The trouble is, Ledbury Town Council always fails to attract enough candidates to trigger a poll when the whole town council comes up for election every five years.
Nobody can remember the last time when there was a full town election. The customary pattern is that fourteen or fifteen candidates put themselves forward, are ‘elected’ unopposed, and the shortfall is filled by co-option, via Ledbury's 'chumocracy' network. Not exactly a healthy democracy is it?
So, if events run to form, on May 9, town councillors will proudly celebrate their ‘election’ – even though not a single voter will have cast a vote for them. Theirs will be a hollow victory, providing a tiny fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy.
For a contested election to take place in Ledbury, one in which citizens actually place a cross on the ballot paper, twenty one prospective councillors will need to step forward in future. Under new voting arrangements, because the town will be divided into three, elections next May for the Town Council will consist of three separate polls, relating to three wards, roughly south (Deer Park), west (New Mills) and north-east (old central Ledbury).
What this means is that for an election to take place in all parts of the town, seven prospective candidates will be needed for each six-member ward.
We could also be faced with the absurd situation where there is an election for town council in one area of town, but not in another, some councillors democratically elected, others elected unopposed and a gaggle of co-options, people unwilling to submit to the polls but happy to polish their buttons in the council chamber.
The outcome may look less like an election and more like a postcode lottery.
There will be those on Ledbury Town Council, who, fearing the wrath of the voters, will be rubbing their hands in glee as the prospect of a contested general town election recedes even further into the distance. Goodness knows, in living memory we could never muster 19 candidates under the old arrangements – let alone now finding 21 willing souls to put their hat in the ring all at once.
Winston Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. For candidates, democratic elections cost time and money, are bothersome and psychologically testing. You have to nail your policy and personal colours to the mast: what you stand for, believe in, propose to do, submit your record for examination. Sometimes you are derided and insulted. You tramp the streets delivering leaflets and stand in the town centre talking to strangers, exposed to the glare of public scrutiny. But why not?
So while it might be uncomfortable, this is the stuff of democracy. It means the charlatans and lightweights, the fruitcakes and lazybones have a fighting chance of being weeded out before they can inflict damage. It gives a mandate to councillors to take the necessary decisions in the best interests of the whole community. It also offers what Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff (2004)[i] argues is a basic sense of human dignity. As an individual voter you are given the right to decide: ‘Dignity here means simply the right to shape your life as best you can, within the limits of the law, and to have a voice, however small, in the shaping of public affairs.’
Voting in contested elections shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, but rather a necessity, something to which all steps are taken to make happen.
For a start we must lower the electoral bar. The number of Ledbury town councillors must be reduced.
I propose that that there be four councillor vacancies for each of the three wards, twelve in total for the whole council. To this, there could be added several specialist co-options to provide expertise as required – young people, minority interests, economic development for example. The three elected ward councillors could be automatically co-opted. We might still end up with 18 councillors, but at least there would be an election.
To serve on the Council would be a real achievement, an honour. It would mean something.
Nor is this a whacky idea dreamt up to provoke the traditionalists.
In an inspiring report[ii] by Paul Hilder for the Young Foundation into promoting local democracy and community governance (which should be required reading for all town and parish councillors) the point is made that: “Often for reasons that are long-obsolete, many [town councils] have a large number [of councillors]... Where there is a scarcity of candidates, they are setting themselves up to fail the democratic test. If electoral energies were concentrated on fewer seats, contestation would increase. Furthermore, evidence suggests that collective executive structures such as boards and executives are seldom able to operate so effectively as the number deciding rises above 10-12.”
Ledbury Town Council is one of the most top-heavy parish councils in the country. Nobody can explain why we need so many. Among local towns, only Hereford City Council – with a population of 60 thousand - supports as many councillors as Ledbury. Meanwhile, Leominster has 14 councillors, Ross has 12. Even large towns like Cirencester and Tewkesbury have only 15 councillors.
In terms of town councillors per head of population, Ledbury is right up at the top of the table: we have one councillor representing each 500 people. In Hereford, the proportion is three thousand three hundred people to one councillor.
Less is More
Would we miss the odd six councillors, the supernumeraries and council chamber loafers? I don’t think so. On reduced numbers alone, it’s a given that with so much less hot air, pompous posturing, and devious game-playing, council business would be achieved much more effectively and rapidly, saving money and energy all round.
Not only would a reduction in the size of the council increase the likelihood that there will be an election in all town wards, but it would also facilitate a more effective and dynamic town council.
By bloating the size of the Ledbury Town Council in the past, it does makes you wonder whether the burghers of this town have fixed it so as effectively to rule out democratic elections. Either that, or they had ideas above their station.
In these times of belt-tightening and austerity and in the interests of contested elections, the time has come to take the pruning knife to Ledbury Town Council, and chop out some of the dead wood. Don’t let’s be a rotten borough any longer.
[i] Ignatieff, M, 2004. The Lesser Evil. Politics in an Age of Terror. Retrieved 20 January 2015 from http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7578.html