Saturday, 16 April 2011

A future for Liberalism? Locally? Maybe...

When will the media learn that a coalition in one level government does not imply life-long snuggling?  From the coverage of the Liberal Democrat local election campaign (watch this space for forthcoming debacle analysis) you would have thought that Naive Nick had signed away the Liberal identity in exchange for the family silver and the opportunity to crawl up Cameron's fundamental orifice.  It'll be crowded in there, as Murdoch and his cronies will desperately be trying to lubricate a passage away from criminal investigations of their papers' phone hacking.

If the Lib Dems are ever to revive in local government, there needs to be a distinct positioning away from the Westminister horse-trading.  Time to recover the community politics analysis, I think.  The Tories have no idea how to do localism, especially as it goes against the principles of crony capitalism, deranged outsourcing and removing accountability in case mistakes ever get found out.  As Labour have been captured by the client groups of local government there is a vacancy for a much harder oppositional party to emerge.

There are a number of questions that need to be posed:
1.  What exactly is local government for?  How does it differ from being an executive arm of central government, surviving on handouts and statutory intervention?
2.  If local government is to be a powerful force, how is it to be financed to ensure that decisions taken reflect genuine opinion rather than a set of statutory obligations?
3.  How do you elect it?  In Scotland, moving from FPTP to STV removed much of one-party hegemony - it will be fascinating to watch what happens this time round.
4.  How do you stop it being a playground for national hacks and wannabes and never-weres? 

The real answer is local engagement - using the electoral process as part of a strategy to make decision-making clear, transparent and genuine.  In the last thirty years local councils have been emasculated at the same time as their elected and unelected denizens have put their snouts in the trough to a level that if had occurred in the civil service there would have been national outrage.

So a modest proposal:
1.  All Councillors to be volunteers.  If they are in paid employment then their employers can be compensated for time off for duties, if they are not then the actual time on council duties should be paid for at the average wage level.  Legitimate expenses, interests and affiliations to be published and on-line.
2.  No Council Officer to be paid more than a Senior Civil Servant at the top of the lowest pay band.  No member of staff engaged on a consultancy contract should have his or her remuneration package costing more than the salary plus pension contribution equivalant of a SCS Band 1.
3.  All Council decisions to be public, and all supporting documentation to be in public unless there is a legal reason for withholding them.
4.  Councillors can be recalled by petition of 30% of eligible residents in their wards, and senior Officers can be reviewed by a petition of 15% of electors across the authority. 
5.  All Councillors to be elected by AV immediately, with a view to moving to STV in multi-member wards as soon as practicable.

A starting point - ideas for local regeneration are where the Liberals may have a future.  It will take a generation to remove the stench from local government that Thatcher and her disciples have saddled it with, and that Labour embraced enthusiastically (there are plenty of so-called Liberals with a similar level of culpability but they run fewer authorities).  But it may be the only way to go.

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