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The Johnson Government and democracy

June 16, 2020 11:34 AM
By Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. in LibDem Voice

mrrs (Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)A few weeks ago we described some of the changes we would like to see in a post covid world. One area was greater focus on localism ( see change ) The following article from Lord Wallace gives more detail about what this would mean

Today's Conservatives have a very crude idea of democracy, and no concept of local democracy at all. Those who watched the government's daily press conference on June 11th will have heard Matt Hancock appeal to British citizens to do their 'civic duty' by observing their government's latest revision of the rules for social distancing. He then went on to welcome the new test and tracing system, and thank Serco and Sitel for the part they had played in setting it up.

I had watched successive scientists commenting on the days before about the unavoidably local basis of any test and tracing scheme, and their amazement at the government's failure to involve local authorities and their public health officers in its organization. Sitel, in case you had not heard of it, is a US multinational company with its headquarters in Miami: not the most obvious choice when looking for expertise on the ground in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Suffolk or Devon.

Right-wing Conservatives have despised local government since Mrs. Thatcher - as largely Labour-run, union-dominated, and wasteful. Their preferred model, as we have seen, is a Michael Bloomberg figure: an elected mayor running each city region on a business-like basis, without much partisan politics. Taken from the American model, this demonstrated the shallowness of their understanding of the raucous and multi-level democracy of American cities and states.

The populist Ukippers who have now taken over the government see our national leader as representing the will of the people, and not needing other levels of representation or accountability, including to Parliament or the hated BBC. Boris prefers to communicate with 'the people' by press conference, with selected questions from 'vox pop' representatives to limit critical questions from the press.
Deep prejudice against the public sector is also evident in the award of successive contracts, without open competition, to major outsourcing companies and consultancies. Deloittes were commissioned to set up the initial testing stations. Not surprisingly, these suffered from lack of awareness of local and regional travel patterns and centres of demand. Funds have generously flowed to private companies, while local authorities have struggled to cope with additional demands while facing near-bankruptcy. Local public health officers, with the knowledge and existing contacts to link social care, the NHS, local universities and voluntary organizations have been sidelined; ministers have preferred initiatives from the centre, mostly outsourced and inadequately prepared.

Populist democracy depends on a passive electorate, which responds to every breezy promise from their leader, about 'oven-ready Brexit' or 'world-beating' test and tracing schemes, and forgets what had been said when government fails to deliver. We've seen how many citizens would indeed be willing to do more than their 'civic duty' in the numbers who responded to appeals for volunteers - and then found themselves sitting by the phone uncontacted when contractors struggled to convert promises into practice.
In today's populist environment, id