6th February 2021
The interest in that Handforth Parish Council video is extraordinary.
Even at this blog, yesterday’s post has already had more views than any other post here has had in total over the last five years – with the single exception of the post that explained Article 50 the day after the shock of the referendum result.
(Yesterday’s post even attracted a commenter who, without any apparent irony, described Jackie Weaver’s actions as ‘the worst kind of Fascism’ – and one can only wonder what they then thought when their comment was binned rather than published.)
Without doubt the video has added for some to what used to to be called the ‘gaiety of the nation’ – though for others it was a less cheerful public illustration of the abuses, disruption and misconduct in such meetings that is usually hidden from view.
But as interest fades and new memes come along, what – if anything – is the more general significance of the story of that parish council meeting?
One problem of local government is lack of interest.
People, it would seem, can only bear so much democracy.
The turnout in local government is lower than parliamentary elections.
And – as with political parties – the fewer people who are engaged, the more unrepresentative are those who stay involved.
When those unrepresentative representatives have actual powers then this means it is more likely that bad decisions will be made instead of good decisions.
One response to this observation will be that the solution is to encourage more interest and more engagement.
And such a stirring exhortation will garner claps and cheers – or, at least, their modern equivalent, ‘likes’ and RTs.
But when the nods finish and good intentions are superseded, there will still be little interest in local government.
Because nothing has changed substantially to make local government more accessible.
And so in local government continues to be dominated by those who would only get elected because of that lack of interest.
To which, in turn, there are two three responses.
The first is to shrug and say one gets the local elected representatives one deserves.
The second is to question the need for the democratic element in the provision of local services – after all, many people will not care who their local councillors are, so long as their bins are collected on time.
The third is to see lack of interest as the result of the lack of real powers for local government – and if local bodies had more powers then there would be more local interest.
None of these three responses are, for me, compelling.
The Handforth incident suggests there is a way for there to be more interest in local government – and that is simply to make it easier for people to follow what is going on (and even participate) in the making of local government decisions.
One of the few benefits of the coronavirus lockdowns has been that various bodies are now deliberating online rather than in unknown council chambers, and that those deliberations are publicly available.
As a matter of democratic principle, and from the perspective of increasing transparency, there is great deal to be said for deliberations to be done virtually.
Here I do not mean that council proceedings should just be streamed, but that the actual meetings should be done virtually rather than in some council chamber or committee room.
Indeed, one could question whether – given new technology – there is now any need for council chambers at all, other than for ceremonial events and for showing determined tourists.
And we would be free from the tiresome mock-parliamentary debating society macho pedantic silliness of some oral debates – and it would be easier for all representatives to contribute rather than budding after dinner speakers and those who bray in their support.
Councillors would also be able to readily attend around their other professional and home responsibilities, rather than giving up whole days in the manner of leisurely amateurs in frock coats.
At a stroke such virtual proceedings as the norm would be instantly more accessible to the public – and also to otherwise sidelined councillors.
Much of what we take as the natural norms in our public affairs are just practices and categories we have inherited from previous generations.
And big set-piece meetings in ornate council chambers may have suited Victorians and Edwardians – but, if we were starting from a blank page today, would we come up with the same model?
(Indeed, would practically minded Victorians and Edwardians have insisted on their model had they been aware of our technology?)
Similar points can also be made about other formal meetings – and indeed court hearings.
Other than when the credibility of witness under examination is at issue – and there is no substitute for that being done in person – or when there are necessary reporting restrictions, there is no overwhelming reason why most court hearings cannot be done virtually.
The fact that we inherited practices from a time without virtual technology is no reason, by itself, to persist with those practices, as long as other principles such as due process and fairness are not adversely affected.
Making public affairs more accessible is not only a public good, but would have the practical utility of ensuring more engagement.
People watching – or participating in – the Handforth council meeting on their laptop or their phone (or indeed iPad) was for many a novelty.
But it would be good for democracy if virtual council and their formal meetings and hearings became the new natural norm.
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