Why a hung council is a strong council

Democracy is not always best served by a big majority, says Bob Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Leicester may not have Doncaster's prestigious racecourse, but the behaviour of its Labour majority is remarkably similar. I speak from 10 years' experience as one of 16 opposition city councillors facing a 40-strong ruling group. Apart from electoral reform, the fashionable prescription to end the abuses that we experience is elected executive mayors. That would be a mistake.

The ways things are done in Leicester is not that much different from the way they are done in Parliament. Every controversial decision is taken in a back room by a few strong men and the occasional woman. The outcome of every committee or council "debate" is known before it starts. Worse, our professional officers are beholden to the ruling group. They do their best to implement the decisions their "cabinet" comes up with.

I am also group leader of the Liberal Democrats on Leicestershire County Council, where no party has had a majority for 16 years. This has taught me that the behaviour of the city council has little to do with the fact that it is Labour-controlled and everything to do with the fact that it is a secure majority dictatorship.

With absolute power, why exercise your mind listening to opposing views? Much easier, and more fun, to rubbish them, since it can be done with impunity. With nobody to impede you, why not cut corners and dispense with procedural niceties?

The way the county council conducts its affairs is far from perfect, but compared with the city council it is a model of democratic propriety and competence. There is no ruling group or ruling coalition. Alliances are formed issue by issue. Everything is debated and resolved in public. Committee chairs are elected at each meeting. They simply conduct its business. They cannot dictate outcomes, because they do not command a tame majority. The relationship between chairs and officers that I see on the city council is not possible. If chairs misuse their position, we don't elect them again.

Most elected members play a significant role because every member of a committee is important. A large proportion of them are entitled to ask for policy papers to be placed before the committees on which they sit. Most members who could be described as backbenchers choose to be; officers can give impartial advice because they are not beholden to any political group.

The difference between the two councils has nothing to do with the quality of their members - more than a quarter of the county councillors are also city councillors. We all behave completely differently on the two councils. We have no choice. It is not the people, but the structure that determines what we do and how we do it. As one former chief executive put it: "Since Leicestershire has been hung, there has been more genuine debate and more intelligent decision-making then there ever was before."

The political establishment and the media are obsessed with the need for "strong" government and "firm" leadership. The fashion for the idea of elected mayors is a reflection of this. But it is surely governments without majorities that are genuinely strong, because consensus produces legislation which sticks. It is harder to get things done, of course, but getting things right is surely more important than getting things done.

"Strong" government is government by chairman's (or elected mayor's?) whim, unleavened by meaningful debate. It is a costly indulgence. It was prime-ministerial whim that gave us the poll tax, against informed advice from every constituency of opinion. It cost us dear to implement and then abandon. The reorganisation that followed in Leicestershire was likewise imposed on us against informed opinion from all quarters, and against public opinion. How much public money has been wasted on these two intellectually bankrupt exercises in strong government?

"Gridlock is good for you," said an American commentator explaining Wall Street's surge after Clinton won again last year. It wasn't celebrating Clinton's win, he explained: it was responding to the fact that the Republicans had retained control of the House.

I pray for the day when his British counterparts learn that. Why are we so afraid of checks and balances, and label the result with pejorative words like "hung", instead of welcoming it as opening the door to democratic government?

The writer is Professor Emeritus, Leicester University, and Liberal Democrat group leader on Leicestershire County Council.