by Kevin Meagher
One of the unremarked parts of Alexis Jay’s shocking report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was her finding that the council’s scrutiny function had completely failed to do its job.
As in so many areas where a single party dominates the electoral landscape (Labour has 49 out of 63 seats on Rotherham council), responsibility for keeping tabs on the decisions of the council falls to councillors of the same party. The problem with this arrangement should be obvious enough.
Labour has controlled the town for 80 years. Even a bruising by-election campaign back in 2012, when it’s MP, Denis MacShane, was sent to jail for fiddling his expenses, did little to stop the Labour juggernaut, with current Labour MP, Sarah Champion, slotting in as his replacement.
It’s worth considering, however, that the Conservatives received 9.5 per cent of the votes back in June’s local elections, but won nothing for their trouble. ‘That’s how it works’ comes the unsympathetic reply, but the uncomfortable fact remains that big majorities in politics seldom create better administrations.
Rather than producing strong, outward-looking leaders who need to compete to succeed, stacking-up large majorities can result in fiefs run by complacent, inward-looking political hacks instead.
The effort needed to manage a large group absorbs political energy. Stymieing internal dissent becomes a preoccupation. There are only so many top jobs to gift to people, so cliques form. Back-biting begins. Fixing becomes a necessity.
In the interests of administrative efficiency, electoral fairness and voter engagement, a bit of competition can mix things up.
This is where the impulse of any political party to hoover-up seats and dominate all it surveys intersects messily with the need for good government and political plurality.
However, rather than try to remedy the situation with a move to full-blown proportional representation, which would shatter the valuable link between politician and local community, there is a simple hybrid reform to level the playing field a bit that could be applied to larger, three-member ward unitary councils.
Two seats in each ward should be contested on the usual first-past-the-post system with the remaining third of council seats allotted on the basis of parties’ share of the vote across the borough. (In Rotherham, this would leave the Tories with six seats out of sixty-three).
This would be fairer, energise the local political culture, create some useful political competition and lead to better scrutiny of council decisions. At the very least, it would force governing parties to up their game.
After all, Rotherham shows us what happens when that doesn’t happen.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut