Friday, October 27, 2006

How not to revive local democracy

New Labour’s cosmetic proposals about "rebalancing" power in favour of councils and their citizens simply ignore the fact that local democracy in Britain was effectively destroyed by the actions of successive governments over a period stretching back to Tory attacks in the early 1980s. Now Britain boasts the most centralised state in Europe and the white paper produced by Ruth Kelly does nothing to address that question.

In the 1980s, the Tories abolished the power to raise revenue at a rate decided locally by councils, a right which had dated back to Elizabethan times. Councils that resisted, like Lambeth and Liverpool, were confronted by the government, which used the courts to fine and remove elected councillors. Spending per head of population was from then based on a formula determined in London. Local authorities lost their powers in key areas like housing. They were, for example, compelled to sell off council housing and not allowed to use the proceeds to build new ones. Services were privatised under "competitive tendering" laws and amenities and services went into decline. The Tories abolished key local authorities like the Greater London Council. Participation in local elections plummeted. New Labour simply built on the Tory edifice. Spending is still tightly controlled from London and services in many inner city areas face year-on-year cuts. Staff in many cases remain extremely poorly paid. The Greater London Authority created by New Labour is, for example, a pale shadow of the old GLC, and is a toothless body which is built on the undemocratic basis of rule by an executive mayor and unelected advisors paid vast sums of money.

Kelly’s proposals reinforce this trend. She is proposing more executive mayors – without allowing local people a chance to vote on the idea – and new powers whereby councils can fine people on the spot for breaking bye-laws. Wow! Even The Guardian, normally a cheerleader for the Blair government, was distinctly unimpressed, with an editorial declaring: "A recipe for cheesecake whose instructions did not run beyond the biscuit base would be bound to disappoint. In much the same way, it was always going to be hard for the government to paint a compelling new vision for local authorities that stopped short of recasting their powers or settling their means of finance. Yesterday's white paper contained some worthwhile ideas, but was silent on so much that it is most unlikely to rescue councils from the anonymity and obscurity to which they have been consigned by decades of centralisation under governments of both stripes." The Campaign for a 21st Century Democracy – C421 – is among those struggling to extend democracy in ways that New Labour is congenitally opposed to. C421’s new campaign statement proposes the transformation of the present political system along democratic lines. Its aims, principles and draft proposals for rights that a new constitution would embody are worth studying and supporting.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is a good time to look at and educate AWTW members about the lessons from Ted Knight's treatment by the tories as leader of Lambeth Council back in the 80's.