How effective is local rule?

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — An elected representative cannot consult all constituents on every issue of importance and, in theory, at least should vote according to his own conscience. If electors are dissatisfied, they can turn him or her out at the next general election.

But in a first-past-the-post electoral system, as in Britain, a member of Parliament is often elected by a minority of the votes cast for all candidates, and the party with a majority in Parliament may have won considerably less than half the votes cast in the election.

While efforts are made by the boundary commission to try to ensure that the number of voters in each constituency is roughly the same, the way in which boundaries are fixed can give an unfair advantage to one party.

Concerns about possible electoral fraud also persist because of the increase in the number of postal voters.

To become the ruling party again, the Conservatives in Britain would require a significantly larger number of votes cast in a general election than those cast for the Labour Party.

Minority parties argue that the right answer would be a form of proportional representation. The two main political parties counter that proportional representation leads to coalitions and weak government. If the party in government has a reasonable majority in the House of Commons and party members are forced to toe the party line by the party whips, the party controlling the government can do more or less as it likes, the only checks being from the un-elected House of Lords and from public opinion as reflected in the media. Thus the system of government operating in Britain is seen by many as that of an elected dictatorship.

Democracy as practiced in Athens some 2 1/2 millenniums ago involved the participation of each citizen individually. It would be impractical in a modern state to try to emulate the Athenians, especially at the national level. But if voter apathy and indifference is to be overcome, more must be done to involve voters in decision-making at every level.

At the national level this might mean that MPs should be required to report annually to their constituents on how often they had voted and in what way, how many questions they had put forward and on what subjects, how many speeches they had given and, in particular, what they had done for their constituents.

Most MPs hold “surgeries,” where voters meet them individually and press personal issues, but voters often have difficulty in finding out whether their representative is doing a good job or is a pretentious windbag.

For most people, it is local rather than national issues that count most. That’s why there is so much pressure in Britain for devolution of decision-making from the European level in Brussels to the national level in London, and from the national level to regions such as Scotland and Wales, and from these to local councils.

In England, the system of local government is overly complicated and the local bureaucracy is often not of a high order. Allegations of corruption are often heard but can rarely be proven. Voter turnout in local elections is low and campaigning dull. One reason for this is that local governments have little power to control what they spend or what they can collect in local taxes and charges. Most of what local authorities do is stipulated by central government, which allocates grants from central funds for education, social services, highways etc.

If local authorities had more discretion in these areas, there would inevitably be complaints about discrimination and unfairness. The main source of local government revenue, other than central government grants, is the “council tax,” which is a levy on the value of houses and other premises based on out-of-date valuations. The rate is fixed locally, although on businesses, it has been set centrally.

If a local authority wants to spend money on some optional facility, it may have to increase the council tax to pay for it, but such tax rises, apart from being unpopular, may be capped by central government if the increased levy seems too high to the central government. Thus local government often appears irrelevant and incompetent.

Local governments are from time to time required to consult those affected by their decisions, but they are not obliged to accept the results of these consultations. Recently the elected mayor of London (most British mayors are not directly elected but are selected from among elected councilors and serve for only one year) conducted a survey among those who would be affected by his proposal to extend the London traffic congestion charge zone. The majority of those consulted opposed the extension, but the mayor decided to go ahead anyway.

Applications for approval of new buildings or use variances must be submitted to local councils that are obliged to consult those affected. In our little village in the south of England, planning applications are often opposed by villagers, but are nevertheless approved by the planning committee of the local authority.

The lowest tier of local government is the parish council, which has very little power or money. The next tier up is the district council with more power, and then the county council. The parish council has very few powers; the district council deals with planning issues; and the county council is responsible for education, roads and policing.

A further shakeup of local government is required to involve voters more in the process of government, but it will be difficult to reach a consensus on what should be done.

Other democratic countries such as the United States have different systems of local government and different problems. Each U.S. state certainly has much more power than local governments in Britain, but jurisdictional disputes seem to be frequent and the rigging of constituencies continues to distort election results.

The Japanese system of local government looks logical with prefectures, cities, towns and villages, and the efforts to devolve more powers to local authorities seem commendable, but the problems of finance, taxation and corruption continue to make many Japanese voters doubtful about the effectiveness and value of local government. Local elections have been useful in demonstrating voter dissatisfaction with the party in power, but popular vis-a-vis national involvement has been high only in prefectures with high-profile issues, as in Nagano.

If parliamentary democracy is to thrive, parliamentary democracies must do much more to involve voters in the decision-making process.