Leading Article: From Monklands to San Francisco

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The Independent Online
All day long yesterday those two Caledonian political giants, Ian Lang and George Robertson, traded insults about sleaze. The Scottish Secretary scented a rare opportunity to draw Labour blood over the Monklands council scandal. So, finessing Labour's own disciplinary action, he scored a big point by writing to the Nolan committee asking it to take a look. Mr Robertson, Lang's shadow, was incandescent. The Tories had prevented Nolan investigating party funding - to now ask the committee to look into a Labour council was a "cheap stunt", he thundered. "Westminster, Westminster", taunted the Labour benches in support.

This exchange is revealing. Messrs Lang and Robertson might have employed their time better had they shared with us what they conceived to be the lessons of Monklands. But, as ever, the phantom armies of local government are invoked as surrogate foot-soldiers in the national party battle. They are paraded as dire warnings to those contemplating supporting one or other of the national parties.

Meanwhile, the polarisation of local government has gone on apace. Fewer and fewer genuine independents get elected to councils. In many of our great cities Labour exercises a domination of town halls which is almost total. Using a system which can confer 80 per cent of the seats on the winner of 45 per cent of the votes, many of these councils are scrambling to find anyone from another party to serve on vital committees. Whatever the intentions of these councillors, such unchecked power is unhealthy. Only in those areas where the strength of third parties has led to that strange phenomenon -No Overall Control - is there a semblance of pluralism.

Given all this it is surprising that there is so little corruption in British local government. But there is not much popular faith in it, either - which is why this week's radical approach from the independent Commission for Local Democracy is so welcome. Its proposals if implemented would do much to restore the power and vigour of local government, while hugely enhancing its accountability and democracy.

First off, it would introduce some form of PR into local elections. A system of allowing second and third preference votes in multi-seat wards would increase non-party representation and help minorities to get elected. This in turn would mean that ruling parties would require a greater spread of support to implement controversial measures. The tribalism that sometimes disfigures local politics might be more difficult to sustain.

Directly elected mayors, the use of referenda to decide some local issues and the right to force re-elections through, say, petitions of residents are all in use in parts of the United States and would do much to increase accountability. The replacement of the party-dominated committee system by a directly elected executive would remove the danger of caucus politics.

In these circumstances full budgetary powers should be returned to local government and the cap removed. National government would then find itself in healthy competition for power and influence with a rejuvenated and revitalised local democracy. Bye-bye Monklands, hello San Francisco!

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