Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I voted in the recent local body elections, but only for a mayor. Faced with long lists of candidates for other positions my head began to ache. Who were all these people? How did I know what they could do and how they might perform on my behalf? Apparently thousands of people, like me, left those pages blank.

People have fought and died to win me the right to vote. I honour them. Much is made of this right – it’s called democracy, and we must continue to defend it fiercely. But as Dean Inge pointed out a century or so ago, democracy is only an experiment in government and merely counts votes instead of weighing them. Unless we know something about the people we vote for, the process is meaningless – particularly for local body elections. And – let me be provocative – it could even be considered irresponsible.

The theory sounds great: let the people decide who they want to run their cities. But the people have a duty to ensure that those we elect do their jobs wisely. And by and large we can’t do that, unless we live in small towns with large community halls and a busy, healthy social life. In parish pump politics everyone knows where the bodies are buried and can choose accordingly.

For all I know, those who have now won seats to local bodies and can proceed to wield civic power have been voted in by family and friends, plus handfuls of people who made random selections with a pin. These people exercised their democratic right to vote but how did they decide where to put their ticks of approval?

Councils and boards are just committees writ large. And my idea of a successful, well-run committee is one headed by a good-hearted, intelligent, sensible, energetic, benign dictator with a band of willing and able human worker-bees ready to do his or her bidding. Failing that we must either cross our fingers and vote for those with the highest profiles, the best PR teams, the winningest television smiles – or abstain.

Name recognition is everything and nothing in local body elections. Candidates could change their names to Mickey Mouse and would romp home, with Bilbo Baggins close behind.

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