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On Tuesday, we saw Americans in 37 states vote on a total of 157 “propositions” or “initiatives”. These are referendums on an array of issues. Some are significant – others symbolic or of little consequence. Often there are highly controversial or emotive issues that make it onto the ballot paper. There are other decisions which sound, to an outsider at least, rather tedious and mundane.

Let us take California. This year Californians had 11 different propositions to vote on. (One can see how the queues get rather long when there is a high turnout.) In order to get something put to the vote a petition is needed with a sufficient number of signatures. The tally must come to at least five per cent of the number who voted in the last election for Governor. So that might be around 600,000. Some of us have fond memories of Howard Jarvis’s  Proposition 13 which was passed in 1978 and cut property taxes in California by 57 per cent. (Rather equivalent to the “Proposition 13” in Wandsworth the previous month when the Conservatives gained control of the Council from Labour in the local elections.)

Tax is still a subject which crops up – although generally Californians are less keen on cutting it than they were. This year we had Proposition 5 on the ballot, which I’m sorry to see did not pass. The “California Association of Realtors” (what the Americans call estate agents) had helped gather up the signatures. It proposed allowing pensioners wishing to downsize to pay the same level of property tax. Usually moving involves an increase in property tax as it is based on the amount you paid when you bought the house. So if someone wants to move – perhaps due to disability or to be nearer their relatives – they are penalised. That would also free up the housing market and increase the supply available for others. “Exactly,” responded the critics claimed these “realtors” would benefit from extra commissions. I’m sure they would have – but so what if the change would be of wider benefit? Anyway no point in rerunning the Proposition 5 campaign. I feel it is important to accept the result of a referendum.

Californians also voted against extending rent controls, to increase the amount of space farmers must provide for their hens and pigs, and to allow private sector emergency ambulance employees to be required to remain on-call during work breaks. They voted against cutting fuel tax and to end Daylight Saving Time.

The Vox website reports that among votes elsewhere, Massachusetts saw backing for “transgender rights” – effectively that men who identify as women can use the women’s lavatories and vice versa. Here are some of the other decisions:

“Alabama and West Virginia voters passed measures that cease to recognize and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion, while Oregonians rejected a measure to ban public funding for the procedure. But unless the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, the restrictions protecting the sanctity of life remain symbolic, since they’re not decided at the state level.

“Florida passed the historic Amendment 4, which will allow up to 1.4 million ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Maryland, Nevada, and Michigan are hoping to enact laws that allow same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, or both, while Arkansas and North Carolina wish for voter restrictions by issuing changes on voter ID laws.

“Arkansas and Missouri both voted to increase the minimum wage, which will give raises to a combined total of 900,000 workers in the two states. And several states voted on whether to expand the legalization of marijuana: Michigan fully legalized marijuana, while Utah and Missouri voted to legalize medical marijuana, and North Dakota rejected a measure to legalize marijuana.”

Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, notched up a victory in North Carolina:

“In the Tar Heel State, voters have lowered North Carolina’s constitutional income tax cap, currently set at ten per cent, to seven per cent. Voters passed the Income Tax Cap Amendment with more than 57 per cent of voters approving of the measure.

“The state’s income tax rate stands at 5.499 per cent and is scheduled to drop to 5.25 per cent on January 1, 2019. Governor Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Democratic Party came out against the measure, even though the reduced income tax cap of seven per cent would still permit a more than 33 per cent state income tax increase.”

Voters in Washington, Missouri and Utah rejected various proposals for energy and fuel taxes.

The scale of all this popular decision making is pretty extraordinary. The debate about the respective merits of direct democracy and representative democracy has been with us for a long time – the ancient Greeks agonised about it as do the Americans today. I am not suggesting we should go anywhere near as far as the United States. There would, for instance, be no point having a referendum to legalise cannabis in Enfield – as Enfield Council would not have the power to carry out such an instruction from its residents. In any case it would seem an unlikely idea to decide a matter on such a local basis. Would not the junkies from Broxbourne, Barnet, Haringey and Waltham Forest be encouraged to move in. One of my favourite films, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, is an anti referendum classic.

Yet I would suggest that we should take a few cautious steps in the American direction. Brexit should not only mean more decision-making in the House of Commons but also some powers being passed down to town halls. The existing power to bring in (or remove) the system of a directly elected Mayor offers a chance to shake things up when they are working badly. The effective veto on excessive Council Tax due to the requirement to hold a referendum has worked well – although allowing increases of twice the inflation rate before this kicks in is too lenient. There should also be the power to challenge Council Tax levels that are already extortionate. As with California, it is right that the requirement for signatures on a petition should be pretty onerous. But if such a hurdle is met then residents should be able to trigger a petition to cut the level Council Tax.

What about a referendum on weekly bin collections? Or a planning policy that would ban new tower blocks? The petition threshold is a safeguard against too many issues being put forward – or of them being too frivolous or too complicated and obscure to be understood.

I am familiar with the retort that if people don’t like what their councillors are doing they should vote them out. Should the alternatives not appear much better they can stand themselves. Certainly that is the fundamental remedy. But in much of the country it is not working. Our local politics is ossified. Membership of political parties fluctuates a bit, but is on a long term downward trend. Low calibre councillors are seldom deselected – and so can drift on for years in safe wards claiming allowances. Cynicism has eroded the public service ethos and so good people are discouraged from taking part.

In short, politics has become too important to be left to the politicians. Making it easier to hold a referendum would invigorate the system. Inevitably council leaders will not like having constraints put on their power – especially the amount of our money that they can spend. Rather than undermining council elections, interest and participation would be enhanced. Perhaps some of those motivated to get involved by campaigning on a single local issue might then broaden their interest and become local councillors.

39 comments for: What Americans can teach us about local democracy

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