Democracy or demi-cracy?
Rule by the people, or the subjugation of one half by the other half?
The Society's long-standing invitation to its members is to consider "Ipswich: it's our town .... do you care how it develops?" which in turn invites democratic challenges "How do we decide what we want?" and "How do we go about getting it?"
But how do we make changes democratically? After years of investigation I have reached the conclusion that, at its worst, it is like trying to nail a blancmange to a fence with a rubber nail, with one arm tied behind your back and someone trying their best to distract you. If you are lucky, someone will come along with something more substantial than a blancmange, offer you a proper nail, free both your arms and encourage you to get on with the job. This was thankfully so with street prostitution in Ipswich. The local community was acutely aware of an intolerable problem for which there was no local solution; the media sowed untold confusion "in the interests of balance" by asserting a woman's right to choose her career even though the street prostitutes' plight affords them no such freedom of choice. Fortunately the Home Office produced a well researched national strategy, clarifying several fundamental problems which demanded separate solutions. But it still took many years of multi-agency effort and ultimately five murders to stimulate the necessary concerted action.
So achieving democratic change is not simply a matter of doing what obviously needs to be done, but rather one of surmounting all the obstacles that lie in your path; and it requires a lot of timely co-operation from a lot of interested parties. And with good reason; power is a notoriously corrupting influence which should be diffused. Democracy for all its flaws is infinitely preferable to tyranny, but it does slow things down. This is unhelpful when urgent change is imperative but whose need is not yet obvious to all- as with the debt crisis which led to the credit crunch, and in a variety of impending crises in pensions, healthcare, climate change, and so on. Some of these problems are indeed associated with an over-concentration of power, for instance relying too heavily on the financial services sector for economic prosperity, or the use of fossil fuels for energy, which in turn call for the added precautions of appropriate monitoring and regulation. But such measures in turn divide the democratic community, between those who value individual and corporate freedom, and those who value security and order in society. How do we accommodate such contradictory values?
I suspect that most ordinary people simply take this in their stride. Of course we value personal freedom, but we also recognise that civilised society involves mutual responsibilities towards other people. We work to earn money to spend for ourselves and our families, and accept that valuable public services and infrastructure have to be paid for through taxes. Above all, we want equitable systems of reward and taxation, and good value for both disposable income and taxes. But the question of where to draw the dividing lines is then taken up in party politics and debate in the media, with proponents of market forces arguing that privatisation is the way to get value from the public sector (but for whom?), while their opponents argue that private greed has been the downfall of the Western economies. Does our "common sense" have to be subverted by these extreme ideological distractions? Does the "squeezed middle" have the power to clip the political wings and keep both public and private sectors in proper balance, or is "common sense" not common at all?
I have recently argued that our first-past-the-post voting system is artificially divisive where division need not exist. It might be better named "demi-cracy" since the outcome is selectively to ignore the arguments and concerns of as much as one half of the electorate in favour of the other half. But there is, after all, more than one form of democracy.
Casting a vote every few years for a local councillor or MP is a crude means of addressing the growing complexities and manifold choices of modern life, but the appeal of this simple system should not be under-estimated for those who have no wish for any greater engagement in public affairs. At a public meeting some years ago, a portfolio holder for the Borough Council was berated for troubling the public with her consultation when she had already been elected to get on and do her job. She retorted that she would dearly like to do just that, but consultation was required by the national Government of the day. Even this simple question on the duty of participation illustrates how "government by the people" belies the scope or passionate disagreement among the people.
Consultations: "What do we want?"
Consultations have nonetheless become a significant means of engaging public opinion and insight into current issues. But do they live up to the expectation of producing more popular solutions? Consider two prominent examples among many from recent years. The consultation on Unitary Local Government (ULG) in Suffolk failed because, in spite of a clearly expressed appetite for ULG, the people of Suffolk put parochial aspiration above practicality and collectively rejected the only two solutions that could be financially viable. And the consultation on the Local Development Framework (LDF) took years to progress, while in the meantime the Borough approved the Grafton Way (Tesco) development in spite of the draft provisions of the LDF regarding out-of-town retail and traffic congestion. By the narrowest of margins, the fruits of direct consultation were trumped by representative democracy! We must now wait and see how well it benefits the town - along with the parallel out-of-town development on the Cranes site - and, by implication, who really holds the keys to the town's future.
Localism and ministerial intervention
Whatever we might have wanted from the LDF or ULG, their consultations would ultimately be overruled by yet another servant of democracy, the newly-elected Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who intervened to suspend firstly all progress towards ULG, and secondly the Regional Spatial Strategy upon which the LDF depended. Given that this was making way for Localism, whereby local communities will be empowered to deliver the solutions they deem most appropriate, would it be unreasonable to conclude that this empowerment will consist of "You will do as I say!"? For Localism does indeed appear perversely to be driven very strongly from the centre, regardless of explicit local wishes, even down to saying prayers before council meetings!
Area Forums and Area Committees
An early manifestation of Localism will be to replace the underperforming Local Area Forums with Area Committees. These will still comprise regular public meetings, which will now be run by local councillors with decision-making powers and with local budgets. Hopefully these will be better attended and supported by the communities they are intended to serve.
The immediate focus for local democracy must surely be the Localism Bill, dictated by the Central Government as part of the Big Society, itself a problem re-packaged as a solution, not unlike the financial liabilities re-packaged as assets whose toxicity caused the credit crunch. So is it crunch time for democracy?
"Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." On the evidence of the recent past, little has changed in four hundred years. The opportunity to operate the levers of power is ultimately all that matters, and consultations and strategies which lack the will and resources to deliver their objectives are merely well intentioned distractions. Where is the spark that will change this? Do local communities really have pent-up reserves of energy waiting to be unleashed by the liberating power of Localism, or would the Politics-to-English phrasebook translate "We're all in this together" as "You're on your own"?
Our inter-dependence makes the strategic issues of the day increasingly matters of political will, empowerment, and co-operation . not division . at all levels. The democratic .common good. or demi-cratic divide and rule? It may well be our town, but how much choice do we really have?