THE TOPIC for today’s blog picks itself with ‘Local Democracy Week’ now underway across the Borough.
I attended and spoke at the launch of the new ‘Local Democracy Exhibition’ at Gallery Oldham on Friday night to help kick-start our series of local events.
This is a genuinely fascinating exhibition which charts the history of democracy in our Borough and tells the stories of local people and their involvement in politics and change.
It looks at local political parties, social and Trade Union movements, and acts of individual and collective action – and there is a very rich and powerful tapestry here of inspiring stories.
But I see the purpose of this exhibition not just about being there to educate our young people or entertain history buffs – it’s more fundamental than that.
I want to use Local Democracy Week as a whole as an opportunity to engage with residents. I also want to look at our place in history and seek to learn from it as we move our Borough into the future.
As part of that tomorrow night (Thursday from 6pm to 8pm) we are holding the first-ever live Question Time event for Cabinet Members. This is a chance for the public to engage and ask your burning questions – either in person, or from the comfort of your armchair.
This will be the first event to ever be streamed live on the Oldham Council website and – linked to various social media activity on Facebook and Twitter – is designed to encourage people to participate.
Please do take this opportunity now to submit questions – or apply for tickets to attend this event – by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org calling 0161 770 1975/5696.
You can also tweet questions and comments to @oldhamQT or visit us on Facebook www.facebook.com/oldhamcouncilquestiontime
There are further events also taking place this week around the districts – including one on a barge in Saddleworth(!) – and you can find out more about these by visiting www.oldham.gov.uk/local_democracy_week_2011
What I think is important about all these events is that they give us an opportunity to reflect on where we are in 2011.
By that I mean looking at this subject in the context of what people fought for in the past, and what the quality of our modern democracy really is today.
If you look back to August 1819 in this exhibition you’ll see men and women from our Borough famously marching to Peterloo to fight for ‘One Man, One Vote’.
In what became a defining moment of its age, cavalry then charged into the crowd that had gathered at St Peter’s Field killing 15 people – five from our Borough – and injuring up to 700.
You can only imagine what the coverage of such an event would be like now in our age of 24/7 rolling news channels but – more importantly – I wonder if, in 2011, we as a society still hold true to the legacy of the causes that these protesters held dear?
Is what people fought for what we have ended up with?
The battle for ‘one man, one vote’ was hard fought but today some people think they can cast more than one vote by attempting to undertake postal vote fraud– or to dictate how others in their household will vote.
We also have thousands of people who don’t even use their right to vote. The 65 per cent turnout in the 2010 General Election was up four per cent on 2005 – but it still means one in three people actively declined to vote.
At the exhibition opening we were treated to a fantastic preview of a play by Oldham Theatre Workshop, performed brilliantly by Scott McDowell and Olivia Cooke from Royton.
This harked back – amongst other episodes in our history – to Annie Kenney and her infamous heckling of Winston Churchill at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1905.
Again it made me wonder what Springhead’s Kenney – our very own leading figure in the Suffragette movement, who served 13 stints in prison for her cause – would think about democracy in 2011.
Specifically, I wonder how she would feel – having fought for the right of women to vote – to learn that in households today some women do not exercise this right, and in certain cases even pass it on to the ‘man of the house’?
Equally what would those Free Liberals and Trade Unionists who fought for working class representation in Parliament think about our House of Commons today?
Allowances originally brought in to help working class people become Members of Parliament have to my mind since been abused.
Would these erstwhile campaigners think that the current Commons membership – of which 35 per cent were privately educated, and three in ten went to Oxbridge – is really the representative chamber they fought so hard for?
My essential point here is this: That if we forget how hard-fought democracy was, we are in danger of becoming nothing more than a throwback to the old Rotten Boroughs – the product of a system that did not want to change.
This is all – again – part of that wider ‘disconnect’ I’ve referred to in earlier blogs about the relationships between decision makers and those affected by decisions.
And if we neglect these problems at a local and national level – by failing to engage citizens in debate and discussion – then they are simply only going to get worse.
Staying on the theme of democracy I want to close today with a further update on Oldham Council’s response to the recent proposals to completely redraw the map of Parliamentary constituencies in our Borough.
Following the setting-up of a working group, a response to this has now been agreed by all three political group leaders.
We reject the suggestion that historic townships should be broken apart and believe it is unacceptable that Chadderton and Royton would be split across two constituencies.
Dispersing Oldham across four constituencies is also not a viable option. Oldham itself would lose its identity, with none of the three proposed constituencies bearing any reference to its presence within them.
We also believe there is genuine support from the electorate and historic groups for no more than three constituencies to represent the Borough – and to maintain our townships as they stand.
This submission has been signed by myself along with Councillors Howard Sykes and Jack Hulme, and sent to the Boundary Review.
In the interests of protecting local identity and strong democratic representation for residents we sincerely hope these views will be taken on board and these flawed proposals substantially amended.
Thanks for listening,