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A Magazine for Sheffield

Local Elections

The local elections have arrived again. This most vital part of democracy is like a grotesque parody of a TV quiz in which the contestants have to guess what the questions should be, state how they'd answer, then the public vote for the viewpoint they prefer. Many don't vote, believing it changes nothing. Often a slight majority wins on the day, and the losers and their voters have to wait years before they get another sniff of democracy. I did think more of politicians in the past, but now they are widely seen as greedy, arrogant and self-serving.

Is that too cynical? There must be ‘conviction’ politicians. Many are genuinely trying to improve life for people, but what can they promise when the forces that overwhelm their efforts are bigger than any budget can sort out? The platform they have to present covers such a wide range of topics. Surely it couldn't work well, as voters have to parcel all their feelings and opinions on a number of issues and vote for one individual within one party.

But councillors make decisions which dramatically affect our lives. So I chose one ward, Broomhill, and asked candidates for their views. Labour's Katherine Baker stressed the need for more women from working-class backgrounds. She pointed to the success of the Broomhill Payback scheme, where local traders offer discounts to drivers who buy parking tickets. Good for the local shops, but hardly likely to help the environment in a ward where pollution levels have in the past exceeded European limits.

Brian Webster is standing for the Green Party, which finished just 201 votes behind Labour in 2012. For him the big issue is that, due to cuts, Broomhill Library and several others nearby will now be volunteer-run. He highlights Green activism on this issue while Labour councillors “went AWOL from Broomhill Forum meetings knowing they would have to vote for it.” Lib Dem councillor Shaffaq Mohammed also campaigned against Labour's library proposals, but their petition was seen by many as a way to obtain 30,000 e-mail addresses. A request for his views for this article received a response that he wasn't available at the moment, but would be back on Friday. Despite a follow-up request for any Lib Dem comment there was no reply by the following Sunday.

How can we tell whether these chosen representatives will bow down to central government or give their friends the benefits when plans are decided and contracts handed out? Sadly, the excellent website only tracks MPs. With local councillors it's hard to find their track record. You have to be really investigative to follow issues on the Council website, and despite helpful officials there's always the possibility that what is unwritten may matter more. Transparency International’s report, ‘Corruption in Local Government: The Mounting Risks’, warns of 16 recent legislative changes which increase the risk of corruption happening in future, as well as other trends such as the decline in scrutiny by local press and the move to more private sector outsourcing. The truth is we can't truly know the character of a candidate unless they're a personal friend. What's the answer? Get to know the candidates? Or hold your nose and vote?

Our form of representative democracy isn't the only type. There are alternatives, like participatory democracy. A World Bank study found that this results in considerable improvements in quality of life. George Orwell, writing about a form of direct democracy in Homage to Catalonia, called it a “strange and valuable” experience in which he “breathed the air of equality” and where “normal motives of civilized life--snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.--had simply ceased to exist.”But that was in the exceptional situation of civil war. Meanwhile our limited democracy is like working for a living - even if you don't like it, you do it until something better comes along. I just keep asking myself, what would Tony Benn be saying? The answer must surely be to keep fighting for a better world by any means necessary. I'll vote on 22 May, but it's up to you to decide for yourself.

‘Corruption in Local Government: The Mounting Risks’ )

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