What are we voting for?

Elsewhere on this ‘home’ page is a story (‘Don’t miss out on having a voice‘) in which B&NES is urging residents to check they are on the electoral register so they can take part in future elections.

With a general election not expected until May 2024, that leaves more immediate matters like electing a Regional Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner in May 2021.

Commenting on the original story, local freelance writer and photographer David Kernek wondered whether these elections ‘for publicly funded posts Bath didn’t ask for and didn’t want‘ were ‘worth getting out of bed for.’

I have now given David space to express a more detailed (and personal) view on the subject.

Fake Democracy: Vote, vote, vote … but for what?

‘Countries run by people who feel the need to have the word ‘democratic’ in the name of their state are by rule of thumb not democratic; if it’s on the tin, it isn’t. 

The German Democratic Republic – popularly known as East Germany from 1949 to 1990 – was among the first to lie about its reality, while notorious extant examples are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; other totalitarian brands are available.

Our Western world, too, plays fast and loose with democracy. After almost six months of negotiations, the Irish Republic now has a three-party coalition government that intentionally excludes the party – Sinn Féin – which won by far the largest share of the popular vote in its February general election. So much for fair and transparent proportional representation voting systems; Ireland’s has lumbered the country with a government comprising the two most successful loser parties and the Greens. The European Union’s scandalously expensive parliament – with an annual running cost of €2 billion (£1.82 billion) – is a democratic racket for a country that doesn’t, not quite yet, exist with a multi-national electorate that knows very little about it and cares less. 

In the not-as-united-as-it-once-was United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, England and Wales, Call Me Dave’s Con-Lib Dem coalition took an axe to genuine democracy in local government with the creation of state-funded post-holders and entities: directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs), and eight elected mayors, like what that London has, to run city-region combined authorities, the coalition’s perfunctory and bureaucratic answer to the case for an English devolution settlement. No compelling arguments were made for these costly changes, no public demand for them was perceptible, and the lively interest of voters in these elections has been strikingly conspicuous by its absence.

For Call Me Dave, Sir Nick Cleggy Off The Telly, George Osborne, Theresa May and their friends, these so-called reforms ticked all of the GroupThink boxes: modern; accountable; local; transparent; and democratic. Yet they are less local and no more accountable than the institutions they replace. They’re ventures in Fake Democracy that are barely more than job creation programmes for party place persons, suits looking for greasy poles up which to climb, and waffle merchants known variously as Communications Consultants – to string platitudes together for the mayor’s banal blog – Audience Reach Solutions Facilitators, and Regional Integration Strategy Analysts. It’s not at all surprising that few if any protest petitions were raised or tears shed when, thanks to the Covid-19 emergency, the spring elections for Police & Crime Commissioners – there are 41 – and the combined authority mayors had to be postponed and rescheduled for 2021. Very few voters know that these posts exist and, even if many more of them did, there’s insufficient information on which judgements about an incumbent’s track record or a contender’s promises can be made by those bothered enough to exercise their precious right to vote. 

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is not so much transparent as at best opaque and at worst invisible. By no stretch of the imagination is it the West of England, which when I last checked included Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset. The area covered by this quango is Bristol, South Gloucestershire (the posh name for Bristol’s dull northern suburbs, and Bath & NE Somerset. So it’s really Greater Bristol, the principal constituent parts of which – Bristol and Bath – have nothing resembling a shared sense of history and community. It’s a line drawn on a map by a manager – or a handsomely-reimbursed management consulted – who’s noticed that they’re quite close miles-wise and connected by roads and a railway line. 

Its board comprises the leaders of the three pre-existing local councils, which have relinquished to the authority responsibility for transport, housing, adult education and skills, for which WECA has a £1 billion, 30-year budget. The board is led by its elected mayor – currently a Conservative previously unknown outside South Gloucestershire – whose annual “allowance” or salary as a professional politician is currently an agreeable £65,000. He was elected on a deeply-uninspiring turn-out of 29.7%.

The deputy mayor – also coincidentally a Conservative unknown outside South Gloucestershire – pockets an allowance, but of a mere £13,000. This authority’s board must be high calibre, because it has not one but two elected mayors, the other being the directly-elected mayor of Bristol, whose salary is currently £70,605 but will rise next year to £79,468 if the post-holder is confident that he or she can explain that away in a city in which the average wage is £30,000. WECA’s chief executive is on £150,000 a year, which compares with the £160,000 paid to Bristol City Council’s chief executive and the £143,462 salary of the prime minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. 

Next in line at the magic money tree are the directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners, sinecures signed off by Theresa May during her Home Office years. Championed by the Tories and the Lib Dems, directly-elected PCCs replaced police authorities that comprised elected local councillors – they normally came with political party labels – and nominated independents, including three magistrates, representing local communities. These authorities, it was argued weakly, had problems in the perceived lack of accountability department. 

The 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 requires PCCs to appoint Chief Constables and when necessary fire them. They must also … Waffle Warning …: 

  • Secure an efficient and effective police force
  • Set police and crime objectives for their area through a police and crime plan
  • Set the force budget 
  • Contribute to national and international policing capabilities set out by the Home Secretary
  • Bring together community safety and criminal justice partners, to make sure local priorities are joined up

Candidates for these posts responded in kind as if in a competition to see who could cobble together the most vacuous of mission statements. Here are some examples: 

  • ‘Reducing the impact of anti-social behaviour.’
  • ‘Tackling domestic and sexual abuse.’
  • ‘Preventing and reducing burglary.’
  • ‘Improving road safety.’
  • ‘Putting victims first.’
  • ‘Connecting the police with local people so that you can see how the service is working for you on your priorities and in your community.’
  • ‘Ensuring greater transparency in policing so that you can see how we are performing, how your money is being spent and what is being delivered as a result.’
  • ‘Providing local leadership in bringing agencies together to tackle the issues that are of greatest concern to your community.’

What, no free apple pie?

Avon and Somerset’s PCC is Sue Mountstevens, an independent who at her first run in 2012 was elected on a derisory turn-out of 19.58%, and re-elected in 2016, when voter interest had skyrocketed to, er, 26%. Never mind; however meagre the mandates, the uplifting salary is fixed: £85,000. Ms Mountstevens is not up for a third term, but we can be sure that the self-evident lack of voter interest in this post will not deter the cream of the crops – retired police and army officers, magistrates, ex-MPs and local councillors – answering the call to serve. 

Her watch cannot be said to have gone as she might have wanted. Bath no longer has a police station, and in Bristol, a mob is given by the police a free pass to pull down a statue because to have prevented an act of criminal damage would, says the Chief Constable, have “risked a violent confrontation”. Yes, arresting people about to commit a crime can sometimes pose a risk of violence, or perhaps that’s not in the training these days. 

But she has been far from alone is disappointing the hopes that so few had for this innovative leap forward in policing. There have been squabbles across England and Wales between PCCs and chief constables, and raised eyebrows about their staff appointments and expenses, the cost of the elections and embarrassingly low voter turn-outs; some have slid below 15%. Mrs May rated the policy a mixed success – which bit actually worked? – and even the Lib Dems, rarely in a hurry to abandon make-believe politics, have binned their support for publicly-salaried posts that few voters want and elections in which even fewer can be sufficiently enthused take part.  

And, as in Bristol and Bath, there is as yet no evidence that policing across England and Wales has in any way improved, or that the calibre and efficacy of local government in so-called city-regions with combined authorities and directly-elected mayors – additional, unnecessary and costly tiers of bureaucracyis a fraction of a smidgeon higher than they were before the wretched hapless Blair and Cameron projects. Why take part in elections that undermine democracy? ‘

David Kernek is a freelance writer and photographer who in recent years has been editor of Holiday Villas, Holiday Cottages and Go Holiday travel magazines. In an earlier life, he was the Westminster-based political correspondent of The Northern Echo and, later, editor of then Bath Evening Chronicle, the York Evening Press and The Northern Echo. 

London-born, he’s lived in Bath since the 1980s.

The views expressed above are his.