Douglas Carswell MP (on the right of the picture) – blogger, co-author of The Plan, and founder of Direct Democracy – was our guest at a Power Lunch in Westminster yesterday. He believes that the coalition's commitment to decentralisation– with the devolution of power to municipalities and the public, and the diversity in public service delivery that it implies – is genuine.
To some extent the LibDem leadership are even stronger advocates of this agenda than some Conservatives. Of course, if there is to be a real shift in power, it means there must be a shift in funding too, since local authorities control only about a quarter of their budgets. But again, the presence of the LibDems in the coalition has pushed the Conservatives to think about it.
On the other hand, the government does seem to have messed up its earliest exercises in 'crowdsourcing' popular democracy. Its online consultation on the 'freedom bill' – supposedly a great bonfire of redundant laws – should have been more of a wiki rather than the usual official page designed and run by Whitehall, condescendingly inviting comments. And the fact that the only definite clause in the bill so far is a plan to prevent car clamping on private land just convinces sceptics like me that the bill will become a catch-all for various minor intrusions into our lives and property, rather than a genuine bit of rolling back the state.
Still, it seems the direct democracy agenda is alive and well. Carswell wants to see open primaries that would end the central control of candidate selection by party bosses, and US-style recall petitions that would keep MPs in 'safe' seats (ie most of them) on their toes. We need fewer ministers too drawn from the House of Commons – its role should be to question the executive rather than be part of it. And stronger parliamentary committees that could question departmental actions and spending.
That is an agenda that could give the coalition purpose, even if the LibDem's cherished referendum on election reform were lost. And it would indeed improve our democracy.