Local elections 2013 – time to rediscover local government and ‘thick democracy’.

May 6, 2013 — 1 Comment

In the recent local elections most of the press coverage has focused on the so-called ‘UKIP surge’.  It is significant, but in the context of County Council elections in England only, on a turnout of about 30% there needs to be some caution about claiming a surge!  That said, UKIP’s electoral fortunes are not the focus of this post – rather the focus is one election result in the county of Lincolnshire – specifically Louth North.

This result is significant because Lincolnshire was one of the County’s where UKIP made its most substantial gains. But in Louth North UKIP failed to win. Indeed the combined Tory and UKIP vote was still less than that polled by the Labour candidate – who achieved a massive 32.5% swing to win the seat and came from 3rd place to 1st.  UKIP were totally eclipsed.

By any stretch of the imagination this was a stunning result, and especially in the context of the results elsewhere in Lincolnshire and the Country. It is worth investigating it in a little more detail.

Sarah Dodds - victor in Louth North election and campaigner against Academy schools

Sarah Dodds – victor in Louth North election and campaigner against Academy schools

I first met the Labour candidate when controversy emerged in Lincolnshire about the local authority’s drive to push all its schools towards Academy status. Sarah Dodds was a local mum in Louth who took exception to these developments – and as a consequence she organised.  Indeed Sarah organised a substantial campaign against academisation – not just in Louth, but one that soon spread to the wider County.  Sarah became a frequent feature on local TV and radio.  Another consequence was a conference we organised at the University of Lincoln when over 150 people turned out on a Saturday afternoon to discuss ‘Education in Lincolnshire: what does the future hold?’ As one seasoned local commented, there had not been such a lively and vigorous debate about state education in the County for as long as could be remembered – and this in a County still riven by the divisive 11+ exam.

Sarah proved to be a formidable campaigner – and not untypical of some of the extraordinary community organisers we have come across in our research project looking at parent-teacher alliances. It is important to point out that these organisers are overwhelmingly women – usually mums who are angered at the prospect of their local school being removed from any meaningful community accountability, and who challenge that.

As I got to know Sarah I saw her interests develop and it came as no surprise to see her stand in the County Council elections.  Her resistance to academisation politicised her as her efforts to open up debate about democracy and local schools were constantly thwarted by those who sought to suppress discussion. What was a surprise was her stunning result.  I am not claiming this was achieved because of her stand on academisation, because Sarah has shown herself to be a very effective community organiser across a range of issues – but I do think it is significant that a local mother who stood up to academisation and fought a high profile community campaign to keep schools in local authority control was returned as a County Councillor on a 32.5% swing. One result? – yes.  A local quirk? – possibly.  Easy to dismiss as an aberration? – definitely not.

Of course the irony is that Sarah has been elected overwhelmingly from within her community, based on a ballot across the whole community.  But the schools she fought for have already been removed from any meaningful community control – based on votes undertaken by very small numbers of governors (many not elected), and often without any genuine debate. I have as much influence on the schools in Sarah’s community as she  has. She is an elected Councillor living in her community – I am not elected and live 70 miles away in another County. Our ‘influence’ is a cross on a ballot paper every five years for a national government when education is just one issue of many, and when matters of local schooling are invisible. There is now no community control of these schools.  Rather their accountability is to the market, with parents as the new consumers – although to what extent parents actually want ‘choice’, let alone are able to exercise it, is highly questionable.

Let me be clear – local government, as it has been experienced over the years, has many flaws. It can be remote and unresponsive.  It is not always experienced as being particularly democratic – but it is democratic.  Imperfect certainly – but democratic nevertheless.  Its great strength rests on local people as elected representatives – usually well known in their communities and engaged with local people.  Unfortunately both Labour and Conservative (Coalition) governments have ripped the guts out of local government by progressively curtailing its powers and removing key areas of responsibility, such as education.  Why should local people get enthusiastic about local government when its ability to impact their lives is so curtailed?  Cynicism and voter apathy can hardly be surprising outcomes of such a process.

Politicians, the media, academics . . . all bemoan the lack of voter engagement.  There are many explanations, and many possible responses. But I would suggest that there would be few more effective responses than reinvigorating local government – giving it genuine powers, over important aspects of our lives – such as education.  Provide us with real choices and encourage lively debate. Make local government more democratic, not less.  Such an approach might just develop a lively, local ‘thick democracy’ – not the stultifying paper thin version that currently encourages only cynicism and passivity.

But then if voting changed anything . . .

Interested in radical local democratic possibilities? – see the work of Hilary Wainwright, in particular her books ‘Public Service Reform’ and ‘Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy’.

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