The model we have outlined has focused on the nation state as the universally recognised unit of political sovereignty[1]. This is not to say that smaller political units are not important. National government is predicated on establishing a set of constitutional linkages and a division of power between central and local authorities. So, we shall consider how the above model would operate on these levels, and how these levels would fit within the whole system.

Small political units (such as wards or neighbourhoods)

As a rule of thumb, the smaller the political unit, the greater the role direct democracy should have, and the smaller the role of other elements should be. This is because larger political units have already set boundaries within which the smaller units operate, so a meritocratic element is not necessary. Furthermore, considering the small number of people in the smallest units, representatives are not necessary either, except when negotiating with other units of the same size. This is why we suggest that they can be run entirely by direct democracy – as long as they deal with local issues that do not concern anybody else. However, they must either remain within a framework that is defined by the larger political units, or challenge it. This is why the mechanisms for consultations and for challenging decisions coming from above need to be put in place, but these small units should not have the power of veto. A final decision must rest at the greater level of social organisation. Certain decisions may sometimes need to be imposed if they are in the interest of society as a whole. For example, no ward may want to host a prison, but the country must have prisons, so they have to be located somewhere. Small units would need to take some obligations for wider society beyond their boundaries. This cannot be avoided, but it can be made fair, by evenly distributing such obligations as much as possible.

Medium-sized political units (e.g. districts)

These political units would also be without a meritocratic element. This is because the difference between a local constitution and the constitution of a sovereign state cannot be significant without a serious challenge to the cohesion of the state. However, relying on direct democracy only would be too cumbersome at this level, so we propose adding an element of indirect democracy. In other words, a medium-sized political unit would have its own government and elected representatives. This local government and legislature would have several roles: to make local decisions; to harmonise activities, projects and even conflicts between smaller political units; and to be a ‘go-between’, negotiating and harmonising (finding a way to put into practice) mandates from local communities on the one hand and national political bodies on the other. In a nutshell, local governments should be able to deal with local issues, but again not at the expense of wider society.

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An important question to consider is whether or not local governments should be able to collect taxes for local services and projects. This is appealing for many as it would lead to greater independence, but it has some drawbacks. Usually, poor areas need more investment than rich ones, but, by their nature, contribute less in tax (in total) than their rich counterparts. Local taxes could vary to meet investment needs, but then those in poor areas would have to pay more tax than those in rich areas, even though they can ill afford it. This may also have a negative impact on investment and increase inequality further. Better redistribution (putting money for regeneration where it is needed) can only be carried out by central government. Such redistributions are justified, as the whole society would benefit from subsequent regeneration projects. Thus, a middle ground is proposed: local governments can collect tax for the day to day services (such as recycling, waste collection and streetlights) but would rely on central government funds for regeneration and other large projects, when and where they are needed. This is already the case in many countries. Regarding direct democracy, it should be able to play a similar role and express itself through similar means at this level as at the national level.

Urban areas

For the first time in history, there are more people living in urban areas than in the countryside. These urban areas appear to be natural political units, with their inhabitants sharing many common interests (transport, infrastructure and so on) so it makes sense for these units to have their own local governments (such as, for example, the London Assembly). This may be particularly pertinent to large towns, cities and conurbations that consist of several districts (or even several towns) in order to enable them to deal with issues that concern the whole area. There is no reason why these assemblies should not be elected in the same way as the legislature, including the mayor (a local equivalent of the president). At present, mayors are sometimes directly elected, but that usually gives them disproportionate powers in relation to the assembly. This may look more democratic, but it has two disadvantages: it heavily depends on the charisma and personality of individual candidates, and the mayor and the assembly may not see eye to eye, in which case, in order to make decisions, one has to have greater power, thereby marginalising the other. On the other hand, the selection of a mayor by the assembly (in the same way we earlier suggested to select the leader of the government) would enable a better balance between the two and help have a more constructive decision-making process. Direct democracy can have a greater role at this level of political organisation too. In Spain, for example, the citizen platforms drew up their own codes of ethics for their elected representatives, including salary and term limits, and strict transparency requirements. On the other hand, the meritocratic element would not be necessary in this case either.

[1] Although in some federations and unitary states, units have certain legislative powers (i.e. they can make their own laws), their sovereignty is still subordinate to the federal state.

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