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OPINION - PHIL SWANN

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Politicians resist forces for electoral change ...
Politicians resist forces for electoral change

The electoral process was becoming political even before the recent shenanigans over postal voting. The high profile of the Electoral Commission has seen to that.

At one level, this focus on the mechanics of politics should be welcomed. But the sight of politicians arguing over how they are elected won't have done much to convince an already cynical populous to re-engage with the political process.

There is, in any case, a danger that focusing on the method of election will divert effort away from the more important and more intractable challenge of making the purpose of elections more meaningful.

The government was quick to rebut press speculation that its emerging 10-year strategy for local government is a cover for a cull of councillors. But local government and the political parties should welcome a debate about the roles of councillors and things that can be done to enable and equip them to fulfil those roles more effectively.

This will not be an easy debate for local politicians.

But unless the debate on the roles of councillors is led and owned by councillors,

it will be a homogenised one. And if local government is not prepared to take this challenge on, others will.

There are some difficult questions to be asked.

How can we ensure that people who stand in order to represent their local community on a council continue to do so, rather than morphing into a defender of the council in the community?

Should an elected person be expected to operate as both the representative of a neighbourhood and to provide strategic political leadership for an authority as a whole?

Do the current arrangements provide a satisfactory mechanism for local community representatives to hold the political leadership of an authority to account?

It is not possible to overstate the importance of these issues and the need for them to be debated in an open and honest way. But history shows how difficult it can be for politicians to envisage changes to the way they are elected.

Take the example of Sir Robert Inglis, a leading opponent of the 1832 Reform Bill,

quoted by Edward Pearce in his brilliant book, Reform!, on the bill's parliamentary passage:

'I approach the discussion on this question with a sensation of awe at the contemplation of the abyss, on the brink of which we stand, and into which the noble lord will, if successful, hurl us.'

Some of his 21st century successors may experience a similar sensation, but the others should not be put off.

Phil Swann

Director of strategy and communications,

Local Government Association

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