Democracy on the cheap, not cheap democracy

The week commencing 11 October, local authorities across the UK celebrated local democracy week – an annual event that aims to “increase people’s knowledge of local democracy and promote the idea of getting more involved locally.” The week after, Tower Hamlets elected a Mayor who, despite securing 51.76% of the vote, only polled a total of 14% from all eligible voters. The candidate will now control the £1 billion budget for four years without the say so of many tens of thousands of people who are entitled to have a say.


Julian Glover recently called this a “fiasco” of localism, but localism is clearly not the problem here; surely what is more pressing is the sheer amount of people eligible to vote who didn’t. Plus, if voting is the sum total of localism, then we’re all in trouble.


A localist agenda, with a shift of power from the national to the local, has been on the cards for a long time. In 2006 David Miliband, then Minister for Local Government, talked about the “double devolution of power” from Whitehall to the town hall, then from the town hall to the neighbourhood. In 2010 British citizens are awaiting the day politicians decide community empowerment means more than just the occasional trip to the civic hall, to strike a cross next the name of a soul promising so much more than the other guy.


Since the expenses scandal every minister with sense has declared his or her love for local accountability, but what do they really mean by it? For the cynical, any inclusion of “community voice” are empty words waiting to cheat a tired electorate; at best it is an evening of dry consultation.


Residents of Wycombe and Bristol (and several more to come) will soon be given the opportunity to have a cuts “conversation”. Owing to the recent cut in the area based grant – a general grant allocated to local authorities, non-ringfenced and therefore able to be used as the council sees fit – council chiefs have had to make many decisions themselves on what provisions can be kept and what can be spared. It seems obvious that residents of a community be consulted when deciding which services are most important; the question is why aren’t these residents consulted on all decisions?


A Demos report entitled “Talk us into it: putting conversation at the heart of public realm,” notes that interest in community groups have dwindled over the years, though the will to have involvement in local decision-making has not. Samuel Jones, the author of the report, remarks that neighbourhoods in Scotland have a higher than national average number of residents who know each other by name, as well as knowing the names of local councillors (based on a YouGov poll of communities). It makes perfect sense that the more a community talks to each other, the more likely it is people are going to know who is most likely to act upon their concerns.


However community participation is not a one way road, it requires the will of elected representatives. At a time when councils are being told to lower costs, now should be the perfect time to engage the local community – but really mean it, as opposed to previous attempts merely giving the illusion of involving people by holding a debate session once every moon.


The benefits of opening out decisions are clear to see. In his paper Democracy Pays: How democratic engagement can cut the cost of government, Anthony Zacharzewski makes the financial case that democratic engagement of citizens can improve transparency and accountability of where tax money goes. If enacted properly, citizen-led decisions could eradicate the cost of consultants, paid for by the local residents anyway, and utilise priceless local knowledge.


It could also re-enfranchise the disillusioned, such as NEET – not in education, employment or training – young people. If those on the cusp of society felt their voice heard, and they participated to the betterment of their society in a considered and meaningful way, this would hopefully return otherwise alienated people back to the communities in which they belong.


People are very busy, and often an evening a month in the local hall deciding on the layout of a new market is not enough. The internet and social media ought to be used as an effective way in which local people can contribute decisions on how services are catered for.


There are two very important, and often untapped, elements to making democracy fair and more cost-effective: conversation and trust. Politicians, bloggers, think-tanks, academics, commentators and people themselves have made the case over and over again that local thinking is needed to improve local decision-making. Democracy on the cheap doesn’t have to be cheap democracy. Everyone can agree that in order for democratically elected officials to be held properly accountable, everyone should be involved, at their own pace.



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