A healthy democracy demands not just a fair electoral system for Parliament, but genuine democratic engagement at all levels of society. The erosion of local democracy has been a key feature of the neo-conservative agenda and has gone hand in hand with a decline in participation in locally rooted organisations such as trade unions, consumer co-operatives, religious bodies and local political party branches.
A vibrant culture of grassroots democratic engagement, which once provided a ladder into politics for exceptional people from across society, has withered away. Instead of harnessing social change positively, successive governments have made local government a scapegoat and have pursued policies which undermine it. Making it possible for ordinary people to take a meaningful part in decision-taking on matters which affect their lives, is central to the Party’s objective of creating a society of opportunity for all.
The Party believes that the electoral system should be reformed to ensure that the makeup of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast. Efforts should be made to raise the status of elected representatives and honour those who give their time to serving their communities by permitting long-serving councillors to keep the title of councillor for life (as doctors and senior military officers do). Wherever compatible with efficiency and value for money, powers should be devolved from central government and government appointed bodies to local authorities, while expanding the opportunities for members of the public to take decisions on behalf of their communities and participate directly in the management of local facilities and initiatives.
The system which applies across most of the country whereby local government functions are divided between district and county councils is bureaucratic, wasteful and poorly understood. A division of responsibilities which is incomprehensible to most voters cannot be good for democracy and should be reformed. With the introduction of every-vote-counts local elections, partisan opposition to reform would make no sense as most authorities would be controlled by coalitions.
The Party, therefore, proposes that two-tier local councils be replaced by unitary local authorities based on existing county councils or by amalgamating two or more district councils. This reform would also help to address the issue of finding sufficient able candidates to stand in local elections, an increasing problem in recent years as local authorities have been marginalised.
Tackling inequality between different parts of the UK must play a central part in bringing about social justice and ensuring that the nation’s human capital is used effectively. Office of National Statistics figures show that in the period 2013 to 2015, life expectancy at birth was ten years lower in the most deprived parts of England than in the least deprived, with the difference in the number of years that an individual can expect to stay healthy approaching 20 years.
The exceptionally high level of inequality between regions are a directly linked to the concentration of power in London, with sub-national authorities in the UK having discretion over only 1.6% of GDP, compared with 6% in France, 11% in Germany and 16% in Sweden. The Party believes that devolving real power to the regions must play a key part in addressing this problem. Experience in a number of advanced economies demonstrates that democratically controlled regional structures can play a significant part in encouraging investment and ensuring that the economic interests of the regions are effectively represented in central government.
The transfer of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly has helped devolve decision-taking, but England remains unique among large democratic nations in not having a locally accountable regional tier of government. This lack of a powerful focus has left the Engish regions without a political leadership capable of launching campaigns, mobilising resources and lobbying in Westminster.
In the past, elected councillors in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester transformed their communities through far-sighted infrastructure developments and by providing services in areas such as health, welfare and education, which had a huge impact on the lives of their citizens. But since 1979, increasing central control over local authority spending, privatisation and the transfer of the running of large parts of the education and health systems to businesses and non-elected bodies has led to 91% of public spending in England now being in the hands of central government. This process has contributed to increasing regional inequality, with the result that the discrepancy in wealth between the metropolitan area and the rest of the country is greater in Britain than in any other major country in Europe.
Excessive centralisation undermines local leadership and encourages one-size-fits-all solutions and a neglect of the interests of people outside London and the South-East. It alienates the public from the democratic process and encourages the simplistic, inward-looking populism articulated by UKIP. It can also encourage inflexible decision-taking, waste and delays such as those which have plagued attempts to restructure the management of the NHS in England, which the King’s Fund described as: “top-down reorganisation which has been damaging and distracting”.
The Party, therefore, proposes that strategic responsibility for primary and secondary education, the NHS, the Police, economic development and regional transport be transferred in a staged process to elected regional authorities. This should help to prevent a repetition of the setback which occurred in 2004, when opposition from local politicians led to the rejection of a proposal to establish a regional tier of government on the North-East. The first step should be to transfer these responsibilities across the country to regional bodies controlled by elected representatives from local authorities. As a second stage, subject to local support, regional assemblies elected through an every-vote-counts electoral system, should be established, starting with areas where local support is strongest.
Tackling the Leader Principle
A key feature of the neo-conservative counter-revolution has been the transfer of decision-taking from collective democratic bodies to individuals. This Leader Principle was imposed in Germany in the 1930s and has since been adopted by authoritarian regimes around the world with the aim of streamlining decision-taking and embedding the thinking of those in control at the centre. Fundamentally, it is the antithesis of the principles of participation and engagement which are at the foundation of genuine democracy. It narrows the opportunities for members of the public to become involved in decision-taking, reduces transparency and accountability and increases the risk of inappropriate influence.
In Britain, the Leader Principle has been pursued under successive governments since the 1980s, for example, in schools by replacing parents and local authority school governors with representatives of management companies and religious organisations. In local government, responsibilities have been transferred to small groups of semi-professional cabinet members. In the same way, under Labour, Coalition and Conservative administrations, the electorate in larger cities has been put under pressure to adopt the US system of directly elected executive mayors. This has marginalised local councillors, enhanced the influence of the media over the electoral process and narrowed access to leadership positions by favouring candidates with a high national profile, at the expense of people with a track record of local service.
A third example of the promotion of the Leader Principle was the replacement of collegiate local authority governance of the system of Police Commissioners without any good reason being put forward for handing these powers to a single individual. The system was introduced from the United States to the Conservative Manifesto at a late stage before the 2010 general election and has failed to win public support, with levels of participation in ballots as low as 12%. In addition, people with close links to the police force account for an uncomfortably high proportion of successful candidates.
The Party believes that, rather than promoting the further expansion of the elected mayor system, the Government should work with local councils and communities to identify ways of ensuring that decision-taking is both efficient and transparent and inclusive. At the same time, the office of Police Commissioner should be abolished and local oversight of the police handed back in the first instance to multi-party committees of local councillors. Thereafter, this responsibility should be transferred, along with other powers, to a democratically elected regional tier of government.
Information and the Media
Meaningful democracy requires a diversity of information and debate, but the overwhelming majority of newspapers sold in Britain reflect the views of one party. Five or six billionaires with similar conservative views, most of whom are domiciled outside of the UK for tax purposes, control over 80% of the national press, while in the politically crucial middle market, readers have no real choice in terms of the political orientation of the papers they read.
There is nothing inevitable in this pattern of control. In Germany, most newspapers are controlled by trusts, as the Guardian and the Observer are in the UK, while in the US, the law imposes restrictions on the ownership of newspapers by people who are not US citizens. To address this issue, the Party proposes that a ban is introduced on individuals and corporations domiciled for tax purposes outside the UK controlling the editorial policy of major media outlets. At the same time, regulations should be enacted to ensure that contacts between newspaper proprietors and politicians are conducted in a transparent way to prevent diversity being traded away in exchange for electoral support as has happened repeatedly in the recent past.
Diversity of Opinions
Market forces play little part in determining the opinions expressed in headlines and editorials as most national papers are subsidised by their owners, making it impossible for competitors to emerge. A related problem is that, with the Guardian £2-00, the Financial Times £2-70, and the Observer £3-00, compared to 50p for the Sun, 65p for the Mail, 70p for the Express, and £1-30 for the Telegraph, most national papers which are not Conservative are out of reach of people on modest incomes. And politically motivated press magnates are not the only obstacle to informed debate. A growing threat also comes from the takeover of local newspapers and broadcasters by large profit-seeking media companies, which see quality news and analysis as a cost to be pared back as far as possible.
Those who defend the status quo claim that the opinions expressed in newspapers have little influence on how people vote, but if billboards and headlines had no influence, it is hard to see why the parties would spend fortunes on posters, and court newspaper owners and editors as they do. The issue is not just a matter of how papers influence voters. As important is how they influence politicians, with, for example, successive Governments responding to media demands for ever more punitive responses to a range of social problems, without real evidence that such responses are even effective.
For obvious reasons, it is difficult to document the extent of such influence, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it can be very considerable. For example, the former Times City Correspondent, Anthony Hilton, has reported on a number of occasions that: “I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’”
This problem has been greatly exacerbated by the rapid expansion of social media and the development of fake news as a means to bamboozle the public. An example of this was the way voters who were pro-Brexit but unsure whether to vote were bombarded in the week before the 2016 Referendum with a multi-million pound campaign claiming that Turkey was likely to join the EU within a year and that, as a member of the EU, the UK would have no veto over this. The fact that, despite these claims being palpably untrue, an organisation whose leaders included prominent MPs was willing to endorse this campaign demonstrates how vulnerable of our system has become to manipulation.
But in the age of fake news, what can be done to promote a broader spread of information and views? The Public Interest Test in the Enterprise Act of 2002 and the Communications Act of 2003, only apply in the case of mergers and are clearly failing to provide effective protection. The law needs to be reformed to actively promote greater plurality both in ownership and in opinions by strengthening the powers of the Office of Communications and introducing effective monitoring and remedies.
Beyond that, the Party believes that consideration should be given to the option of creating a printed and online public interest vehicle of information and debate on issues of public policy concern. The aim would be to provide an independent, expert assessment of facts and arguments on contentious issues of topical interest. Decision-taking and funding would need to be protected from pressure from the government, political parties and outside interests, for example by putting it under the supervision of a board of representatives representing organisations such as leading universities, the Royal Colleges and the Royal Society.
The Party is strongly opposed to cuts being imposed on the BBC, which threaten to undermine quality and viewer and listener choice, while further eroding diversity. The BBC exists to provide news, debate, information and entertainment and not to act as a social welfare agency. The Party, therefore, considers that the cost of providing free television licenses for people over the age of 75 should be funded out of general taxation and not treated as a cost to the BBC.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Rebuild Local Democracy
- reform the electoral system to ensure that the makeup of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast;
- replace two-tier local councils with unitary local authorities based on existing county councils or by amalgamating two or more district councils;
- devolve powers from central government and quangos to local authorities;
- raise the status of elected local representatives and permit long-serving councillors to keep the title of Councillor for life;
- transfer strategic responsibility for primary and secondary education, the NHS, the police, economic development and regional transport to elected regional authorities.
Enhance the Role of Elected Members and the Public
- expand opportunities for members of the public to play a direct part in the management of local facilities and initiatives;
- enhance the role of parent governors in all schools;
- end the practice of offering financial inducements to communities to vote to introduce directly elected mayors;
- enable all local councillors to have a significant role in decision-taking;
- abolish the office of Police Commissioner replacing this role with oversight by elected local authority representatives and, at a later stage, by a democratic regional tier of government.
Information and the Media
- strengthen the powers of the Office of Communications to ensure genuine press diversity through periodic plurality reviews, backed up by effective remedies;
- ban individuals and corporations domiciled for tax purposes outside the UK from controlling the editorial policy of major media outlets;
- ensure that contacts between newspaper proprietors and politicians are conducted in a transparent way to prevent diversity being traded away for electoral support;
- review the case for of creating an impartial and widely accessible public interest vehicle of information and debate on issues of public policy concern;
- fund the cost of providing free television licenses for anyone over the age of 75 out of general taxation.