7 November 2009

A Democratic deficit

"A democratic deficit is considered to be occurring when ostensibly democratic organizations or institutions (particularly governments) are seen to be falling short of fulfilling the principles of the parliamentary democracy in their practices or operation where representative and linked parliamentary integrity becomes widely discussed."

It's difficult to discuss recent events in Somerton without getting involved in the discussion about who or what actually caused the resignation of so many councillors. The idea that it was the 'lone blogger', aka the lone democratic activist, aka the lone outsider, the idea that these resignations were caused by one person, acting alone, just doesn't make very much sense. But it's an easy headline and, importantly, it attracts the sympathy of parts of the community who are afraid of 'the new' or afraid of 'change'.

This 'fearful' part of Somerton's community was represented in some of the letters published this week in the Western Gazette. The tone struck by one letter suggests that our democracy is a fragile creature and, speaking personally, I'd agree with that view. But it's frail not because of any debate sparked by a lone voice, it's frail because of the complacency of people who don't bother to engage. It's frail because of the complacency of people who think that 'someone else will take care of it'. It's frail exactly because many people can't be bothered to take part and then, when the majority of a council resign, those self-same people look around for someone to blame. And they do that because finding someone else to blame helps them ignore their own culpability.

It's a situation very reminiscent of the 'witches of Salem', where events took place which the community didn't understand, and leaders of the community, in their fear and ignorance, looked about for someone to blame. They latched onto anyone who they saw as being 'different', anyone who didn't obey 'their' rules, anyone who didn't come from 'their' culture and they made them the 'guilty' party. The letter writers in the Western Gazette are behaving in exactly the same fashion.

But the inconvenient truth is that Somerton Town Council slid into a 'Democratic deficit' because the very people who write today about 'the frailty of our Democracy' didn't bother to go to meetings and make sure that Somerton Town Council still obeyed the rules of our Democracy. For its part, Somerton Town Council slid into the maw of a 'Democratic deficit' because some members of the Town Council knew that no-one was looking and that no-one was calling them to account.

So, when I see a letter signed by a group of ex-councillors where they suggest that they (and only they?) know how things should be regulated and that writing a blog isn't how it's done, I feel terribly sad. This is the reaction of a political establishment who see that their own mechanism has failed and they can't accept than an alternative has succeeded. So they trot out the usual self-justification which is that 'it's just not cricket' in order to convince the community that the actions which did succeed are, somehow, unworthy of respect.

But something that should be pointed out to the community is that some of these councillors and ex-councillors are in possession of 'guilty knowledge' with regard to the regulation of the Town Council. This means that some of these councillors and ex-councillors knew that the conduct of the Town Council's affairs was improper, if not unlawful, and what did they do? Nothing. Not a damn thing. And that is exactly how Dr. Harold Shipman got away with murder for so long.

The good Dr. Shipman was described by many as being a 'good egg' or a 'pillar of society' and so his colleagues switched off their critical faculties and then threw their hands up in horror when the truth started to come out. Similarly, there are councillors and ex-councillors in Somerton who have the same sort of 'guilty knowledge' about Somerton Town Council and rather than going to the Standards Board or going to the Monitoring Officer at SSDC, they sat on their hands. And, as a direct result, Somerton Town Council ceased to represent the community of Somerton and started to reflect the ambitions and interests of individuals.

The truth that these ex-councillors wish to ignore that it was a 'Democratic deficit' which brought the resignations. Those who resigned were yesterday's people and blaming their downfall on the lone blogger actually denies that, collectively, those councillors had lost sight of the Town Council's focus. It isn't about them as individuals, it is about the community and forgetting that was what brought them down.

So my challenge to those ex-councillors who write so glibly in the Western Gazette about 'the right place for dissent being at public meetings', my challenge to them is that they come to public meetings of the Town Council and make sure that bullying, which was such a feature of this last 'administration', is truly a thing of the past. My challenge to them is that they make sure that Somerton Town Council never again tramples over dissent the way that it has done in recent years. My challenge to them is that they make sure that Somerton's Town Council consults with the community before squandering the Community's resources. My challenge to them is that they make sure that Somerton Town Council is and remains Somerton's Town Council.

Most people in Somerton would express, in private, their dissatisfaction with Somerton's Town Council but were afraid, unwilling or unable to speak up. (My broken windows bear silent witness to their fears.) Those that did were abused or ignored and they were then abandoned by those councillors and ex-councillors who knew what was going on but stood by and did nothing. And if those councillors and ex-councillors genuinely never knew that it was going wrong then, quite clearly, they never knew their job.

Till next time, may your God protect you from those who won't.