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The way political groups operate in private is a major impediment to accountability, according to Colin Copus, seni...
The way political groups operate in private is a major impediment to accountability, according to Colin Copus, senior lecturer in public policy at Wolverhampton Business School, University of Wolverhampton.

He says, as elected representatives, councillors are able to speak and vote in a range of different places or theatres of representation. These can be private and closed from public view - the party group and the local political party - or open and accessible.

Councillors will often face conflicting pressure - from the party group and their electorate - to act in certain ways over a given issue. As a body that demands the loyalty of its membership, the group profoundly influences the nature of the representative process.

Research shows that when it comes to open and public places for representation, the council chamber is not the first choice for councillors to act on behalf of the electorate against their group. Councillors generally prefer to use a public meeting in preference to the council chamber, but group discipline may extend to the use of such meetings. Research also shows that while councillors are willing to speak out in the media they often prefer the council chamber and public meetings to direct media contact.

When choosing between the open and closed theatres for acts against the group in support of their own electorate, councillors overwhelming prefer the closed theatres. The electorate cannot witness councillors' actions in closed settings. Thus acts in secret may differ from those chosen for more open settings, particularly if the group has a policy or decision it expects councillors to publicly support. More specifically, the councillor may choose to represent or support their ward or division over some local issue only in the secrecy of the group meeting. If the decision of that meeting conflicts with the wishes of the councillor's electorate, the councillor will be faced with the prospect of acting differently in public to how he or she acted in the group.

If councillors choose to defend local interests only in closed theatres, the community is excluded from witnessing the councillor act as their representative, giving voice or vote to their opinions and concerns. This preference for acting in the group is reflected across the political spectrum, if to varying degrees. However, political affiliation does tell something of a willingness to act on a local issue in opposition to the group, in the open and publicly visible theatres. The crucial point at which political affiliation becomes a determinant of behaviour is in the shift from closed to open theatres. Here the Labour councillor is often more reluctant than the Liberal Democrat or Conservative to allow representation of a locality to spill into the public arena. Lib Dems and Tories, however, would still prefer to avoid public confrontation with their group and to contain disagreement to the group meeting itself. They simply appear more willing than Labour councillors to use a wider range of theatres of representation.

Party affiliation makes less difference to local representation than might be supposed - it is a difference of degree rather than a fundamental divergence between the parties. Councillors of all political persuasions see the representative processes as quite legitimately conducted in the group meeting. The democratic processes are therefore more likely to be unobservable and unaccountable to the public.

As councillors focus action on the closed party group, the group has become the most important theatre of representation - at the expense of the council chamber. This further excludes the community from having an effective influence on councillors as local representatives.

Local representative democracy is impoverished by a system which encourages councillors to act away from the gaze of the public in the unobservable party group. If representation takes place in private, as councillors seem to prefer, it is impossible to hold them to account.

The success of the government's drive towards democratic renewal, greater public accountability, enhanced confidence in local government, reinvigorated local democracy and transparency to local decision-making rests on where councillors prefer to do business. Unless the democratic renewal debate starts to seriously address the party group system, local democracy will remain deeply opaque.

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