Eight stages of loss

7 May

Yesterday I blogged about the need for electoral reform in local government and mentioned an Electoral Reform Society paper, Towards One Nation: the Labour Case for Electoral Reform.

That features a chapter called ‘Too much of a good thing’ which looks at how ‘safe’ councils with overwhelming majorities for one party are eventually lost. It is worth quoting the section on the process of degeneration at length: long-term residents of Newham will be struck by a sense of familiarity:

1. Taking voters for granted. In an environment where 40% of the vote on a 30% turnout is enough to win a ward, and usually a substantial council majority, a dominant party does not have to be particularly good at contacting the voters in its core areas. Turnout in those areas will tend to fall and the party’s efforts will concentrate on squeezing the other parties out of their remaining footholds.

2. Autocratic style of government. The internal processes of debate and scrutiny on the council start to fail. When opposition parties become too small they will often fall short of the minimum size required to constitute a Group, and therefore lose administrative back-up for their activities. Small opposition parties will find it difficult to look beyond parochial ward issues and mount a full critique of the council administration. Official council business becomes formal, with decisions being taken at best at the majority Group level and often by a Cabinet or just a Leader, with the Group also acting as a rubber stamp.

3. Bad decisions. Concentration of power and a lack of scrutiny lead to bad decisions being taken, and an arrogant attitude towards people who question those bad decisions – be they from the small number of opposition councillors, the local media, independent local bloggers or from within the majority Group.

4. Splits in the ruling party. Factional differences within the majority Group become more common and more divisive, sometimes leading to formal splits with some members going Independent. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a party with a local monopoly on power will often end up manufacturing its own opposition.

5. Hidden electoral weakness. The lack of connection between the leadership of the council, and the lack of effort put into elections, leaves the council majority strong but brittle. Any crisis could trigger the coalescence of a local opposition movement and the lack of engagement with the electorate means that just by going out and listening to voters the new rivals will look good.

6. Electoral collapse. The result will tend to be a sudden and indiscriminate collapse of the previous majority party, and the replacement political force may not be a constructive alternative.

7. Incompetent local government. Electoral collapse will usually be followed by a chaotic period of poor local governance by inexperienced councillors.

8. Recrimination and scandal. Skeletons start falling out of the cupboard about prior errors and scandals during the period of complacency.

This pattern of events, even if not every step of the process takes place, is recognisable in several authorities where Labour had previously held overwhelming majorities on the council including Doncaster, Hull, Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and Slough.

Newham is obviously now at stage 3. From what I hear, stage 4 may be imminent. Disaffected Labour councillors may not formally split off into an independent group, but Sir Robin is not universally loved even within his own party and infighting within the Labour group could lead to significant ructions.

What happens then is anyone’s guess. But it won’t be pretty.

Labour’s interests as a party – and our interests as residents – would be better served by this not happening.

As uncomfortable as it may be for Sir Robin, a democratic opposition exercising its proper function of scrutiny would help his administration deliver honest, efficient local government in our interests – particularly those most in need of high quality public services.

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