The consequence of a retreat from politics?

Dennis Skinner - thought to be sceptical about consensus politics. (Pic: Riana Dzasta)

Dennis Skinner - thought to be sceptical about consensus politics. (Pic: Riana Dzasta)

It’s an interesting twist to the question I’ve been asking, on and off, over the past few weeks: What kind of representatives do we want?

So far, the options have included jurors, rogues and public paragons of virtue. But over on Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill suggests a somewhat alarming possibility: Maybe we need people who are locked in a partisan struggle – people who will die in a ditch to defend the interests of a social class or ideological clique. Maybe we need (shock … horror) politicians to represent us?

In short, he suggests that the whole expenses scandal is the product of a regrettable retreat from politics – a move to make Parliament meet the petty demands of it’s rivals, and a refusal to prioritise and accommodate political conflict:

“New Labour has discovered that transparency begets, not trust, but further suspicion – the more politicians make their personal purity into their major selling point, and the more they imply that parliament is a potentially corrupt and sleazy place, the more they invite scrutiny of their every foible and Kit Kat purchase.” Continue reading

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Political parties and decentralisation

Irish elections: generally more posters than in the UK

Irish elections: generally more posters than in the UK

So much is changing so quickly. Newspapers and broadcasters are changing. Governments now communicate using radically different means to the ones that were practiced a decade ago. Here’s Exhibit A.

We now have free interactive tools that enable us to hold huge multilateral conversations based upon collaborative filtering and reputation management. We can find useful strangers easily – and I don’t just mean with dating websites.

Of course, these changes throw up hazards. New doors have opened for budding demagogues, busy-bodies, lobbyists, snoopers and quacks. But it also throws up huge opportunities.

For me, the glittering prize – from a democratic point of view – is the potential to promote decentralisation of power. Putting the levers of power in a place that is geographically closer. Breaking down the rigidities that made participation impossible.

In the same way that the DIY ethic of blogging and social media has helped millions to somehow dilute the alienation of modern living, it has allowed many of us the chance to test our voice, contribute and to take some responsibility for public discourse – often for the first time. Continue reading

Caroline Spelman fails a localism test

Given all the talk of localism in recent months, it is pretty disappointing to see Caroline Spelman, the Conservative shadow Local Government minister, making the following statement (via the BBC) on Council Tax rises:

At a time when millions of workers are facing pay freezes or unemployment this year, it adds insult to injury to drive up bills by a further £41 a year, on top of previous years’ rises. Labour’s refusal to follow the example of Scotland and freeze council tax bills in England is unfair on English taxpayers, who yet again have received a raw deal.

What makes this posturing worse is that there is a real case for the Government to answer on the funding formula, non-domestic rates, LABGI and so on – all of which could be argued from a localist position. And yet we get this attack, which implies that central government is where voters should place the accountability for council tax rises.

Does Ms Spelman think the Westminster Government sets Council Tax? If she realises that councils do, does she know which party is in control in most of them?

Are interactive media experts really improving the quality of democracy?

Tony Blair: A bit more concerned about controlling his party's message than his predecessors were.

Tony Blair: A bit more concerned about controlling his party's message than his predecessors were.

OK, in recent posts, I’ve moaned about the demands for political transparency that are being fuelled by new interactive media applications. Let me try and put this into some perspective:

In my opening ‘defending political parties‘ post, I acknowledged that there are a few early knockout punches that could be delivered to the argument that political parties are a good thing.

Here are some examples: Firstly, all political parties ‘control their messages’ (unless they are an electorally unsuccessful party) and do anything they can within the law to silence opponents, discourage sceptics, and orchestrate the way that the public are seen to to receive their ideas.

Were you or I as boorish, the dinner-invitations would dry up fairly quickly. In this respect, politicians behave like successful commercial brands.

They conduct personal campaigns against their opponents, playing the man instead of the ball. They bully anyone that they need to in order to get their message across. They compete in the market for votes with the ruthlessness and cynicism with which businesses compete for customers.

If one of their number is caught with a hand in the till, they cover up or excuse it as far as they can. But if the alleged culprit is – in fact – innocent, they can still be expect to be abandoned without mercy if things get too hot.

The concerns that parties raise in opposition are often forgotten as soon as the ministerial backsides sink into the ministerial limo. They can play very fast-and-loose with the actualité at times. They are opaque where they could be transparent.

They are not consistent in their communications, and different audiences are routinely told what they want to hear. You can never trust a political party to do what it says it’s going to do, and you can expect manifesto pledges to be treated like clauses in a public-procurement contract: Things to be wriggled out of as soon as the deal is done.

But that’s enough about their virtues. No party could ever win an election, or govern effectively without committing all of the sins listed above, and few governments have ever been faced with an opposition that isn’t prepared to match them on these points. The alternative to strong political parties is a tyrany of Victors.

This is not to say that politicians don’t sometimes do bad things as well though. If they do all of the above, and introduce generally good legislation, I suspect that most of us would all forgive them. Continue reading

Will Victor be the eventual victor?

The voice of reason.

The voice of reason.

This blog is here to explore the concept of a more inclusive means of forming policy at a local level. So let me offer you two examples of the kind of people that we need to include in such processes.

Our first case in point – let’s call her Mrs Meldrew (though it’s not really a perfect parallel – perhaps Dot or Clarrie would do) is a woman who lives in difficult domestic circumstances. Caring for disadvantaged and difficult family-members, she was never able to develop a professional career, and she has no inherited wealth or private income.

She often works nights and always long hours because of the vicious circle she is trapped in – needing money to pay for occasional respite care.

She relies on public transport and local infrastructure. The library is one affordable trip to look forward to each week. She doesn’t have a PC at work and can’t afford to use one at home – and as a result, she’s not particularly tech savvy anyway. She doesn’t have an e-mail address, a Facebook account, and if you asked to Twitter her on the backchannel, she’d probably phone the police. Continue reading

Two party systems

There’s a very good article over at Westminster Wisdom about the longevity of the US two-party system – a dominance of only two largely unchanged political parties since 1860 – “a record unmatched by any other Democracy.”

A comparison with the UK, in which the period from 1945 until the late 1960s marked a fairly rigid period of allignment along party and class lines, and the subsequent fragmentation of voting paterns is interesting. There’s an entertaining gap-fill exercise here where you can test your knowledge of this, but it’s often hard to recognise just how much things have changed since 1966.

If you look at the general election results, you see only two very major parties, a very marginal Liberal Party, nothing that could be called a Green Party, tiny Nationalist parties and a miniscule far-right (Union Movement). 

Of the 630 MPs, all but 13 were Labour or Conservative. And of the remainder, 12 were Liberal and one was Republican Labour – the late Gerry Fitt in West Belfast.

The expectation among politicians that they should advance particular policies – as opposed to a general approach – in order to attract votes is a fairly new one in the UK. When Labour lost power to the Conservatives in 1970, a relatively small number of voters switched allegiance. In addition, it is often argued that this reflected a demographic shift (people leaving the Labour-voting class and joining the strata that vote Conservative) more than any reflection on the actual polcies of the political parties.

In 1970, Labour went into the General Election with a fair degree of optimism – their defeat was an unpleasant surprise to them. All of this following a period that included the devaluation of Sterling and Harold Wilson’s famous ‘Pound in your pocket‘ sophistry. 

All of this raises the question: Do we have an electoral system that reflects voters’ expectations of representation? If the main system of voting did so in 1970, by definition, it can no longer do so in 2009 because those expectations have changed so dramatically.

Escape End

Time for one last look at the Conservative party’s local government green paper Shift Control. A quick canter through chapters four and five, and then some conclusions.

Chapter Four is about spending. It says a Conservative Government will:

  • give local people greater control over how central government funds are spent in their area;
  • phase out ring fencing, so that decisions about how councils spend their budgets are taken by councils and their
    citizens alone;

  • make it easier for local government to raise money for local projects on the bond market.

The first point, about greater local control, refers to the Conservative-sponsored Sustainable Communities Act. This Act, according to the Green Paper allows “local governments to identify money spent in their area by central government agencies and then (after consultation with local people) to recommend ways in which it could be spent better by redirecting it to local priorities.”

That description of the Act is correct, in the same way that Lord of the Rings can be summarised as “Go and pop that ring down over there, Frodo”. In practice, between local people and the fulfilment of their desires are (i) the council, who have to choose which ideas to put forward; (ii) the LGA, who have to pick councils’ best ideas to recommend to Government; and (iii) the Government, starring HM Treasury as Sauron.

Now, if the Conservatives are serious about giving the SCA some zip, those obstacles may just fall away, but (as with other protestations of localism from parties in opposition) I am sceptical. I just can’t see the Treasury (or any Minister controlling it) being happy to let local authorities change central budgets, except at the extreme margins. Want to stop benefits payments or cancel a hospital build so you can try a whizzy new idea? Well, maybe we’ll let you take £20k out of the leg ulcer budget.

Chapter Five contains proposals for abolishing regional government, which are so eye-wateringly technical that I’m not even going to repeat the details. In summary, every regional-level strategy and body will be done away with (except in London), and councils will be free to do what they will, as long as they are within national planning guidance. The Regional Development Agencies will either continue or be replaced by alliances of local authorities co-operating on economic issues, depending on local wishes.

I think there’s something to be said for this approach. The regional bodies do their best, but they are big bureaucracies, not democratic institutions. Fundamentally, if we are serious about local democracy, local government should be taking the decisions that need to be taken about housing numbers, development etc. on a sensible grown-up basis. At the moment, anti-development councils jump up and down protesting about centrally imposed plans, pleasing their lobbyists, while avoiding any difficult decisions on their responsibility for the national economy. If they’re trusted with the powers, I suspect that they would use them sensibly.

To wrap up, then, what do I think of the green paper? It’s certainly not a great transformative vision for local government. “Occasionally interesting tinkering” is probably the best that could be said for it.

Good things? Some reasonable thoughts on regions, particularly the idea of local councils creating workable economic sub-regions. That’s important in the areas round London, which are very poorly served by the current regional structure. Warm words on devolving powers and releasing control, for all my scepticism about whether they will ever manage to do so.

Disappointments? The biggest is that the paper makes the same fudge as the current Government about localism. Does localism mean handing things to councils, or does it mean handing things to local people, over the heads of their elected councillors? Who can tell? Localism is a good thing, the Conservatives are in favour of it, the end. It doesn’t say much for the analysis behind the green paper that the difference between the different sorts of localism is never brought out, or even acknowledged.

Why give people referendums on council tax rates, but councils greater power over the location of housing developments? Why should the people of the twelve biggest urban authorities be forced to vote on whether they want a mayor, when the councillors of the thirteenth-biggest can introduce one or abolish one merely by putting it in a manifesto that no-one reads?

I suspect the answer is “because it seemed like a great idea at the time”, but that’s not really good enough for the likely future Government. Labour has tied itself up in knots on localism, and I expected the Conservatives to be clarifying the situation, not jumping in and knotting away themselves.

The paper is also, given its promises of referendums, astonishingly thin on building better day-to-day interactions between residents and councils. I appreciate that the Conservatives can’t be seen to be forcing councils to do things, but why not have a webcasting fund? Twitter training? Something, at least, to show that the Conservatives understand that political engagement can be built up from the local level.