England & Wales, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Think big, think local: four efforts to renew local democracy

Joe Mitchell is a long-time friend of LGIU’s through several years of work on the local elections in his former role at Democracy Club. Joe is now freelance and still working on democratic renewal. We asked him to summarise some of his latest thoughts for Local Democracy Week alongside our long read on keeping elections healthy in a pandemic.

Democracy doesn’t happen by default. It must be monitored, defended and strengthened. This is as true at the local level as the national level, even if the latter tends to get all the attention. Earlier this year I wrote a long-read on efforts for more democratic country, and for Local Democracy Week 2020 (that’s this week, calendar fans), I summarise what those ideas might mean for local democracy.

One: we need to change up the rules that determine where power lies. It’s not terribly sexy, but I’m afraid we probably need to talk about the constitution. Last week LGIU launched a new report, Power Down to Level Up, which argued for a radical realignment of power around local places and communities. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on democracy have been and will be multiple, but one of the more positive might be that it applies rocket fuel to the devolution and localism agenda. There seems to be universal agreement that councils have been and are better placed to manage much of the crisis response and recovery — from track and trace to lockdown measures. But power in the UK is highly centralised. Democracy demands that power is with the people — the principle of subsidiarity takes that further and says that decisions should be made as closely as possible to those it will affect. A real redistribution of power according to those principles might need full constitutional change, perhaps as part of a sweep of reforms to the way this country works. It’s worth a look at one plan conceived for a constitutional convention presented to the House of Commons last week. The balance of power between the nations, regions, cities and towns must be high on any such convention’s agenda.

Two: we need to put some resources into boosting public understanding of local democracy. School curriculums vary between the nations, but England’s doesn’t include much on civics. If kids are taught anything it’ll be about Westminster, not about their local town hall — the one they might actually see as they go about their lives. That’s got to change. I’ve argued that the UK needs a nationwide agency for civic education, similar to many across Europe, and drawing especially on Germany’s Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung. Such an agency could support the efforts of hundreds of local authorities, schools and media organisations to do local civic education. And for all ages. Such local education barely exists currently, with the result that the public understanding of local democracy and governance is poor. Who’s in charge of what? Where do you go to change a decision or policy? Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t understand it. I worked with Kirklees Youth Council at a NotWestminster workshops earlier this year to discuss this — some more notes here.

Three: those of us who care about this stuff need to work better together. One of the things I learned in helping to set up and run a democracy information organisation was that there wasn’t really much of a support network out there — not many shared resources, training sessions or conferences for those working on renewing democracy — the kinds of things you might find via an LGiU, an LGA or an NCVO. I’ve subsequently written more on what networking efforts could be made — but there are still questions over how best to incorporate people working in the local democracy space and how to best network local politicians who share an interest in democracy. For me, the NotWestminster event is the best example of a networking effort across all fields of interest in local democracy, but it hits capacity at 100 people coming together in Huddersfield once a year: perhaps a start would be a #NotWestminster in every region of the country.

Four: we need some way of measuring the state of local democracy. Even if all the above happens, how are we going to know whether it’s had any effect? Do we even agree on what a good local democracy looks like? What are the trends over time? There’s been an awful lot of noise about democracy over the last five to ten years — but there’s not much data to prove the depth of ‘the crisis’ or to point to the most serious threats and to where attempts to improve things have worked. Perhaps it’s up to all of us to decide what good local democracy looks like: a case for a random selection of citizens to come together over a series of conversations to put together a wishlist. There’s already some work on this stuff at the national level — my favourite approach is that of the Varieties of Democracy project at Gothenburg — but coming up with an overall number for the whole of the UK strikes me as a bit misleading: there are likely to be big differences between nations and between local areas.

This isn’t a terribly exhaustive list, I know. There’s more work to be done with democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and citizens assemblies; there’s more we could do to elect a more representative group of representatives and to support them to succeed; there’s much that could be done to build community-owned media to throw light on governance and take back our local public squares from giant US tech firms. But I think the elements above are especially important — and I’d welcome your thoughts. There’s more in the long-read version here — and I’m on twitter over here.

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