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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowThe coalition government has hit a mini-iceberg, but not one that is likely to sink it any time soon.

The Tories have taken a big hit in England and have become vulnerable to the xenophobic politics behind UKIP. The Liberal Democrats have suffered their worst results since they were founded. And in Scotland and Wales there are contrary trends involving the simultaneous reassertion and crisis of the Labour opposition.

Meanwhile, the demise of 'the People's Ken' in London, the personality-driven victory of Boris Johnson, and the quiet removal of the last peace protest camp from Westminster (while none of us was supposed to be looking) seems to reflect the end of an era in the capital.

It is party conference season in the summer and autumn where the readjustments needed by the three largest parties will be partly brokered. They will follow council polls in which two-thirds of voters did not bother to turn out, but which paradoxically still remain significant in national and regional terms.

As a result of commercialisation, central government manipulation, outsourcing, political blame-shift, lack of proportional representation, the imbalance between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, the demise of local media and a combination of apathy and anger, local democracy has been hollowed out disastrously in England. The case for a new governance structure now looks even stronger.

The 'English problem' is rarely acknowledged as such, with the answer that England already has a parliament - Westminster. But that only strengthens pressure for self-governance elsewhere in a not-terribly-United Kingdom. That could constitute a healthy move to confederalism. Not even the nationalists want 'break up'. Subsidiarity recognises that inter-dependence both requires and tempers autonomy.

Sadly, however, these are not the terms by which political decisions among the ruling elites are taken, or upon which referenda are constructed. More than one question at a time is deemed 'confusing' politically, while in the marketplace we are cajoled by myriad (often meaningless) 'choices'.

This rhetoric of choice, bereft of real influence and accountability, is why voters have been deserting polling booths. The chief architects of the dominant order promote and acquiesce in systems that put more power in the hands of fewer, more technocratic individuals and agencies.

At the same time, the voluntary sector is being made statutory, government is being marketised, polling changes too little, and protest leaks out at the political fringes and in resistance to elected mayors bypassing crucial elements of local democracy.

None of this detracts from the important, difficult work that local councillors do. The trouble is that we, and they, are being let down by a political deficit that may require larger cultural and systemic change than we are currently envisaging. 

Simon Barrow