Tory Ministers and Dodgy Accountants Are Ruining Local Democracy in London
It's been a weird week for democracy in the UK. The government is giving Manchester a mayor it didn't vote for, and taking over the administration of the recently re-elected mayor in East London.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
It's been a weird week for democracy. On the one hand, George Osborne says he's handing a shed load of powers to a new mayor for Greater Manchester. On the other, communities secretary Eric Pickles sent in a takeover squad to run parts of Tower Hamlets Council in East London. Why? Because its mayor, Lutfur Rahman,was apparently"partisan" and "divisive", and because a bunch of accountants say the Mayor there knew some of the people he gave contracts to.
The Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman has been dogged by allegations of corruption for some time, and yet maintained a healthy level of support in the area and was recently re-elected. He's popular amongst Tower Hamlets' large and impoverished Bangladeshi community, many of whom reckon the corruption allegations are just mud being thrown at a left-wing, ethnic minority mayor by a right-wing, white establishment.
Those allegations have finally caught up with Lutfur, as the government is sending in commissioners to oversee the running of his council after a report by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) highlighted some serious concerns with the way his administration gives out contracts.
So, who are PwC, and why their opinion is important enough to overturn an elected Mayor? PwC one of the big four accountancy firms who have repeatedly been described as having a revolving door with the Treasury. What that means is that they send their "experts" in to go and help the government write the tax code. Those same people can then go back to their jobs as consultants, and advise big corporations and the mega-rich on how to dodge the tax rules that they wrote.
Before they get into the game of complaining about the Mayor of Tower Hamlets knowing people who got contracts from his council, they might want to ask themselves some questions. Questions like: why did they hire former Labour Health Secretary Alan Milburn? Did they hire him to help make healthcare better, or so he could help them to milk as much money as possible out of the NHS? Questions like, if PwC are so against conflicts of interest, why have they repeatedly been accused by prominent tax justice campaigners of profiting on the back of, er, conflicts of interest?
Now they're complaining that the Mayor of Tower Hamlets knew some of the people who got lucrative contracts from Tower Hamlets Council. On the one hand that sounds a bit dodgy. On the other hand it sounds a lot like what happens at councils up and down the country. But most importantly, on what planet does PwC get to call people out for this stuff?
Frankly, I don't really know if Rahman was or wasn't corrupt. The people of the borough deserved serious answers from someone credible. Instead they got a report from a firm whose MO is making money from exactly the kind of privatization Rahman vocally opposes. Are we really supposed to just take what they say at face value?
There have been plenty of expos és of Lutfur's alleged corruption by journalists. But remember this context: Half of the Tory election campaign in 2010 was paid for by the City, and £750,000 more came from private healthcare companies. They have gone on to threaten to sue the EU for wanting to regulate that same City and to hand contracts worth billions to those same private healthcare companies. Is that corruption? Don't be silly. When posh white boys are given hundreds of thousands of pounds by rich capitalists, that's par for the course. And then, when in government, those posh white boys do things that make those rich capitalists billions of pounds richer, that's not corruption, it's just politics. It's only corruption if you're Asian, and left-wing.
Perhaps most importantly, if local politicians are accountable to us, then how can some government minister take over a chunk of the East End of London after the people there elected the same guy to be Mayor twice in a row? Is there any other democratic country where a right wing politician could unilaterally take over the brief of a left wing politician (or vice versa) because he thinks he is "partisan"?
If you had any illusions about the government trying to do their best for democracy, look at what's happening in Manchester. In 2012, the people of Manchester voted against having an elected mayor. Presumably some of them didn't like the idea of a lot of power in one person's hands.
So, this week, George Osborne announced that they were getting one anyway, centralising even more power in one person, in a deal made behind closed doors with Greater Manchester's council leaders. Rather than getting grilled by an elected assembly, like in London, Manchester's mayor will be accountable to those same council leaders, which is a couple of degrees less democratic. Whether or not this is a good idea isn't really the point--shouldn't the people of Manchester get to decide that for themselves?
What's up with this process? Can Osborne really just go around making ham-fisted changes to the way our country is run? Maybe he should give Birmingham a Duke to be in charge of the litter collection and town planning, for life, just because he feels like it.
The answer is, well, yes he can. We're one of only four countries in the world which has never bothered to get round to codifying our constitution--the others are Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, because you need an exception to prove the point, New Zealand. This basically means governments at Westminster can do whatever the hell they like.
And sometimes, they do. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher wanted to privatize water. So the regional councils in the Lothians (including Edinburgh) and Strathclyde (including Glasgow) organized unofficial referendums to give people their say on her plans. People voted overwhelmingly against the sell off. So what did Thatcher do? She abolished the two regional councils for daring to stand up to her. She also got rid of the Greater London Authority, because Ken Livingstone (then known as Red Ken) had told her where to get off.
This situation is absurd. Local councils should be accountable to the people, not to a government minister and a global accountancy firm. The way our country is run should be up to us, not up to George Osborne. I can't think of any other country where government ministers are allowed to just sack mayors they don't like and create new mayors without asking the people.
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