2016/5: Voty McVotefarce
Why vote? they’ll just ignore you says Steve Beauchampé
The new National Environment Research Council polar exploration vessel is to be named the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Very appropriate too, Attenborough is a wonderful man, a truly great Briton whose contribution to both the country and the planet has been enormous – and a great honour for him as he turns ninety this Sunday. Except that, as we all know, the NERC held a public vote to name the ship and the winner was, overwhelmingly, Boaty McBoatface (receiving 124,000 votes), with the moniker Sir David Attenborough polling a paltry 10% of this at under 12,000.
But according to Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson naming the ship Boaty McBoatface would have been ‘inappropriate’ whilst other critics suggested that doing so would have left Britain open to ridicule. Alternatively, it might have added further to our reputation as a nation of quirky, eccentrics, the country that gave the world Monty Python, cricket, Prince Charles and a wealth of quirky, much-loved traditions and customs.
Whilst in this instance disregarding the result of a public vote might be seen as trivial, it is consistent with a government culture that regards the result of elections, referenda and the architecture of democratic structures as expendable.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of elected mayors. Despite overwhelming votes in 2012 against the creation of such posts, including by voters in Birmingham and Coventry, little more than three years later an even more powerful mayoral post (that of West Midlands Metro Mayor) was effectively forced upon the region, without the electorate being given any say on the issue (this has also happened in other major conurbations). Similarly, Police and Crime Commissioner posts were imposed without a public vote, the government afraid that the creation of such rôles would have been overwhelmingly rejected in any referendum.
Central government powers to override local decisions or impose new layers of governance are immense, have increased in recent times and have probably never been greater. Birmingham’s democratic structures have suffered particularly badly, with Whitehall forcing significant changes to our system of local democracy. From 2018 councillor numbers in Birmingham will be reduced from 120 to around 100 and the present electoral cycle, whereby a third of council seats are contested in three years out of four (with no elections in the fourth year) will be replaced with all out elections staged every four years. The city council did not seek these changes, the electorate did not ask for them and nor were they given any say in them.
Meanwhile, government ministers are increasingly overruling local planning decisions, disregarding the will of communities and traducing the democratic mechanisms campaigners faithfully and honestly employed. Increasingly, major housing developments, road and other infrastructure schemes as well as highly contentious fracking licenses are being granted consent even where a majority of local voters are opposed.
Such a disrespectful attitude to democracy is ingrained in our political system. The EU’s failings are often (and rightly) cited but the problem is easily identifiable domestically. Thus MPs already rejected at General Elections regularly reappear in the House of Lords, negating their own failure and voting in perpetuity on legislation, with seemingly no sense of shame or embarrassment. Others simply pay their way into the Lords with major political donors, particularly (but not exclusively) to the Conservative Party regularly rewarded with a place in the nation’s legislature.
The ‘let’s pretend we never had a vote’ mentality also infects elements of the Labour Party. Despite leader Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding victory in the party’s leadership contest just eight months ago, several hardline right wing Labour MPs have recently been openly seeking a way of running a new leadership contest that denies Corbyn a place on the ballot paper, anxious to do so before reforms anticipated at this September’s party conference transfers crucial powers from the party hierarchy into the hands of members.
When the electorate’s wishes can be so flagrantly flouted, it seems reasonable to ask how secure the result of the forthcoming EU referendum will be, or what manoeuvres and machinations might be undertaken to negate the ‘wrong’ result. And I think we all know what result that is.
May 6th 2016
First published in The BirminghamPress.com