Mark Whitehead 10 May 2019

Lack of elections in Northamptonshire: An attack on local democracy?

Elections are the bedrock of democracy in the UK. We don't go in for the kind of draconian behaviour associated with dictators in far-off lands who abolish official polls on a whim when they deem the voice of the people unwelcome.

So it comes as something of a jolt to realise that in a corner of England the Government has done precisely that: cancelled a set of local council elections, on the pretext that they would be too expensive and might confuse the voters.

Several districts and parishes in Northamptonshire should have been holding polls last week along with others up and down the country. But in a surprisingly little-remarked move last November communities secretary James Brokenshire announced they would not take place.

He explained the 'risks' – as he put it – involved. As the districts were expected to merge to form unitary authorities in April next year, he said in an official statement, it would mean councillors serving for just one year.

'Elections in such circumstances risk confusing voters and would involve significant costs that would be hard to justify,' he decreed.

There would, of course, have been costs involved and some voters might have been confused or even a little annoyed to be going to the polls twice in the space of a year.

But that does not justify a naked attack on local democracy launched in the measured tones of a Whitehall press release.

Northamptonshire has had its share of political turmoil in the last year or two, with the Tory-run county council twice declaring itself effectively bankrupt, being taken over by commissioners and imposing huge cuts in services to try and balance the books.

The district council elections would not have been directly concerned with the goings-on at county hall. But there is the suspicion that Mr Brokenshire was worried some of the confusion he feared among voters might have extended to them giving the Conservative Party a drubbing nonetheless.

What might confuse the citizens of Northamptonshire is the imminence of a set of much bigger elections that seem even more pointless than voting for their district councillors for an extra year.

It has now been confirmed that elections for the European Parliament will go ahead in a couple of weeks at a cost of £156m, despite the fact the UK is set to leave the EU, rendering any elected MEPs redundant possibly within weeks.

A further issue makes Mr Brokenshire's flouting of the principles of democracy even more shocking.

Northamptonshire's county-wide reorganisation to create unitary councils now looks unlikely to take place next year. According to one local commentator, the Government has been far too taken up with Brexit to concern itself with such matters. An announcement is expected from Whitehall at some point as to when the change will take place, but no-one knows when.

So there is now the very real prospect of the mergers not taking place until 2021, by which time the current set of councillors will have enjoyed not just one extra year of unelected and unaccountable tenure but two, and the memory of voting for local representatives will be fading into the past.

The residents of Northamptonshire are entitled, like everyone else, to exercise their verdict on serving politicians through the ballot box at the times and in the manner decided in advance under the rule of law. But this has been denied to them for reasons of pure expedience.

It is not a small matter. If the Government can cancel elections in one part of the UK because they are too expensive and might confuse people, it can do so elsewhere. The second time it might not seem so surprising. In a nightmare scenario the Government will end up deciding when it is convenient to allow communities to express their will through the ballot box.

In these troubled times when accountability and democracy itself are under intense scrutiny, it would seem prudent for politicians and policy makers to take a closer look at what has happened in Northamptonshire and ask whether it serves as a warning for what the future could hold if we are not very careful.

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