Make responding to Cambridgeshire’s consultations easier through standardising & co-ordination (Part 2 of 3)

The background is in Part 1 here

…and started as a result of this:

The case Mr Elworthy of the CambsNews refers to is on Broad Street, in the Fenland town of March, Cambridgeshire. (If anyone wants to go on the March march in March (or from March to Cambridge), this annual event for 2023 is on 18th of March.) The issue is a familiar-sounding one of the rights of motorists to drive through town vs the rights of pedestrians and non-motorists to have traffic free streets and clean air.

Above – from G-Maps here. Notice the broken railing.

Above – the proposal to move the Coronation Fountain as featured in CambsNews

When you’ve got a very large, angry and violent crowd agitating against the state, something’s gone wrong with the political system

Above “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it!” – Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1998)

And history is littered with bloody and grim examples of large groups of people behaving like dumb, panicky, dangerous animals. And that’s just the security forces of the dictators in power I’m referring to! For example the 1905 Revolution in Russia – then ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, who at the time was the nephew of King Edward VII. At that time there was no legislative assembly in Russia, and thus no outlet for political dissent.

The differences between how people behave individually vs how they behave in a crowd is something that Dr Anne Templeton has been researching for a number of years. When you end up with very large crowds of people becoming violent – and repeatedly so, it is a symptom of a failing political system and failing political leaders. Even more so when security forces respond with extreme violence. It takes a lot to provoke people to take those sorts of actions. I wanted to write that todays political leaders have figured out there are better ways of governing than repression and violent confrontation. But looking around the world of late, that learning is still work in progress.

What is a consultation? Why consult anyone?

One of the myths peddled by politicians who should know better is that elections and democracy are the exactly the same thing. Or more particularly, the EU Referendum is the same thing as democracy and therefore anyone disagreeing with the result of the 2016 EU Referendum is somehow ‘undemocratic’ or ‘against democracy’. Which is nonsense. In a democracy people have the right to change their minds – as we see every year when electorates choose different councillors, different political parties to run councils, different MPs, and ultimately different political parties to lead a government.

Consultations enable the public to express more detailed opinions than the polling paper and the ballot box allows for

At any election under First Past The Post – the system we have in Cambridgeshire for local council elections as well as general elections nationally, each registered voter is invited to indicate a preference on the ballot paper for the individual candidate to be returned as the representative for their electoral ward or constituency. ***And that is it***

What the voting system ***does not ask you to indicate*** includes but is not limited to the following:

  • The political party you want to see take power – the ballot paper indicates which political party a candidate has been adopted by, but there is nothing to stop an elected candidate from switching party after the vote – as South Cambridgeshire has seen with the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s controversial road charging policy.
  • The best candidate – there is nothing on the ballot paper to indicate why you have chosen your candidate. How many people will be voting tactically at the next general election to keep out a candidate they really don’t like, even though it involves voting for a political party they have no great affection for? How many people vote for the ‘joke’ candidate? Don’t laugh! Sometimes they get elected – as Hartlepool found out!
  • The political leader you want to see become head of government or head of a council. Again, the ballot paper does not ask that question. There are a host of assumptions based on trust for those of whom this is the biggest factor in their voting preference. For example take Tony Blair in 1997 – an election campaign that was much about him as it was about Labour (with The Sun tabloid – a staunchly Tory paper in the 1980s switching to ‘backing Blair’ but avoiding recommending voting Labour at the same time). The big unwritten element of trust was that any candidate selected as the official Labour candidate would, if elected an MP, indicate in Parliament that the person they have the most confidence in to become Prime Minister is the leader of their party. Therefore the party that wins the most seats in the Commons gets to indicate to the Monarch who their choice of Prime Minister should be (i.e. the MP who can command the confidence of the House of Commons to form a Government) – which the monarch then sends for to invite them to form a government.
  • The political party whose manifesto you agree with the most out of all of the ones that you have read – even though the political convention is that anything in a general election manifesto of a party that wins a general election cannot be blocked by the House of Lords because ‘the manifesto is the express will of the people’. This is also why the 2019 general election was, for me at least, ever so dangerous because the Conservatives included a host of ‘blank cheque’ policies that made it much harder for anyone to block. For example bringing in FPTP voting systems for police and crime commissioners, and combined authority mayors *even though* the second preference voting systems enabled more people to express a preference for the final remaining candidates following the elimination of their first preference. This is sort of similar to the French presidential elections where, if none of the candidates gets a 50% majority, they have a second round of elections at a later date for a ‘run off’ between the top two. Under that system, a candidate that does not come top in the first round can ultimately win by coming top in the second round – which is what happened with Dr Nik Johnson for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. He was able to win enough second preference votes that were cast for the Liberal Democrats to overtake the incumbent James Palmer. Opponents have accused the Conservatives of bringing in a system that favours their candidates and increased the risk of people voting tactically rather than for their preferred candidate.
So having a consultation means…?

…you can ask a group of people – from the general public, to people living in a specific geographical area, to specialists in a given policy area – what they think about an organisation’s proposals. In recent years, government departments and local councils have launched organisation-specific consultation platforms.

Some of the consultations will be very specific and highly technical – to the extent you need to be both educated and qualified in the field concerned to provide an informed response. Take for example the Government’s consultation page on building safety here.

The principle is that by engaging with people outside of the political system, you get improved public policy. This is based on the assumptions that more people will have given informed responses to the policies concerned, and more eyes will have spotted any shortcomings. But there are risks, and these include:

  • Regulatory capturesomething the Warwick Commission for Financial Reform wrote about here. It basically means the regulatory institutions come under the very strong influence or control of an interest group, acting in a manner that is to the benefit of that interest group rather than the wider society it is supposed to serve. The Environment Agency is one regulator that could fall into this category over its repeated failures to regulate water companies. At the same time, donations from privatised utilities (and highly-remunerated individuals from within them) to political parties has been an issue for decades – this Early Day Motion in Parliament from 1992 reflects this. With consultations, the risk is only people with vested interests respond, and policy is then shaped for their benefit rather than that of the general public’s. (Note the ‘regulatory complexity’ point in the Warwick Commission – think of the tax avoidance loopholes (people on low incomes are far less likely to lobby for such things) being a reflection of this).
  • Consultation overload – does the public have the time and capacity to respond to so many detailed consultations? (One of the concerns that started off this group of blogposts)
  • Consultation being seen as a ‘tick box process’ where the responses are ignored by decision-makers who carry on regardless – something the Greater Cambridge Partnership has been accused of. The risk of undermining the public legitimacy of both the policy and the institution responsible for it become raised.

In the final part, I’ll look at some specific local examples in a piece that should be suitable for CambsNews! In the meantime, have a look at:

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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