Another edict extending direct democracy has come forth from Eric Pickles. This time that a local referendum will be forced whenever a local council increases council tax by more than a pre-set amount.
As a government fan boy you would expect me to support it, but while I’m definitely in the fan boy category (why else did I sacrifice so much of my life knocking on doors through each and every general election false start from 2007 onwards?) I can’t quite make my mind up on this one.
On the face of it, it is perfectly sensible. The notion that Whitehall should be deciding what is, and isn’t, an appropriate level of council tax is just crazy. The key word in the phrase local democracy is local. The current system – which will remain in place until the law is changed – has nothing local about it at all, since it can see a minister from a totally different part of the council (and a different party) making decisions about areas of which he or she knows nothing. So the principle of moving power from Whitehall to local people is not one with which I can disagree.
However, I do wonder whether a local referendum is the right way. While many of my youthful beliefs in the constitution have disappeared I’m still a fan of representative democracy – we elect people to act as representatives, not as a delegates, and tend not to use direct democracy.
Of course, many of the old arguments against direct democracy are disappearing. People are (generally) more intelligent and informed than at any time in history. The argument that they don’t, or can’t, have the full information to take a decision applies less and less each day. However, the fact remains that we live in a representative democracy and there are problems in trying to blend the two. If you have a council elected on a specific platform one year it’s hard to then vote to remove the budget they need to enact that platform the next. And this starts getting towards where my concerns about this lie.
I have no problem with the principle that power should be devolved as far as possible. And am not someone who believes for a second that the lowest level of devolution is the council; the lowest level is the individual. But I am very keen on local democracy. And it’s the other key word in that phrase that causes my concern with this proposal. To my mind the key to a strong and successful democracy is linking the vote you cast with the consequences of that vote, and that vote alone.
Local democracy isn’t that healthy in this country. One of the key reasons is that so much local government funding comes from central government. When this is combined with the huge amount of regulation laid down over the years it meant that impact of a local vote on your life was significantly less than the impact of a national vote, to the extent that many council elections are seen as little more than verdicts on the government of the day.
The best way to improve local democracy, to my mind, is to strengthen the link between people’s votes in local elections with what happens in their area. This means giving councils freedom, so they aren’t just acting as agents for Whitehall and can innovate (or even make mistakes) to make a difference to their area. And it means ensuring that people recognise and see the consequence of their votes so that when they are casting them the next time it is a referendum on their local council, not on whoever is in No 10.
I’d be interested in seeing how the proposals work and the reaction of others to them (I’m quite prepared to accept I’m wrong on this). But it seems to me that just as we don’t have a referendum on income tax or VAT rises, but instead will allow the country to pass judgement in 2015, we should be reminding people how important it is to pass judgement on their local councils and councillors in local elections.