Saturday, 5 March 2016

OUR FRANKENSTEIN DEMOCRACY: Pernicious petitions, controversial consultations and sneaky surveys

The national media are currently obsessed with stories about politics and party loyalty. In uncertain times, when we are engaging in wide-ranging debate about issues of long-term national importance, any divergence from the ‘norm’ is considered disloyal.

There seem to be two kinds of loyalty at work here. There is the loyalty some exhibit when, despite not being huge fans of their Leaders of the moment, they vent their frustrations with friends in the pub, and find a way to work for the long-term benefit of whichever party they support. This is disinterested loyalty.

Then there is the other kind of loyalty, where the backing of patrons – and matrons – in the form of financial support, preferment, sharing personal contacts, giving references – comes with a repayment schedule. ‘Loyalty’ to the patron is expected at a future and unspecified date. As in the mafia, you owe your dues. This is interested loyalty, or rather, a bribe.

The 'cake' of influence
Political parties are bandying around the words ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’ in reference to the various debates of national importance that are being played out in the media: EU; the economy; inequality; welfare.  The problem with working to this particular programme is that this ‘exchange of favours’, like a Pacific Island potlatch, does not favour talent, skills or competence. It is in essence a ceremonial performance, with attention focussed on one person.

In a world of personality politics, integrity and competence are left hanging in the wardrobe like an old-fashioned suit. By giving ‘preferment’ to those who are ‘agreeable’, we engage in a cycle of replication that ensures compliance and obedience. This demeans the democratic process and we deserve better.

In such a world it is not the cream that rises to the top – it is the scum.

There is a narrow and self-serving world view that supposes that residents will always vote for self-interest. In RBKC our annual residents’ survey proves precisely the opposite. This self-selecting group votes year on year on how the Council spends its money, and is clearly shifting towards a preference of paying more Council Tax, not less, to support our most vulnerable neighbours. Year on year, however, the Council proposes a freeze on Council Tax, assuming that the electorate thinks as selfishly as they do. They are wrong.

The good people of Chelsea are fighting on two fronts to preserve what they hold dear. A petition to save the Sutton Estate attracted 10,000 signatures and the support of the Chelsea Society, the Victorian Society, various MPs and architects, and Create Streets. Despite this their petition has been dishonoured and ignored. The No Crossrail in Chelsea campaign has also gathered 10,000 signatures. They have been called NIMBYs, ‘selfish’, and signatures found to be ineligible.  It’s the same story with the Westway 23 group, fighting to have some meaningful input into the Westway Trust’s development plans.

Petitions are regularly undermined by the assertion that signatories do not live in the area they concern. But if you shop, work, study, visit relatives or health facilities in the borough, the future of services may be more relevant than those of someone who only sleeps here. And surely, in these days of tri-borough working, residents from our neighbouring boroughs should also have a say?

The consultation process can be difficult to engage with, and is also open to abuse. Percentages are often used to mask the actual numbers of respondents. Questions can be confusing or opaque. Sometimes this is not deliberate.

The ‘Local Plan Issues and Options Review’ might as well be written in Latin. If you can read Latin it makes perfect sense, if not it is utterly confusing. But this process is quite simply a review of the planning rules, regs, guidelines and ‘visions’ that will shape our borough in years to come. How far you have to walk to catch a bus, post a letter, buy milk, visit the doctor, go to school or work, and have advice or help on a range of issues – plus where to squeeze in more housing of various kinds – this is all it is. It is the rulebook that governs the everyday functioning of our everyday life.  And yet the interface with those most affected – you and me – is not user-friendly. Result: very few people bother to engage.

The future of Carnival?

Surveys offer yet another means to mould, subvert and side-step public opinion. Two current examples: bizarrely, both the Council and the Kensington MP have sent out surveys about the future of Carnival. Many have stated that they are both deterministic and do not allow comments – that both are aimed at getting a pseudo-consensus to sanitise, control, monetise, commodify or even stop the Carnival. Those ‘on high’ see only the end-of-Carnival trouble that blights everyone’s enjoyment, and the costs of policing they do not believe to be justifiable.

When 50 people rioted outside Boujis nightclub in South Kensington, resulting in arrests and hospital admissions, nobody said the gilded youth of South Ken should have their club shut down. When the costs of protecting Julian Assange, an alleged rapist (from what? I’ve never been sure) in the Ecuadorian Embassy rose to £11m, nobody intervened to stop his protest. When embassies in K&C and Westminster rack up unpaid parking and congestion zone fees of £87m, nobody impounds their cars. And when the protection of the Royal family reaches a staggering £103m a year, nobody suggests they should walk around like normal human beings or the Queen of Denmark.

The ‘Royal Bank of Kensington and Chelsea’ is a monopoly game, but the dice are loaded, and we all know who is more likely to ‘Go to Jail’. So there is one form of democracy for the rich, and another for the poor. The rich can play, misbehave and break the rules at our expense, but the poor must behave like circus performers and not get drunk or out of order at Carnival. If not, they could be sent for trial by survey.

Accountability and transparency is at stake, as what passes for democracy is cobbled together, manipulated, dishonest and abused. Until we recognise this, our Frankenstein democracy will make fools of us all.  

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