Tag Archives: parliament

A progressive majority in 2015?

Yesterday was a significant day in politics for many reasons. The most reported reason was the awful passing of the welfare bill which caps benefit rises to 1% for three years, well below inflation. So in real-terms working-age people are having cuts in their benefits imposed. This is on top of the other cuts they will be experiencing to services, to council tax benefit, the total household cap on benefits and so on.

 

It is an attack on the poorest and only furthers the snide false idea that somehow those on benefits are luxuriating at home whilst others work hard. Sadly, as the numbers are in Parliament now, the bill was always going to pass. Caroline Lucas, some LibDem rebels and Labour did vote against the bill. But, as the Economist said in relation to their vote on the EU budget position, Labour are playing a dangerous and cynical game. They knew this bill was going to pass and they’ve ruled out repealing it should they win in 2015. So their vote against the bill last night was a hollow gesture. Only more so when one hears that they are willing to accept the government’s (diminishing) spending envelope for welfare but debate the priorities within it. In other words, Labour too would be cutting benefits but just in ways they don’t want to specify until after an election. This is similar to their admission they too would cut local government funding in government but won’t be drawn on the detail.

 

At times like this I find Labour’s cynicism breathtaking. I also find myself incredibly disappointed when I know so many Labour councillors around the country do not support the positions of their national leadership. Perhaps against reason and experience, I hope for better from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

 

The country desperately needs a progressive majority at the next election to reverse the damage of the Coalition government. It’s a political reality that this would absolutely have to include Labour. Indeed a progressive coalition’s formation could well pull the current Labour leadership back towards their more progressive roots.

 

So on to another reason yesterday was politically significant: The Labour Party published a list of their target parliamentary seats. This publication was telling as it seemed to completely ignore the electoral reality that the share of votes going to Labour and Conservatives has been in consistent decline for decades. Membership of those parties has also been in long-term decline. Mirroring politics in much of Europe, the British are now voting for a greater diversity of parties. This appears to be an irreversible trend which Labour utterly ignore by suggesting that they alone, despite their dire finances, are going to win a complete majority in the next Parliament.

 

Major groups like Compass recognise the need for a progressive majority which is why they have opened their membership beyond Labour to anyone with progressive (‘democratic left’ they call it) values.

 

Recall that in 2010 Labour lost all their parliamentary seats in Sussex, indeed they were almost completely wiped out in the entire region. Yet their list targets all three parliamentary seats in the city and more beyond.

 

In 2010 it was quite plain that Labour could have retained at least one seat in Brighton & Hove if they had targeted their resources instead of trying to hold all three seats. I can understand choosing which seat to target may have been difficult to decide on within the local party. But now they face a clean sheet. The Green Party is going to throw everything we have at Brighton Pavilion, our flagship constituency with Caroline Lucas as our superb MP. Labour could well risk spending huge resources across all three seats again without the results they are hoping for at the end of it.

 

We have a progressive majority in our city. The vast majority of our residents do not support the Coalition parties and their policies. We see this in election results time and again. However they don’t always get the MPs or councillors they hope for because of our electoral system, uncertainty over how to vote tactically and party tribalism.

 

All progressives in the city should be seeking to oust Conservative MPs in 2015. This will only be achievable locally, and nationally, through a broader electoral effort than just the Labour party. Greens, Trade Unionists, disaffected LibDems and more all have a role to play in ensuring progressive MPs are elected. Labour’s announcement yesterday was very ‘old politics’ and does the city no service in trying to reject the coalition’s policies. I hope other political leaders locally will join with me in seeking a progressive majority for the city in the 2015 elections, and avoid reverting to party tribalism.

In a pickle? Not with Eric Pickles backing me!

Last Thursday, as I was preparing for the full council meeting that afternoon, a tweet suggested something extraordinary might be happening in Westminster. No, not a new rainbow coalition to stop the Tory cuts, but something still quite unexpected.

Local government minister Eric Pickles MP rose to answer a question about his planned abolition of the Standards Board, which runs the councillor code of conduct under which I am currently ‘guilty’ for my use of YouTube.

Rather than just provide the answer and sit back down again, Mr Pickles chose to cite my case as an example of why the Standards Board regime needed to go. Well, despite vehemently disagreeing with Mr Pickles on many things, I agree with him on this. The current regime for regulating councillors prevents them from doing what most would naturally assume is their democratic duty. The process is bureaucratic, needlessly involved and often abused for political point-scoring. Good riddance I say.

So Mr Pickles joins fellow minister Grant Shapps MP, John Hemming MP and a swathe of others in supporting my cause. I was invited to discuss Mr Pickle’s support on BBC Sussex Radio last Friday, with his colleague Bob Neill MP – you can listen again here. I’m told this was also covered on BBC South Today.

Until the localism bill is passed, the standards regime remains and I am still subject to it – so I continue to prepare for my appeal tribunal on 3rd November. It will be held from 9.30am at the Brighton Hilton Metropole — all welcome!

Making the case for electoral reform from scratch

Electoral reform is very much on people’s minds as they struggle on how to vote and reflect on the prospects of a hung parliament. David Cameron has defended the current ‘first past the post’ system by saying ” I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office.”

Which is a deeply untruthful answer, as Cameron must surely know. He faces a battle to swing enough seats to win a majority in the face of the voting system’s Labour bias. In 2005 the vast majority of voters didn’t vote for Labour, yet Labour were returned to power with a majority in parliament. Not exactly the ‘throwing out’ Cameron suggests.

But rather than getting bogged down in debates about strong governments, coalitions and the experiences of Germany, Italy or Spain; let’s go back to first principles.

As a developed society we have evolved public services, benefits, a legal system and taxation to fund these. How these are run, what they do and how they work are important decisions which affect us all.

So that we can spend most of time living our lives, doing our work and caring for our families, we have chosen to delegate the decision-making to representatives. We generally agree that the best way to choose people to represent us is by an election where every citizen has one vote. The principle is that our preferences can all be heard equally because we want our chosen representatives to be representative of us. But the electoral system we use  (how votes are translated into representatives) affects the results.

Surely if 15% of people vote for party X and 20% vote for party Y then the percentage of representatives from each of those parties must be as close as possible to those percentages. That’s the most fair and representative outcome. And we know countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany with fair electoral systems have good stable governments and a healthy diversity of views in a mature political culture.

That’s why we need electoral reform – for fairer election results, a more diverse parliament and a better politics.

The Future of British Politics

In this essay I argue that for lasting democratic renewal, this country urgently needs constitutional reform, empowered local politics and better quality politicians.

It is striking how many commentators argue that the “time for reform is now”, that there seems to be a “groundswell of support” or a “new consensus” forming. Sadly, as of late 2009, there doesn’t seem to be the reform at any level that these authors sense is imminent. Are reformists as a group fooling themselves? Or by making their proposals seem inevitable do they hope to garner more support?

In fact I think that they are correct. A great number of people, quite possibly a majority, feel deeply dissatisfied with how the UK is run. How its basic processes operate and the poor tangible results they deliver.

The NHS is fragmenting into Foundation Trusts regardless of local opinion. Schools are nailed to the national curriculum and obsessive testing. The Police are chasing the same drug users over and over again while lax licensing leaves communities dazed by alcoholic chaos.

It does seem like time for reform to me. But politics… our politicians… are just not responding effectively to the challenges, if at all. They make lots of noise about policies and initiatives. But they are designed for the media – so they, the politicians, are seen to be doing something.

There are honorable exceptions but I am afraid that the vast majority of politicians are dreadful. They fail to critically assess the issues or resulting legislation. They toe craven party lines, which again are crafted for the media first and foremost. They don’t seem to mind dodging questions or parroting massaged statistics on national television. These are not normal people. I wouldn’t make figures up when talking to my boss or friends. I doubt many of us would. If asked a question I would try to answer it honestly, not answer a different question altogether.

The media are a problem too… they make sport of politicians often putting them in impossible situations. Sometimes, like exposing the expenses debacle, they are effective in holding the politicians to account. But too often they are happy to recite lines fed to them by political operatives resulting in crescendos of scaremongering, disinformation and out-of-context ‘revelations’.

Perhaps this country has got the politicians it deserves. But I hope not… I think that it is more correct to say that politicians have somehow morphed into a separate class with their own priorities, values and way of operating. They have become disconnected from the greater population in a very unhelpful way. Try as they might, they can’t help but put their own interests ahead of others.

People bemoan professional politicians. I don’t entirely agree. I would love politicians to be professional in how their conducted politics. Wasn’t Churchill the consummate professional? I see politics as a process of negotiation between competing visions, needs and interests. It is difficult work, filled with tricky compromises and careful balancing acts. Too often it is portrayed as simple ideologies battling it out — but in reality there is never a simple ‘red overcomes blue’ victory. If our politicians were more explicit about this reality, more careful and much more honest I believe that would greatly help.

Why aren’t they? Because the culture of our politics is excessively tribal, focussed on defending the party and often far too petty. It seems extraordinary that so much time and energy could be spent on banning fox hunting yet despite many promises and reviews we still don’t have an elected upper house or a more proportional voting system for Westminster. We also have an absurd number of ministers soaking up MPs who should be busy as legislators, not managers. We are burdened with an unwritten constitution, notoriously unbalanced libel laws, an unhealthy obsession with maintaining our position in the world order (hence vast spending on the military) and a massively centralised government.

We also have a famously aggressive media pack which has forced government into launching incessant new initiatives often developed in the space of nothing more than a few days.

It is clear to me in my travels that countries with strong regional and local government tend to fare better. There is a stronger sense of ‘place’, there is more accountability and profile for local politicians and hence national government is not so burdened with details. Nowhere is perfect but we in the UK have spent too long being pleased with our past achievements. They are long gone. This is not a new trend…

In 1872 we were one of the last democracies to adopt the secret paper ballot, way after our colonies had done so. Having been an early adopter of democracy itself we then rested on our laurels, while others saw the opportunity for positive reform and took it. Still to this day our vote is not truly secret due to the serial number of every ballot. In every other serious democracy such a system is regarded as an abomination. Have we lost the knack of reform?

I think not. We have still managed to introduce some devolution, the Human Rights Act and the creation of a Supreme Court. These were all good things, though there are details we could argue need improving.

However I don’t believe any of these were seen as inherently threatening to the political class. Devolution, if anything, created more space for the political classes and initially at least, did not create any major political upsets either.

An elected upper house and proportional representation, for example, would smash open the current club quite dramatically. Without a House of Lords how would failed MPs stay in the gang or Prime Ministers stuff their cabinets? And proportional representation would abolish the notion of safe seats, utterly changing the logic of current British general election campaigning (and so media reporting). Changing the rules for political party finances would risk more new parties gaining ground. A written constitution would eliminate the wriggle room that allowed decisions like the second war on Iraq to squeeze through. These changes would create a political system and associated culture that would be significantly more accessible and accountable.

Let’s run through a quick list of reforms I think necessary:

  • A written constitution;
  • An elected upper house;
  • Proportional Representation for all elections;
  • Reformed party finance with capped donations and expenditure;
  • Reduced number of Ministers;
  • Possibly rooted in the new constitution, a major re-balancing of power and responsibilities between national government, agencies and local government.

This list resists all the policy changes I would love to implement from rewriting our tax system to nationalising the railways! These would be for our re-invigorated political system to debate. I don’t believe that the reforms I suggest would swing the political leanings of Westminster one way or the other. I don’t think that should be a factor in one’s deliberations on constitutional reform and in the end it doesn’t matter. As long as the reformed system is significantly more representative of people’s wishes then I am hopeful that outcomes will be improved.

I know some will probably call this hard to swallow because I am a “Green”. As an elected politician for the Green Party I am branded, stamped, tarred with the party political imprint. This is a symptom of the problem with British politics at the moment. Once someone “comes out” as being party political they are viewed with suspicion, their utterances are treated with caution and they are no longer “independent”. Our political culture needs renewal so we can get past such simplistic views.

Too much political discourse revolves around one party being bad and the other good. I personally consider party labels as flags of convenience for describing certain worldviews. It doesn’t mean everything from one or the other should be utterly discredited. When we cannot find common ground, let us heartily disagree. But to be so tribal makes agreement when there is common ground that much more difficult.

So what shape should politics and politicians take?

I hope for constitutional reform, I see that as the most likely catalyst for lasting change to our political culture. But as we may be waiting a long time we can still be mindful of Ghandi’s exhortation that we be the change we want to see in the world.

I believe a modern politician should first and foremost be true to themselves. By honestly reflecting their views and acting in accordance with them they are far less likely to hoodwink voters, toe party lines on difficult votes or mislead in interviews.

They need to be honest, hardworking and open to opposing views. They should be excellent communicators both in public and one to one.

In their defence, today’s politicians all suffer from incessant interruptions, excessive meetings and vast requests on their time whether emails, phone calls or invitations to events. Somehow politicians need to find the self confidence and strength to sail a path through this to calmer waters where they can reflect, consider and do much more quality legislative work.

Whilst accepting the electoral realities of re-election bids, being seen at hundreds of events and in thousands of press clippings should not be the main focus of our politicians. Nobody can think clearly when running all the time. We need to help them slow down if we want better quality thinking from them.

I do think being a politician is a full time job. It is if you want to do it properly. Legislating against second jobs seems overly restrictive though, let the voters decide on that. But while we expect our MPs, even the most backbench ones from small parties, to work full time… we seem to have a much lower opinion of our councillors.

Despite managing millions if not billions of assets (Brighton & Hove City Council’s assets are worth about £2 billion) councillors are expected to work only part time on their duties. Furthermore based on the time they are expected to work (which excludes residents meetings etc) the value is discounted by around a third because being a Councillor is a ‘public service’. So councillors end up with a small allowance — which is taxed like a salary — for managing the area they represent. Councillors in Oxford City get around £3k a year, Brighton & Hove around £11k and Birmingham £16k; and some say Birmingham is the largest local authority of its type in Europe.

54 councillors in Brighton & Hove are responsible for managing, monitoring, scrutinising the budget, policies and actions of a council which provides waste collection, social care, schooling, cultural services, roads, street lights… the list goes on. Yes the council leader, cabinet members and some others get additional allowances but the leader in Brighton & Hove gets £38k in total while the Chief Executive is on some £170k. Who is in charge there?

I’m not advocating £170k salaries… CEO pay needs reducing. But we’re trying to get our local government on the cheap – and it shows from the poor results we get. What if there were fewer councillors, about one per ward, earning around £30k each and the leader on something like £60k. Would that be outrageous? It would cost about the same as the current councillor pay bill. But we would then have councillors able to dedicate their whole time to supporting their local area and properly considering policies.

At the moment that isn’t possible because nobody has the time, so officers take the lead and councillors just mutter and nod at their reports.

If we were to rebalance the power between local and national government then reforming the role of councillors would become inevitable. It is only because local authorities are the poor relatives of government that the current situation has been allowed to persist. If, like in Sweden, local councils had lead responsibility for health or policing as they used to, then I doubt such weak democratic structures with part time representatives would be allowed to persist.

It is our current politicians who are responsible for our constitutional arrangements, the centralisation of government and the dire political culture. So, remembering the honorable exceptions I noted previously, I am led this conclusion about the future of British politics:

For a better politics we need better politicians. It’s a simple as that.

Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution

10 Downing Street

I was very interested to see the launch of the ‘Open Up’ campaign, with a very slick website and duck-house videos. I would expect nothing less given the people behind it including the immensely capable Becky Hogge, ORG’s former Executive Director.

There is as a whole swathe of campaigning going on at the moment calling for reform in one sense or another. This is extremely encouraging and welcome, it’s wonderful that people are speaking out and getting involved. More power to them.

However, I must take issue with Open Up’s proposed solution. I absolutely agree with their core argument that we need better and more diverse politicians. I think the poor quality of British politics and politicians is an absolutely critical issue at the moment.

In my view party political representative democracy is still the least worst option available to us. If we didn’t have parties we’d have to invent them. All lasting democracies develop groupings of some form another. But we urgently need to re-invigorate parties and our democratic institutions.

Interestingly the Speaker’s Conference in Parliament has recently been touching on these issues too. I took the opportunity to watch online the three party leaders speaking to the Conference: Cameron sounds more dynamic next to Brown but didn’t really say anything more significant. I felt Clegg was the most honest in admitting many of the people they need weren’t coming forward. He also argued that Westminster itself wasn’t the right kind of place to attract the people we need in politics.

We need better politicians

So if we accept that to improve our politics we need better politicians; then it follows that we need a more diverse set of candidates from a wider set of backgrounds. How are open primaries going to do that?

The argument is that because anyone can stand to be a candidate in an open primary, the barriers to ‘real people’ becoming candidates are lowered. People who aren’t party animals, more likely to be ‘mavericks’, will be more likely to stand. This is possibly the case but standing for an open primary then an actual general election doesn’t strike me as a low barrier, many will be put off by that. Furthermore there is no discussion of how to prevent the rich getting a head-start in winning an open primary.

This is one of several practical problems I see with open primaries. Another is that most parties cannot possibly afford to run open primaries where every elector in a constituency can vote for their candidate. The three largest parties are all in debt and the addition of this kind of process in every constituency would be beyond them let alone the smaller parties.

It would also be expensive for potential candidates, particularly if the primaries were truly ‘open’ allowing leafleting and canvassing across the constituency. Such primaries would further extend the length of time a potential candidate would need to dedicate to winning a Westminster seat. If a General Election goes to the wire (as this one looks to) then it can already be a two or three year unpaid commitment before we throw in a whole open primary process.

Finally there is a real risk of voter burnout once the novelty of open primaries has worn out. In a seat like Brighton Pavilion you could be looking at four or five primaries minimum then the General Election itself. There is evidence, particularly from the United States where some citizens vote on dozens posts and initiatives annually, that the more things people are asked to vote on, the less likely they are to vote. There can be too much of a good thing.

These are serious practical problems with open primaries which proponents don’t properly address, I’m not sure they can. There are also political problems with open primaries which mean they won’t deliver what proponents hope for.

Political problems

I believe open primaries will greatly increase the chance of politically naive candidates being selected. I don’t just mean innocent about the ways of politics (though that could be an issue that impacts on their effectiveness as MPs), but that candidates could genuinely not understand or know the range of a party’s policies before being selected.

Imagine a popular local figure gets selected for a party in an open primary then wins the General Election to become an MP by campaigning on, for example, health and policing. This MP is asked by their party whips to vote on a variety of issues in ways they don’t support such as education or civil partnerships. What do they do? Most parties use peer pressure and whips to enforce party discipline and ensure that policies are pushed through (if they are in government). If you vote for a candidate from a certain party shouldn’t you expect them to generally be in line with that party’s core values and policies? How will open primaries, when people of all and no party affiliation have a hand in selecting a party’s candidate ensure some compatibility with a party’s values?

We don’t want to see only the most loyal, grovelling party animals selected as candidates. Absolutely not. But we also don’t want people to become disenchanted because they voted for a certain party only to find the candidate isn’t really in line with what the party represents. Rebels have an important place in Parliament at critical times, but systematic rebellion (pre-planned or unintentional through naivety) is a recipe for chaos, not reasoned legislative work.

Open primaries also don’t alter the electoral reality of safe seats. Unless extremely ineffective or corrupt, most sitting MPs will have an inherent advantage in any selection whether it’s an open primary or internal party process. That’s just how it is, they have the profile and the contacts. Open primaries don’t neutralise incumbency, and we see in the US that it’s still reported as unusual for a sitting politician to lose their party’s selection through a primary if seeking re-election.

We need reform and a new political culture

We need a new culture of politics, one that is more open, honest and transparent. I admire the energy and passion of the Open Up campaign, but disagree with their prescribed solution. Open primaries will be prohibitively expensive for parties and candidates, will burn out voters, could result in candidates not truly representing the party label they stand for whilst failing to address the problem of safe seats.

Changing the culture in our politics requires a more open media, a redesigned educational system, a new constitution, reform of political funding, a recall process and most importantly — a system of proportional representation to elect members to both houses of Parliament. Call for open primaries distracts from these key requirements in the reform agenda.

I believe party politics has a great future ahead of it, if we can increase the number and quality of parties. We need smaller parties that can be more representative of specific groups in our society, more flexible, responsive and less hamstrung by the internal coalitions and simmering disagreement that the large parties of today represent.

This would force greater collaboration, more discourse as opposed to bombastic posturing and a richer, better politics for our country. What do you think?

The Learning & Skills Council fiasco

You may have been aware of the grand plans a good number of colleges in Brighton & Hove had been preparing over the last two years. These plans involved new facilities, amazing new buildings, incredible resources and flights of architectural imagination. Certainly I didn’t agree with all the detailed plans but I welcomed the additional resources scheduled to be ploughed into education in our local colleges.

But the resources weren’t in fact there. In an astonishing, jaw-dropping tale of mismanagement it subsequently emerged that the Learning & Skills Council, a government quango, had massively overpromised. They had told hundreds of colleges to proceed with their plans, take out loans and hire consultants, architects etc to flesh out their plans. However finally the LSC had to admit they couldn’t afford to pay for all the schemes they had initially suggested should proceed.

How so many colleges could be led up the garden path by a government body beggars belief, it’s an epic cock-up whereby hundreds of colleges will be left out of pocket due to government failings – taxpayers are paying for these problems.

A committee of MPs have come to similar conclusions. More from the excellent Westminster blog I Spy Strangers (who I feel report on Parliamentary business in an old fashioned way – which is a good thing in this context):

A committee of MPs has castigated the “financial fiasco of the capital programme in further education colleges” and blamed the “heinously complicated” management structure at the Learning and Skills Council.

“But, as we set out in this report, no-one was keeping an eye on the total amount of money which was being committed and the value of applications coming forward.
“In December 2008 it suddenly dawned on the senior management of DIUS and the LSC that the total potential cost of projects which had received ‘Approval in Principle’ exceeded the capital budget and many more applications were in the pipeline.
“Far from trying to damp down increasing demand in 2008 the LSC had been encouraging it.”

I hope Brighton & Hove’s colleges pull through this, I know we’ll support them 100% in trying to recoup their losses from the government.