We Need to Talk about Democracy

DemocracyThis year’s County Council elections take place against a background of deep cuts to funding that are restricting the ability of all Councils to carry out their functions.  One of the purposes of the cuts is to force Councils to look for different ways of discharging their responsibilities, compelling them to look for private providers.  They are also a brutal reminder of the political power structure in this country.  Despite all the Tories talk about localism, this structure is strictly top down; local government being little more than an agent of central government.  What little power remains at the local level is being deliberately eroded by this Government with its policy of cutting council budgets.  Eric Pickles, the minister responsible for Local Government has a simplistic vision of the role of Councils, which is to be no more than a commissioning authority. In his ideal world, they would meet just once a year to allocate contracts to private companies that would provide all public services – this meeting to be followed no doubt by a lavish celebratory meal.

Our system of local government has its origins in Saxon England when the Shires were established, each divided in to Hundreds that took responsibility for the management of day to day affairs. Since then we have seen the growth in power of the nation state, and the domination of local affairs by the interests of central Government.  Now we are seeing this process take a new direction with the functions of Councils being handed to private companies.  We are seeing the interests of the community secondary to the drive to cut costs and make profits. These are profound changes that are happening without any serious debate or understanding as to where they will lead.  Opposition to Government cuts is missing the bigger question of the role of Local Government in a modern democracy.  This Government is effectively destroying local Government that has its traditions in Saxon England, and replacing it with private interests that have more in common with the Norman Barons’ feudal system of the total subordination of communities to the interests and desires of the Feudal Lord.

Just as Greens deplore the emasculation of local democracy by private and unaccountable interests, so do we oppose the increasing centralisation of political power within the Whitehall machine that has been going on since the Second World War.  We are a democratic party and see this concentration of power and the growth of the associated bureaucracy as a threat to democracy.  The concentration of power takes us along the road that ends in dictatorship, where the interests of the few transcend those of the many.  We support the devolution of power, not only to the British Nations, and not only from Europe, but most significantly from Westminster down to Local Government.  For us, nothing should be done at a higher level of government that could be done equally well or better at a lower level.

For Greens, the highest form of democracy is direct participation. This principle has been all but eroded by the centralisation of power encouraged by both right and left wing governments. However, we find it most encouraging that the desire for people to be involved in decision making and to make their voice heard is far from dead.  The growth and popularity of electronic campaigning coupled with direct action is forcing central government and even powerful corporations to take note of the views of ordinary people.  The numerous U turns by this Government, from the climb-down on the sale of the public forest estate to its dropping the forced tendering Orders for the NHS is testimony to people power.

It follows therefore that for us, the heart of democratic power should lie in the communities where people live.  Representative Community Councils should then delegate up to higher levels those functions that are better coordinated over a wider area, and finance would follow that delegation of function.  The dog would take back control of its tail; higher levels of Government would be required to attend to the needs and interests of the collective communities.  Idealistic yes, but this is the model on which we approach government.  It is the complete opposite of the present structure of top down authoritarian finger wagging that treats us so badly and with such contempt. With a clear vision, we can then identify the steps necessary take us on our way, and promote policies that will help not hinder our progress towards a participatory democracy.

For this reason we support freedom of information and transparent government since democratic participation requires citizens to be able to access the information they need in order to be able to take part in decision-making.  This is why authoritarian government is secretive.  The best form of democratic involvement for large-scale activity is voting, in elections and referenda, in such a way that the outcome reflects the pattern of voting which itself represents peoples considered wishes, and where no vote is wasted.  This is why we want electoral reform.

Democracy requires cooperation across communities and between different political structures so that the interests of one group don’t violate the legitimate interests of another.  We know that divisions, intolerance, prejudice, wide inequalities and failures in communication all weaken communities and preclude such co-operation.  For this reason we campaign for a Bill of Rights and a written Constitution so that citizens are aware of both their rights and their responsibilities and those of their fellow citizens.  This is why we will work to build a more equal and tolerant society.

The rampant inequalities that both Labour, Conservative and now the ConDem Coalition have allowed to build up in our society are counter to functional democracy.  Their collective refusal to address social inequality demonstrates their disdain for the ordinary citizen, and leaves the Green as the only Party for Democracy.  A vote for the Greens is a vote for Democracy.

[Mike Shipley  March 2013]

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