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The End of Democracy as We Know It?

The End of Democracy as We Know It?

🕔09.Mar 2015

Democracy is a fragile business. We almost take it for granted that our country boasts the mother of parliaments and our city gave birth to strong and independent local government, writes Kevin Johnson.

Trust in politics and democracy is at all-time low, at least in the context of the post-Second World War era. From cash for questions to expenses, MPs hang on to a marginally higher reputation than city bankers.

Beyond the Commons, every major institution that binds Britain together has suffered some major crisis in recent years, from the royals to the church; police to the press; and banks to hospitals.

In Birmingham, we know about scandals. We have commissioners overseeing social care and education and an improvement panel monitoring the implementation of a plan to radically improve governance.

Against this backdrop, there is a one lesson above all else. Indeed, it’s rule one of the crisis management 101: spot the emergent crisis early and respond in a fast, honest and transparent fashion.

A year ago, most senior council figures were dismissing the (so called) Trojan Horse crisis. Whilst the letter was probably fake, it brought to the surface long term and endemic issues. We know what followed.

So, last week we at Chamberlain Files were mildly surprised at the confusion of the important annual vote on the council budget. Voting on various motions might be baffling to those who are not regular observers of the chamber in action, but it was the follow up that stunned us.

There are political questions about why eleven councillors failed to attend the most contentious vote of the municipal year. Some of these have been answered and of course there will always be illnesses, unavoidable diary clashes, childcare crises and traffic nightmares.

These absences, remember, occurred on the day Labour’s leader told the Chamberlain Files he believes another 30 councillors are needed to do the job effectively. Putting this into context, the council budget will see more than 1,000 employees lose their jobs. But 30 more councillors are needed, apparently.

Increasing the size of the council is contrary to the Kerslake recommendations – and probably counter to the views of most people. But then, Sir Albert Bore has a difficult balancing act to perform between Pickles/Kerslake and the forthcoming business of local elections and his Labour group AGM. Rock and a hard place comes to mind.

There are further questions about those who showed up but did not vote on any or all of the motions. Again, some members have sought to explain. There are reports of Labour councillors who were ‘allowed’ to ignore the whip and not vote for their party’s budget due to union or ward sensitivities.

But, these are political matters and politics is a messy business, full of compromise.

The bigger issues highlighted last week are administrative.

The questions the public – as well as the media (including tweeting and blogging types) – might reasonably ask are:

1. Who turned up to the Chamber?
2. What is the number of votes for and against each motion?
3. Who voted on what motion and how did they vote?
4. Did anyone abstain, either formally or informally?
5. Who voted against their party’s whip?

Not unreasonably, the public would expect to see this information pretty quickly – just as they can for the House of Commons and many other democratic chambers.

It took three days for the council to effectively answer these questions. Chamberlain Files managed to obtain and publish the results slightly earlier, but that shouldn’t really be the case.

The voting system is electronic, which results in several anomalies. The voting pad for each member is linked to their assigned seat. Sometimes votes are mistakenly cast on a machine which is not theirs, which they later try and rectify.

Anyone out of their place – including the leader of the council who makes his budget speech from the front podium – cannot cast a vote at his usual ‘voting station’ (although we are looking into whether he cast his vote as ‘chair’).

Confusion with voting technology and the system in general means that senior officials ‘check’ the votes with the secretary or leader of each political group. Incorrect votes are dealt with. We are sure this only applies to votes cast by a genuine mistake. Far be it from us to suggest that members are persuaded to alter their votes when the whips help them realise the error of their ways.

All this means that votes for the motions are not usually made public until the minutes are published a month later.

Council meetings are webstreamed, which you might think would be helpful. But there is no way of seeing the votes being cast by individual name or even see the total on the screen. All you can see is confusion, including the Chief Legal Officer advising the Lord Mayor there is no electronic way of abstaining, which is then countered by others. The Lord Mayor then simply tells the chamber whether a motion is carried or not.

Some might think these are details of bureaucracy that only obsessed political nerds will care about. It might be said that none of this matters as the result of Tuesday’s meeting is clear – the controlling Labour group carried its budget.

That a few councillors didn’t show up; some perhaps lingered too long in the tea room; someone hit someone else’s keypad and that we wouldn’t normally see the detailed results for weeks (after careful ‘checking’ with each group) is all neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

Indeed, a senior official suggested to me that it was hardly the end of democracy as we know it. Silly mistakes are made and it’s the convention that attendance and voting are reflected in the minutes.

It might not be the end of democracy, but it could be where the rot starts.

When politics is at such a low ebb; when the “end of local government as we know it” is around the corner; against the backdrop of Trojan Horse and much else and when the findings of the Kerslake Review are still ringing in the institution’s ears, surely this is the time to throw away out-of-date conventions?

If Birmingham City Council is to be found “nicely in the vanguard of local government” then we suggest it starts with a voting arrangement that has integrity and transparency. Fast.

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