Erosion of local democracy has played a central part in the neo-conservative agenda and has gone hand in hand with a decline in participation in locally rooted trade union and political party branches, consumer co-operatives and religious bodies. Too much power is concentrated in Westminster and, instead of harnessing initiative at the grass roots, successive governments have treated local government as a scapegoat and side-lined local leadership. A healthy democracy demands not just fair elections, but genuine democratic engagement at all levels. Empowering the public and enabling ordinary people to take a meaningful part in decision-taking, is central to the Party’s objective of creating a society of opportunity for all.
Since 1979, successive governments have exploited the absence of a constitutional division of powers, as exists in the United States, to undermine local democracy by cutting budgets and hiving off key functions to the private sector. This process has continued under Conservative and Coalition administrations, with local authority funding being cut by 60% since 2010. The Radical Party believes that strong local democratic institutions must play a central role in creating a cohesive, responsive and open society.
The Radical Party Proposes:
- Strong and Accountable Local Democracy
- Elected Regional Government
- Public and Democratic Engagement
- A Media Diverse in Opinions and Ownership
Strong and Accountable Local Democracy
The Party believes that the electoral system should be reformed to ensure the makeup of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast. The status of elected representatives should be raised and long-serving councillors honoured by allowing them to keep the title of Councillor for life (as doctors, professors and senior military officers do). Wherever compatible with value for money, powers should be devolved from central government and appointed bodies to local authorities. And new opportunities should be created for members of the public to take decisions on behalf of their communities and participate 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 in 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 (while retaining town and parish councils, which play a valuable role at the community level). This reform would also help to ensure that sufficient able candidates come forward to stand in local elections, an increasing problem in recent years as local authorities have been marginalised.
Elected Regional Authorities
Tackling inequality between different parts of the UK must play a central part in achieving social justice and ensuring the nation’s human capital is used effectively. Office of National Statistics figures show that in 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 time an individual can expect to stay healthy approaching 20 years. Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2018, according to Public Policy North, public spending in the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber fell by £6.3 billion in real terms, while rising by £3.2 billion in the South East and South West. The agency has also reported that weekly pay had fallen by 3.8% in these regions, compared with a fall of 3.3% across the country as a whole.
This inequality is directly linked to the concentration of power in London, with sub-national authorities in the UK having discretion over less than 2% 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 other countries shows that democratic regional structures play an important part in encouraging investment and ensuring that the interests of the regions are effectively represented in central government.
The transfer of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament (population, 5.3 million), the Welsh Assembly (3.1 million) and the Northern Ireland Assembly (1.8 million) has helped devolve decision-taking. But England remains unique among large democratic nations in having no locally accountable regional tier of government – despite the South East (9.0 million), the North West (7.2 million) and the East of England (6.2 million) having much larger populations and unique economic and demographic characteristics. This lack of a powerful focus has left the English regions without leaders with the authority to campaign effectively on behalf of their communities, mobilise resources or lobby 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 health, welfare and education, which had a huge impact on the lives of their citizens.
But cuts in local authority funding, privatisation and the transfer of large parts of the education and health systems to businesses and appointed bodies has led to a higher proportion of public spending in England coming under the control of central government than at any time in the last 150 years. This in turn has contributed to increasing regional inequality and allowed the discrepancy in wealth between the metropolitan area and the rest of the country to become greater than in any other major European country.
Excessive centralisation also encourages one-size-fits-all solutions that neglect 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 organisations such as UKIP. It also leads to inflexibility, waste and delays such as those which have plagued attempts to restructure the management of the NHS in England, which the King’s Fund has 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 training, and regional transport be transferred in a staged process to elected regional authorities. 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 in the North-East, a step-by-step approach should be adopted
The first stage should be to transfer these responsibilities to separate regional committees for education, the police, and so on, selected from among councillors from the unitary and county authorities. As a second stage, regional assemblies elected through every-vote-counts elections should be established, starting with areas where local support is strongest. This should lead to the development of a fully-fledged regional tier of government with powers similar to those exercised by the Welsh Assembly. London and the South East should be treated as separate for the purposes of this process.
Public and Democratic Engagement
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 pioneered in Germany in the 1930s and in recent years has been adopted by authoritarian regimes around the world. Fundamentally, it is the antithesis of the principles of participation and engagement which are fundamental to genuine democracy. It narrows the opportunities for members of the public to take decisions, reduces transparency and accountability and increases the risk of inappropriate influence.
In Britain, successive governments since the 1980s have transferred power to private sector oriented managers who answer to Westminster. Parents and local authority school governors have been replaced by private management companies; voters in large cities have been put under pressure to adopt US-style executive mayors, undermining the role of local councillors. And local police authorities have been replaced by Police Commissioners under a system which has totally failed to win public support, with participation in ballots as low as 12% and people with close links to the police accounting for an uncomfortably high proportion of successful candidates.
These changes have marginalised the role of local councillors. The introduction of directly elected mayors has enhanced the influence of the media over the electoral process and has favoured candidates with a high national profile at the expense of people with a track record of local service. The Party believes that, rather than expanding this system, the Government should work with local authorities to ensure that decision-taking is efficient, transparent and inclusive. Replacing the title of “Council Leader” by “Mayor” (a title now mainly used for a function which is largely ceremonial) would remove a common source of confusion, but the Party believes that mayors should be selected from among existing elected councillors, and not parachuted in, as is currently the case in some large cities.
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 to a democratically elected regional tier of government.
A Media Diverse in Opinion and Ownership
Meaningful democracy requires a diversity of information and debate, but the overwhelming majority of newspapers reflect the views of the Conservative Party. Five or six billionaires with similar 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 meaningful 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.
A Range of News and 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. With the Guardian costing £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 controlled by right-wing billionaires 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 wherever 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 have no influence, it is hard to see why politicians spend fortunes on posters and court newspaper owners and editors as they do. And the issue is not just a matter of how papers influence voters. As important is how they influence politicians, with successive Governments responding to media demands for ever more punitive responses to social problems, without real evidence that this is even effective.
While it is difficult to document the extent of such influence, 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: “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”. Thus, pro-Brexit voters who were unsure whether they would actually vote were targeted immediately before the Referendum with a multi-million pound social media campaign (apparently funded from abroad) suggesting that Turkey was about to join the EU and that this would immediately allow 79 million people to immigrate to the UK.
Promoting Access and Diversity
The current pattern of control of the printed media and the deliberate propagation of fake news as a political tool pose a grave threat to democracy – but what can be done to promote broader access to trustworthy information and diverse views without raising reasonable concerns over the freedom of the press?
First, anti-monopolies powers should be strengthened to require diversity of opinion as well as price in the printed media. 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 against the super-rich dominating the media. The law should be reformed to require the Competition and Markets Authority to promote plurality in ownership and control, and the terms of reference and powers of the Office of Communications strengthened to support effective monitoring and remedies.
Second, active steps are needed to bring about greater diversity of opinion in the local press, where serious journalism is threatened by the growth of social media and cost-cutting. To bolster access to quality news and analysis, resources should be made available to subsidise newspapers through paid advertisements on public interest topics such as public health and safety using information from authoritative sources.
Third, individuals, corporations and agencies domiciled for tax purposes outside the UK should be banned from controlling the editorial content of newspapers published here.
And, fourth, measures should be taken 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.
The Party is strongly opposed to cuts being imposed on the BBC, which threaten to undermine quality and choice while further eroding diversity. The Government has consulted on the future of free television licenses for people over 75. The BBC exists to provide news, debate, information and entertainment and not to act as a social welfare agency. The Party, therefore, considers that free television licenses for people over the age of 75 should be treated as a taxable benefit and funded out of general taxation.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Strong and Accountable Local Democracy
- reform the electoral system to ensure membership of local authorities accurately reflects the votes cast;
- replace two-tier local councils with unitary local authorities based on existing county councils or two or more district councils;
- devolve powers from central government and unelected bodies to local authorities;
- permit long-serving councillors to keep the title of Councillor for life.
An Elected Regional Tier of Government
- transfer responsibility for primary and secondary education, the NHS, the police, economic development, training and regional transport in a staged process to elected regional authorities.
Public and Democratic Engagement
- expand opportunities for the public to play a direct part in managing local facilities;
- enhance the role of parent governors in all schools;
- stop offering financial inducements to communities to adopt elected mayors;
- enhance the role of all local councillors in decision-taking;
- replace Police Commissioners with oversight by elected representatives at the regional level.
A Media Diverse in Opinions and Ownership
- strengthen the Office of Communications to ensure genuine press diversity through periodic plurality reviews;
- ban individuals domiciled outside the UK from controlling the editorial content of major media outlets;
- ensure that contacts between newspaper proprietors and politicians are conducted in a transparent way;
- promote impartial information and debate on issues of public policy concern;
- make free television licenses for elderly viewers a taxable benefit and fund them out of general taxation.