Democracy Café: June

Numbers were a bit down for this meeting which is probably to be expected on a nice June day. It didn’t inhibit our discussion however which was on the topic of should there be a different way of selecting our prime minister? This referred to the votes by members of the Conservative party on whether to keep Boris Johnson as their prime minister following the magic number of MPs who had submitted letters to Sir Graham Brady and the vote of no confidence in him.

The point made by the proposer was that the prime minister represented all of us and was the prime minister of the country as a whole. Should it just be left to, in this case Conservative MPs, many of whose futures depended on party patronage or who were on what is termed the ‘payroll vote’ that is were part of the government in some form? The example was given of John Glen, the Salisbury MP and a Treasury minister, who claimed in the Salisbury Journal that he had ‘no discretion’ in the matter. This puzzled some as it was a secret vote.

Some alternative suggestions were made and discussed including allowing the public to sue or involving the court system generally. People were not generally impressed by this partly because of its cumbersome nature and, who selects the judges? It was pointed out that the House of Commons as a whole can have a vote of no confidence which is likely to lead to the prime minister resigning and even the fall of the government. It was also pointed out that Boris Johnson is still very popular with the public and that many think that ‘partygate’ has been overdone. Many liked his style of leadership which was itself a worry. Involving the public in prime ministerial appointments brought us dangerously close to being a presidential system. We didn’t get the normal response of ‘do you want to have a president Blair?’ at that point but someone did quietly mutter ‘Donald Trump’ which serves as a terrible warning (Trump I mean although …).

People still felt the current system intolerable but quite what to do about it was less clear. The role of the media (as ever) came into the discussion and their role in influencing public opinion either way. Big money interests support the Conservatives on the whole it was said.

A general question was posed at this point: how do you select a leader of any group or organisation? Who selected whom should be the facilitator of this very meeting? If we didn’t like him how would we go about changing him? A profound question.

We moved on to talk about the parliamentary situation as a whole and in particular the current two party system. Although ‘first past the post’ was not specifically mentioned, it was the point behind the comment that the winner takes all process encourages people who can cope with it. Those who might be more collaborative in their approach are discouraged by the party warfare – or should I say warfare between the parties. The two party system was thought not suitable for today’s world it was thought.

A quirk of the system about voting for the prime minister was that it would only be the voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip who get to vote for him (or not) in a general election.

Towards the end of this session, the point that most politicians are not in it for the money was made (although this had not been suggested or inferred).

Part two of the session moved on to whether at the local level, politicians should not be aligned to a national party. Salisbury was slightly unusual in having a party system – other councils in the area for example Wilton, weren’t. That we do was at the behest of Labour and LibDem leaders it was claimed.

One of the advantages of people standing with a party label is that the public knew broadly what they stood for. It was a kind of short hand for their likely beliefs. On the other hand, it is likely to lead to assumptions by the public about how a politician will vote which might not always be true. It was also suggested that it also encouraged people to vote. Whether this was the case was challenged with the example of Frome in Somerset where a non-party approach had led to an increase in voter participation.

It was pointed out that a great deal of council expenditure was determined by government policy and spending limits. Much expenditure was non-discretionary, social services and highways for example. The degree of discretionary expenditure was relatively small and declining: reductions in the support grants also imposed restrictions. One of the councillors present said that in fact most of his fellow councillors across parties, wanted the same sort of things but the disagreements were more about how.

The second part, which touched on the same sort of areas, was the suggestion that Wiltshire should be split into two counties, north of the plain and south of it. The two halves of the county were very different (the saying ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ referred the two farming types in the county). The two parts looked to different areas: the north more towards Bath and Bristol and the south towards Southampton and Winchester. People living near the borders between counties often lost out because of the postcode lottery. There has always been a simmering resentment in Salisbury that Trowbridge was remote and that they was overlooked. However, it was noted that people in the north of the county similarly resented what they saw as Salisbury getting a bigger slice of the cake, so where did the truth lie?

Those who wanted something like the District Council back were less keen to have social care back as well it was said.

Why was voting for, and interest in, local government so low? One answer was that people often do not understand its importance. Well, couldn’t councils do more to explain it better? It was pointed out that some councillors had established surgeries to which no one came. When there was a local issue then perhaps then it was appropriate for councillors to engage with electors.

Both topics shared a sense of frustration with the political system both national and local. For some, the failure of Boris Johnson to resign was outrageous although, as was noted, many thought the whole story was overblown and they were happy with his performance. The system relied on basic integrity and once that failed, the flaws in our uncodified system became all too evident. Many people were disengaged with local politics and part of this was a lack of understanding of its importance and the limitations on its powers.

Peter Curbishley