12th Democracy Café discussed local government and political elites
The first topic which won the ballot, was ‘improving local government’ a topic which has reared its head in several of our recent discussions. This took place while the row about relocating the Tourism Information Centre (TIC) was still live. For people reading this not from Salisbury, this concerns proposals by the City Council, SCC, to move the TIC from its current position in the centre of the city just off the main square, to a new location, the Maltings, some way away in a car park. It would be difficult to find and is in a somewhat dingy location. At a time when the city is struggling following the novichok incidents, the decision has baffled and enraged many local people and after outcries, angry meetings
and a petition, the decision has been postponed. However, it does provide a backdrop to the debate we were to have. How can decision making at a local level be improved?
The first point made was how local government is funded. Currently, the money is collected by central government and then dolled out to local councils. The system is extraordinarily complex, indeed it was once wittily said that only four people in the country understood it and that one of those was dead. The difficulty with a totally local system though was the imbalance of need: wealthy authorities need not raise much because their needs were low, whereas poorer area would need to raise more which they would find hard to do. The current system did try to iron out the imbalances.
The point was made that part of the problem was the ‘blame game’ and how it was easy for central government to blame local government for failings which might in fact be theirs. Central government was keen to load responsibilities on local councils without giving them the means. Northampton CC had failed this week and part of that was too little funding for a rising tide of needs.
There were ideological issues at play too. Local government was scorned by – well almost everyone really – yet often performed a wide range of necessary functions. Schools were taken away from local government control to become academies and new free (government funded) schools have been set up. This was spurred by a belief that local government was incompetent and that private organisations were better. Experience has not born this out unfortunately.
There were several members present who took a jaundiced view of the City Council in particular. We heard how the third set of ceremonial robes have been ordered in 8 years. This led to a discussion about whether councilors should be remunerated. Some thought not but others thought that you got what you paid for. If you wanted better qualified people and people to give up their time, they did need some kind of recompense. For those on poor wages, they would not be able to afford to give up their time which meant you had a council comprised of the wealthy middle class. Some questioned the City Council’s plans to do more. It was pointed out that we had lost the district council so was it not appropriate for them to increase their activities especially as we wanted more local decision making? As the city was now being run from Trowbridge, was it not sensible for the City Council to take a more active role?
Someone suggested payment by results to councilors as with commercial firms. But how did you reward trying to reduce problems? Also, some issues are beyond the capacity of a local authority to solve. How indeed would you measure the results for the system to work.
Should local government be run on party lines. Frome was mentioned as an example of a town that wasn’t and a Compass meeting had heard about how this worked at one of its meetings. The difficulty with a council formed of independents though is that it would be hard for voters to know what a candidate stood for. However imperfect, at least one knows broadly what a Conservative, Labour, LibDem candidate will do.
This got onto a discussion on citizen’s juries or similar activities where a range of people are got together to study a policy proposal and make a recommendation. [It was at this point the baffling decision to move the TIC was brought up, see above]. There was some discussion on the process of selection using demographic or other means. The aim is to get a cross section of society by age, occupation, gender and so forth. There were many who wondered how this balance would work in practice.
This is something that the Compass group is investigating and we may well hear more of this in the future. Up to now, the approach by government has been to use local government as some kind of punch bag, constantly cutting their funds, removing some functions yet loading them with more responsibilities to do things they do not want to get involved in. It seems little effort has been made to improve the system.
After the break, we moved onto a discussion of political elites. This was occasioned by a programme on Radio 4 asking who are they and what is their influence? This was part of our problem: are we talking of royalty (and the photo this week of Theresa May curtseying to the Duke of Cambridge has been widely commented on); business and the influence of the City, or are we talking about the public schools? There was also the metropolitan versus the rest of the country. There was the problem of the word itself: ‘elite athlete’ had a good meaning to it whereas in the instances above, it had a pejorative meaning.
It was suggested that it often meant exclusive and backward looking. Members of an elite were trying to protect something and exclude others from joining in.
The writer had just finished reading Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik (Oneworld, 2018). This set out in some detail the role of the public schools and how they cornered many of the top jobs in society. For example, just 7% went to these schools yet 72% of high court judges were alumni of them. This pattern was repeated with permanent secretaries, diplomats, media folk and the cabinet which had a disproportionate representation from the public schools. However, these individuals are not seen as elites by the public and instead, bizarrely, organisations like the BBC and the Guardian were seen as elites.
In Victorian times it was members of these elites who led movements to bring social reform. It was doubtful if that was the case now.
Another elite was the City of London which wielded great power over parliament. We were reminded that it is not quite in the UK and the Queen can only enter by invitation. Our local MP, John Glen, is the Minister for the City at present and a suggestion he remove the Remembrancer from the House of Commons had not been taken up. This is the vital first step to limit the City’s influence on government policy. The City was set up by merchants who expanded their operations around the globe in search of trade. At one time, the East India Company had a larger army that Britain itself.
Were not the ‘Fangs’ (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) the modern example of this? Global organisations who operated around the world, answerable to no one and paying next to no tax? Were they not the modern version of the merchant venturers and pirates of old?
We were reminded that the economic woes and austerity we currently suffer from was brought about by the banks yet none of them has been imprisoned for their activities. The system that led to collapse was still substantially unreformed.
The discussion moved onto fake news and the problem of trying to make sure people were properly informed about issues and not misled by one-sided material published in a range of newspapers. There was also the issue of social media – the subject of an earlier Democracy Café. Another issue was the so called ‘balance’ issue by the broadcast media. Every interview had to be balanced by someone of the opposite persuasion despite the weakness of their case. This left viewers thinking that arguments were more finely balanced than they actually were. Climate change was a classic example of this and aspects of Brexit too.
The question ‘how do you counter elites and prevent them gaining control?’ was a hard nut to crack. Transparency was one way. The more light shone on appointments and who was getting what job might limit the cosy world of what is perhaps still called ‘jobs for the boys’ (literally as well in view of the low level of female representation in senior positions). Ending the unjustified charitable status of the public schools was suggested.
Quotas might be another way and limiting senior positions in the public sector and public funded organisations to reflect the make up of society as a whole. There had to be a will though and previous attempts have been frustrated because members of the elite lurk everywhere …
A fascinating debate. We might well have discussed the role of the media barons but we did not get onto that.