The Localism Bill: towards democracy or small-state Conservatism?

The Localism Bill's stated aim is to shift power from Westminster into the hands of local people. But will it strengthen England's democracy, or simply shrink the size of the state?
Andrew MacDonald
12 September 2011

The Localism Bill, at report stage in the Lords today, is intended to “shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils”.  Extremely wide-ranging, it has received praise and criticism from across the political spectrum.  The ‘spirit’ of the bill, however, has been defined in a slightly wary convergence of ideology, somewhat reminiscent of the Coalition itself. 

Two camps are arguing that localism will benefit England– those who seek to reduce the size of government and those who seek to increase democratic control of it.  As it passes into the report stage in the House of Lords the question remains: which of these agendas does the Localism Bill truly express – moves toward direct democracy, or simply small-state Conservatism?

Despite its rhetorical entanglements with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, localism as an agenda has a strong background not just in terms of service provision, but in democratic accountability and distribution of power.  In an era of constant concern over declining democratic participation, many see local politics as the place to start fixing the problem.  It is locally that people interact with the apparatus of the state most often; most day-to-day issues are the responsibility of local authorities.  People are much more likely to see firsthand the effects of political action in the local arena and to view their local representatives with less scorn than they do those in Westminster.

It is the hope of direct democracy advocates like myself that by bringing more power down to lower levels of the state it will be put within reach of those previously switched off by their self-perceived irrelevance to the system.  Through this empowerment, people’s engagement in their communities and in democracy in general will be stimulated and participation will increase.

But we can’t strengthen democracy simply by handing greater powers to local authorities.  While there may be more incentives for local engagement, for the timebeing people are just as switched off from local politics as they are from Westminster affairs.  Localism is not itself sufficient to solve our crisis of apparent apathy towards democracy.

To really start to change how people feel about politics, they need to be shown that they can make their voices heard in their communities and that they will be listened to.  Although it is encouraging to see proposals to give more power to individuals and communities in the Localism Bill, they cling conservatively to traditional methods, as if unaware of the possibilities of the information age.  This lack of imagination also hamstrings their ambition – freeing communities and individuals perhaps, but not empowering them with the tools to grow democracy from the bottom up.

Digital possibilities

One way to try to encourage democratic participation through localism is to tap into the apparently unstoppable progress in electronic communication. There are several advantages to this approach.  The most obvious is its ability to reach people traditionally disengaged from local and national politics; younger people, those who are less mobile or live in rural areas and of course the silent majority who just don’t have the time or inclination to get involved. Perhaps just as important as the internet’s reach, however, are the incredibly low costs involved in facilitating democratic engagement online.  Extremely low initial outlay and negligible maintenance costs mean almost constant ‘consultation’ or petitioning becomes economically viable.

I believe that to succeed online democratic platforms need to integrate with existing structures of democracy.  Ignoring this imperative risks reinforcing the negative perceptions surrounding participation in democracy, especially online.  That is, that no matter the amount of support gathered, popular concerns will be ignored by those in office.  The only way to remedy this cynicism is to build edemocracy systems within the legislative process, to make them official and to guarantee some form of action if they are used.

This prospect clearly makes some uncomfortable, but again, these goals would be a lot less problematic for a local rather than a national authority.  Starting with binding local epetitions or referenda has the advantage of tackling less contentious issues in a lower profile environment, but would be a significant step in the right direction.

But it seems the Localism Bill is moving in the opposite direction with clause 28, which repeals previous legislation requiring councils to provide epetition services.  There is little doubt that councils’ implementation of these services was a failure, with little or no use being made of them across the country.  The danger, however, is that this failure, due almost entirely to bad implementation, poor publication and lack of imagination, is taken to be indicative of the potential of edemocracy and of direct democracy as a whole.

Moving the ePetitions site to the official state portal, DirectGov, has made some progress towards linking edemocracy to parliament.  However, the system seems to have developed in isolation from the localism agenda driving the Bill, because it singularly fails to take community, or even geographical location, into account.

The problem with petitions

Sceptics may point to the vast amounts of resources already spent on consulting with the public, or to the apparently endless stream of petitions and campaigns in the news.  And to a certain extent, they’d be right – but they’d also be missing the point.  Consultation is not the same as conversation, and petitions tend to be more protest than proposal (as Anthony Barnett has suggested of the government’s rebooted e-petitions system).

Both top down consultations and bottom-up petitions are confrontational, excluding real dialogue and engagement rather than promoting it.  These methods of communication restrict interaction between government and the electorate almost exclusively to when problems occur. This issue is often seen when there is a large response to a local consultation – the public expect to be able to express their opinions but are instead faced with an impenetrable and restrictive series of forms to fill in. The early promise of the Localism Bill was that there might be an opportunity to change this. The local referenda highlighted as a possibility in the Bill could allow communities to choose what issues are on the agenda.

But after councils expressed concern over the related clauses, it remains to be seen whether they will survive Lords amendments. Whatever the conclusion, the referenda still only allow only one side to set the terms of debate.

A step towards a solution

The company I work for is attempting to show what the internet can do to empower local communities and facilitate dialogue between parliament and citizens.  Our site lets people start campaigns within their constituency, enlisting the support of others in their community. The local MP then has an obligation to respond to the campaign that attracts the most votes in a given month. OurKingdom ran this short piece on us when we launched. So far, despite never being commercially advertised, the site has attracted well over two thousand users, as well as participation from 10 MPs.  The most successful user-submitted campaign has attracted over 500 signatures in support of its plea to save the Bombardier factory in Derby.

We hope that by demonstrating what a small independent organisation can do to reinvigorate local democratic participation, we can inspire local authorities and government to up their ambition when it comes to making our political system genuinely more democratic.

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