Democracy in Kent – yes, please!

KCC Media photo Inside the KCC Chamber taken before Covid

In many ways, the Leader of a Kent District Council is more important than an MP.  Outside Kent, in places where coalitions of different parties work together more often, the committee system is often used and more ordinary Councillors get a chance to shape decisions.

Over the 11 years since 2010, the National Government in London has halved the amount of money it provides to local government. This is why Kent has seen dramatic cuts, especially in its social services. As we all know, these are a lifeline for vulnerable people, old and young.  The employees of KCC,  the officers, keep things running as best they can, given the policies with which elected people present them. 

Public health has been a big responsibility over this last year. A single Director of Public Health covers the whole of the 1.3 million electorate/ 1,58 million population covered by Kent and the unitary authority of Medway. Kent is the most populated county of UK. We can speculate on whether the Covid lockdown tier system might have been decided differently in different parts of Kent if we’d had two or three Directors of Public Health covering West Kent, Mid Kent and East Kent.

One constructive Kent-wide policy is the Kent Energy and Low Emission Strategy, which can be used, as the majority of the population want, to nudge Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to take action for climate justice.

Conservatives the majority in Kent

In the 2019 General Election, only 40% in Kent (532,342 voters out of 1,322,347) voted Conservative. But 40% of the vote won the Conservatives 16 of Kent’s 17 parliamentary seats, which is 94% of the seats.

In 2017, 81 County Councillors were elected to Kent County Council, of whom 63 were Conservatives.

At the District (borough) level of local government:

Council Electorate (000s) Total seatsCon seatsControl
Dartford754229Con
Gravesham734418Lab
Sevenoaks885446Con
Tonbridge & Malling965439Con
Tunbridge Wells804828Con
Maidstone1185525Coalition
Swale1054616Lab/Ind/Green
Ashford924726Con
Canterbury1073923Con
Folkestone & Hythe843013Con+UKIP
Dover863219Con
Thanet985625Coalition
Medway*1935532Con

* Medway is a Unitary Authority not under KCC

For District/Borough Councils, the cabinet system is used. As a result, eight or so Conservative cabinet members get to decide almost everything.

Is Kent really democratic?

About half of the 38% who vote in county elections vote Conservative. Many working age people are discouraged by the system and don’t vote at all. So the 63 Conservative Councillors (out of 81), only represent the votes of around 19% of an electorate of 1.3 million.

In Scotland and London (Wales soon), there are Assemblies that people vote for proportionally. People vote for a local representative AND for a top-up list (AMS); this results in a close match between the percentage of votes cast and the percentage of representatives in the assemblies.

Because there is more competition, assembly members tend to work hard to show themselves as competent. Moreover, because people have more trust in the proportional system, there has been an increase in the number of people choosing to vote. And with a wider range of parties able to win seats, voters can call to account any party that messes up.

Many of us think the English deserve a fair proportional voting system too, for Parliament and for County elections. The Electoral Reform Society published a report in 2015, called ‘The cost of one-party Councils: lack of accountability and corruption in public procurement’.

Local government in Kent: the who, how and why

Local Government elections will take place on 6 May 2021. We explain the structure of local government in Kent.

Should I vote in Council elections?

YES!  Please use your vote, people have died in the struggles against authoritarianism.

Will my vote be wasted?

NO! Your vote won’t be wasted. Voting is not about backing a horse at the races, but an expression of what you think is fair, your values. Too often recently, politicians tell voters: “Don’t think about policies I would support, just look at the flag I’ve wrapped myself in.”

And the people wrapping themselves in the flag we all share, are often salting income away in foreign off-shore accounts! If people give up because our system is biased, then those in power say: “Look, we don’t need to make Britain more democratic because ordinary folk don’t care, the number who turn out to vote is low.” It is low: the seven Conservative KCC Councillors elected for the Dover district were elected by 27% – 36% of the electorate. The lowest turnout was Dover Town, the highest in Sandwich and surrounding villages. Voting for a “challenger party” candidate, especially one who is signed up to a fairer voting system, gives a strong message that you think Kent deserves better. If others think as you do, the challenger candidate may even win.

Do Councillors get paid?

Yes. Kent County Councillors get an allowance of £15,400. If they work hard and put in 30 to 40 hours per week to stand up for the interests of all of the people in the area, it is understandable. But if they just nod through almost everything suggested by their party leaders in London, this is more questionable.

A few months after they were elected in 2017. Kent County Councillors decided to vote themselves a 15% allowance increase. Almost all of the 18 opposition Councillors opposed this. The allowance they now get is more than Councillors of other counties in the South East receive.

County CouncilPeriodBasic Members’ Allowance (£)
Surrey2019/2012,660
East Sussex2019/2012,797
Essex202012,000
Kent2019/2015,491

On District Councils, the seven to nine Councillors who have Cabinet posts have allowances of around £10,000. Ordinary Councillors have an allowance of between £400 to  £5000, depending on the committees on which they serve.

Some people are “double hatters” (elected to both District and County Council). Someone who is on a District Council cabinet and is also a County Councillor would have an allowance of £10,000 + £15,000 annually. And voters might expect such a person to stand up for their locality on every occasion.

What about the media?

Do all the councillor candidates of different parties get reported? 

Regional south-eastern TV channels think their audiences are not interested in ‘politics’.  They think that, because 94% of Kent’s MPs are Conservative, that they will not please their viewers by covering stories about what challenger parties – and challenger candidates not yet elected – are doing.  Issues are covered as human interest stories, not as representative of how a system works.  The same applies to most of the printed press – Kent Bylines and KentLive being the honorable exceptions!

Meanwhile, the sitting politicians of leading Councils present all the new tweaks to their policies and get plenty of radio, TV and press coverage. The exception to this is during the six weeks before local elections, when the media are forced to give equal coverage to each party standing. But for the rest of the four-year cycle, the bias shows.

Electing a “small party” Councillor

If a Councillor from a small party gets elected where I live, and is not part of the big majority group, does that mean I lose out?

NO! It often means you get a better deal. This is because, in Kent, Councillors of the smaller parties have to work harder to make sure they represent the full range of opinions of the people in the area they represent. Councillors of the big majority group, often think it is enough to do what the leaders of the big party tell them to do, and so they just represent the 13 to 20% of the electorate who voted for them last time.

Party proportions in Swale

Where do Town and Parish Councils fit in?

This is the lowest level of the three tiers of Council. Here, Councillors do not usually receive any allowance. Not all parts of Kent have Parish/Town Councils.  Some Parish or Town Councils are really dynamic and push the boundaries to do as much as possible for their communities,  Many have been involved recently in developing neighbourhood plans.

Getting involved in a Parish or Town Council in this way can be the start of a politician’s career.  So this is where the challenger parties can make a good start at growing their influence in an area.