Let's keep our democratic system

Our arguments against a cabinet system remain the same now as they were in October 2015 (see article below: ‘Let’s keep our democratic system,’ Brighton and Hove Independent, first published 2015).
Without scrutiny from other parties the Labour leadership would have had no qualms in selling off Hove Library, flogging off our precious Downland and ending the city’s youth service. Opposition from elected representatives is a crucial part of democracy and has prevented deeply unpopular Labour Council plans from coming to fruition – a fact no doubt frustrating for their leader, Councillor Warren Morgan, who wishes for a return to decision making behind closed doors and who imagines he has overall control of the council.

Let’s keep our democratic system

This week I read with concern that the Labour Leader of the Council is thinking about reviving the ‘cabinet’ model for the council. This is where 10 people make all of the council’s decisions and those decisions come in front of the other Councillors for rubber-stamping.

The cabinet model would allow Councillors not to answer for the “difficult decisions” they are making, allowing them to hide the impacts of decisions from the public until it’s far too late. It is anti-democratic. It’s why Greens abolished it and revived the committee system which places decision making powers with all councillors. Whether you’re a backbench Councillor for the largest group or an opposition councillor you and your community are proportionately enfranchised, and, crucially, decisions are made by all.

Accountability for decisions is incredibly important in a city which in 12 years has not given any one party an outright majority. Currently the largest group is 22, but out of 54 Councillors they should not have divine right to rule.

The Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Mitchell was right to describe the cabinet model as a “one party state” in November 2011. Isn’t it interesting that the tune seems to be changing now that Labour are in power?

It is important to remember Labour has form here: a Labour Government introduced the ‘cabinet’ model and a Labour Council wanted the deeply unpopular directly elected Mayor which was rejected in 2001.

The potential revival of the cabinet system has come in the same week we’ve had cross-party meetings cancelled, reports with potentially serious proposals being withheld and Labour Councillors voting to close Full Council meetings early. We have to ask: why the attempts to reduce transparency? Are these are the early warning shots being fired in a campaign by the Labour Councillors intent on reducing accountability for the cuts they have planned?

I recognise that we face the harshest financial climate we have ever seen, thanks to the savage austerity programme imposed by the Conservative government. But lessening democracy especially at a time like this is completely inappropriate and unfair.

We need a fairer local political system including a fairer voting system for electing Councillors in the first place. But in the meantime we must have a system which allows questioning, debate and challenge for whoever is the largest group on the city council. We revert to a less democratic and accountable council at our peril.

[First published in the Brighton and Hove Independent, October 2015]

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