The bum number (unh?)


My latest column for EN5 appeared today. On the doorsmats of the houses I was canvassing today there lay the newsletter. So I would pick it up, hand it to the householder who had opened the door to my knock and say: Please enjoy my column in this newsletter.

What ails democracy?

There are all sorts of things wrong with democracy, no doubt about it. I mean, just looking at some of the people who get elected is enough to persuade us the system is dysfunctional.

Then there’s the LCD effect. There are computer programs that analyse the text of your leaflet to check that it’s pitched at a reading age of 12 and no higher! That is the aim of most parties’ communications. (Not mine. For you I do not seek the lowest common denominator (LCD, yes). I imagine you sitting down to read this column in a comfy chair, with a stiff drink on its arm.)

Representative democracy is especially problematic. There is a distancing of political decision-making from you the voter, mediated by those fallible, indeterminate institutions: the political parties. (And they’re expensive: Have you got a load of money you never ever want to see again? Give it to a political party. They can make it disappear quicker than HSBC launderers. I donate all the time. But that’s because we Greens take no corporate cash. The party couldn’t function without its members’ financial input, and then you wouldn’t have the rather lovely option of voting Green.)

In Barnet, these problems are cast into very sharp relief at council meetings. That’s not where the damage is actually done. The meetings are ritualistic pieces of theatre, required by the rules. But they are instructive in the vivid way the line is drawn between us – the public in the gallery, and them – the councillors over there.

The air vibrates with hostility and distaste. The chairmen(!) are pictures of wobbly-jowled self-control, endeavouring both to discipline their members many with ants in their pants and mobiles in their hands; and to contain the public gallery that erupts occasionally with frustration and anger (and is busy with the mobile phones too, admittedly).

It needn’t be like that. For the most part, people run a mile from politics. Those who don’t, come to council meetings. And they are a gift to the politicians. They are offering free what councils should be striving for – talking to the people about what matters and how to make it better.

Do we need a new recycling system? How should it work? Who should do it? Should we cancel privatisation? How? How much should we spend on it? Do we want to bring down energy bills? Local government can organise it in five different ways – which ones should we go with? It’s not for me to tell you what’s good for you. (Obviously, as a democrat, I await you telling me. Yes, alright, I can see the door from here!) But studies have shown that we humans flourish most when we are in community with one another. ‘Engaged’.

Can you imagine it? Me round your place every couple of weeks asking you what you think about the budget, parking, promoting public health?

Yes. You’ve got it. That may be the real problem with democracy: too much of me (arguably), and way more time than you’d credit developing a numb bum sitting in local meetings. But I’ve got my seat-cushion here. Where’s yours?



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