The Rotten Borough of Barking and Dagenham

The term “rotten” or “pocket” borough was applied to parliamentary constituencies which had such a small number of voters that they could be individually bribed by the local landlord. Before the 1832 Reform Act, the electoral franchise was so narrow that the aristocratic landowner could ensure that his son or another relation was elected to Parliament to represent his personal interests.

In Barking and Dagenham, the number of active Labour Party members is so low that a would-be ward councillor can invite his or her cronies along to the ward selection meeting to ensure the right result. The council is therefore dominated by a network of cronies and the effects can be seen in the council assembly votes.

On 5 December 2012, despite a lobby of about fifty people outside the Barking town hall, the Labour members of the assembly voted to cut the budget to voluntary sector organisations. This sector delivers services to disabled and elderly residents and had earlier submitted a petition to the council not to reduce their slashed budgets even further.

But to stifle these protests, the Labour members also voted to restrict the right to petition. Previously two hundred signatures were required to compel the assembly to discuss a problem, but this requirement has now been raised to 1500 signatures. If an organisation is successful in raising 1500 signatures, the petition will be referred to a select committee, but not to the full assembly. There will be no right to appeal against the decisions of the select committee. Such is the state of democracy in the Rotten Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

The only bright political star in the constituency is Margaret Hodge, MP, who as the Chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee has consistently exposed the tax evasion practices of Vodaphone, Goldman Sachs, Google, Amazon, Starbucks and other companies. These multinational organisations consistently spirit their profits away from the British exchequer into offshore tax havens.  Meanwhile the residents of one of the most deprived boroughs in London suffer hardship.  The borough of Barking and Dagenham is now at the top of the league table for house repossessions.

But how can political representatives become more answerable to their electors? Ed Miliband has invited the US community organiser Arnie Graf from Chicago to investigate and report on the reorganisation of the dwindling and demoralised Labour Party membership (Guardian, 21 November). One radical suggestion from Arnie Graf was that the selection of candidates should be carried out by open primaries. The entire population of an area would be involved rather than just Labour party members. But the reaction of one Labour member was that “If we give them the vote, who knows what they will do?”  Arnie’s response was, “Well, if you want to stitch up everything, maybe that’s why you’re losing so badly…”

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