Polly Toynbee is waging her war against local democracy once again, insisting that only centralised super-states can be socially progressive and blithely ignoring the fact that all the Scandinavian countries she worships so much are far more decentralised that we can even dream.
This week, she has come up with the bizarre hypothesis that ‘localism’ and electoral reform are two mutually exclusive proposed solutions to democratic renewal. Of course, apart from the recent Tory and Labour converts to localism, the two reforms have always tended to go hand in hand. Indeed, how can you truly claim to want to bring decision making down to as low a level as possible while defending an electoral system that tends to ignore the votes of the majority of the people?
She bases her assertion on the fact that people voted on broadly national issues in the local elections, not local ones. Leaving aside the fact that I happen to think that isn’t true – the results varied wildly from council to council – why should we expect people to vote on local issues when local authorities don’t have any power? It’s not far off from bemoaning the fact that the votes cast in the Eurovision Song Contest aren’t about the quality of the music. Yes indeed they aren’t, but as it doesn’t really matter either way, so what?
If further prove were needed that Toynbee doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, she claims that the Lib Dem’s performance in the local elections was worse than Labour’s (it wasn’t), and that her preferred model for electoral reform is the Jenkins System which, erm, isn’t actually a proportional voting system. Indeed, it makes the partially proportional system used in Wales look representative.
While we’ll never know, I’m convinced that if Roy Jenkins was alive today he would be pleading for people to ignore the proposals he drafted for Blair back in 1999. They were an attempt to fudge the issue and come up with a system that Blair and the wider Labour Party would be willing to accept at a time when they were riding high with a 170 majority. Needless to say, they failed. He was too clever by half and didn’t satisfy anyone. Yet to this day I still hear people going on about it as if it were the Holy Grail. I’m convinced that in the centuries to come, whole organisations will be established to campaign for this system which no genuinely independent review body would recommend in a million years.
Toynbee’s objection to local democracy appears to be rooted in the perceived worst excesses of Conservative councils. In this respect it is entirely tribal and rooted in the typically Fabian notion that the people should not be trusted with too much democracy. Of course, with a fair voting system, the chances of the Tories or indeed any party wielding an unassailable majority in a local authority would be remote. The idea that we should have more representative local authorities but be content to leave them as glorified talking shops is faintly obscene. At least bread and circuses sounds a little more fun.