Monday, 13 June 2016

If you want local democracy, vote to leave


I see a very ugly and toxic political landscape if we vote to remain. Voting to leave however will have challenges of its own. The difference being that a leave vote means there will actually be a conclusion to this long and bitter row over our relationship with Europe. We will be free to progress on to other things. That's why anyone who champions localism should definitely vote to leave.

As the government retakes various policies like agriculture and fishing, this will chew up quite a bit of parliamentary runtime. Neither Westminster or Whitehall will have the time to devote to the usual authoritarian intrusions and those powers which have been confiscated by London will necessarily have to be returned.

Localism is one of those recurrent these we hear when politicians are completely out of ideas. We've heard it floated time and again, and the latest fad is the Northern Powerhouse, but in reality this is just a rearrangement of the financing of local government. Much like EU mandated earmarks, it's not really your own money if you don't have full authority over how it is spent. And when you have partitioned and ring-fenced budgets it leads to shortfalls in some departments and massive waste in others. To say that any real power is being returned is a joke.

Moreover, when still subject to the constraints placed upon us by Brussels there are some avenues of innovation which are closed off to us. If councils must work to nationally mandated objectives rather than those defined by the people then the people are not sovereign. This is how we have drifted into unaccountable mangerialism. When the politicians who bleat on about Northern Powerhouse talk about local democracy they are actually talking about local administration. There is no actually democracy.

I happen to think that councils should be entirely free to set their own recycling targets and eco objectives. I think they should have full responsibility for waste disposal and the methods for doing so. I see no reason why we cannot introduce municipally owned power generation in cities. But that will not happen if our politicians are working to statistical objectives imposed by the EU. Ok, so you can argue that London may well have agreed to them, but the London bubble is no more representative than is Brussels.

Without a recognition that the people and the institutions they form are sovereign then localism is just an empty piece of rhetoric. Similarly you cannot hope to have an agricultural policy tailored for the needs of the local landscape if it is compelled to implement the Common Agricultural Policy.

For as long as we remain in the EU, and the EU confiscates the powers from London, London will do the same in kind to the regions and the cities. This is how we ended up with corporate enterprise scale councils which more resemble regional administration corporations than actual government by the people for the people.

Of course one should have realistic expectations in this. We won't see an immediate renaissance in local government and we will still have regulations, but there will be at least the possibility of reform. As councils develop and realise the potential in having new powers we may see a renewed interest in local government. There is certainly little reason to engage in local politics in its current form with overpaid council CEO dictating the agenda. Their very existence is symptom of this retreat from democracy.

It is a deeply regressive idea that there should be a European hierarchy. There is no possible way you can have representative decision making when the power over so many is held by so few with barely any effective scrutiny. The assumption such is possible is the ground zero of bad ideas. A the European level we need a Europe of cooperation, not supranational coercion, otherwise decisions over millions of people can be made without them ever having the means to prevent them. By definition that is not democracy and it shows just how hollow this idea of pooled sovereignty is.

By voting to leave we are setting a chain of events in motion that will be the most radical shake up of Whitehall since the war. In that there will be massive opportunities to rethink how we do things and free of constraints we will be able to tailor our solutions. Moreover, our ministers will once again be held accountable for their failures. This perhaps explains their consensus hostility to Brexit. They are used to ducking responsibility.

Culturally I believe Brexit will be a healthy thing as people take a more active role in the decisions that affect them. It will restore confidence in the system when they see that their votes do actually change things. We will see frank and detailed debates over matters of substance rather than the dismal preoccupations of our media. The results of such conversations will actually translate into tangible results. For the first time in a long time no will mean no. Something else our politicians are afraid of.

Lancing the EU boil will mean that our political parties can unite and move beyond this divisive dispute. There will be something to fight for instead of this perpetual political stalemate in preserving the current orthodoxy.

What I do know is voting to remain in the EU doesn't solve anything - and though we will hear more of that same empty rhetoric about localism it will be met with cynicism by those who can see it for what it is. Gesture politics. Ultimately democracy means people power. If the people are not empowered to change the laws by which they are governed then they are serfs, not participants. If we remain in the EU we cannot be surprised if this hollowing out of politics persists.

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