I have just spent four years as a local councillor, and I know that ordinary people do not want more powerby Jonathan Myerson / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Turnout at local elections hovers at around 35 per cent, dropping to 25 per cent in London: a shockingly low figure. Whitehall, think tanks and commissions are full of ideas about how to reinvigorate local democracy. But after four years as a councillor in Lambeth, it is clear to me that the protagonists in this debate remain frighteningly ignorant about the reality of local politics, and about what people want from their “local governors.”
All the parties and think tanks want to hand power back to citizens. Labour believes “local communities are just better at dealing with their own problems. They have the networks.” The Tories “advocate devolving power directly to the citizen,” and the Lib Dems want “local communities… to have more influence and say over the issues affecting them.” But my time as a councillor has told me one thing: citizens don’t want more power; they want someone to do it for them.
One of my polling districts comprised 99 per cent local authority housing, meaning its voters were heavy users of council services. These are the people who should be most eager to use the ballot box. But turnout here struggled to reach double figures. Yet the “new localism” continues to find ears in Whitehall. New tiers of committees and “urban parish councils” will, say ministers, reinvigorate local involvement. Much of the thinking in the department for communities and local government’s recent white paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities,” is informed by such ideas.
On the other side are the proponents of the “1 per cent solution” (see the Demos/Rowntree report “Community Participation: Who Benefits?” and Paul Skidmore in Prospect, December 2006). They concede that very few people will ever get involved in local governance, and argue that the important thing is that those that do want to get involved are able to, and that there are clear paths of accountability between them and voters.
I admire the realism of the “1 per centers,” and the idealism of the new localists, but both plans fail to take account of local councillors. The Demos report mentions them in only one of its seven illustrative schemes. The government white paper, despite proclaiming that “councillors should be champions for their local community,” actually creates structures for people to prompt, provoke or even sidestep their local councillor.
After years on the front line, it seems to me that people want more…