How healthy is our local democracy?

This pamphlet is based on a speech given by Ros Scott at Liberal Democrat Party Conference in 2008, at an Unlock Democracy lecture. Our lecture and pamphlet series are intended to provoke debate on and interest in issues relating to democracy and human rights. As an organisation promoting democratic reform and human rights, we may disagree with what our contributors say - but we are always stimulated by and grateful to them.

Much of what really matters to us is on our doorstep. The condition of roads, the quality of local schools, the availability of leisure facilities like swimming pools and libraries, and whether or not our bins are emptied efficiently should be daily reminders about the state of our local democracy. And yet, it is all too rare to hear debate about the performance of the council, at least in anything other than a general sense, the choices which are available, or about the potential power of the ballot box to change things.

Democracy, like charity, begins at home. If citizens feel disconnected from the democratic processes closest to home, then what hope is there for wider engagement? If government in all its forms can’t do anything about the dog dirt and paving slabs, how can anyone have confidence in its ability to deal with a global economic crisis, environmental degradation and threats to our security?

After being closely involved with local government for almost 20 years, it is my belief that genuine local democracy in this country is in terminal decline. I don’t believe that this has been pre-ordained, but rather that a nexus of various policy decisions has led us to this point. It is a failure to understand the inter-connected nature of these decisions which has got us where we are, and only through a genuine commitment to seeing these links can we rescue local democracy.

For democratic accountability to work you need two things; firstly, a framework within which votes are cast freely, fairly and honestly, and secondly, a system within which there is a clear link between your actions as a voter, and the outcome. This means that not only should the outcome reflect the voters’ preference, but that performance of the elected organisation can be used to determine their choice in the next election.

This short pamphlet will outline areas of concern against each of these criteria and will provide a framework for understanding how local democracy has declined in recent years.