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A little local difficulty. A forgotten part of English democracy

June 26th, 2018

I’m a dutiful son and I visit my parents regularly. They live in Hadleigh, a quiet market town in south Suffolk. Hadleigh has never quite made it onto the tourist trail. This is a little odd because Kersey, a couple of miles away, is a staple of Christmas cards and meerkat adverts and Lavenham, a few miles further away, is besieged with visitors.

Hadleigh has a magnificent guildhall and deanery tower and charming medieval buildings in abundance, many of which are slathered in pargeting, but it has somehow missed the attention. So it is largely left in prosperous quiet.

I was paying my filial dues at the weekend. Mum knows I have a bit of an interest in politics (the gambling is not discussed; non-conformists don’t approve). So she shows me a couple of election fliers she’d received. What did I make of them? I took a look.

It turns out that all is not well in Hadleigh. The town council has been riven with factional in-fighting. This has percolated into the pages of the Suffolk Free Press and the East Anglian Daily Times. Now a group of well-organised dissidents, under the banner “Hadleigh Together”, have forced a referendum of confidence in the town council, alleging mismanagement and that it is dysfunctional. The town goes to the polls on Thursday. Both sides had issued leaflets putting their case. The dissidents’ case can be found here and here.

I can honestly say that I had never heard of such a thing. So I did some digging. And I found out that I know rather less about the English political system than I thought. For parish residents have long had the right to call for parish polls on whatever topic they choose, provided that a third of electors present at a parish meeting are in favour (and not fewer than 10). At this point the local district council must hold a poll. The result is advisory only.  The Hadleigh Together group have called for just such a parish poll.

This mechanism has been used hundreds of times over the years (no one seems to know how often, no one seems to have been interested enough to keep track). The subject matter has been many and varied: at least one parish conducted a parish poll on whether to hold a referendum on EU membership – it passed convincingly, as it happens.

All this time commentators have been telling us that referendums weren’t a longstanding part of British politics and it turns out they were wrong. Voters up and down the country have been passing judgements on car parking arrangements, low level radioactive waste and whether to allow a Tesco’s for many years. No doubt you all knew this. I didn’t.

It’s easy to be condescending about this and allude to Passport To Pimlico insular localism. Easy, and wrong.  The decisions of town councils have direct impact on the residents and giving the residents a direct say is a safety valve.  If, as in Hadleigh, there are electors unhappy about the plans for the cemetery, it is healthy for them to be able to take direct action about that.

All politics is local.  It would be amusing if what finally definitively killed Boris Johnson’s chances of leadership was his pusillanimous response to the Heathrow third runway vote, given his vaulting ambition, but no MP can afford to neglect the interests of the area that he or she represents.

The government consulted on whether to tighten up the rules on parish polls at the fag-end of the 2010-15 coalition government, but so far as I can see nothing came of it.  Instead of treating this voter power as an irksome anomaly, perhaps the government should extend its use to borough and district councils.  If voters felt more empowered, perhaps they would be more engaged with the political process more generally.  This is, after all, something that politicians of all stripes claim to want.  If, like parish polls, such council referendums were advisory only, the risk of batty decisions being mandated on low turnouts would be much reduced.

One way or another on Thursday, Hadleigh’s local politics are going to be given a jolt.  All sides seem to agree that the logjam on the town council needs to be broken in one way or another.  The parish poll looks to have been an efficient way of seeking to do just that.  Isn’t this something that British politics at rather more elevated levels than town councils might benefit from right now?

Alastair Meeks