Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The price of democracy?

The Times today offers what appears to be an important piece. Headed: "The soaring price of democracy" by Philip Webster, it confirms something that we knew already – that there are more politicians than ever before and that they are costing us more.

Furthermore, the article puts a price on this. Voters are paying almost twice as much as in 1997 with costs 1997 standing at £1.3 billion a year, a rise of £575 million in annual expenditure in the past seven years.

Just under half the extra outlay can be put down to the running costs of the elected institutions set up by Labour since 1997 — the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Authority and the London Mayor. Labour also created the utterly useless Electoral Commission to oversee elections.

There has also been a 75 percent rise in MPs' salaries and allowances, a 40 percent rise in the cost of House of Commons facilities and administration, and a 71 percent rise in local government representation and management costs, with big increases in the allowances of councillors a key factor.

The figures actually have been obtained from a paper "to be published soon" by Andrew Tyrie, shadow financial secretary to the treasury, MP for Chichester and a former senior treasury adviser, and it is comforting to see an opposition member working for his living and apparently providing some value.

But, just as one begins to warm to Mr Tyrie, one particular comment hits you between the eyes, of such horrendous stupidity that you wonder whether the man is safe to let out on his own, much less be an MP. "He has excluded the cost of the Lords — now £76 million from £38 million in 1997 — on the ground that it is not a democratic body," says The Times, yet Tyrie includes the UK share of the European Union parliament, at £105 million a year.

Thus illustrated is the classic trap, into which so many politicians and others fall - the confusion of form with substance. Presumably, in Mr Tyrie’s book – no doubt crafted originally about Janet and John – MEPs are "democratic" because they are elected, while their Lordships are not democratic because they are unelected. This is such a basic myth that one is appalled that such a senior politician should perpetuate it. What do they teach them in school?

With that, however, the spell is broken. On reflection, the title of The Times’ piece is all wrong. It is not about the "price of democracy" – it is about the cost of politicians, an altogether different thing. We actually have very little true democracy left in this country and I think that what really upsets people most is not the cost of our politicians but the fact that they perform so badly and have let democracy erode.

In toto, even at the inflated cost of £1.3 billion, the system would be good value if it worked – although we could easily save £105 million by getting rid of our useless MEPs. For instance, if MPs did their jobs properly, they could save us, the taxpayers, billions. And, by doing their jobs properly, I do not mean acting as overpaid social workers looking after their constituents, but by supervising the executive and holding it to account.

For instance, recalling that FRES is set to cost £6 billion in purchasing costs, with an additional £50 billion over the life of the project, and there has not been a single debate on the concept, with there being good arguments that the whole project is a military cul-de-sac, parliament could save its own costs many times over by preventing governments spending money on ill-founded projects – and that is before you even begin to consider the £100bn a year cost of regulation, which only parliament could relieve us of.

Unfortunately, neither Tyrie nor The Times seem to understand this. In its leader, the newspaper ignores this issue altogether, and goes meandering off about the NE regional assembly referendum, arguing that the "winning message" was, "enough already. No more politicians." It concludes:

This is a small island nation, replete with complex layers of elected government laid down over many centuries. When unelected regional assemblies are elbowing for space in the policy-making process with local and county councils as well as MPs and MEPs, voters have every right to be confused about who has a true mandate to speak for them in the corridors of power, wherever they now lead. The Government must not revisit regional assemblies after the election, as it has hinted it might. If it is serious about strengthening British democracy it should cede real power to existing, or reformed, local institutions even at the risk of losing their allegiance. The result will be more democracy, at lower cost, and, hopefully, rather fewer politicians.
Actually, this does not follow. If we are to get more democracy, we need politicians who, unlike Tyrie, know what democracy is, and then we need them to do their jobs properly.

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