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Jonathan Bryant: Introducing Direct Democracy

Jonathan Bryant, co-ordinator of Direct Democracy, explains the purpose of the organisation.

The British Conservative Party needs a new agenda. Having effectively tackled the problems of the 1970s and early 1980s through a fundamental decentralisation and devolution of the state- (and union-) controlled economy, during the 1990s our script became largely irrelevant to modern Britons. We failed to develop an overarching critique and subsequent policy agenda that addressed the key issue of our time – namely, the need to reform those institutions, which exist to serve the public interest, in a way which makes them truly responsive to public demands, and better fitted to advance the highest ideals of the liberal democratic West. However, a group of MPs, MEPs, Parliamentary candidates and activists recognised this ideological vacuum and set about developing a new modernisation agenda for the centre-right. Direct Democracy was born.

Direct Democracy comes from a variety of traditions within the Conservative Party but we are bound by a common purpose – a belief in a new kind of politics, where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people they affect and where the architects of those decisions are directly accountable if things go wrong. Our ambition is to devolve, decentralise and democratise the public services as effectively as Margaret Thatcher did the economy in the 1980s. We launched in 2005 following another failure to break out beyond the one third of popular support where we have been trapped, if opinion polls are to be believed, since October 1992. Our philosophy was set out in a book – "Direct Democracy: an Agenda for a New Model Party" - and we have since expanded upon our initial ideas in a series of ‘Localist Papers’, published by the Centre for Policy Studies last spring and serialised in the Daily Telegraph.

The critique was simple. The so-called democratic deficit, evidenced by dismal electoral turnout and general disillusionment with politics and politicians, has nothing to do with voter apathy (just look at the recent Downing Street petition on road pricing which attracted 1.5 million signatures) but everything to do with the fact that where people place their cross on the ballot paper has little or no effect on how they lead their daily lives. The decisions that actually matter to people are made by functionaries who are outside the democratic process: the Child Support Agency, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the Planning Inspectorate and a thousand other quangos stretching right up to the European Commission.

The problems we face are summed up by no less than John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills,  who described in a recent article how he awoke one morning to hear that the Healthcare Commission (a quango) were reporting that a quarter of NHS hospitals had not done enough to tackle MRSA:

"As a politician, I wondered how I should respond… I could send a sharp letter to the local health trust, but I can’t make anything happen and no-one will criticise me if I don’t. Its certainly not the Council’s fault. You may have voted for them too, but they don’t run the health service. Technically, of course, the hospital trust’s board should respond, but they are appointees, every one. If nothing happens… you could complain to the Minister, who will undoubtedly decline to become involved in "local decision"."

Alarmingly, coming from a Government minister, he concludes:

"Look across the public services, and it’s hard to see who you are meant to hold to account."

So, if centralisation, bureaucracy and lack of accountability are the diagnosis, what is Direct Democracy’s prescription?

We believe that, in order to regain the trust of the British people, Conservatives must adopt a Self-Denying Ordinance. We must convince the country that, rather than grasping at the levers of control, we would push powers outwards and downwards. In everything we do and propose we should be guided by three key principles:

  • Decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect;
  • Law-makers should be directly accountable;
  • The citizen should be as free as possible from state coercion.

There are 8 key strands to the new Conservative philosophy that Direct Democracy is putting forward:

1. Self-financing councils: We believe that giving local authorities complete fiscal autonomy is an essential pre-requisite for restoring genuine accountability to local people and we have proposed a Local Sales Tax (to replace VAT) as the most effective means of achieving this. Once self-financing, councils would be given power over many of the issues, such as planning and welfare, that are currently decided at national or regional level.

2. Send for the Sheriff: Our system of justice is becoming more and more remote from the people it is supposed to serve. In order to restore proper accountability to police forces we propose the introduction of elected local Sheriffs to replace Police Authorities. Chief Constables would retain operational independence on the ground but they would have to answer to the Sheriff, and the Sheriff would, in turn, have to answer to the public. Furthermore, the Crown Prosecution Service should be reconstituted as a set of local Crown Prosecution Offices, answerable to the local Sheriff for their success in securing convictions.

3. Neighbourhood education: We would set schools free from Whitehall and County Hall diktat and give parents a new legal right that would allow them to take their custom to schools not controlled by the state, carrying with them the money that would have been spent on their children by the Local Education Authority.

4. Democratise the quangos: Spending on unelected unaccountable quangos has risen seven times under Labour and unprecedented powers are now wielded by bodies that are part of the state machine, but outside the democratic process. We would give Select Committees the power to appoint the heads of quangos and would introduce annualised budgets – it would then be down to Parliament to decide how much public money, if any, should be spent on a particular organisation.

5. Democratise the judiciary: We would curb ever-growing judicial activism by providing for Parliament   to oversee all senior judicial appointments and we would also enshrine the authority of Parliament in a British Bill of Rights. This would reaffirm that British laws, passed by British lawmakers, should take   precedence over EU law.

6. Local welfare: On welfare reform, we believe it is time to break with the principle of universal provision, and to localise control over welfare, changes which when implemented overseas have reduced poverty, state dependency and Government spending.

7. The local environment: Environmental protection policy has all too often meant more power for central Government and less local responsibility. We believe that a localist approach, based primarily on a combination of property rights and contracts, would be an eminently   more sensible and effective way of addressing environmental degradation.

8. Open politics: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we believe that a full-scale democratization of the political system itself is necessary if any of the above objectives are to be brought to fruition. We would introduce a right of Citizens’ Initiative to   bring forward popular bills to Parliament, and a right of referendum to overturn unpopular legislation. We would introduce open primaries for the selection of all Conservative candidates, repatriate powers from Brussels, introduce Parliamentary ratification of senior Government appointments and replace the House of Lords with an indirectly-elected Chamber of the Regions.

Today, Britain is more an unaccountable quangocracy than a representative democracy. We believe that the Conservative Party is uniquely placed amongst British political parties in being able to confront this demoralising fact head on. We understand that pluralism, local variation and diversity are strengths in a true democracy, not something to be eradicated at all costs. In other countries, parties of the Right have succeeded by championing an agenda of devolution, localism, direct democracy and personal freedom. British Conservatives should follow their lead.


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