There has rightly been a lot of focus in recent months about how to reinvigorate democracy – or how to restore it where it has vanished entirely. With the appalling abuses of expenses in Parliament, the passage of the deeply unpopular Lisbon Treaty and the continual neglect by this country’s Government of the real concerns of the people, it is small wonder that people are boiling with fury.
While the political class have been content to ignore a certain amount of disillusionment amongst the electorate in the past, the din has now got so loud that none of them can afford to ignore it. As a result, the parties have started to set out their proposals for how our democracy can be revitalised.
Most recently, we heard David Cameron setting out new Conservative policies in this area – specifically the excellent idea of giving voters the right to table debates in Parliament, initiate referenda and recall MPs.
But as yet we have heard very little about local government. If people are to get a greater say over national services and national representatives, then why should the same not apply to local services and local councillors?
If there is a feeling that people are disillusioned with Westminster democracy – which attracted a turnout of 61.3% in 2005 – then it is undeniable that the problem is worse in local government, where turnout is often just over half that.
Much as with central government, people do care about the issues, taxes and services supposedly discussed at local level. However, they feel that their opinions are ignored.
It is easy to think of a range of issues where public opinion has clearly been strongly at odds with the decisions taken by many councils. Fortnightly bin collections. Draconian parking regimes. Increases in councillors’ allowances. Referenda on any of these topics would most probably produce a set of policies that was much more in keeping with the views of local voters.
Similarly, there are plenty of instances when the constituents of a ward would very much have liked to have the power to sling out one or more of their councillors – whether due to misbehaviour or even the bizarre but increasingly regular decisions of councillors to move abroad whilst continuing to hold office.
There would be those who would kick up a fuss about this idea. No-one would expect power to be transferred to the people without some politicians squealing. Most probably, they’d reach for the easiest argument: “But local government is different! These are nice ideas for Westminster, but totally inappropriate for the Town Hall.”
That will not wash. For a start, the selling point of local government is meant to be that it is closer to the people, which does not sit well with the idea that it should reject greater direct democracy.
Furthermore, a key part of the direct democracy agenda is that Westminster should pass powers down to local level. It would be absurd to make Parliament more democratic, and then move its powers to bodies that fall short of that new standard of accountability.
In practical terms, Conservative councillors opposed to the idea should remember that their party’s platform already includes one element of local referenda.
Since November 2007, it has been Conservative policy to replace the Council Tax cap with binding referenda. David Cameron took that step along the road towards local direct democracy long before he proposed that such principles be applied in Westminster – this would be a sensible extension of a policy that has been happily bedded into Conservative local government policy for over two years.
Of course, even if you introduced the power of recall, or referendum initiation, at a local level, it would not make local government fully democratic. It would be a big step in the right direction, but to complete the journey you would need to smash the power of the quangos and – most importantly of all – allow councils to raise the majority of their funding, with no central government strings attached.