Saturday, 17 November 2012

Apathy, elitism and bureaucracy - an ancient problem

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.

So it’s that apathy thing again. You know, people who can’t or won’t be bothered to waddle down to the village hall to vote. Apparently this is “humiliating” for the Prime Minister – or at least that’s what the FT says:

David Cameron’s hopes that Britain would embrace his vision of US-style elected police chiefs lay in tatters as the public turned its back on his latest attempt to change the way the country is run.

An inquiry was launched on Friday by the Electoral Commission into a day of apathy at the ballot box, which saw only one-in-seven voters turn out in an election the prime minister insisted would transform Britain’s policing and which cost £100m to set up.

But it isn’t really as simple as that. And neither should we be as bothered about low turnout as us political sorts say. Don’t get me wrong, I do think we should vote – early and often as the saying goes – but I don’t have a problem with people who choose not to do so. Or indeed for the many folk whose lives are liberated enough for the act of voting not to cross their minds.

Last Thursday’s election saw record levels of apathy – mostly because the government (and the Electoral Commission) lost sight of some basic marketing principles. Police & Crime Commissioners may indeed by a better mousetrap but unless you tell people about this – repeatedly until you’re bored with the sound of it – they won’t avail themselves of your improved rodent catcher.

However, this still doesn’t matter. If people want to vote they will go out and vote. Take note that in Corby where 90% of the UK’s political class – not to mention the hordes of press and TV media folk – has been camped out for the past two months, the turnout was a measly 44%. Every house in Corby had a leaflet – probably a dozen leaflets, if by-election behaviour was normal – and despite this over half the registered electorate didn’t bother.

Why didn’t they bother? Probably because the outcome (and the act of voting itself) really doesn’t matter to them very much, if at all. And why should it unless we make it purposeful? A parliamentary by-election changes nothing, all it does is find a new representative to fill a set of vacated boots. Oddly enough the PCC elections were rather more significant – at least there we were picking someone to be in charge of something!

In an unusual departure the Daily Mail spots the problem:

The reality is that the public is hugely disillusioned with a gilded, out-of-touch political elite which seems incapable of connecting with the aspirations and anxieties of ordinary people.

People really are getting to believe that “it doesn’t matter how you vote, the government always gets in”.  And this is so true – that gilded elite the Mail describes will carry on in ‘power’ even though we vote some of them out and some of them in.

The really funny – or maybe depressing - thing about this is that it’s not new. Here’s S E Finer writing about the world’s first government, Sumer:

“Equally there was a contrast between the mass of artisans and rural labourers, and the ruling elite which comprised the rulers and their courts, the temples and their priesthoods, the scribes and accountants. This elite was very narrow; the more so since the keys to power...were so very difficult to acquire.”

Back then legitimacy – what we like to call “mandate” – didn’t come from those artisans and rural labourers but from the gods. Today, legitimacy in theory comes, via the act of voting, from the people. The thing that those apathetic Britons have spotted is that withdrawing that mandate by not voting exposes the elite for what it is – a self-selecting, self-supporting court surrounding the places where power is executed.

Thursday’s apathy isn’t a reflection on the current government but a consequence of government by the unaccountable gilded by the thinnest sheet of democracy. When I look at the areas where us Councillors are told we have no real jurisdiction (despite de jure responsibility) this becomes ever more clear – education, child protection, planning, licensing; all now so rules bound as to make the councillor’s role little more than a rubber stamp.

To give just one example – you thought, did you not, that the schools are under “council control”? After all there’s an Education Department filled with Directors and Assistant Directors. Think again. The funding goes straight from Whitehall to the schools via a formula set in London. And decisions about the management of those schools are made by a thing called the “School’s Forum” that (in Bradford) meets in private and contains representatives from the schools, council officers and so forth. Councillor’s – the folk you elect to make decisions on your behalf – have no role to play in this at all. Except to be blamed when the school’s fail.

This is where the apathy comes from – MPs and councillors stop being representatives and turn instead into guides through the castle. Our role is to handle ‘casework’ and to act as ‘community leaders’ rather than the idea of representative democracy – that we send someone to the place where the decisions are made so he or she can help make those decisions on our behalf. Today, a councillor or MP can sit on all sorts or panels, committees and boards while doing nothing other than accede to decisions made elsewhere by the bureaucracy.



Curmudgeon said...

Where is the photo, btw? Richmond, maybe?

Simon Cooke said...

Well spotted! Richmond it is!