Saturday 30 August 2008
The Barnet Oligarchy
Writing in The Times this week (the national version not our very own local variety), Anatole Kaletsky wrote: “…the most important function of democracy is not to choose good governments but to throw out bad ones. It is the right to eject bad governments that prevents tyranny, makes government serve the people, discourages corruption and keeps most democratic nations at peace most of the time.
The corollary of this observation is that politicians must always live in fear of punishment by the voters. But if voters repeatedly fail to punish incompetence or corruption or gross misjudgement, then the fear of defeat is lifted and democracy loses its disciplining power. And a country in which the dominant parties can afford to scoff at the discipline of the ballot box, is the point when democracy starts to slide into self-perpetuating oligarchy."
Kaletsky was writing about the forthcoming U.S. elections, but his words apply to any elected authority in any democratic system. Which, of course, brings us to Barnet Council. Under the new system of local government, brought in under Tony Blair’s first government, our long established committee system was thrown out of the window, without any public consultation, and replaced with a cabinet system which concentrates power into the hands of a few individuals – some of whom have not actually been elected.
The result is that councillors pay themselves tens of thousands of pounds of our money without having to deliver improved services to residents. Officers buy themselves top of the range television sets whilst day centres for the elderly have to close one day a week due to a lack of funding. The leader spends £5,000 flying business class to America to learn how to be a leader. The Chief Finance Officer buries £60,000 of expenditure in the accounts but is only “spoken to” about his conduct. £1.4 million is spent on near obsolete computers that don’t work with another £28,000 spent putting them into storage.
The sad reality is that this blatant abuse of power is taking place in councils up and down the country. Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem councillors are all the same when it comes to jumping head first into the public trough.
Even if Labour somehow bucked the national swing and won back control of Barnet Council in 2010, does anyone seriously believe that democratic accountability would suddenly be restored? The last time Labour and the Lib Dems ruled the borough, Underhill was secretly sold off for a measly ten grand and, at the time of writing, the Auditor is still investigating that scandal.
As Kaletsky says, if we maintain the status quo "we will be perilously close to the point when democracy ceases to perform its most essential function of disciplining political power."