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My democracy, which democracy?

By Jad Adams


I support democracy. I like to think I do so to the extent of willingness to fight and perhaps die for it. This is not so extravagant a claim, within living memory the men in my family were called upon to do exactly that.

Universal suffrage is consequently my birth-right, but what is it that I am being permitted to do with my vote, when the political parties have so adjusted the system to suit themselves?

In the coming elections for local councils and the European Parliament, two relatively recent changes have stripped away most of the choices voters had and given them to the political parties. The Local Government Act 2000 and the party list system, introduced for European elections in 1999, are both triumphs of management over content. Both shuffled power from an aggregate of the electors to a small number of people running the party machines.

When I first saw local government in action, as a junior reporter on a local paper, I felt admiration for the range of abilities and oratorical skill that leading councillors brought to their posts. They were people who not only worked unpaid, but often made real financial sacrifices in order to work for their locality. When I occasionally attend council meetings today I am struck by the poor quality of the debates, the inability to see the implications of policy beyond party advantage, the lack of intellectual rigour, the sheer irrelevance of most of this political process to the business of local government, which is now carried on by senior officers.

What happened in the interim? The Local Government Act 2000 did away with the old committee system that had run councils since 1835, through more than a century and a half of municipal progress. The government imposed a ‘leader and cabinet’ system. Active local democracy was ‘modernised’ into non-existence; only cabinet members now have any authority and even their role is merely advisory to the leader.

The leader appoints the cabinet; the rest of the councillors are supporters or impotent opponents. There is no political brake on the leader’s authority, but decisions can be criticised in retrospect by a ‘scrutiny committee.’ This is not local democracy but local autocracy.

800px-Westminster_Bridge,_Parliament_House_and_the_Big_Ben

Is it any wonder that people of quality are reluctant to come forward to be councillors when they have no influence except that can be garnered by toadying to the leader, who might then appoint them to the cabinet and put some money in their pockets? People of quality wanting to act in public affairs realise they could have more influence in pressure groups. Of course, there are still some meritorious councillors, just as under the old system there were some fools. My observation is that the balance has shifted and there are now fewer people of quality prepared to go through the system.

Voters were in fact given something of a choice over the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000: they could choose whether to have the directly elected mayor and cabinet system, or the leader and cabinet system. There was no option of retaining the tried and tested system of committees where every councillor had a voice. So it was a charade of a ballot where only votes in favour were requested and counted. This used to be called ‘guided democracy’ in east European countries.

As with every centralisation, those who already possessed power welcomed the developments of the Act with hands outstretched. It put more money into the system, gave senior officers more power (which, since it had to come from somewhere, meant commensurately less for elected representatives), paid councillors, and gave ever-increasing sums to cabinet members for special responsibilities.

In a few places the gimmick of directly elected leaders (confusingly referred to as mayors) was tried. The public were indifferent everywhere except London where candidates from both major parties have excelled as mayors, but London is more like a city state with a president than a municipal corporation. Elected mayors in four of thirty-two London boroughs have added to the cost of the process but contributed nothing to efficiency. Outside of London there are eleven directly elected mayors, with two other towns having tried but abandoned the system as an expensive flop. This local lack of democracy is one of the ways in which the system has become fragmented, the responsiveness of the elected moving further and further away from those they are supposed to represent and towards their party loyalty.

On a larger scale, there is the other election we face this month, for Members of the European Parliament, which has been entirely taken over by political parties. A system in which electors voted for a local MEP was replaced in 1999 by the European Party Elections Act with a party list system with the additionally unfriendly title of ‘closed list.’ That means voters can vote only for a party, and the first candidates on the list chosen by the party will get in — even if that person is heartily despised by their own supporters, so long as they are favoured by the party bosses.

This is not an arcane argument about supposed representation with no relevance to individuals. I have a property in Greece. I had a problem with the planning authorities there where I felt I was being discriminated against as a non-Greek. Contact my Member of the European Parliament, I thought. So who is that?

I found Greek MEPs with parties like the Popular Orthodox Rally or members of groupings such as the Nordic Green Left Confederation, but no member for the Dodecanese islands. After one and a half days of trying to make contact with people via the Internet, Brussels and party offices, I finally called a London MEP who had a Greek name so I supposed she might know something. She was in fact very helpful, but is this any way to run a representative democracy? I did not vote for this MEP, at best I might have voted for a party list on which she appeared somewhere.

In the UK we now have this party list system; single transferable votes (for directly elected mayors); the mixed member system for the Welsh assembly (don’t ask); regional proportional representation for the Scottish parliament and first past the post for general elections.

I still think I would still fight for democracy, but which democracy is that?

Jad Adams is an independent historian specializing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research. His forthcoming book, Women and the Vote, is published by Oxford University Press and available from September 2014.

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Image credit: Westminster Bridge, Parliament House. Photo by Jiong Sheng, 25 September 2005. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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