The politics police

The bureaucratic watchdogs charged with disciplining elected politicians are bringing democracy into disrepute.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

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Topics Politics UK

The people may elect representatives, so long as their representatives are well behaved.

That appears to be the message of the disciplinary hearing against Greater London Authority (GLA) member and British National Party representative, Richard Barnbrook, which was due to take place last week. In September 2008, Barnbrook had claimed – in an interview posted on Youtube – that three murders had taken place in Barking and Dagenham over the course of three weeks. An investigation found this to be completely untrue, and now Barnbrook is being called to account for his alleged misconduct.

If proven guilty of misconduct, Barnbrook could be suspended from office for six months. Much to the amusement of those who were appalled at his election victory, Barnbrook failed to turn up to last Tuesday’s hearing, having been signed off work on grounds of ‘stress’ (1).

The trouble in which BNP man Barnbrook now finds himself does indeed call for a certain amount of glee. Yet the fact that an elected representative might be thrown out of office on ultimately quite trivial grounds – that he told a lie on Youtube – raises serious questions about the state of our democracy.

Barnbrook is being accused of ‘bringing his office into disrepute’. You might remember that the same, open-ended, charge was deployed in 2005 to suspend twice-elected Mayor Ken Livingstone from office after he made comments to a Jewish Evening Standard reporter that were deemed to be offensive. Livingstone was acquitted.

The legislation and codes of conduct invoked against both Livingstone and Barnbrook offer no guidance as to what ‘bringing one’s office into disrepute’ can or cannot constitute, making this a useful tool for punishing all manner of general naughtiness amongst our elected representatives.

When Barnbrook finally decides to show up, his fate will be in the hands of the GLA’s Standards Committee, whose composition is split between GLA members and unelected ‘independents’. Crucially, like other local government standards committees, it is accountable not to the authority that it serves, or indeed to any other elected body, but to the Standards Board For England, a quango set up to ensure the ‘ethical’ behaviour of local authority representatives. Apparently, relying upon the electorate to get rid of councillors who behave unreasonably is wholly insufficient. In our twenty-first century democracy, the people only have the right to keep their elected representatives in office on condition that the representatives are well behaved.

Across England and Wales, councillors are subject to the approval of various ‘standards committees’ – brought in nine years ago through New Labour’s Local Government Act. These operate alongside Local Authority ‘monitoring officers’ whose role, amongst other things, is to ensure ‘fairness’ in the way councils come to decisions, while ‘ethical standards officers’ are employed to ensure councils do as they are told.

That such heavy bureaucratic machinery acts as a brake upon local democracy is abundantly clear from a series of events in the past few years. In 2006, for instance, Bob Mills, a councillor for Powys County who opposed the construction of wind turbines, received a letter from the Powys county monitoring officer. It explained that Mills had written to the local paper expressing opposition to wind power, and had expressed ‘strong views’ at a previous meeting on the subject. As such, Mills was deemed to have a ‘pre-determined’ opinion on the matter which was disruptive to the planning process. Therefore, Mills was not to speak or vote on the issue (2).

Across the country numerous councillors have been excluded from discussions upon similar grounds of ‘prejudicial interest’. One council has delivered the following warning to its members: ‘As an active councillor being involved with the community, there is a danger of joining in a campaign with your constituents that you will later be called upon to take a decision on as a member of the council… The councillor should not be put in a position where it appears he or she has already taken a view. The councillor should always say that they will consider all the facts and take a decision based on the merits of the case presented.’ (3)

Heaven forbid that our enlightened local bureaucracies should be contaminated by politics.

More generally, the obsession with ‘good conduct’ has had a pernicious effect on the way in which power is exercised. Where councillors disagree we would expect them to engage in robust debate, and perhaps even to try to rally public opinion. But instead many are now choosing to get their way by sneaking off to the (unelected) headmaster.

Indeed, stats from the Standards Board show that Local Authority members are filing nearly 100 complaints against each other every month (4). Why bother trying to win your opponents over, or subject them to the weight of public feeling, when you can just have them excluded, suspended or otherwise sanctioned? Public political conflict – the lifeblood of any democracy – is giving way to tale-telling and regulation geekery.

There may, in some sense, be a need for a body capable of checking serious abuses of power. However, this is a million miles away from what the Standards Board actually does today. The majority of upheld complaints against councillors concern councillors failing to ‘treat others with respect’ or bringing their ‘office or authority into disrepute’. As we have seen, such complaints could potentially refer to anything and everything, but one thing is for sure: they are highly unlikely to refer to the kind of behaviour that would be enough to justify preventing elected representatives from going about their business (5).

The extensive machinery in place to ensure that councillors behave themselves – upon pain of being excluded from the democratic process – seems to encourage the idea that we should be scared of those we elect. Undoubtedly it is important to be vigilant towards anybody in a position of authority. Yet we should be a hundred times more vigilant of those whose power is not sanctioned by the electorate – ethical standards officers and monitoring officers in particular.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg writes for The Third Estate. He studied history at Cambridge University and is currently completing a masters degree at King’s College London.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that politicians like Tessa Jowell shouldn’t be judged by quangos and wondered if anyone would start a liberal backlash over Ken Livingstone’s run-in with the Standards Board. Josie Appleton thought Livingstone’s case brought democracy into disrepute. Brendan O’Neill suggested that we should scrap the Electoral Commission. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Richard Barnbrook fails to appear at misconduct hearing, the Guardian, 21 July 2009

(2) Charlie Brooker’s Notebook, the Telegraph, 19 February 2006

(3) Sandgate Parish Council

(4) See statistics from the Standards Board For England.

(5) See statistics from the Standards Board For England.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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