Leading Article: Doncaster - a case for stronger councils

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Snouts have been in troughs along the banks of the River Don, and last night, in the wake of our disclosures, the burghers of Doncaster met to repair the damage to their reputation. But isn't it for the council tax-payers in the metropolitan district to sort out themselves - demonstrations outside the town hall, trenchant letters to the local press, even a campaign to vote the miscreants out of office?

No. There are two reasons why what has been happening in Doncaster deserves national attention. One has to do with the historical dynamics of the Labour Party; the other with the operation and future of local democracy - or lack of it. The very fact that it has taken a district auditor, appointed by the Audit Commission, to uncover the trips and the lunches and the directors' box at Doncaster races shows how fallible are local corrective mechanisms in the absence of a tough and determined political opposition, of which in today's council chambers there are precious few.

When Labour's opponents cry that the party has no experience of power, they are ignoring the fact that for decades large tracts of England, Scotland and Wales have known nothing but Labour local government. But, like the mentally handicapped relative kept in an attic in Gothic yarns, Labour's exercise of power locally is carefully hidden from view.

It is, after all, a chequered history. Some Labour councils are relatively efficient; some are still recovering from the excesses of ideology and incompetence applied to them during the New Left's years in power. Doncaster's recent behaviour is old Labour behaviour, and fits all too comfortably in the middle of the Audit Commission's indices of performance. Its councillors long ago stopped having to worry about securing re-election by striving to improve public services; why bother, when there are afternoons on the racetrack and trips abroad?

The Doncaster story is about more than badly filed letters in Tony Blair's office and pusillanimous regional party officials ignoring warnings. It is a reminder that new Labour is, still, a coalition; it is not all flash young men and women in the South-east who regularly dine at expensive restaurants. Labour may say that sleaze is a term that has entered the contemporary vocabulary thanks to Neil Hamilton and other Tory members of Parliament. But Labour - as the party of government in the towns, as well as the would-be replacement administration nationally - has set itself the task of cleansing the stables. It won't do if there is hue and cry at Westminster while in Newcastle upon Tyne or Hackney or Oldham there is even the faintest suspicion. For Labour councillors, Caesar's wife is the only role model.

Yet financial corruption remains very rare in British local government. Many men and women give unstintingly of their time and energy in the cause of local services and representative government. A lot of that has to do with a Tory minister: Neville Chamberlain, who in 1929 sharpened the audit regime and placed heavy duties on councillors on pain of surcharge and disqualification.

It is a fair observation, also, that English local government may be as graft-free as it is because its elected members are relatively powerless. Follow the money, said Deep Throat in All the President's Men. If we do, it is clear that there are few areas in which individual councillors have the discretion to make decisions on the basis of what profit can be made. Most of these are in the area of planning and land use; and this is indeed the territory where big financial scandals on the scale of the Poulson affair have occurred, far removed from the Doncaster misdemeanours. The idea that Labour councillors are uniquely tempted is rot: why have estate agents traditionally used their local Conservative associations as bridges to the chairmanship of the planning committee?

A cynic might say that if every town hall had its equivalent of Doncaster racetrack where councillors could lunch free 20 times a year, people's interest in local self-government would enjoy the brightest of renaissances. There are better ways forward. Whichever party or parties take power at the election, they confront a common task: the re-establishment of government in popular affection, whatever the level of taxing and spending, whatever the precise array of services it offers.

Especially for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, local government is a place to begin. There is a growing consensus on what functions councils should have, built around those services (which exclude education) that can and ought to be different in different places. There is agreement, too, on the need for new forms of council organisation - for example, elected executive mayors and reduced numbers of backbench members.

It could be that in Doncaster or Rotherham or Knowsley or Coventry Labour majorities would be returned whatever the polling system; but it could not but be beneficial to local self-government if electors had the chance to vote proportionately, and allow new voices - even new parties - into the council chamber to counterbalance their mainstream choice.

Local government has too few friends, and Doncaster will serve as grist to the mill of those who would further reduce the ambit of local choice. They are wrong. The lesson of Doncaster is that if councillors were busier and exercised more power, were answerable more directly to an engaged local electorate, they would find much less time for freebies and afternoons at the races.