Devolution to strengthen democracy
What is the role of local democracy? It’s a question I was called on to answer the day after the May elections when just 32% of constituents turned out to vote and nine out of ten local areas rejected directly elected mayors.
The journalist who interviewed me on the BBC news channel wanted to know if these outcomes represented a vote against localism.
Low voter turn out in council elections is often cited by those who believe in centralism as a reason to retain more power in Whitehall. No doubt, for them, the widespread rejection of directly elected mayors provided more evidence that localism is not something people want, even though this position ignores the fact that people were not asked if they were in favour of greater powers in their area, but whether they wanted those powers concentrated in the hands of one person.
I take a different view and I think the wider public does too.
In 2010 a ComRes survey asked members of the public who they preferred to make decisions about public spending in their area. An overwhelming 63% wanted their local councillor to take the lead role. Just 17% wanted their MP to hold the purse strings. On that evidence you’d expect people to be more engaged in local politics, so why was the turnout in May just over half the turnout in the last national election?
The mainstream media have to take some responsibility. They have little interest in local elections being anything more than giant opinion poll on the popularity or otherwise of the main political parties. When I was interviewed late on the Friday morning I am pretty certain I was the first person from local government to be asked to comment on the elections.
I also believe the lower voter turnout is in large part due to the fact so much power rests with central government, which disconnects people from the democratic process. The devolution of more responsibilities into the hands of locally elected representatives would provide a huge boost to voter engagement and subsequently turnout. It would also improve democracy at all levels by creating more direct accountability while ensuring resources are more accurately targeted at the things local people actually want and need.
In recent times we have seen steps taken to devolve greater powers to local areas and we have heard some positive noises about decreasing local government’s reliance on funding from Whitehall departments. But a lot more could be done and it could be done much more quickly.
People become engaged in politics when they feel they have a stake in the outcome. If you raise the stakes the voters will turnout in droves.
Sir Merrick Cockell (Con), chairman, LGA