Monday, November 30, 2009

"Localism" requires annual elections

David Cameron may not spend much time considering the finer details of the City of Preston Conservative association, even when it is the ruling administration of our city, but I do wonder if he will start to take a closer look at the latest budgetary wheeze.

Faced with the requirement to fill a financial black hole given to them by 20-odd years of Labour mismanagement, the Tories are chin-stroking over the concept of scrapping yearly "in thirds" elections for Preston Council, replacing them with 4- or 5- yearly "all out" votes. This may look good on paper, but not only does it remove the democratic accountability enjoyed by people in Preston for generations, it flies in the face of David Cameron's ambition for "greater localism" and "power to the people" and all that jazz.

I am in favour of fixed term parliaments where such a concept suits the institution - Westminster, Holyrood, Brussels - while favouring much more "instant recall" the closer one gets to everyday problems. One case in point is South Ribble Council, only 10 minutes walk from my front door. Their ongoing problems with a controversial waste disposal site angered a lot of voters, but these people could not register their displeasure at the ballot box for an entire year until the electoral cycle came round again. In Preston, with our annual "in thirds" system, voters would have been able to have their say almost instantly. And for the record, yes, the Liberal Democrats of whom I am a member were slaughtered at the eventual elections for supporting the plant from the start.

The Preston Tories may think they have managed to explain away their annual election plan without greater scrutiny. It's not just about money - the local Conservatives doubtlessly struggle to find enough candidates to stand year on year. Well if the much smaller Liberal Democrats can do it - and in recent years we have been very open in admitting our inability to find enough members to stand even as paper candidates - then perhaps the pride of the Tories has to take a pinching too.

Local institutions need greater scrutiny. This means annual elections at district level, and I include County Councils in this too, put an automatic dividing wall between the voters and the winning Councillors. It becomes too easy to hide in a Town Hall room for 4- or 5- years between elections. Annual elections for Council ensure a reduction in complacency and an increase in democratic accountability. If Cameron wants "localism" to be the new watchword for his first Conservative Government, I suggest he takes a closer look at the administrations running councils in his party's name.