In his inauguration speech, Joe Biden reminded us that, “Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile”. The ceremony was a cheering celebration of constitutional democracy, with the three branches of the federal government interacting to mark the change of administration.
British democracy remains fragile, without much prospect of strengthening its institutions or healing its divisions before the 2024 election. Our prime minister wields executive ‘prerogative’ powers, inherited from the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. The queen appointed Boris Johnson prime minister, a day before parliament rose for its summer recess. He then attempted to prevent parliament from sitting for an extended period, to allow himself to govern without scrutiny. And of course, he, many of his MPs and the right-wing press labelled the Supreme Court “the enemy of the people” for ruling that he lacked the prerogative authority to do so.
The Vote Leave campaign fought the 2016 referendum with the cry of restoring parliamentary sovereignty. Johnson scarcely conceals his contempt for parliament and its scrutiny: whipping his backbenchers to support whatever ministers propose, pushing through bills that allow ministers to fill in the details later (under what are called ‘Henry VIII powers’), and packing friends, relations and donors into the Lords. Ministers insist that the 43.5 percent vote they received last year represented ‘the will of the people’. Local government continues to be weakened, starved of funds, bypassed by contracts given to consultancies and outsourcing companies. No wonder so many voters are disillusioned and alienated from conventional politics. Ministers are also trying to bully the Electoral Commission, and to raise spending limits for campaigns to favour their well-funded party.
We are edging towards a constitutional crisis, the most visible aspect of which is the likelihood of Scotland and Northern Ireland moving towards separation. But the incompatibility of Johnson’s promised ‘levelling up’ agenda with the centralising and privatising instincts of his Cabinet, threatens another crunch: all the evidence I have seen suggests that a rebalancing of England’s economy and society is possible only if local government is allowed a leading role. The Conservatives promised in their 2019 manifesto that they would establish a Commission on the constitution and democracy within 12 months of the election – but they have now decided this offered too many hostages to other ideas.
Can we make strengthening democracy one of our themes for the forthcoming local elections, and hope to attract the support of anxious voters who have watched the USA face and overcome a challenge to its operation? All politics is local, for ordinary citizens who care about public services, clean roads, good schools and local policing. Local councils throughout England have seen their budgets squeezed year by year, with conditional offers from London flowing more often to Conservative-held seats and Tory targets, and with central government spending large sums on private suppliers for functions local authorities could have filled more cheaply and sensitively. Make the most of the stories about private companies short-changing food parcels, and the track and test system malfunctioning because highly paid consultants didn’t know their way round the English regions.
The surge of volunteers at the beginning of the pandemic showed that many of our citizens wanted to get involved in helping others within their community. Many of them were never contacted, because the task was given to firms that did not understand local geography or needs. Can we convince them that stronger local democracy would harness local goodwill? And should we be populist enough to point out the corruption of a Conservative government handing out contracts to companies that pay their executives far more than local council officers and their workers far less than council workers, and which in many cases contribute from their profits to Conservative Party funds and right-wing think tanks?
Conservative moves to reduce local government to an implementing agency for central government are undermining local initiative and local community. Liberals passionately believe in local democracy, as the necessary foundation for an open and fair society. Can we stick that on a leaflet and push it through doors this spring?