There would be something distinctly reassuring about the political parties’ infatuation with direct elections, if only they weren’t hell-bent on reinventing the wheel.
There is precious little space between the Conservatives and Labour as they jostle for ground on directly elected police sheriffs and mayors. The Lib Dems, never ones to miss a bandwagon, are struggling internally over elected health boards.
The latest contenders for direct elections are the nine national parks and Broads authorities, which cover 55 local and parish councils. A consultation on whether the council representatives should be replaced by new directly elected members has taken local government by surprise after it appeared quietly just before recess last week.
Strangely, this was up for discussion a year ago but was rejected by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, then reluctant to introduce politics into the running of national parks.
So what’s changed and why are the parties’ passions reserved for anything but local government?
The official watchword is accountability and making health, parks and police more responsive and answerable to local people. That makes absolute political sense. But what is nonsensical is the drive to create new tiers of democracy when election turnouts are at an all-time low.
The beauty of local government, which seems to elude the political parties, is its direct accountability for over 800 services. That’s a powerful base to build on. People are more likely to be inspired to vote for politicians with power, rather than a confusing array of people that have limited control over crime, GP services or conservation.
Direct elections are not the accountability panacea that the parties think they are. They need to value the democratic foundation we already have and give our existing politicians the powers over health, police and national parks that could make a difference.