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Delivering democratic reform locally

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All three major parties are promising democratic renewal in their manifestos and in each case local government has a key role to play.

Many councillors, however, may be forgiven for looking on with weary scepticism and wondering whether such goals will be forgotten in office as the demands of Whitehall and fears of a ‘postcode lottery’ in service provision assert themselves.

Others will argue that any move from indirect to direct democracy will undermine the relationship between elected representatives and their constituents.

The Conservatives offer the most radical proposals, envisaging a considerable expansion of elector involvement through more direct elections and referendums. Their most controversial policy is to introduce directly elected police commissioners.

Perhaps the key question for all parties though is whether electors want to be asked to vote more often on more issues

This has been rejected in the past by senior ranks in the police, who fear the politicisation of the service, and even by some prominent Conservatives such as

Kenneth Clarke as being a recipe for populism and a possible magnet for those of extremist views.

The Liberal Democrats favour entire police authorities being elected in much the same way as local councils. In their view this would enhance accountability but avoid concentrating power in a single person. Labour opposes any form of direct election.

The Conservatives would also roll out a series of potential referendums covering elected mayors, as well as “issues of local importance” and even the vetoing of excessive council tax rises.

In practice it has proved difficult for petitioners to raise and verify the support of 5% of the local electorate to trigger such referendums - a figure well in excess of 10,000 people in many metropolitan boroughs, for example - and the outcomes of any vote often reflect negative rather than positive sentiment.

Electors who are uncertain of the consequences and benefits of a proposed change are more easily mobilised to take the cautious option. This tendency is compounded by the fact that those who are most likely to vote are also most likely to distrust change.

The Liberal Democrats’ own proposals on referendums, reintroducing the idea of directly elected regional assemblies, is surely a triumph of hope over experience. It is hard to believe that in more than five years since the first, and only, such referendum was held in the north east in 2004, public attitudes to there being more politicians have not hardened.

Back then, in a survey we conducted for the Economic and Social Research Council, a clear majority of electors thought such an assembly would be a waste of money, bringing few tangible benefits.

The Liberal Democrats’ other major plank, proportional representation for local elections by means of the single transferable vote (STV) system, would bring England into line with Scotland, and mean the virtual end of single party majority government.

In Scotland just two of the 29 mainland authorities are now under such control. ‘Hung’ councils in England have been common enough in recent years, but have a mixed record often dependent on the willingness of parties and leaders locally to work together.

From the perspective of electors, STV greatly enhances their ability to discriminate between candidates from the same party and would ensure that most parties were represented on most councils.

On the other hand, the size of wards needed could reduce the ties between voters and elected members and it becomes difficult for a dissatisfied electorate to identify and “throw the rascals out”.

Labour’s rather late-in-the-day conversion to widespread constitutional reform touches the least on local government, with simply a restatement of permissive powers for referendums on mayors in any new city regions. However, many Labour councillors remain cautious of attempts to set such a figure in authority over independent boroughs.

Perhaps the key question for all parties though is whether electors want to be asked to vote more often on more issues.

There is clear evidence that more elections tend to lead to voter fatigue and lower turnout and it is no surprise that both Labour and Conservative governments have ensured local elections have coincided with the last four general and last two European contests.

Many certainly believe that their voice is either unheard or not heeded but there is less demand for hands-on involvement in decision making of the kind David Cameron envisaged at the launch of the Conservative manifesto.

The real key to encouraging participation is contained in the Local Governmen Associaton’s own election campaign to give councils more powers and discretion over spending.

Most people are happy to elect others to get on with the business of governing. But they do want an effective mechanism to hold those in authority to account, and to feel that how they vote might make a difference to policy.

The diversity of views on the definition and future of local democracy suggests the parties may struggle for consensus if there is a hung Parliament after 6 May. Sadly for local government, though, in that event these issues are also unlikely to be seen as a high priority.

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