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Commentary 325 – April 2008
13 April 2008 (17:31:49)

WHAT SHOULD GO LOCAL?

Whatever proves to have happened in this May’s local elections, there will almost certainly be fresh wailing and gnashing of teeth over voter turnout, despite the reasons for its depressingly low level being self- evident to anyone who cares to look.

It is true that the Labour government has recognised the turnout problem. But Labour’s remedies have been without exception disastrous for democracy and devolution, while obstinately avoiding the root cause of the problem – local government has too few powers over too few things, so that it makes little difference to most people who wields those powers.

Labour’s ‘cures’ can be easily discarded. Postal voting on demand has served only to foster personation and corruption – something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tangled with the Labour Party in its urban heartlands – leading at best to marginal increases in turnout while undermining the very legitimacy of the ballot.

Elected mayors, a concept that will doubtless enjoy a renewed profile following this year’s London election, are objectionable for a different reason. Liberals believe in the dispersal of power, and mayoralties concentrate power in the hands of one person, with minimal accountability for their actions except for a four-yearly election.

It does not matter that some mayors may have used their powers well. It is the principle of the concentration of power that is wrong.

The fact that councillors in mayoral areas have even less power than backbenchers elsewhere have over cabinets (and London Assembly members no powers at all) makes things worse. It will surely lead to fewer people wishing to be councillors in such situations. Turnout at mayoral elections has shown no significant difference from turnout at any other.

Tempting though it might be for some to grasp at such ‘solutions’ in the face of local apathy, they are wrong. Indeed, the emphasis on ‘strong leaders’ who can ‘take action’ and cut through the awkward compromises required by representative democracy, can make proponents of elected mayors sound faintly fascistic.

The problem of the atrophy of local democracy remains real, however, and it will be solved only by giving local government sufficient powers for it to matter to residents who runs it, and then for local government to devolve further whatever is appropriate to its area.

Voter engagement is hardly likely to be assisted by the government’s current approach of giving some more powers to councils but only though partnerships that cannot easily be held accountable, and which are buried in a barely intelligible alphabet soup of acronyms and concepts like ‘multi area agreements’ and ‘local strategic partnerships’.

The vote at the Liverpool spring conference on whether the NHS should be devolved to councils or local health boards turned on whether the party’s councillors believed the public held councils in sufficient esteem to take over health commissioning.

They decided, so as to avoid a public row with Clegg over his pet idea for local elected health boards, that they did not. That may be true, but hardly makes a compelling argument for the devolution of anything else.

This approach (if health why not transport, schools or indeed allotments?) risks having multiple bodies with poor turnouts run by people who were arm-twisted to be candidates instead of only one such body, which scarcely seems an improvement.

Clegg has stressed that he thinks powers should be devolved to local government but that as many as practicable should then be devolved further – something that most politically switched-on Lib Dem councils have done.

The party must decide what powers it thinks should be capable of being devolved from national to local level and, before any further devolution is possible, whether that local level should be to a council, or to councils, health boards and whatever else that compete for power, influence, resources and the public’s attention in each area.

BRITAIN’S VIETNAM

The Lib Dems still wring some political mileage out of their opposition to the Iraq war, yet have accepted without much thought that the party supports the war in Afghanistan.

When that was launched, it was sold by the government as a short intervention. It has already ceased to be that, and may yet become a very long one, in a country in which Britain has had a history of catastrophic attempts to influence governance stretching back to the 19<^>th<^*> century.

The Karzai government is certainly better than its Taliban predecessors, who are also likely to return were it to fall. Yet its writ barely runs outside Kabul, and where it does relies on the whims of local chieftains.

This is essentially yet another American war in which Britain has been dragged along to help, and there is little sign that its planning, or even the definition of its objectives, has been any better than in the debacle in Iraq.

If the Lib Dems are to continue to ask voters to support this war, the party must at the very least question how well it is being conducted and what realistic prospect there is of success.

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