Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Conservative manifesto - Referendarama

The Conservative manifesto was launched today amid great fanfare. Apparently they want the entire British public to join the government. I'll be Home Secretary please Mr Cameron.

There are various proposals in there some of which are good but plenty I am afraid which are full of holes.

This one leapt out at me (from Page 75):

...we want to give individuals more direct control over how they are governed. So, mirroring our reforms at the national level, we will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue if 5 per cent of the local population sign up, and they will also be able to veto any proposed high council tax increases.

Now I don't have a problem with giving people a greater say over how their lives are run locally. Indeed I think things would be much better if more power was devolved locally but the Conservative proposal seems very muddled and could have the perverse effect of making local government weaker and more confused. At the moment, only 25% of revenue spent locally is raised locally. The rest comes in one way or another from central government. Councils are already very weak in this respect because so much of their budgets are effectively controlled from Whitehall. If they want to raise local spending by one percent they have to raise council tax by four percent. It's one of the reasons turnouts are so low for local elections. People behave largely as rational actors in this respect. They know where the real power lies and it aint locally.

But they are still elected. They put their proposals to residents and the residents vote accordingly. If local politicians propose to raise council tax or lower it then people can vote them in or out. The mechanism is already there. But what sort of message will the people be sending if they vote in a council who promise to improve services and then a year later veto any council tax rise to help pay for this?

A proper plan for devolving power would recognise that the best way to do this is to ensure that more revenue is raised locally. This would almost certainly increase turnout and with it local accountability. Yet whenever things like local income taxes are proposed the Conservatives shriek as loudly as they can about who would lose out.

I can see an argument for local referenda on some issues (although I would love to see how a Conservative government would react if a local referendum somewhere chose to for example decriminalise cannabis in a certain area!) but local taxation really does not feel like one of them. There are much better ways to resolve that issue but for some reason Conservative politicians do not want to go down that road.

1 comment:

Malcolm Todd said...

Of course, the problem is that local taxation affects how highly taxed people feel, and therefore how they vote, but isn't controlled by national government. Hence national government tends to regard it simply as a cost to be controlled, like inflation. And local referendums sound ever so democratic, but the answer to "Would you like us to put your tax up?" is generally "Well, duh."

I can't remember which R4 journalist asked some Tory gimp yesterday "So will you be putting your first budget to a national referendum in June?". Cue complete ignoral.