The Communities and Local Government department's White Paper on local democracy, which was published this week is utterly lamentable. Entitled Communities in control: Real people, real power, it even comes in at the knock down price of £33.45. I'd love to know who if anyone actually buys these things (other than you and me, the poor schmucks who had to pay for it to be produced in the first place).
Before you reach for your chequebook to order a copy, don't. After a somewhat lacklustre foreword by the PM, Hazel Blears introduces the White Paper in uncharacteristically hand-of-history-on-my-shoulder tone. She rather grandly gives the proposals a place not just in the history of managerial blather, which it perhaps merits, but in a rather more eminent timeline, which apparently reads:
1647: Putney Debates, English Civil War
1819: The "Peterloo Massacre"
1838: Chartists rally at Kersal Moor
1844: Foundation of the first Co-Operative
1900-1920: Suffragette Movement
1939-1945: World War Two
2008: Hazel Blears publishes glorious 'Communities in Control' white paper
That would be overstating the case for the best of White Papers, but it's just incongruous for this shoddy example.
Local democracy is a really big issue, and has a host of serious problems that need solving, but do we hear any truly radical suggestions to put services under democratic control, throw open the doors of bureaucracy and introduce genuine transparency? Not a bit of it - they've dodged the question. To continue the historic theme, if they carry on behaving like this they'll have the Peasants Revolt 1381 on their hands.
Throughout the 157 pages they talk the talk in the opening sections of each chapter, for example describing their "simple aim: to pass power into the hands of local communities so as to generate vibrant local democracy in every part of the country and give real control over local decisions and services to a wider pool of active citizens." They even drag Aristotle into it, which could explain his less than chuffed expression (see right).
Having talked about the importance of giving people meaningful power, and the problem of the democratic deficit, they then propose very little to solve it.
Amongst their proposals are (my comments in italics):
- bribing people to vote in return for cakes. Rather undermines Gordon's healthy eating speech.
- allowing council officers to be active in party politics. The last thing people need is even more bias and partisan wheeling and dealing in town halls. If anything we need to beef up laws on civil service impartiality.
- loosening the laws on partisan bias and propaganda in council publicity. Our research has shown that there's already more than enough propaganda paid for with council tax - people want council spin abolished, not freed up even further.
- More quangos to work with Muslim groups and young people. Yet more top-down, Whitehall derived, politically correct though-shalt-take-part preaching. People will vote if their vote actually means something and has genuine power over the things that affect their lives, like tax rates, policing, bin collections, crime and care, not because they receive yet more patronising glossy literature.
All in all, what a missed opportunity - and a waste of paper.