Douglas Carswell MP
Douglas Carswell was elected MP for Clacton in 2005 and runs directdemocracy.co.uk. In his article he outlines how local government is the key to reforming and legitimising our political systems and instigating real democracy.
Our system of politics is broken. Remote elites make the decisions. Local people take the rap. No one accountable, no one sacked. This is how we are governed today. Indeed, perhaps the most rational people in British politics are the growing numbers who do not vote.
The rise of the Quango State has diminished the ability of democratically elected MPs and Councillors to influence decisions that affect peoples’ lives. Far from being apathetic, non-voters perceptively recognise that those whose names appear on the ballot paper have been rendered increasingly powerless. While in 1979, over 75% of eligible voters went to the polls, at the last election the percentage had fallen to around 60%. Voters have increasingly come to regard politicians as “all the same”, promising the earth but never delivering. With so little power to alter policies formulated by health experts, educationalists, human rights lawyers and police authorities, prospective voters who refuse to vote may well be right.
As Lord Butler, former head of the Civil Service put it: “all decisions are delegated by politicians, because they don’t want to take responsibility for them- to Quangos, and Quangos aren’t answerable to anybody.” The rising public disenchantment with politicians is a measure of the inability to decide on the things in life that matter to the electorate. Politicians promise, but remote elites actually decide.
Many voters no longer see a connection between where they put their cross and how it will tangibly affect their lives, since completion of their local Council or the House of Commons has less impact on them than does the Child Support Agency, the Primary Care Trust and a thousand other such quangos.
It is time for a radical direct democracy agenda for change.
Local councils should be made self-financing. This could chiefly be achieved by replacing VAT with a Local Sales Tax to be levied by Country or Metropolitan Councils. By happy coincidence, VAT happens to raise for central government almost the same amount (£64bn) as it hands over to local councils in grants (£66bn). With 75% of the money spent by local councils coming from the Treasury, there is little link between taxation, representation and expenditure at the local level.
Local governments’ fiscal autonomy is the starting point for a wholesale transfer of powers and responsibilities to local government. Broadly, areas of policy currently run by the office of the Deputy Prime Minister could be devolved fully to local government. Those elected to serve in the town halls would decide the location of mobile phone masts, set local taxes and be able to make decisions central to their local community; rather than merely rubber-stamping decisions made on high.
The starting point for reform may be on a local level but to follow through on agenda change one must tackles national government. As the powers of the Legislature have dwindled, those of the Executive have waxed. Might it not close the democratic deficit somewhat if the powers currently exercised under crown prerogative – the appointment of heads of executive agencies and commissions and also perhaps Foreign Office postings – were transferred to Parliament and carried out for open hearings? In the same spirit, the treaty making powers of the Prime Minister should also be transferred to Parliament, in particular where a foreign treaty imposes domestic obligations on Britain: NATO and the European Convention on Human Rights, for example.
To coincide with this dilution of Executive power there are a number of reforms, which could strengthen the legitimacy of the Legislature. Firstly, having read out her Government’s proposed legislation at the beginning of each session, the Queen should turn to her people’s bills: proposals that have attracted a certain number of petition signatures and have thus earned themselves the right to be debated and voted on.
Secondly, the current composition of the House of Lords is impossible to reconcile with direct democracy. It is made up of people who can pass laws without having to justify themselves to those who must obey their laws. Though the constitution of a more accountable chamber merits a more detailed study, one idea would be to form the Upper House from seconded County and Borough Councillors in proportion to their Party’s representation in each shire or city.
Finally, having addressed the Executive and the Legislature the Judiciary needs to be considered. MPs can insert whatever safeguards they want, but if the court dislikes a statute, it will simply ignore the safeguard. The judicial process should be subject to the same principles of decentralisation and democracy that have guided us throughout. This means specifically that the powers currently controlled by the CPS would be placed the disposal of a local Sheriff who would, furthermore, have the right to set sentencing guidelines (although not interfere in individual cases).
Second, there should be a degree of democratic control over judicial appointments. Transparent Parliamentary hearings to confirm senior appointments to the judiciary should be required.
Finally, the authority of Parliament should be stated explicitly in a Reserve Powers Act, which would delineate a number of areas where MPs decisions were supreme. This would be a defence against the encroachment of foreign jurisdictions, as is currently seen by the power hungry European Court of Justice which has repeatedly pushed its authority beyond what is written in the treaties.
Once we have restored the legitimacy of our political systems we are free to tackle the issues that are most important to the electorate; such as crime, education and health.
The public itself desires greater local accountability in policing; in fact, crime is the number one concern for a majority of voters. Appointed and impotent police authorities should be replaced with directly elected sheriffs, with real powers to direct local police forces’ priorities. Sheriffs would appoint and dismiss Chief Constables and make their own policing plans. They would control their own budgets, allocated as a block grant, forcing them to answer to local voters for the effectiveness of their spending.
Britain’s education system is failing: the value of exam grades is falling and bad pupil behaviour is now endemic. Localising education would allow for competition between independent, free-standing schools, which would in turn necessarily lead to improved quality. Parents should have the automatic right to request and receive the funding for their child’s education from their (self-financing) local council, and take this money to a school of their choice. They would be the driving force shaping our education system.
Britain’s system of health services, one of the most expensive in the world, still manages to fail in meeting public expectations. The problem with the NHS is not resources, but the fact it is a state-run monopoly established over half a century ago. The aim in improving our system must be to empower the patient. We should fund patients, either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice. The state could still guarantee care for all, but would lose its monopoly to provide that care when it could be provided better elsewhere.
Rather than aspire to a managerial role in our current state, we must seek to overturn – to literally revolutionise – a Quango State that is inherently unable to address the challenges of the New Generation.