Forget ‘cancel culture’, Mr Jenrick. Cancelling elections is the real threat to democracy

The anarchist activist Emma Goldman is reputed to have said,

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick must have been listening and has just decided that you can’t vote to change who runs Somerset County Council.

On Thursday 6 May the electors of Somerset go to the polls to choose a new police and crime commissioner. They will also be voting in a year’s worth of by-elections to district, city, town and parish councils across the county, postponed as a result of Covid-19. The most important authority up for re-election however, spending half a billion pounds running adult social care, children’s services, transport, roads, waste, schools, libraries and much else, is Somerset County Council – but these elections have been cancelled.

Why can we not vote? Because, the Conservative county council asked the Conservative local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, if they could be saved the bother of facing the electorate and he agreed!

The official reason for suspending democracy is that local government might be reorganised. There are two competing proposals for how local government in Somerset might look. The county council favours “One Somerset”, a new unitary authority covering the current county council area. Many see this as an attempted takeover of the district councils by the county as the new authority would inherit the vast bulk of its powers, staff and budget from the latter.

The district councils, dismayed at the prospect of this takeover, have put together a counter bid, “Stronger Somerset” with cross party support. This differs from the county’s proposals in that it would see two unitaries created rather than just one. Government is now consulting on whether we should adopt either of these two proposals or, indeed keep things as they are.

If this sounds familiar, so it should. Go back to 2007 and there is an almost identical story.

In 2007 the then Liberal Democrat-controlled county council was pushing for a unitary council for Somerset. The largely Conservative districts were doing everything they could to try to prevent it (including an alternative proposal for two unitaries). I well remember leading members of the administration assuring me that a unitary Somerset was a done deal – they had been told so by civil servants.

This experience was at the front of my mind as I read that the county council elections had been cancelled. In 2007, however, the Government didn’t show contempt for democracy by cancelling elections before any decision was made. Voting for district councils went ahead as planned. As it happened, cancelling the 2007 elections would have been premature as well as being undemocratic as the reorganisation did not happen. Cancelling the 2021 elections for Somerset County Council is similarly premature and seriously undemocratic.

Jenrick gives two reasons for his decision. Cancellation means the public won’t be electing members of an authority at the same time as being consulted on whether or not it should exist.  Also, it prevents councillors being elected for a short time. To both of these explanations I say so what? I’d rather have councillors who might only serve a year or two, than councillors who were elected in 2017 staying well beyond their mandate.

A lot has changed since the last county council elections. We have had two general elections and left the EU. In 2017 Theresa May was prime minister; shamefully, Edward Colston’s statue still looked out over Bristol; and no one had heard of Greta Thunberg. It was a very different world.

As the world moves on we should be allowed to change the politicians we elect. The Government is denying the people of Somerset (and for that matter, North Yorkshire and Cumbria) this basic right now simply because there might be a new structure operational in 2023.

Jenrick has said that local government should be reorganised, “where there is local support”. It is revealing however that he has decided to cancel the best test of local opinion. The Conservative administration on the county council supports their single unitary idea – the Liberal Democrat opposition opposes it and supports a two unitary approach. Why not allow these two parties, with their two competing visions for how local government should be organised, compete against each other at the ballot box?

Whatever the result it would provide the winner with a democratic mandate for pursuing their particular vision.

As it is the people of Somerset will have very little say over the shape of local government despite a formal Government consultation. The final decision on who runs vital public services will be made by Mr Jenrick.

This Government likes to stoke its culture war and warn us about so-called ‘cancel culture’ – but it is their cancellation of democracy that should really worry us.