23 September 2013
The politics of austerity has many political objectives but an important one you learn about quickly as a local councillor is its use as a mantra to incapacitate you. Anything you might want to do cannot be done, you are told, because we are living in a time of austerity and nothing can be afforded. With many Tory councillors in Stroud this appears to extend to democracy, which itself must be undermined and diminished because it is just too expensive.
In Stroud we are presently being subjected to a boundary review, triggered because one of our wards had slightly more than the 10% above the average number of voters per representative that is considered acceptable. So the Local Government Boundary Commission for England has fallen on our heads to undertake a review (curiously there is no problem with funding their work in spite of the austerity we hear of daily). While you might expect them to begin their work with objectives such as improving local democracy, enhancing citizen participation, or making representatives more accountable, in fact they have one aim: to reduce the number of councillors.
This caused me to question how well we are represented compared to our European neighbours: how much do we, as the home of democracy and children of the mother of parliaments, invest in our elected representatives? You will be shocked to read the comparisons in a report carried out recently by academics at Birmingham University. In France there are 118 citizens per elected member, which rises to around 600 in Italy and Spain, and 1075 in Greence. In the UK it is 2603: the largest number of any EU country. We are the least well represented of all, and yet the politics of austerity is being used to reduce our representation even further.
Anecdotally I have also received a lot of evidence about the disastrous levels of connection between citizens and their councils in some of the vast new unitary authorities that have been introduced under the Tory aegis. In both Wiltshire and Cornwall people report that they have no idea who to contact about local services and that the geographical areas they are supposed to identify with make no sense to them. The mantra of austerity is matched by the chorus of complaints about the quality of politicians, yet how can local politicians perform well when the areas they represent make no sense and are too vast to be comprehended?
I have reached a point of fury in debates over the cost of democracy when I have to bite my tongue to stop myself pointing out that Mussolini may have appeared cheap but the less-than-immediate costs were rather higher. The fact that this thought even occurs suggests the desperate state of our democracy and the way the politics of austerity is being used to undermine it further.