#9. Directly-elected Leader? Not in prospect, but I can dream.

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Written in December 2015.

 

When I was elected to represent the Highley Ward at Shirehall I was looking forward to finding out what was going on.

Despite having seen the local newspaper reports on, and witnessed the consequences of, policies that seemed to take no account of what local communities actually needed, I was determined to give the powers-that-be the benefit of the doubt.

I resolved to observe the principle that because the mouth is outnumbered by eyes and ears, it pays to keep the eyes and ears open and the mouth shut. For a while, at least.

I managed it for about three weeks, which is how long it took to realize just how fast the demolition of democratic systems was moving. The scales didn’t so much fall from my eyes, as have a baseball bat taken to them.

I was surprised at how all the mainstream parties quietly acquiesced in the process. I’m even more surprised that nothing has changed in that regard in the intervening period, except that if anything the pace of change and the distancing of the administration from the people they allegedly represent has accelerated to light speed. And still there is no complaint from the mainstream Opposition parties, in fact some of them support it. (Meanwhile there is no complaint from the people of Shropshire either, but at least they have the excuse that they’re not being kept in the loop, in which they have a lot in common with elected Members!)

All the changes serve the interests of all the mainstream parties because, with the centralisation of power that the current Cabinet system allows, by concentrating all their efforts on getting into power at Shirehall at the 2017 local elections, should they achieve that end then they will be the ones profiting from what’s being created now. It is a system that is in no way accountable to the electorate and that makes it very attractive to whichever party holds the balance of power locally.

To be fair, there are some who favour a committee system of local government, but there is an obvious shortcoming in a committee system, a structural fault that allows a ruling group to dominate policy-making without reference to the electorate.

The structural fault in the committee system is its allocation of seats according to proportional party representation. Whilst superficially “fair”, in that it reflects election results, it could happen that the number of Opposition Members elected doesn’t facilitate an ‘equitable’ distribution of committee seats.

In the committee system, to guarantee the equitability claimed for it, overall Opposition party numbers HAVE to outnumber the ruling group’s to ensure that any consensus of opinion following open debate is the result of compromise, rather than force of numbers. In other words, no outright majority by any one group.

But consider a system that retains the Cabinet with a directly-elected Council Leader, Chief Executive, whatever you want to call it, who would, having been directly elected, be fully accountable to all the electors in the county (not just, as at present, to the ones in their individual Electoral Divisions) for their choice of Cabinet members and the decisions those portfolio holders make. It is entirely feasible that a directly-elected Leader’s choice of portfolio holder need not be based on party affiliation.

That democratic accountability doesn’t stop there. Cabinet systems of governance must have at least one Scrutiny Committee. Unlike the current situation at Shirehall, Scrutiny Committees could actually exercise real influence, their chairs alternating between members of each party on the committee.

Scrutiny Committees would have the power to call in portfolio holders and have the right to question anyone who has been, or is likely to be, party to any portfolio holder business they have oversight of. Despite NOT having the power of veto, Scrutiny Committee reports would be published and be open for debate at full council, rendering the decisions of the Leader/Chief Executive fully exposed to public scrutiny. Decision making would be transparent.

Odds on seeing such a change? If they were able, would turkeys vote for Christmas? It’s up to you lot.