British democracy appears to be in crisis: contempt for politicians, disengagement from the political process, low level of participation in elections. A wide range of arguments are put to explain this: political and media spin, hypocritical personal behaviours of politicians (sleeze), the perceived failure of local and central government to deliver on their promises in a way that people can see beneficially affects their lives, or riding rough-shod over widely held concerns. The anti-democratic British National Party was been able to obtain short-term electoral advantage, boosted by anti-asylum seeker and refugee rhetoric from leading mainstream politicians. The operation of democracy may be flawed. There any be considerable room for improvement. But local democratic disengagement is not just down to what central and local government, political parties and the media have been doing since the mid-1970s. It is also down to all those - the voluntary and community activists – who have spent large amounts of energy slagging off local Councillors, local officials and local authorities, MPs and Government.
There is a continual process of tensions between community and voluntary organisations and local Councillors. The former are very often frustrated by the lack of leadership and control over the machinery of their Councils, their apparent failure to address the needs of people the organisations are working with or representing. Having a democratic mandate through the electoral process Councillors often resent the continual criticism from community and voluntary groups, and argue that they have the democratic mandate while the groups do not. There is truth in both perspectives.
Community and voluntary groups which constantly criticise Councillors are in danger of contributing to the disengagement with the electoral process. Community and voluntary groups also have imperfections: they can be dominated by a few individuals, they can be inward looking, they can be arrogant, they often squabble among themselves; none of which helps the people they claim to be working with and for.
Councillors need to understand that they cannot know everything that is going on in their wards. With the decline in party political organisation they need to link with other ways in which people get involved in democratic civil engagement – namely membership of community and voluntary organisations. These organisations can also be useful sources of information and analysis against which they can test the advice from Council officers.
Of course there will often be tensions and conflicts, but community and voluntary activists need to keep in mind that the promotion of democracy through civil engagement can only strengthen the way in which local government meets needs.
Today’s community and voluntary groups are the heirs of the, mutual and self-help collective organisations - friendly, loan, building, co-operative and trade union societies – which helped develop important aspects of British democracy. This democracy involved the election of officers and their accountability back to the members at quarterly and later annual meetings. They developed skills in running organisations that were transferred into local government as wider suffrage led to activists being elected. British democracy gained its strength from mass involvement - in its practice and in debates about its theory.
Low election turnouts are not a new phenomenon. The Holborn Conservatives bemoaned it when in 1937 six Labour Councillors were elected for the first time. This anecdote is a reminder that achieving high levels of local electoral participation has to be worked at. Where local political parties take their vote for granted, and/or do not work to convince people to vote, then turnouts remain low. If political parties reduce their own internal democracy and alienate members, they will not have enough people to make the face to face contact with electors that is an essential part of sustaining a culture of electoral and democratic involvement.
Local Government Reforms
The Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010 considered that local government reform will reinvigorate democracy. It was debatable whether the implementation of its largely technical proposals will do so. Government policies about putting people at the heart of decision making were seen as empty rhetoric, as it continued to exert heavy central control over spending programmes such as New Deal for Communities and Neighbourhood Renewal, or imposed unpopular decisions like the expansion of Heathrow airport and overruled local campaigners, Councils and Planning Inspectors over development schemes such as tower blocks along the Thames corridor. While it recognised that regenerating deprived communities would take 15-20 years, it was impatient for results. It did not give people and organisations a chance to obtain results before forcing another set of reforms. The consensus about local regeneration and community well-being that might be achievable through Community Strategies and Local Strategic Partnerships could result in electors thinking that there is no need to vote, because voting for a particular political party is not going to radically alter the consensus.
Devolution in Scotland and Wales has not solved the problem of disengagement. The proposed devolution for English regions was dubious in terms of any potential claimed for it for improving democratic engagement. No wonder it was rejected in the referendums. What might begin to make a difference and enable people to engage is to require the establishment of neighbourhood governance structures or reduce the size of local authorities.
The policies of the ConDem Government since 2010, and there further changes like the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners and the recent by-elections, have only confirmed the public’s deep disengagement. As more and more scandals have come public, including the media and the banks, it has become clearer and clear that the politicians have little control over what happens.
Voting Seen as Irrelevant
Electors cannot be criticised for thinking that voting is irrelevant when so many decisions seem to be out of the hands of elected politicians: the requirements of the European Community, the power of multi-nationals, and the devolution at arms-length of so many services to regulators and other unelected bodies. Nor can they be criticised for thinking that politicians often get too involved in issues largely irrelevant to the majority of people, as was the case with fox-hunting under Labour. The cautious approach to House of Lords reform reinforces this by missing the opportunity to develop a new equal relationship between the four nations, and a new approach to UK wide governance.
The roots of the current crisis have been growing slowly over a number of decades. As the population sizes of Parliamentary constituencies and local authority wards have grown, it becomes more and more difficult for people to have regular personal contact with their MPs and councillors. The cumulative decline of engagement in democratically controlled organisations, like friendly societies, co-operatives and trade unions, has eroded people’s experience of democratic representation and participation. This is underpinned by a popular lack of historic understanding of the struggle to build democracy and the consequences of not rigorously defending and promoting democratic participation. The strength of evolving British democracy lay in mass involvement in its practice and in debates about its theory through mutual associations.
Commercially driven ‘consumerism’ makes people only think of themselves, and reject collective solutions. This has been reinforced by Governments seeing people as ‘consumers’, not as ‘citizens’ with a right to services, and by many mutuals downgrading democratic engagement.
Popular engagement in politics has had its historic ebbs and flows. It is difficult to tell whether we are in an ebb from which we can recover, or are spiralling downwards to an extent that it will be difficult to recover support for both representative and participatory democracy.
The Government reforms to the democratic environment have difficult to understand, especially with a degree of devolution of power from Central Government:
· Cabinet Government and directly elected Mayors in local authorities
· Local Strategic Partnerships
· Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
· London’s Mayor and the Greater London Assembly and elected Mayors elsewhere
· Regional Chambers, Regional Government Offices and Regional Development Agencies (until abolished by the ConDem Government).
We may want to but we cannot ignore the way the democratic structures have been been re-shaped, and the way in which the ConDem Government cuts may be threatening the financial viability of many local authorities. Both the re-shaped structures and the cuts affect the policies being pursued and the resources available to community and voluntary organisations as service deliverers and community development agents.
Democracy was Built from Below
British historical experience suggests that the challenge of reversing political disengagement and strengthening both representative and participatory democracy cannot be left just to politicians. Democracy was built from below, and will need to be re-built from below. There will be an important role in this for practical organisation of a new 'associationism’. There is considerable scope for this within local communities. Networking and alliance building is crucial.
All advances on the road to democracy were pioneered by people with a minority perspective, whether political radicals or motivated by faith. Such groups need to be nurtured and funded to play their role in creative questioning and suggesting new solutions and approaches.
Community and voluntary organisations indirectly foster democratic engagement in many ways.
· They bring people into contact with each other reducing social isolation
· They help build personal, neighbourhood and group connections and understanding about issues of concern
· They support the creation and running of organisations and campaigns that seek to meet emerging needs, that are not yet being addressed by local and central government
· They work through networks and in partnerships, sitting round the table seeking to influence the decisions being made by local government
· They are self-appointed voices, claiming to articulate the voices of people in the neighbourhoods in which they work
There are many ways in which community and voluntary organisations help or can help foster democratic engagement:
· Advocate neighbourhood forums
· Provide briefing, training and other support to people taking part in neighbourhood forum
· Undertake voter registration
· Contact households not on draft electoral registers
· Offer their buildings as election polling stations
· Keep in touch with any plans to introduce electronic voting, so that people can vote electronically at their buildings
· Produce a guide on how the local Council works, and how to influence it
· Run informal learning opportunities that help explain how local government works, and how people can engage with it
· Provide space for Councillor and MP surgeries
· Run a community newspaper
· Take part in the broad networks
· Act as a venue for the posting of planning applications and run sessions about them with residents affected
· Provide activities that celebrate community and democratic history
· Run local election meetings at which residents can question candidates
· Host report back meetings for local councillors
· Raise issues of concern with the members of the Council Scrutiny Committee
· Get to know the Leader and the Executive Councillors
· Invite local Councillors to events and keep them informed about the organisation’s work