Saturday, 8 December 2012

Perhaps we should try some of this democracy stuff?

When I pitched successfully to be the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Keighley back in 1999, I made some observations about 'modern'. This was, after all, amidst the white heat of Blairite modernisation and the audience wanted to be reminded that simply changing things to be 'modern' didn't automatically make them better. As I pointed out a couple of days ago, Blair's 'modernisation' of local government resulted in the loss of transparency and the neutering of full council as a decision-making meeting.

Today Charles Moore speaks of modernising - this time exploring Cameron's take on the idea. And in doing so he captures an essential truth - all this modernising is undermining that most ancient of ideas: democracy:

The way we are governed today, by whichever party, increasingly resembles a coup. A small group brings in a new leader, and rules, rather unsuccessfully, from his Downing Street court. Party members, local councillors and even MPs have incredibly little influence on what is decided. In an age when we expect the democratic rights of the citizen to grow, they are diminishing. He or she knows that we are governed by rules issuing from Europe, from the demands of human rights judges, from regulations not properly legislated for, from quangos and officials, so he knows his vote does not count. Is this a situation, as modernisers like to put it, “fit for the 21st century”? 

The idea of the 'court' surrounding the leader (whether god emperor or prime minister) is a central theme in Finer's History of Government and is something that the enlightenment in government - the US constitution, the idea of human rights and the principle of universal suffrage - sought to reduce in power if not remove. Yet, as Charles Moore shows us, that court - the 'Westminster Bubble' - remains as powerful as ever. The interaction between people within this narrow clique determines the policies and debate of the age, which is why we're talking so much about gay marriage and so little about inflation and the cost of living. This is why the BBC's advert for the Radio5 Live "app" talks of "cars driven by renewable energy" and how the debate about energy has become dominated by the need to 'reduce carbon' rather than why the old lady round the corner can't afford to heat her house.

This government by dinner party - directions decided by chats between friends and through the prism of metropolitan ignorance rather than through the process of democracy - presents a huge problem. But we stumble around looking for an solution. For some it lies in the Internet - a sort of iDemocracy where engaged and empowered citizens interact via the web. Others want devolution and fragmentation - driving more decision-making down to regions, cities and borough. And others celebrate the bureaucratic state - disdainful of councillors and dismissive of MPs and political parties.

Democracy isn't a modern idea. I suspect that the idea of voting to help make decisions has been used since prehistory - competing with 'one potato, two potato' as a decision system. And we like it, we have confidence it and we are prepared (most of the time) to accept the decisions that it throws up. The problem with our modern state is that nearly all the decisions that matter to ordinary people aren't made using this tried and tested approach. Instead they're made by groups of "professionals" without reference to the people. The policies that determine whether someone's child is taken into care, if you can build an extension, whether you can set up a business and what your children are taught - these policies are decided without reference to democracy by those "professionals".

Indeed, us politicians are frequently told by the lawyers who guard the policies set by these "professionals", that we cannot change or overturn them. And we are further compromised by role confusion - not just being rebranded as "community leaders" but with our key role of making decisions on behalf of those we represent neutered. Under the new public health arrangements, we will have a "Health & Well-being Board". This will be a formal committee of Council but with officers given voting rights alongside councillors - in the cause of 'partnership' the principle of electing people to make decisions is compromised. Councillors are not expert enough to make those decisions and must be joined by the (unelected) professionals.

Right across government we see decision-making that should be done by people accountable to the public being done by the unelected - local enterprise partnerships, schools forums, probation boards, a veritable host of the unelected and unaccountable. This is post-democracy - consultation, partnership and the 'professional' have replaced the tried and tested process of electing people to make decisions on our behalf. We have decided that democracy - elections, MPs, councillors and so forth - are a bit of a pain. Or rather we haven't decided, the system has gradually sidelined politicians - the people's representatives - to the stage where the only way for us to effect any change is for us to join in the game, to play at post-democracy.

Democracy isn't modern and it runs counter to our cult of the expert, our obsession with that unreachable ideal of 'evidence-based policy'. So the powerful have emasculated democracy and replaced it with a pretty spectacle, a place of sound and fury. Great fun, as observers of parliament know, but ultimately pointless. The decisions are made somewhere else.

Maybe we should stop calling it "mob rule" and try that democracy stuff again. It might work, you know!



Lysistrata said...

"Under the new public health arrangements, we will have a "Health & Well-being Board". This will be a formal committee of Council but with officers given voting rights alongside councillors - in the cause of 'partnership' the principle of electing people to make decisions is compromised."

This is truly horrifying. Surely other elected councillors and councils must have complained?

Anonymous said...

This is happening in the local authority where I live. I wrote to my local councillor about it.
Are the local newspaper owners also tied in?
I would have thought that elected councillors would have been very upset about it and loath to co-operate in such a venture - the dismantling of democratic government.
To make things worse, it is all being done in semi-secrecy. Councillors ought not to permit this secrecy. They should be shouting about it.


WitteringsfromWitney said...

I also 'picked-up' this article by Charles Moore and 'homed in' on this same paragraph.

I would go further than that which you appear to be suggesting and, if I may, would like leave a link to my, albeit, short article.