Ryeview – September 2004

Politicians stand in the way of democracy

John Clark writes…

First published: September 2004 – Gazette & Herald

Ryedale is losing out. The benefits of democracy do not appear to exist in the district. Yes democracy survives, we have elections and thus an MP, county and district councillors. What we haven’t got is political debate, campaigning, alternatives or choice. Democracy does not flourish. What is not clear is whether these are Ryedale symptoms or part of a national epidemic.

I am frequently ‘accused’ of bringing politics into the Council Chamber. This baffles me. It is the opposite of democracy as I know it. My experience is that politicians present a range of policies for the next four years. This is their ‘vision’ of the way forward and becomes their ‘manifesto’. Electors then choose which manifesto is their way forward. After an election if a party has more than half the councillors they ‘form the administration’. If this doesn’t happen then two or more parties combine to run the council. They propose a ‘joint vision’ and a ‘combination of policies’. Ryedale is run by a ‘loose alliance’ of Liberal Democrats and Independents. There appears to be no ‘agreed policies’, no ‘agreed manifesto’ and equally no political ‘joint vision’. As a result there is little leadership or direction for the council.

This is not a criticism; it is a description of where we are. There are two consequences. Firstly the present objectives appear to be Tory objectives; policies to encourage tourism, road building and economic growth. Is this a remnant from the previous conservative council or is it that overall the present political balance is in reality Tory? Secondly Ryedale Council appears to react rather than lead or campaign.

I believe there are two causes for this situation. Firstly most politicians see themselves as managers within the ‘free market’ rather than providing political leadership and direction. The second cause is that the majority of Ryedale District Council believes that the citizens of Ryedale are customers. It has a department for ‘member and customer support’. People who live in Ryedale are not the customers of the council; they are the ‘owners’ or ‘shareholders’ if we must have a business parallel. Ryedale District Council is their council. The citizens elect their councillors to run the council on their behalf. Not to forget that Ryedale citizens pay for the council with their council tax. I don’t believe the council has the right to set itself up as a company of which the public are the customers.

Politics nationally appears to have become more of the salesman customer relationship. Policies are created as a result of opinion polls and focus groups. Policies are then tailored so that people vote for them. They should be there because the politicians believe in them. The public are not customers they are citizens.

With this theme in mind I rang the Labour Party ‘Big Conversation’. This looked promising in democracy terms. I, the citizen, was going to ‘take part’ in the process. I raised two tor three promised issues that the government had not delivered. Yes but what policies would I like for the future? (What could they sell me?) There were no answers to my questions. All was sweetness and light; “Thank you for my call…….taking part……value my contribution….”

Since then I have received a letter thanking me for taking part. A statement that all views are therefore being carefully recorded…..helping to bring about improvements to your “Dear John community…”! It totally ignored our conversation. It did not answer any of my questions. It was a pure sales exercise to find out what I wanted so that policies could be sold to me.

Is this the reason why Ryedale District Council is a ‘politician free zone’? It is very difficult to separate the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Independents. No political group gives leadership. None appear to go in particular direction. Members of the public watching council meetings have immense difficulty deciding which Councillors belong to which political party. Thus when elections come round the citizen doesn’t know what each political party stands for. Out come the political promises and the sales process starts again.

These pictures show that something is seriously wrong with politics. Democracy is not thriving. Tinkering with the mechanics – creating a Regional Assembly, increasing the size of the council, overall postal voting or voting in the supermarket are not solutions. They do not tackle the problem. The problem is the politicians. They must say what they believe, stand for it at elections and then deliver when elected. It is a national problem but Ryedale appears to have more than its share. The solution is for Ryedale politicians to stand for their beliefs and then deliver them. If this is done they will be re-elected. If not they will be voted out. The people of Ryedale will have more say over what happens in Ryedale. Everyone gains.

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