Squaring the circle

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Jonathan Carr-West wonders about the seemingly paradoxical role for councillors of representing their electorate and answering to their party. 

For those of us who have the fortune (good or otherwise) to attend all three of the major party conferences, this is the end of a fascinating, if exhausting, month.

One may become tired of over heated fringe rooms, dry canapés and warm white wine but this time of the year always provides us with a healthy dose of political high drama. This year that is more true than ever, after the first Conservative general election win for 17 years, the near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats as a parliamentary force and the extraordinary story of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership win. As always, this drama is, at least in part, a theatre of the absurd: seaside photo calls, glee clubs, and salacious stories about deceased farmyard animals have all made appearances.

But local government does not feature much in all this – despite providing a huge chunk of the conference delegates. At the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), we run fringes on key local government issues, as do some of our comrades in localism. We also hold a dinner and discussion for Council Leaders of each party. Both of these are useful for gauging the mood music, getting a sense of where the parties are, and how they’re aligned (or not) with the priorities of their local government base. This year that mood music led me to reflect on the nature of representation, party politics and a paradox at the heart of British democracy.

This was bought into particular focus by the Labour Party conference in Brighton. At our “Making Devolution Work” fringe, we had an address from Jon Trickett MP, the new Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Whilst recognising that Labour local government had some tough choices to make and promising his support, he was also clear that he would be expecting Labour councils to be leading “local anti-austerity alliances”. It would be tricky, he conceded, to have Labour councillors protesting outside the Town Hall against budgets they themselves had passed, but this would have to be “thought through”. His position was based on the view that the Labour Party had fundamentally changed and that the new leadership had a mandate from the Party to shape policy.

That’s true of course, but it’s also important to realise that local government has its own mandate drawn directly from the electorate. In Labour’s case that’s a majority from the 22 million people who live under Labour controlled councils rather than the half million eligible to take part in the leadership election. I’ve written elsewhere about the potential tension between a Labour leadership committed to anti-austerity politics and a local government base, which through its legal requirement to pass balanced budgets, is the implementer of austerity. In all political parties it can be surprisingly difficult to get the leadership to recognise that local government draws it mandate from the people not from the party. Yet at the same time, of course, councillors are members of the party and are bound by the democratic processes of that party and the mandates that derive from this.

So there’s a paradox here at the heart of our democracy. The representatives of the people also answer to a separate internal party electorate. That’s not just true of councillors. Obviously, it’s also true of MPs. And it’s not just a Labour issue. It’s equally true for the Conservatives and may, for example, come to the fore when we get to the EU referendum. For the most part these parallel lines of representation run in the same direction, but when they diverge which mandate trumps the other?

In some ways this is inevitable, and indeed desirable. We need the organising and convening power of political parties to make politics work but in other ways it feels deeply problematic. It may have made sense in an era of monolithic party politics but it seems less appropriate now. Membership of political parties has been in decline over decades, although the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Labour have all seen surges recently (proving that losing can be quite good for you in a limited sense). But it seems likely that these new members are less monogamously committed to their new parties than might once have been the case.

The fracturing of party politics feels real and permanent. If fewer and fewer of the electorate feel that their political personality maps unproblematically on to that of a political party then how does it make sense that the positions of their representatives should be determined by the institutional processes of that party? And yet, without parties and party discipline we may have no meaningful politics at all. That makes the representative paradox more important than ever to grapple with.

Jonathan Carr-West is the LGiU’s chief executive; this article first appeared in the MJ.

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