with disabilities, heritage, should participate directly in government in proportion to their popular support.
  • professionalism: anyone involved in higher levels of government must have a proven competence in the disciplines required and knowledge of the framework (social, political, legal, historical) within which government operates.
  • ongoing accountability: the electorate should be able to re-invest their vote at any time, not just at termly elections. a delay between the election and transfer of a vote (of, say, 60 days) provides a ‘cooling off’ period during which an elector may reconsider their decision; it also ensures that power shifts can be predicted and prepared for.

how can this be achieved?

modern government is a mammoth and enormously complex business that, barring war or disaster, will not change rapidly. therefore reform will only be achieved through incremental changes, each of which must be fully thought through, readily comprehensible and will have to attract popular attention and overwhelming support. a tall order!

further reading

contributors

Edward Leigh