17 January 2010

Somerton, Westminster and................Crewkerne

Wikipedia isn't the best research resource but its a great starting point and Wikipedia throws up the following definitions of variants on the 'democracy' theme:

1. Democracy is a political government either carried out directly by the people (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (Representative democracy). The term is derived from the Greek: δημοκρατία - (dēmokratía) "the power to the people", which was coined from δῆμος (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (krátos) "power", in the middle of the fifth-fourth century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC. Even though there is no specific, universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition of democracy includes, equality and freedom. These principles are reflected by all citizens being equal before the law, and having equal access to power, and freedom is secured by legitimized rights and liberties, which are generally protected by a constitution.

2. Participatory democracy, with subtype direct democracy, is a process emphasizing the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Etymological roots of democracy (Greek demos and kratos) imply that the people are in power and thus that all democracies are participatory. However, traditional representative democracy tends to limit citizen participation to voting, leaving actual governance to politicians.

Both of these definitions refer to two distinct types of democracy, on the one hand we have a 'direct' or 'participatory' democracy i.e. 'by the people for the people', or, a 'representative' democracy i.e. by the representatives for the people. In the UK we have a 'representative' democracy where we elect representatives to govern on behalf of the people. However, the Muck&Brass experience would suggest that, across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, there is deep dissatisfaction with our elected representatives. That dissatisfaction would seem to stem from a growing belief that our elected representatives do not govern on our behalf but do so for their parties, for themselves, for their pressure groups or for undisclosed interests with hidden agendas.

But our democracy has evolved over time and checks and balances are available to at least attempt to make sure that our elected representatives continue to represent their electorate. The problem is that it is the electorate, or elements of it, who must bring those checks and balances to bear. The membership of our 'representative democracy' know this full well and that is why the checks and balances are well hidden. That is also why the 'regulators' of our representative democracy are so loath to act when faced with wrong-doing. The elected representatives in our democracy do not want it made at all easy for the electorate to obtain accountability or transparency.

But it is in the checks and balances, if you know where to look for them, that accountability lies. Council's have a code of conduct which tells councillors how to behave. Get a copy of it and measure the actions of councillors against the code. Councillors must enter information into the 'Register of Members Interests' which should tell you if a councillor has business connections or if their family has business connections or if they own land. Behind all of this, there is the Town Clerk who should, in an ideal world, ensure that the Town Council is administered appropriately and lawfully. That includes policing the Code of Conduct and keeping the Register up to date. If the Code isn't administered or the Register isn't up to date, maybe the Clerk needs a nudge.

And this is the problem that we had with MP's expenses and this is the problem that we had with Somerton Town Council and this may be the problem that is attracting attention in Crewkerne. MP's and councillors can resolve these problems by obeying not just their interpretation of the rules but by respecting the intention of the rules. And what keeps people honest is making sure that the public can gain access to the decision making process to assure themselves that everything is done properly. But don't think that our 'representative democracy' is going to make it easy.

Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly