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Futures Papers : Local Democracy - Crisis or Confidence?
Average reader rating: 10  
by Michael Clarke 07 the future of Countries & Democracies

This paper was first published for the Human City Initiative in November 1996.
Michael Clarke is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

A visit to the new democracies of east and central Europe is constructive. In the endeavour to build a new state and civic society and to design arrangements for lasting democracy, local democracy assumes major importance. There are two reasons for this. First to provide counter balances within the system and, second, to create at the local level a corner-stone of the new order.

Both these things serve as reminders of the fragility of our own society. We have taken local government and democracy for granted or, worse, not even thought about it - with the consequence that it has been significantly weakened without much protest. Secondly, we do not seen any longer to view it as a fundamental building block of citizenship and democratic order.

Weaknesses
The weakness is seen most obviously in three ways. First of all, the turnout at local elections is low. Can anyone really be satisfied that turnouts of 30-40% or even 45% are adequate'? Although there has been a marginally upward trend in the last couple of decades, the situation shows no signs of being other than dire.

The second indicator of weak local democracy is to be seen in the lack of identity and ownership which most of us have with/of our local councils. This was evident in the lack of reaction to the attacks on local government by the Conservative governments of the 1980s.

It is to be seen, continuously, in low levels of interest in what is happening in our communities, or sense that there is any real partnership between those whom we elect and the rest of us. It is to be seen in the scepticism and cynicism about local politics and local political institutions.

The third demonstration of weakness is in local political party activity. Although there has been an increase in Labour Party membership in the last couple of years, the downward trend in political party membership has been going on for some time. Although the national political parties dominate local government - and elections are almost always between party candidates - there is little sign of large scale involvement in political activity or debate at the local level. There is no sense of broadly based membership organisations informing and supporting their elected councillors.

Party involvement and membership does. however, point to a paradox. While political parties as agents of political mobilisation may not count for much, there has been a marked growth in their vitality. Similarly, all the signs are that membership of voluntary and community organisations at the local level is flourishing. Thus, while we may be rightly worried about the traditional means of political involvement and engagement in conventional democratic politics, it may be that there are alternatives waiting to be unleashed. We shall return to this.

Low levels of turnout, identity and ownership, reluctance to engage with the conventional institutions of local democracy and the plight of the parties suggest that action is needed. It may be dramatic to talk of a crisis in local democracy. It is hardly possible to have confidence in its strength or future. Action is needed.

Insularity
Some argue that the solution is to find ways of making local elections more attractive and of increasing turnout. While not denying the importance of doing something about turnout, the issues are deeper. A lifetime of involvement as an observer of local government and politics has led me, in common with many, to see local government as being cut-off from its citizens.

Politicians and officers are both insulated from the citizens who surround them and the supposedly mediating role of the democratic process does not seem to make a lot of difference. Politicians are caught up in the world of the political party; increasingly this has become exclusive rather than inclusive. Small membership lists mean that party organisations do not stretch far into our communities. And, of course, this is sufficiently convenient for the serious activists not to warrant too much attention. Officers hide behind a cloak of public accountability (via councillors and council) and often seem unconcerned that the large majority of the people their council serves have little enthusiasm or interest in what is going on.

These things feed the evident and growing alienation and cynicism about politics and political institutions. Survey after survey has revealed the extent and depth of this. It is at its most marked among the young and among those who are at the margin of society, often because they have no job. Unless we can do something about changing these attitudes and feelings, we are undoubtedly storing up anger and frustration which will almost inevitably erupt in an uncontrolled way. We need to recognise the importance of building active citizenship at the local level as a way of rooting people in society.

There is no doubt that society - and government - have become more plural and complicated. But what do we do'? Many of the big issues confronting contemporary local society - public safety, quality of life, public health, green issues and sustainability, the problems of the old or the young - seem almost intractable. They not only cut across the boundaries and perspectives of organisations and agencies but there is little consensus about solutions, or even belief that they will easily be found. What seems clear is that they need to be tackled in a whole variety of ways and usually with the close involvement of those most effected.

It is interesting, for example, that the success stories in the regeneration field are at the very local level where public agencies, voluntary and private organisations and real local people join together to confront the problems and find solutions. Again and again, it is the engagement with and involvement of real people in real communities which point the way to public policy solutions. This is argument in itself for doing something to combat alienation and cynicism and detachment from democratic processes and institutions.

The Human City Institute is about recognising the human component of the city, ensuring that people and their concerns are reflected in it and its direction and working to produce a situation where its public and human face are being shaped by its people. Being creative about the reinvigoration of local democracy and seeking for new patterns and processes should be somewhere near the heart of what the Institute is about. In a short space, I can only exemplify the issues we need to deal with.

Representative democracy
I return first to one of my early comments. Although elections are only part of the story they are an important symbol and base. Elections must be made more attractive and important, and engagement and turnout increased. This may be partly about national regulations (e.g. arrangements for postal voting - in New Zealand turnout has been dramatically increased by making postal voting universally available; the day on which elections are held; the times when polling booths are open - and even where they are; arrangements for publicity and so on). Other things will be the responsibility of the local council and community. Publicity about elections and their importance, the generation of debate in the local media, the engagement of community groups and organisations are all things which can be considered and acted on.

Elections are the corner stone of representative democracy.
Representative democracy is then played out within our local councils via all kinds of political processes and relationships. Although local government is much more open than other parts of the public sector and central government, it is still hardly user-friendly. It is difficult to gain access to the formal processes and, often, to understand what is going on. Attempts to involve ordinary citizens are infrequent. The internal workings of the council and the way public access is helped or hindered, the way the public is treated and the kind of information that is available, are important.

That much would be readily accepted by many involved in local democracy and government, even if progress has been slow. Equally recognisable will be the language of empowerment. Here however, the gap between rhetoric and reality widens. The notion of empowerment implies sharing or giving away power. The formal institutions of local government are exceedingly reluctant to do this; representative democracy, moreover, is apt to endow people who are elected with power, rather than encourage them to give it away! But if we are seriously interested in involvement and active citizenship, then here is ground for revolution and radical thinking.

Participatory democracy
It is at this point that notions of representative democracy begin to shade into ones of participatory democracy. The dividing line is not always clear. What is important here is to recognise that there are things which will strengthen representative democracy; equally, there are things which will be about people collectively sharing in decision-making. The two need not be at odds.

There is a whole raft of possibilities for empowerment and genuine participation. Perhaps, most simply, the use of citizen focus or user groups to help develop ideas and policy, scrutinise and review what is going on and shape services. The use of citizen juries attracting a lot of attention at the moment - is one way of bringing ordinary citizens into the decision-making process to help inform rather than substitute for - the final decision making role of councillors.

Devices which are essentially consultative or informative quickly merge into ones which may have some executive authority. A group of users called together to talk about developing a service or to review it, may easily be given authority to shape its future. Equally, a more general group of citizens drawn together to examine or debate a particular issue may go on to share some part in decision making. Much of local government is about making or enabling public provision. There is a whole range of institutions engaged in service provision at the local level. These range from schools to leisure centres and old peoples homes. There are also a whole series of local institutions not necessarily part of local government as such. Why not involve local citizens, community representatives or users in their day to day management, shaping policy and operations'?

Perhaps the strongest form of participation and involvement comes with the various approaches to decentralisation. This is where the local authority delegates to a local community (usually geographical but not necessarily so). The way in which power is shared may vary widely but the essence is to bring local people into the business of shaping localities and solving local problems. There are, of course, difficult issues about the amount of discretion, about tension between local and general policy and the rest of it, but the possibilities are real and important.

Other issues
I want to touch on three further sets of issues. First, the political parties. The decline in membership may be difficult to reverse, but the way in which parties operate (in terms of exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness) and the way in which they interact with the community and work inside councils could change radically. Issues about party groups, party discipline and so on are only part of the story. The stranglehold they have over local democratic processes - and our ability to confuse local democracy with competition between political parties does not help.

This leads, inevitably, to the second issue which is to do with the electoral system itself. The first past-the-post system strengthens the position of the major parties and can produce party dominance which bears no relationship to voting support. The example of Stoke, where Labour alone makes up the council, and yet where more than 25% voted for other parties, makes the point. While there is no guarantee that a change in the electoral system would radically change the range or composition of parties, there is every reason to believe that it would produce a healthier situation - not least because there would be a direct relationship between votes cast and representatives elected to the council. It would also be likely to endow local democracy with greater credibility and legitimacy.

The last point is a rather different one and is the relationship between local government and local civil society. Flourishing single issue groups and voluntary and community organisations are the bulwarks of local civil society and the means by which we are rooted in local society. It is surprising that local government and local democracy have not found better ways of engaging with these communities. The emphasis on representative democracy, geographical communities and the mediating role of political parties seems to have got in the way. Local government needs to find new patterns of relationship. The institutions and organisation of civic society could be playing a more powerful role as mediators with the local governmental system. They must not be co-opted nor taken over by local government, but they have a major potential as an avenue for involvement, nurturing citizenship and - albeit indirectly building confidence in democracy.

Postscript - February 1999
It is now more than two years since this paper was written. Its message retains its integrity. In the meantime, we have a new government which has brought a new rhetoric to local government and local democracy. Its consultation papers of early 1998 and the subsequent White Paper Modern Local Government - In touch with the People express a commitment to the reinvigoration of local democracy and to the strengthening of local government. We have yet to see any tangible change. The incipient crisis remains and the need to build confidence is as great as ever. There is no reason to be any more relaxed about the current position or the need for change than there was in November 1996. The agenda is as important, perhaps more important - than ever.
March 1999

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