Election changes may not be proportional
Every so often, someone tries to resolve the conundrum of how local government and local democracy operate on two entirely different levels.
The latest attempt is the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill which got recently nodded through the Senedd.
Among the headline stuff is a reduction in the voting age to 16 along with the option for a proportional representation system to elect councillors. There’s also the quiet introduction of “corporate joint committees”, which council leaders see as a backdoor attempt to enforce local authority mergers.
Welsh ministers have spent the last couple of decades fretting over the structure of a 22 unitary authority arrangement which resembles something hastily sketched on the back of a House of Commons envelope. It has made for an uneasy constitutional relationship ever since.
Sceptics, and there are plenty of them, view the proposed changes to the voting system and a revised emphasis on community as a Trojan horse. They suggest that whilst it’s all laudable in principle, the overall impact will be to dilute the influence of local authorities where it matters.
More objective viewpoints come from people like Swansea council leader Rob Stewart. He is simply unimpressed with the idea of proportional representation. His take is that such a move would perpetuate coalitions and most likely give fringe parties like extreme nationalists a disproportionate level of influence.
Alternatively, Lib Dem veteran Peter Black feels PR would enhance local democracy by ensuring that the council is more representative of local opinion. He points to Scotland where the system has been in selective use for a while.
Meanwhile, the UK government is embarked on its own agenda of driving a wedge between Welsh local authorities and Cardiff Bay.
Welsh Secretary Simon Hart reckons councils will have a "stronger role" in the new fund to replace EU aid. Actual details have yet to be announced but I’m sure some form of direct competition will be involved. In other words, whichever doggie jumps the highest gets the funding biscuit.
But can we really blame Downing Street for holding local democracy in no better regard than we do ourselves?
The average elector has been conditioned over the years into thinking local government is good for nothing more than making sure the rubbish gets collected and the street lights work. The rest of it is just politics and wasteful spin, we get told by the tabloids.
Of course, that’s until someone wants to build a sewage plant behind our homes and then we’re all out there with placards demanding democracy in action.
The trouble though is that without the ability to exercise actual power, it won’t really matter a damn how our local representatives get elected. That’s the rub and no-one with the necessary legislative clout is suggesting that things will change any time soon.
‘Tis the season for some hope
Well, the Christmas decorations are up. After years of protesting that it’s far too early for such seasonal frippery, I suddenly seem to have lost touch with my inner Grinch.
Funnily enough, I get the sense that I’m among quite a few folks looking at the festive season with a different set of eyes – not to mention a fair bit of nostalgia.
As kids, we were allowed to hang the paper chain decorations we’d made in school a week beforehand at home. However, the tree only went up and was decorated a few days before Christmas Eve.
Inevitably it arrived on the top of my dad’s GPO van along with a bunch of others he and his workmates had secured in a last-minute deal with some local farmer.
I remember sharing this story with an elderly neighbour many years ago. She lived in the same house in Heol Las where she’d been born. Her recollection was that the best Christmases were during the war years. I didn’t quite understand until she added, “It meant we were all still here, bach. We were still together”. People talk about the true meaning of Christmas. If the last year has taught us anything, then maybe it’s that we’re better at being people who care – and not the ones who snatch the last designer-toy in the store out of each other’s hands We face hardship and there are plenty reasons to be worried. Yet we’ve also changed. Whether we stay changed, once the vaccines start up and we get rid of this pandemic, is another matter.
But for now, and probably more than ever, Christmas will be a time of hope.