Early this morning, the postman dropped an interesting eight-page booklet through the mailslot. In fact, I am not alone. Every home in London will be receiving one of these booklets this week.
The booklet is called "A Mayor and Assembly for London? Your Choice", and it concerns an upcoming referendum here in the greater London area. On 7th May, the millions of people who live in London's 32 boroughs will choose whether or not they would like to see fundamental changes occur in the London local authority structure. From the booklet one learns that the question put to the electorate will be clear and straightforward:
"Are you in favour of the Government's proposals for a Greater London Authority made up of an elected Mayor and a separately elected Assembly?"
Residents of London, including Commonwealth and EU citizens living here, will be able to vote yes or no to this referendum question. The booklet includes an application for postal or proxy voting for those who will be abroad or simply outside London during the referendum and also for those who may not be able to reach the polling station for reasons of infirmity.
The booklet explains the government's proposals in clear and simple terms. It gives an overview of the changes that will occur if voters return a yes vote including notes on transport oversight, environmental regulation and city planning authority changes. It clearly outlines what the new post of Mayor will do and also what role the new 25 member Assembly will have. Then the booklet talks about costs and clearly states that Londoners could expect to see their council taxes rise by a few pounds a year as a result of these changes.
Although it is produced by a government department under control of the Labour party which is firmly in favour of a yes vote on 7th May, the booklet is actually quite even-handed in its approach to the referendum. The booklet is full of phrases such as "London decides when you decide", "your choice" and "yes or no" in bold letters. The back page clearly states "London Decides, yes or no", and a picture shows 14 traditional black cabs with "yes" or "no" in their roof lights. The booklet is so even-handed that the editors have made sure that 7 of those cab roof lights say "yes" and 7 say "no".
For those who want more information, the booklet offers Londoners a helpline number and an Internet address (http://www.london-decides.detr.gov.uk) from which all documents pertaining to the proposals are available. The booklet also offers a postal address from which people can receive fact sheets on particular issues that may interest them receive or even the entire White Paper (actual text of the government legislation) on the new proposals. Because there is a recognition of the multi-cultural character of London, the same booklet is also offered in foreign languages such as Hindi, Greek, Gujerati, Turkish and Chinese to name a few. In addition, the booklet comes in various formats such as Braille, audiocassette and large print.
This availability of information about upcoming groundbreaking legislation makes a refreshing change from the Tory government, which unlike many of its partners in the then EC did not send such an informative booklet to all its citizens during the public discussion of the Maastricht Treaty. One can fault the new Labour government on many things, but as far as informing the public about the potentially monumental changes in regional administration (Scottish devolution, Welsh assembly), the Labour party seems to be going about this business in the right way.
I would go so far as to say that this is practically a model of how things ought to be done in a democracy. When great changes are afoot, a referendum should be put to the public. The government should inform people about the referendum in a fair manner via direct mailing. It should be honest and up-front about the costs of the proposals. Additional information should be easily available for those who would like it, and people of different cultural backgrounds or with differing abilities should be completely involved in the decision. Residents who will find themselves away from home during the referendum should still be able to vote by post or proxy, and this should be easy to arrange.
The government can state its case for the changes, and it can try to convince the public of its case. But in the end, it is the choice itself which should be stressed in the direct mailing: "yes or no, your choice".
Contrast this to the Czech Republic for a moment. The monumental changes represented by membership of NATO will not be put to a referendum, and citizens who found themselves abroad would not get to vote in a referendum anyway. The Czech authorities continuously dodge the question of how much NATO membership is going to cost. There has been no general mailer to all the citizens of the Republic to inform them of what their sons might die for and offer them a choice of options.
Giving away carp to a few Prague residents who wear pro-NATO ribbons and creating a travelling road show (Lobkowicz's agitprop) to present citizens with a fait accompli is no substitute for having the people decide. It's true that many public documents are available at the web site for the Representative Assembly, but good luck getting public documents in minority languages or on audiocassette. Most importantly, the fact that there might be a choice is simply rejected by the Czech establishment.
While the British government tells Londoners "yes or no, your choice", the Czech elites essentially tell the citizens of the Czech Republic "yes only, our choice".
Quite a difference.