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May 04, 2012

Voting in Coventry

Yesterday, I made the most of my status of European Union citizen by voting in the local elections in Coventry. Voting in local elections is something two thirds of the British population do not care about, so my act may be seen as paradoxically one of distinction from, rather than of integration in the local polity. Those who do not vote in local elections over here might have some reason: the country is strongly centralised, there are no regional elections and local councils do not have much competence, despite running substantial budgets and being responsible for something most British people complain about all the time: the council tax (a rather regressive thing, heritage of the even worse Thatcher's poll tax). But still, local elections have some relevance for national politics, although not nearly as much as they have in most of western Europe, and especially so in Germany, Italy and Spain. And they matter locally too: when Coventry fell shortly into conservative hands afew years ago, the damage was there for all to see, for instance in the cuts to libraries, including those just built.

So I did go to vote, and while in the past I occasionally voted Greens or Socialist, especially when sick of wars abroad and of traffic locally, I opted for the ‘useful vote’ that a first-past-the-post system calls for, and gone for Labour. With good satisfaction: my ward, which is a mix of two parts, old working-class Tile Hilland new middle-class Westwood, swung from Conservative to Labour and Coventry’s Labour majority was strengthened. Despite low turn-out, Labour's excellent result across the country sent a clear message to the ruling coalition and especially to the Lib-Dems, who were duly massacred in the polls.

Liberals have been an important tradition in the European polity, with serious merits, but both largest liberal parties, in Germany and in the UK, may disappear from the next Parliaments and I find it difficult to miss them. The German FDP discovered neoliberalism after its sell-by-date, and it is now reduced to something like 1%. In the UK, the Lib-Dems' affair with the Tories will go to history as one of the most stupid political decisions ever. The long history of Italian coalitions taught me that as a rule, ina government the senior patner always takes the merits, and the smaller parties take the blame: this is why the Christian Democrats could rule with smaller allied for as long as 45 years (the rule is confirmed, grosso modo, by the other proportional-voting countries). So junior partners need to demarcate very clearly something they will benefit from, which is usually simpler for regional parties (i.e. the Catalans of CiU). But in a foolish bet, Clegg gave the Tories everything, even what they had not asked for (the reform of the NHS!), in exchange of only one, terribly insecure thing: the referendum on the election system. Which he predictably lost, and now, for a further three years, he has to keep being the spare wheel of the Tories for no benefit whatsoever, playing the shameful role of the scapegoat for Cameron, without any negotiation power given that in a snap election he would disappear. No, his strategic vision will not be missed.

Yesterday we also voted on another election reform: a referendum on the direct election of mayors. Initially, I was quite in favour of the idea. In Italy, it was introduced 19 years ago and, although I had opposed it in the Italian referendum of 1993, I concede that it had a positive effect in revitalising local democracy, and all across the country there have been lively campaigns and independent, innovative mayors. And during these two years, I have seen charismatic mayors having positive influence in all corners of Europe, from Kraków to Berlin to Milan. But on reflection, this is not so much associated with direct election: in Germany and Spain, the elections are indirect. And direct election works well in Italy, because anyway the large majority of the population takes part in the vote. But in the UK, with participation at around 30%, the risk of maverick populist mayors with large marketing budgets is too high: Boris Johnson in London is only a taste of worse things that could come. Rather than revitalising democracy, direct election could undermine the associational pillar of democracy itself (so openly despised in these same days, across the Channel, by Sarkozy). So I voted no, and in this case, I have been in line with the innate conservatism of the majority of local voters.


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