Pseudo democracy

Occasionally I sense hesitation by the decision makers and I think it is good to stop and think before making changes to the city’s transport structure. However it often is not hesitation it rather has to do with a more fundamental claim: representativeness. Even after having spoken to many decision makers over the past seven years, it still intrigues me to this day.

First off a little whinge from someone who helps run a community interest group. Many decision makers have now gone. Councillors have not been voted in again or have decided not to stand. Council officers have left on their own accord or have, more forcefully, been made redundant. The constants in the equation remain the local interest groups. Getting to know the new council folks, finding ways to inform and educate yet another set of people is demoralising at best, totally soul destroying at worst.

Secondly, and more to the point, there seems to be questions of democracy and representation. Local elected representative are keen, or so it seems, to represent the people. Yet when asking how representativeness is possibly achieved, it is not through policy and leadership (ie through the election platform) but through talking to the Jo Blogs in the street. I very much suspect politicians cannot talk to everybody, so the process is a random sample at best, a (self)selected at worst.

We have lost a vital part of democracy in Newcastle, that of the role of policy (ie making plans and stating promises) in decision making.

Taking this observation to the next logical step: councillors are elected on a rather hazy platform basis indeed. We, the voters, are not let to know what these politician folks are promising to do when elected. This of course leaves the playing field wide open after the election. No new ideas, no wider outlooks. And it typically ends in what we see in Newcastle: petty party political squabbles, small stuff gets fought over – big things that need direction and care are not debated.The longer term, the future, suffers as a result. This could well be the reason why sustainability and climate change (urgent but longterm issues) have dropped off the council agenda.

No-one is served.

No-one is interested in that empty plot. There are no stories. City identity is struggling. People often disengage from public life at this point and retreat back to their personal life.

So, all that councillors then do is to claim that they act on the will of the people. There is no method in the world that could be used to find out what the residents want. Upshot, councillors will simply make it up as they go along. And when they do, it is not representative of the population (due to small sample sizes, the way the survey was conducted, what questions were asked or not asked). A survey without a moral stance (policy!) is not a useful survey at any rate. It is time wasting too.

Having spoken to my ward councillors on various occasions through various media I can categorically state: they hear the voices they want to hear, and disregard the voices they do not want to hear (confirmation bias runs riot). Overall there rarely is (post-election) quantification. Same is somewhat true for cabinet councillors, but on a different level of confusion as it is a different level of decision making.

I am afraid to say on that basis democracy is broken in Newcastle. Councillors are a law on themselves and whilst I am sure most have a moral compass of some sort, the broken systems makes sure they get bogged down in petty stuff, so they forget to lead and make the big decisions (on ward and on city level). In that sense, councillors are morally defunct as the responsibility to lead, improve and guide Newcastle is not enacted for the city.

We need to demand to see manifestos before elections. So the platform, the direction that a politician wants to take, becomes visible. Open promises. If no pre-election promise is received, we will limp on. Leading from the front! But that currently is not in Newcastle’s political culture. Democracy is dangling.

I must apologise for this heavily theoretical post. I could have laced it with my practical experiences and examples but I decided not to for reasons of brevity. The importance was to state that I can understand that people disengage from public/political aspects in life. And I am disappointed in the councillors in Newcastle for their lack of full-frontal honest leadership.

Another problem is transparency in decision making. I leave that for another time.

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