Croydon’s new corruption

By - Friday 18th March, 2016

Sean Creighton makes the case against corporate state consensus in Croydon

Every so often a group of my friends and I meet up for dinner and we predict the outcome of elections. A couple of weeks ago it was: who will be Mayor of London and what will be the result of the Euro referendum? Although my predictions are usually wrong, I predicted a 23% turnout for both.

Why? Because of the increasing crisis of British democracy: contempt for politicians, disengagement from the political process, low level of participation in elections. A wide range of arguments are put forward to explain this: political and media spin, hypocritical personal behaviours of politicians (sleaze), the perceived failure of local and central government to deliver on their promises in a way that people can see beneficially affecting their lives, or riding rough-shod over widely held concerns. 33.9% of the electorate did not vote in last year’s general election, and we have ended up with a government that only received 36.9% of the vote.

Then there is the hypocrisy evidenced by the emphasis on sovereignty as a reason for coming out of Europe by the same people who support giving immense power to the multi-nationals to stop government action through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Where local politicians take their voters for granted, turn-out remains low

Low election turnouts are not a new phenomenon. Achieving high levels of local electoral participation has to be worked at and where local political parties take their vote for granted, and/or do not work to convince people to vote, turnouts remain low. If parties reduce their own internal democracy and alienate members, they will not have enough people to make the face to face contact with electors that is an essential part of sustaining a culture of electoral and democratic involvement.

Croydon’s implementation of local cabinet government under powerful leaders who are appointed for four years has marginalised the majority of our councillors from real involvement in local decision making. National government policies since 1997 about putting people at the heart of decision-making have been seen as empty rhetoric, as heavy central control continued and local decision-making was eroded. Many electors think that voting for a particular political party is not going to radically alter the local corporate state consensus developed between local authorities, the police and other organisations through Local Strategic Partnerships and in partnership with developers as we see in Croydon: I call this ‘the new corruption’.

This crisis has grown over decades

Electors cannot be criticised for thinking that voting is irrelevant when so many decisions seem to be out of the hands of elected politicians: the requirements of the European community, the power of multi-nationals, the transfer of so many services to regulators and other unelected bodies, and services tendered to private firms who hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’. Nor can they be criticised for thinking that politicians often get too involved in issues largely irrelevant to the majority of people, or are more concerned with factional fighting as we have seen with many Labour MPs’ response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader, or among Tories over the Euro referendum.

The roots of the current crisis have been growing slowly over a number of decades. As the population sizes of parliamentary constituencies and local authority wards have grown, it becomes more and more difficult for people to have regular personal contact with their MPs and councillors. This will be made worse by the planned deletion of fifty constituencies and the creation of larger ones which will cross local authority boundaries.

Consumerism leads people to reject collectivist solutions

The cumulative decline of engagement in democratically controlled organisations, like friendly societies, co-operatives and trade unions, has eroded people’s experience of democratic representation and participation. This is underpinned by a popular lack of historic understanding of the struggle to build democracy and the consequences of not rigorously defending and promoting democratic participation. The strength of evolving British democracy lay in mass involvement in its practice and in debates about its theory through mutual associations.

Commercially-driven ‘consumerism’ makes people only think of themselves, and reject collective solutions. This has been reinforced by governments seeing people as ‘consumers’, not as ‘citizens’ with a right to services, and by many mutuals downgrading democratic engagement.

Popular engagement in politics has had its historic ebbs and flows. It is difficult to tell whether the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader signals a more positive period, or whether we are spiralling downwards to an extent that it will be difficult to recover support for representative and participatory democracy.

Democracy was built from below and it will need to be re-built from below

British historical experience suggests that the challenge of reversing political disengagement and strengthening both representative and participatory democracy cannot be left just to politicians. Democracy was built from below, and will need to be re-built from below. There will be an important role in this for practical organisation of a new ‘associationism’. There is considerable scope for this within local communities. Networking and alliance building will be crucial.

This is one of the principle themes of the Croydon Assembly as it moves from mere opposition to austerity and cuts towards a forward positive agenda through its manifesto to be launched on Saturday 19th March. The problems of democracy described here will form a key section of that manifesto.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Robert Ward

    Thanks Sean. A few points I disagree with:-

    I don’t see any hypocrisy in regarding sovereignty as a defining reason for wanting to leave the EU. You seem to be trying to set up a straw man argument with this on TTIP. TTIP is an agreement between the EU and the U.S. If you want to pull out of TTIP either now or in the future you should be for leaving the EU because then a future UK government could pull out. As part of the EU, once signed up, you are stuck. (BTW I have no opinion on TTIP).

    I also do not agree that Councils and others riding rough shod over local objections is a key factor in voter apathy. There is often a noisy minority who don’t want something even mildly unpleasant next to them or change of any kind. When they object and don’t get their way then they cry foul. It is not the case that local democracy means everyone has a veto. I see a modern lack of willingness to take one for the team as the issue.

  • Peter Staveley

    I think your turnout figures are too low.
    For the Mayoral election it will be the usual for a local election (30% to 40%).
    For the EU Referendum it will be much higher, probably 60% to 80%. The reason is that those on the LEAVE side are motivated to turnout and vote, mainly because they want more democracy.

    After 23rd June there will be a campaign to make the voting system fairer. We all knew who would win the General Election in Croydon North and Croydon South meaning that votes there were, effectively, worthless. Yet in Croydon Central every vote counted (at least if you voted Labour or Conservative).

    On a wider point, is it right that a Party that attained 12.7% of the UK vote ends up with 0.2% of the MPs whereas a Party that attained 4.7% of the UK vote ended up with 8.6% of the MPs?

    I do not quite understand your point about TTIP. The EU gives power to the multi-nationals which is why TTIP is being created (with the support of Labour and Conservative MEPs by the way). Most people who want to leave the EU also oppose TTIP.

    I certainly want to achieve high levels of local electoral participation in Croydon and I would welcome a face-to-face discussion on how that could be achieved. I fully agree that the cabinet system puts too much power in the hands of too few people leading to the marginalisation of councillors and voters. That is probably part of the reason why opposition parties (both Labour previously and now Conservative councillors) have a habit of walking out of Council meetings; they simply feel that they have no role in the system. That is why I have, for a long time, promoted returning to a Committee system.

    I have looked at the link you have provided for the Croydon Assembly initiative. Unless I am misreading it the Assembly is simply moaning about cuts and austerity. Nowhere does it explain how Croydon Council will pay off some of its £1 billion debt or how the UK will pay off some of its £1.6 trillion debt or even how we can reduce either organisations’ deficit.

    Democracy has to include reducing the debt and eliminating the deficit as well as participation in decision-making.