LM Comment
  12:41 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
08 May 1998

Degraded Democracy

On the day that Londoners are given the opportunity to vote on whether they will have an elected mayor, Bruno Waterfield considers the lack of options

Local democracy tends not to arouse strong passions. The turnout for council elections in the UK has never been much higher than around 40 per cent. Unless all trends are reversed - and there is no reason to suggest they will be - we know that fewer than half of Londoners will be voting in today's election.

So what's new? Well, for starters, this is not supposed to be an ordinary local election. In spite of the somewhat understandable voter apathy and the seemingly inevitable stories of vote rigging already surfacing in one east London borough, the election is supposed to usher in a new era of local government and democracy. Voters will receive two ballot papers - one white, the other yellow. The first is to register support for councillors, most of whom are from one of the main three parties. The second is for a referendum on whether London should once more be ruled by a elected authority - principally a directly elected mayor and an assembly made up of 25 people.

But even campaigners for a 'yes' vote in the referendum have to admit that it is "one of the most low key and near silent political events" ever witnessed. "Apart from a few billboard posters and a leaflet, Londoners could be forgiven for believing that nothing is happening at all." (The Observer, 3 May 1998) London's Evening Standard, the most vocal supporter of an elected mayor, lamented that no one is really interested in "the most significant event for Londoners in over a decade". Three days before the vote, only one in ten Londoners knew when the referendum was taking place.

It gets worse. Following a story in the Times, a government spokeswoman confirmed that guidelines had been issued to those counting the papers making it more likely that a 'yes' vote would be registered. Driven by concerns over voter apathy, returning officers have been advised to be 'flexible' when ballot papers are not correctly marked. They have been told to count as valid "as many ballot papers as possible", including those marked with 'smiley' faces and games of noughts and crosses. Ballot papers bearing no crosses but marked with the words 'I agree' or 'OK' will also be considered valid.

The truth is that the idea of a mayor and city-wide authority has lost any capacity to arouse either controversy or passion beyond a tiny minority of the metropolitan middle classes. It has not always been so. In the 1980s questions of local democracy were among some of the most controversial issues facing the government of the day.

Developments in national politics changed this. Principally, the election of a consensus breaking government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. For the Labour Party, less and less able to contest the Conservatives at a national level, local government assumed a much greater importance. There were two reasons for this, the first negative, the second more positive. Some people felt unable to change the political direction of the country and became more and more estranged from attempts to do so and secondly, some sections of the population still wanted to oppose and contest Tory attacks on the living standards.

However, by the mid '80s Conservative supremacy seemed unassailable. Local opposition to the Tories, always defensive, was doomed.

A series of high profile court cases, exposing what became known as 'loony left' councils, resulted in local opposition to the Tories travelling the distance from resistance to popular caricature. The Local Government Acts of 1986 and 1989 disbanded London's elected body, the Greater London Council, and imposed tight legal restrictions on party political activity by all local authorities and their officers.

The Conservative government used the full weight of law to depoliticise local government. Today New Labour's constitutional reformers make a virtue of the non-adversarial politics that are a product of the defeats of the '80s. Far from being party-political and partisan, let alone confrontational, the job of the new mayor will be to represent all Londoners. Far from fighting for the interests of any particular constituency or interest group - something that the GLC was famous for - its job will be to engender civic pride and promote London as the creative heart of 'Cool Britannia' and in Prime Minister Tony Blair's words, "prepare London for the Millennium". Given that it will be at least 12 months before any legislation is passed and an election will be several months after that, whoever is elected will not have much time. But in spite of all the talk of inclusion and representation for all, this is a typically anti-democratic and Blairite project.

A 'yes' vote at the referendum will institutionalise the outcome of Thatcher's attacks on local democracy in the name of its restoration. The truth is that local politics has always been a poor relation to national politics and in the era of spin doctoring and Blair's 'presidential' style, an elected London authority will only emphasise and reinforce the new centre ground consensus in British politics.

With its avowedly apolitical mayor, the proposed authority will be less of an assembly and more of a committee commanding a secretariat of less than 250 people - less staff than London's local television network. The authority will have no tax raising powers and its administrative powers over the UKP3.4 billion annually channelled to London by central government will be restricted - the quangos that presently do the job are not to be abolished. In true New Labour style the only financial power that it may be given is the right to maintain a levy on cars so as restrict traffic congestion.

As the proposed candidates for the mayor indicate, this new authority will embody the low expectations of New Labour particularly and today's politics more generally. Currently on offer we have an icon to political failure, Ken Livingstone; a pompous fool, Lord Archer; a sanctimonious do-gooder, Richard Branson; a media nonentity, Trevor Philips and the corporate favourite Chris Patten who oversaw the inglorious handing back of Hong Kong to China. Such a collection shows us that this authority and the referendum has little to recommend it to anyone.

Join a discussion on this commentary

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk