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COMMENT - RED HERRING MASKS NEED FOR REAL POWERS

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Ministers have offered two opportunities to peer into the cerebral cortex of the New Labour machine in recent weeks...
Ministers have offered two opportunities to peer into the cerebral cortex of the New Labour machine in recent weeks - and the view is not a good one for local government.

Mass consultation, the Big Conversation, and an investigation by the Strategy Unit into the big issues facing Britain - dubbed the strategic audit - both probe the issue of political disengagement.

Neither deny central government has a legitimacy problem, but they are quick to suggest things are much worse in local government.

Ministers even have a new statistic to demonstrate their greater intimacy with the man and woman on the street, relative to councils - the turnout gap.

Simply put, the disparity between turnout in recent local and national elections varies across western Europe. According to a survey cited by the Strategy Unit, the UK's 26% gap is almost double that of its nearest continental challengers.

The statistics are not left to tell their own story, but are peppered with helpful commentary.

For instance, the audit states that local government 'services have improved since 1997, but at a very slow rate'.

The documents go on to suggest a solution - neighbourhood governance.

The public's increasing concern with the state of their streets and public spaces can be answered by giving them responsibility for looking after them, in new bodies armed with precepting powers, the documents claim.

This is the latest in a series of proposals arguing that new local elective structures are the route to reinvigorating local democracy.

It is an analysis that is fundamentally flawed.

Low turnout afflicts the whole of Britain's political culture. As the strategic audit's evidence shows, engagement is much higher across the rest of Western Europe.

The instructive exception is Switzerland, where low turnout has been strongly linked to the sheer volume of elections, something that should warn ministers against viewing new elected bodies as a panacea.

The turnout gap is a red herring. UK supremacy in this a rea cannot be divorced from the fact local government is much more powerful in the rest of Europe.

If ministers truly want to tackle political disengagement, they should empower councils through more financial levers, radical freedoms and localised targets - giving the electorate a better reason to vote.

LGC

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