NO ZOOM: A decision to return to in-person town hall meetings is bad for democracy

When the pandemic forced us to re-think how we do things some people fell into the trap of thinking this is how they’d always be.

Clearly, the argument went, people will see how better new ways are and people won’t want to go back.

I wasn’t one of them.

In 1789, the French revolutionaries were met by counter-revolutionaries who wanted to turn the tide of history back. This is always the case with any social change.

One of the good ideas was using video conferencing like Zoom to run meetings. The step allowed for people to log on at home to follow the proceedings. In the case of Handforth Parish Council it also showed how badly democracy was performing.

More public and more accountability were the spin-offs of Zoom meetings.

The counter-revolution

This sense of progress has come to a halt with a letter from local government minister Luke Hall MP to English councils where he points to updated guidance here that recommends meetings return to in-person delivery.

Rules for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland councils are issued by their home government.

The key passage is here:

A good day for bad councillors

There’s no data to accompany this to suggest the decision will make local government more open and accountable.

Heaven knows if this will bring more people into seeing what their council was doing.

Indeed, it’s hard to see the binning of Zoom and a return to dusty council chambers attended by elderly men and women and one man and a guide dog in the public gallery is a positive step in 2021.

A Zoom meeting with no face-to-face contact is inherently safer than a public meeting even with some space between seats and a bottle of hand gel by the door.

It’s also worth noting that Parliament will continue online meetings until the summer at least.

Mind, it’ll be good for councillors who don’t like transparency and accountability.

History tells us that sensible decisions taken in a crisis won’t mean they stay. If you work in central government you may recall the mid-pandemic request for staff to go to the office to save town and city centres. All of a sudden it was about saving the coffee shops when in reality it was about the big pension funds who have vast assets lying empty.

What’s next?

Of course the office isn’t dead, it’s just waiting for the counter-revolution.

EDIT: Speak of the devil.

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