2000s >> 2000 >> no-1153-september-2000

Business efficiency versus democracy

Labour is offering councils three options for “modernising” local government – each option being less democratic than the other

Recently the local council sent me a glossy “information and action pack” outlining the government’s plans for “modernising” local government together with the council’s reaction to them. “Modernisation” is a favourite word in the vocabulary of Labour’s spin doctors. Who except conservatives and reactionaries can be against bringing things up to date? It’s a clever way of diverting attention from the content of the particular changes that are being proposed.

At present, from the point of view of democratic theory, the formal structure of local councils is not too bad. Everyone over 18 living in an area has the vote; they elect one or more councillors for the ward they live in; once elected, councillors sit on various committees which deliberate in public and make decisions subject to the overall control of the full council.

Of course, today, under capitalism, all sorts of distortions occur, in particular the money factor and that most of the money comes from the central state with strings attached as to how it must be spent. This makes local councillors little more than elected civil servants administering central government policy. As Ken Livingstone recently put it, local councils in Britain have as much freedom of action as the Vichy government had in France under the Nazis.

Central government policy is shaped by the need to keep unproductive expenditure on services to people to a minimum so that capitalist enterprises can retain a maximum amount of the profit they extract from the workforce. Councillors are therefore obliged to act against the interests of those who elected them and cut local services, as a glance at any local weekly paper can confirm.

But ignoring this and concentrating solely on structures, the present structure could be a basis for the democratic self-administration that would be an essential feature of socialist society. There would need to be some improvements but the basic idea of local decisions being made in public by committees of delegates elected on a geographical basis is a sound one that could be built on.

One-man management
For Labour, however, socialism is not just a foreign land; it’s an alien planet. They’re not even interested in extending democratic control within the limits allowed by capitalism. Their concern is how to run the services managed by local councils in an “efficient”, i.e. a money-saving, way. Their model is the business enterprise where decision-making power is concentrated into the hands of a few (a board of directors) or even of a single individual (a managing director). From this perspective too much democracy is inefficient. It is time-wasting and it makes it harder to make and apply unpopular decisions. And unpopular is what many decisions even at local level have to be since, being obliged by capitalist pressures to put profits before needs, central government will never put at the disposal of its local branches enough money to provide adequate services.

According to the glossy pack, the government has published a consultation paper which “says that councils should abandon the committee structure and replace it with a smaller ‘executive'”. This executive would meet in secret to take executive decisions “which the council would probably not be able to challenge or change”.

The government is offering councils three options, each less democratic than the other, as to how to constitute this all-powerful decision-making executive:

  • “a cabinet and council leader, elected by the other councillors”;
  • “a mayor directly elected by local people, who would then select a ‘cabinet’ of a few councillors”;
  • “a directly elected mayor and a council manager”.

Retaining the present system is not an option, so it is clear that the government is determined to abolish the more-or-less democratic system under which decisions are made in open committee in favour of one where decisions are made in secret by a select minority of councillors with the others being reduced to an essentially consultative role.

According to the pack, an elected mayor choosing a cabinet of “a few councillors” is the model preferred by the government, though this would have to be approved by a local referendum before a council can adopt it. In view of the disgrace of the London mayoral election, most councils seem likely to adopt the model of a cabinet and Leader chosen by other councillors. In fact the pack informed me that the local (Labour) council had pre-empted any democratic consultation on this by already appointing a cabinet—their family photo has just appeared in the local press—except on one point where they have fallen foul of the existing “old fashioned” law:

“These new structures have to operate within the law as it is at present, so the full council has to vote again to approve decisions made by the executive.”

Evidently, the new cabinet can’t wait to remove this restriction on their power.


The battle for democracy at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, 1886

None of this is surprising. The Labour government is fully committed to capitalism and, naturally, is therefore not interested in extending democracy but rather in restricting it in the interest of business efficiency. It doesn’t want local councils to be organs of local self-administration but top-down bureaucracies run by an elite on business lines.

Of course as Socialists who know how capitalism operates, and has to operate, we have no illusions about democratic structures under capitalism. They will always be limited and the tendency will always be to keep them that way.

It is true that capitalism needs a minimum of democracy since, as Churchill used to point out, it’s the least worst form of government for the system. The alternatives of dictatorship or rule by experts carry the danger that those who control the state might develop sticky fingers and help themselves to too large a share of profits. Better, for the capitalists, to have alternating governments dependent on their ability to retain some degree of popular support. This means that democracy under capitalism is reduced to people voting for competing groups of professional politicians, to giving the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down to the governing or opposition party (or parties). Political analysts call this the “elite theory of democracy” since under it all that the people get to choose is which elite should exercise government power.

This contrasts with the original theory of democracy which envisages popular participation in the running of affairs and which political analysts call “participatory democracy”. This is the sort of democracy Socialists favour but we know it’s never going to exist under capitalism. The most we will get under capitalism is the right to vote, under more-or-less fair conditions, for who shall control political power—a minimalist form of democracy but not to be dismissed for that since it at least provides a mechanism whereby a socialist majority could vote in socialist delegates instead of capitalist politicians.

There will be sincere democrats who will wish to fight a rearguard action, as against this Labour government’s proposals, to try to defend what they can of participatory democracy under capitalism and even to make some small, precarious advances. Our message to such people is that genuine democracy can only exist in the context of a socialist society and for two reasons. First, because socialism will be a classless society of social equals, so money (which won’t exist) won’t put some people in a privileged position when it comes to putting over their views. Second, because socialism will be a society where there will be no barrier, as there is under capitalism, to the will of the majority for a better life being carried out in practice; with the end of production for profit there will no longer be any conflict between profit and needs which profits always wins even if the need concerned enjoys majority support.

So, if you want an effective democracy, join us in struggling to establish socialism. Otherwise, your activities, if not entirely useless, will never be anything more than running fast to stand still or even to slip backwards more slowly. In any event, no democrat can justify voting Labour on the grounds that it is the lesser evil.


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