Tag Archives: local-government

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

2009: worst local elections ever?

I wrote a short piece on the local elections on CiF yesterday, which is now live. At the time I was struggling to come up with a proper assessment of how the Lib Dems had done in the local elections so mostly concentrated on the departure of Lord Rennard, but I did write this:

The Lib Dems’ performance in the local elections last week appears to be a perfect example of the perniciousness of the British electoral system. Our overall share of the vote was up but we haemorrhaged councillors because of a swing from Labour to the Conservatives and independents. The Tories certainly performed strongly in this election, but their gains massively outweigh their share of the vote. This ought to make any right-minded individual seethe with a sense of injustice.

At the time I was wondering if the final Lib Dem tally would actually end up positive. Looking at the BBC results service yesterday, every time I refreshed our negative score got a bit smaller. In the end, the BBC have recorded a net -4 result for the party. However, Sky are saying -47.

Why the difference? Well, it seems that the BBC are counting all the new unitaries as entirely new and thus not recording them as gains or losses for any party, while Sky are basing it on notional results. I have to say that Sky are right – these unitaries didn’t appear out of nowhere and in the case of Cornwall they have simply phased out all the district councils. Nonetheless, -47 is an uncomfortable result for the party.

Tim Montgomerie has been jumping up and down on ConservativeHome and the “independent” PoliticsHome to brand this as “the decline of the Liberal Democrats” but let’s have a bit of perspective. Firstly, there is the fact that by all accounts the Lib Dems got more votes on Thursday than in any other set of county council elections. Hardly a decline. Secondly, these losses are almost exclusively limited to the South West – where we had the most to lose. Discount the South West and we made a healthy net gain of seats overall.

Clearly something happened in the South West. Tim puts it all down to the tactical genius of Eric Pickles and the fact that the Tories have finally learned that goose-stepping and doing Hitler salutes (figuratively speaking) isn’t a particularly effective way to win votes. However, we are talking about the South West here and on a day where the county council elections coincided with the European elections. The South West is notoriously eurosceptic and this was presumably a major factor as well. And in Cornwall in particular there is a lot of strong feeling about the creation of the unitary – this almost certainly hurt us.

Should the party have diverted more funds to battling the Tories and UKIP in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset? I’m sure a lot of people in the area think so and it might have stopped Tim from being able to crow today, but long term it would have been foolish. But it might also have simply been a collossal waste of money. You can’t simply throw money around and employ a bag of tricks and win elections. One would have thought that a Conservative, of all people, would understand that.

Hopefully we’ll have some decent county-by-county analysis of these results to chew over soon. My guess is that it will throw up some appalling examples of undemocratic results. Labour have been wiped out in many parts of the country, but they still got more than 1-in-5 votes. The Tory share of the vote is not particularly high and has plunged compared to last year. Their success nationwide is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Labour vote.

I’m sure a lot of Tories reading this will retort that all this is just sour grapes, but what is the point of an election if it doesn’t reflect public opinion? What’s worse, it creates a political vacuum in places through which extremists rush through (Hugh Muir seems to absolve the Lib Dems of this in his article today – he shouldn’t. The English Democrats’ victory in Doncaster yesterday for instance was helped by the local Lib Dems’ decision not to field a candidate).

These results ought to be a wakeup call. Sadly, the media has now switched all its attention back on Labour infighting.

Why the Sustainable Communities Act matters

Okay, work hat semi-on again. Today is a big day as it is when the government formally invites local authorities to take part in the process outlined in the Sustainable Communities Act. The LGA are holding a conference today on the subject and 55 organisations have written to every council leader and chief executive in England urging them to opt-in to the process. Over on Lib Dem Voice, Seth Thevoz is excited. I am too.

The SCA is unique as legislation goes. It’s expected effects are nuanced and subtle. As a result it is prone to misunderstanding. So let’s start by saying what it is not: it is not a panacea. Nor will it directly result in a reversal of fifty years plus of state centralisation. Nor will it force, in a simplistic way, national government to devolve powers that local authorities request.

What it does instead is create a new form of dialogue, between council and community and between local and national government. The other thing it most definitely is not is consultation, in the commonly understood sense of the word whereby government asks for views but is then free to do whatever it likes. When local authorities draw up their own local sustainability plans, they will have to try to reach agreement with the wider community. When national government makes its formal response to the various plans and requests for new powers by local authorities, it will not be able to simply cherry pick but must try to reach agreement with the “selector” (specifically the Local Government Association). If that all sounds like empty rhetoric to you, it most certainly did not sound like empty rhetoric to the civil servants during the scrutiny of the bill, who attempted at every stage to have that very specific language removed.

The overall effect is an entirely new power dynamic, with local government, national government and the wider community interacting in a much more horizontal way. Yes, that means national government can no longer treat local government so glibly. But the reverse is equally true. After today, local government will no longer be able to complain that national government doesn’t let them do anything and won’t listen without at least exhausting the SCA process first.

Take post offices as an example. For years, the debate has essentially been a call for national government to step in an stop the shrinking of the network. Under the SCA, the debate will not be about what national government could or should be doing but what local government needs to do and what powers it needs to do it. We’ve already seen examples in places like Essex where the County Council is taking over post offices in strategic locations. But if the only way to fund that service is through council tax, it is likely to come to a shuddering halt before too long. Are there not other ways we might be able to pay for it though?

There are several other examples of the sorts of things local authorities might request as part of the process on the Unlock Democracy website. National government is likely to have big problems with a number of the proposals that come out of the process, but not with all of them. The important thing is though, if it is going to block any proposals, it will need to have strong reasons for doing so. It won’t be able to dismiss any idea out of hand.

The result will no doubt be a lot of rows. But they will be rows that would otherwise not even have started. And the nature of politics is that rows usually end up leading to compromises and creative solutions.

There are two things that I hope people end up using the Act to highlight. The first one is fiscal autonomy. In short, councils don’t have it, and need it if they are to take on significant new responsibilities. I hope this is a point that every single local authority uses the process to highlight the need and to propose solutions to it. And yes, you could theoretically use the Act to call for a certain proportion of income tax to be given directly and varied by local councils.

The second one is electoral reform. Last year’s councillors commission already proposed allowing councils the freedom to experiment with different electoral systems. Most of the arguments used against electoral reform in the House of Commons, regardless of their relative merits, simply don’t apply to local councils. Councillors already have multi-member constituencies. No Overall Control is a daily reality for a significant number of councils, and they function perfectly well. And unlikey Westminster elections, where all the major parties contest all the seats, at a local government level whole swathes of councillors are elected unopposed each year.

We don’t want a return to 1980s politics, with socialist putsches running ideologically-driven councils entirely at odds with the views of the majority of the people they are supposed to serve. At the other end of the scale, the spectre of rightwing hegemonies using the undemocratic electoral system to guarantee themselves permanent power in parish councils is equally disgraceful. The best guarantee against both of these problems is pluralist politics. We don’t need it imposed top-down; we merely need a system whereby it can be requested bottom-up. The current government already allows people to do that when it comes to introducing elected mayors (although they don’t allow it when it comes to abolishing elected mayors, natch), so it has no principled reason for not allowing it here.

Local elections comment on Comment is Free

FYI:

Overall, I feel the party has turned a corner in this election. The optimism amongst the people I’ve spoken to is much higher than it was 12 months ago. The drop in share of the vote from 2004 has not been replicated by a drop in seats.

It’s been a rough couple of years, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. Ultimately that counts for a lot more than bogus BBC statistics.

Localism: the first big test?

The battlelines over localism are being formed in Scotland. What happens there directly affects the debate over decentralisation in England.

I haven’t been following this closely but my understanding is this: the SNP, which over time plan to replace council tax with a system of local income tax, have worked out a deal with local government whereby local authorities agree to freeze council tax in exchange for a very significant reduction in ringfencing by the Scottish executive. Labour are now hopping up and down making scary predictions about how this will hurt vulnerable people.

In a sense, they both have a point. Local government in Scotland as well as England has very few revenue raising powers and any squeeze will necessitates cuts being made somewhere, and it would not be surprising if the quietest voices had their funding cut the most. But Labour’s solution to this problem is simply to clobber local government with red tape, not to give it more freedom.

There’s another factor that needs to be considered as well: electoral reform in local government last year and the huge numbers of balanced councils it has produced will mean that this year’s budgets will be under more intense scrutiny than ever before. If Labour wishes to defend the vulnerable, by and large they will have their chance, but in the council chamber not Holyrood.

On balance then, I side with the SNP here. Sadly, if Labour are like this in opposition, it doesn’t bode well for getting localism out of them in government either.

Cunning stunt? Buy a calculator

A few days late on this one, but I have been meaning to follow up on this article about Grant Shapp’s cunning stunt over the Christmas holidays:

“Our plan would build more houses than the Government. But the way to do it is not to do it in a centrally planned way. That has always failed.

“The way to do it is to incentivise communities to want to build houses. It works by saying, ‘build these houses and you get a new town centre or other services like a hospital or school.’ The existing community gets the gain, not just those people who move there.

“If people knew that council tax receipts were kept for five or 10 years if they took houses and therefore council tax was lower, they would often be in favour. This way you are building up an array of benefits from being a Yimby, not a Nimby.”

No-one is disputing that if communities had incentives to develop, all things being equal they probably would. But perhaps Mr Shapps ought to buy himself a calculator if he intends to make this incentive reliant on council tax receipts. Because while only a fraction (a quarter to be precise) of local authority revenue is raised from council tax, new developments will continue to have net costs associated with them, not net benefits.

If the Tory policy is for council tax to shoulder a bigger burden of local tax revenue, it’s news to me, and I’m sure it will be news to the millions of people who are unlikely to welcome a massive tax hike to the tune of thousands of pounds. And it must be news to Caroline Spelman and Eric Pickles who have spent the past two-plus years denouncing any attempt of government to even contemplate revaluation by coming up with scare stories about taxing “nice views“.

If Shapps truly wants his dream of creating incentives for new build to become a reality, he’s going to have to be a bit more radical than that. It won’t happen without a significant tax shift onto land values. That isn’t something that David Cameron, Gideon Osborne and the other members of the Tufty Club behind the New Model Tories are likely to contemplate, no matter how many times Grant sleeps in a cardboard box.

Shapps of course must know this; he’s seen how Osborne has been inflated to the point of being hailed the new messiah by the Right for suggesting (modest) cuts in wealth taxes after all, which makes his stunt seem all the more hollow. Almost as hollow, in fact, as this claim:

Mr Shapps points out that the real losers were the Lib Dems whose second place was a foretaste of the disarray that eventually claimed their leader.

W-O-W – this is amazing stuff coming from the man who claimed he had proof that the Lib Dems were running a “poster lottery” (which has subsequently earned Iain Dale the immortal nickname Pravdale) and whose hands appeared to be caught stuck in the YouTube cookie jar. Cunning stunts indeed. Without wanting to revisit old battles, let’s just make one thing clear: just as the Lib Dem’s victory in Dunfermline and West Fife in 2006 had nothing to do with our lack of a leader at the time, winning Ealing Southall would have done nothing to save Menzies Campbell’s job. He would still have quit this autumn. For Shapps to claim that one of the greatest Tory fuckups of 2007 was in fact a bold act of regicide on his part is immodest even by his standards.

It’s nice to see him begin his political rehabilitation however. It is clear he has learned nothing, which suggests that we will have a second chance to have some more fun at the expense of this legend in his own lunchtime before too long.

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

Overcoming the media narrative

My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.

Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.

He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.

Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.

Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.

Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.

The Tax Question

Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?

Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.

The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.

The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.

My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!

Drugs Policy

Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.

Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.

Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.

Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.

My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.

Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.

The EU Reform Treaty

Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.

Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.

He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.

Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.

After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.

My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.

Raising the Profile of Local Government

Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.

Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.

He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.

My view: not much new or of substance here.

The Elephant Question

Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.

My view: a good ad lib there.

OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.

The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.

I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.

Why are the Tories in such a mess over Europe?

Am I the only person to notice that the Tories were facing in both directions when it came to democracy yesterday? At the same time as condemning Tony Blair for ruling out a referendum on the next European treaty, they were launching a new policy paper which, among other things, called for directly elected mayors to be imposed – without referendum – on every UK city. As under the present system, these elected mayors would have near-unassailable powers and could only be overturned by the council by a two-thirds majority vote. To use Heseltine’s own words, this would be a form of “loose scrutiny”. Despite calling for a bonfire of the quangos, he would meanwhile give the Audit Commission much greater powers, backed by criminal law.

Now, I should keep some perspective here. These proposals are not official party policy, and in any case there is much in them that I have rather more sympathy with. At the same time, I’m grateful that the Conservatives played such a crucial role in forcing the Sustainable Communities Bill through its third reading yesterday, a law which has a real chance of substantially clawing back powers from the centre to local authorities and communities. But it does suggest that the Tories are still struggling to get to grips with this newfangled concept of democracy and people power, and that there is trouble brewing ahead.

On the EU “constitutional” treaty, I happen to broadly agree that a referendum would be desirable. But there are two problems here. Firstly, if the public was asked to vote for motherhood and apple pie, it would probably vote no if it the EU said it was a good idea. There is an EU-shaped boil on the UK’s bum that is in dire of lancing. The Tories know this which is partially why they spend all their time talking about what they are against at a European level and never engage positively in the debate. Secondly, we can’t have a referendum every time the Commission President wants to buy a new pencil. We need proper Parliamentary scrutiny of EU decision making, something the Tories always opposed when in power and continue to play down in favour of claiming weird conspiracy theories about Brussels. In fairness, both Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce and Direct Democracy have now called for a more central Parliamentary role, but the latter certainly is still prone to swivel-eyed lunacy whenever the issue crops up.

Ironically, much of what was in the last proposed EU Constitutional Treaty strengthened the role of both national parliaments and individual citizens in EU decision making. It proposed a ‘yellow card’ system whereby the EU would be forced to reconsider legislation if enough national parliaments demanded it to. It proposed a Europe-wide system of Citizens’ Initiative whereby the Commission would have to formally consider any proposal backed by a million petition signatures. Yes, we could have gone further, and had a ‘red card’ system for instance where X number of national parliaments could block legislation outright, but when have you ever heard a Tory actually suggest such a thing?

There is also this strange confusion between democracy and national sovereignty. You would think, would you not, that a party which spouts rhetoric about the evils of the state and the need for small government would be suspicious of the capacity of the government to represent our best interests at a European or global level. When we look at possibly the EU’s two worst policies – the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy – both have failed because decisions are made at an intergovernmental level, not via the Council and Parliament. The CAP will never be reformed properly until France loses its veto, yet which party believes it should keep these powers? The Tories. The CFP will never lead to sustainable fishing policies until countries such as the UK stop revising its quota system upwards. Taking a short term hit would lead to long term benefits. Everyone knows this. Yet which party defends the existing annual pantomime? The Tories.

Another common complaint from Conservatives about the EU that I find mystifying is about the fact that it has gone beyond the free trade zone that it was sold to the UK as in the 70s. This appears to be rooted in a charmingly quaint view of economics that supposes you can neatly separate out free trade from public services and social issues as if they fitted neatly into their own little silos. Of course, back in the real world, we know that employment laws (for instance) directly affect our ability to compete in the global marketplace. We might disagree what those employment laws should be; we might question whether the EU is making itself uncompetitive worldwide, but if you believe that the EU should not guarantee employment rights, you are not saying that the EU should not have a policy on employment rights: you are saying that the policy should be that any country which has them will be at a distinct disadvantage (this goes to the heart of the French’s complaint about making the EU too “anglo-saxon”).

The bottom line is that these policies are a reflection of the will of the 500 million European people. We may well want to make that reflection more accurate, as I do, but if we want to change those policies, it is surely more democratic to change people’s minds than to deny them what they want?

Meanwhile of course, most of the Conservatives I speak to are all for bringing the marketplace into public services. When I was on 18 Doughty Street last week, all three Conservatives I was on with were enthusiastic about school vouchers. As I’ve said before, I’m open to the idea. But if you want the EU to be a free trade area, and you want to turn everything into a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market place, it follows that your vision of trans-national politics is just as all encompassing as the most pro-state socialist going. Either that, or you’re a protectionist (the default Tory position of course) and lose any veneer of economic respectability. Which is it?

Personally, I’m comparatively Euro-sceptic for a Lib Dem. I’m unconvinced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which reads too much like a wish list and lacks the elegance of the ECHR. I think that any future treaty ought to be focussed on bringing the EU closer to the people, which is desperately needed unfinished business, but am wary of rushing into any new grands projets any time soon, decades even. I’m in favour of abolishing the vetoes of member states, but would want to see decisions require a supermajority of some kind to ensure that there is meaningful consensus on such decisions and to keep the number of new directives down. I consider legislative deadlock to be a good thing, broadly speaking. I want an EU that is outward looking and less insular.

I know I won’t get much of that, but does that lead me to wanting to leave? Not at all, because that would mean we’d still have to implement EU decisions into our laws if we want to trade with them; we just wouldn’t have any say into what those decisions were. The EU is still comparatively young and needs time to bed down.

As for the Conservative position, it remains utterly confused. In some ways, a row over the EU now might actually be the worst thing that could happen to them. I’m quite sure that Cameron is praying that the General Election will be before the European Parliament elections in 2009 because he knows how batty his party gets on the issue and that while the population as a whole is sympathetic, it is utterly bored by the whole debate and associates it with Tory splits. Cameron, having been cautious even before getting his fingers burned over Grammar schools, won’t dare try facing down the lunatic wing of his party on Europe.

There is an authentic conservative view on Europe that doesn’t involve wild-eyed conspiracy theories and is about more than banging on about sovereignty, but don’t expect to hear it any time soon.

Brown Meme

Praguetory has tagged me with Matt Wardman’s Brown Meme. Unlike a lot of memes, this one seems to have the potential for an interesting debate, so here goes:

* 2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of.

– Helping to make Labour electable
– (Most of) Labour’s constitutional reform agenda in their first term of office – although none of it was as systematic or as well thought out as it needed to be.

* 2 things he should apologise for.

– Helping to make Labour electable (too cheap I know – this one doesn’t count)
– The tax credits fiasco
– The PFI fiasco
– The monstrous centralising target culture

* 2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM.

– Declare an intention to establish a fully elected second chamber – and follow through quickly.
– Restart the SFO’s Al-Yamamah arms deal investigation

* 2 things he should do while he is PM.

– Establish a Citizens’ Constitutional Convention
– Reform municipal taxation, decentralising local government revenue, scrapping council tax and introducing a system of site value rating as part of a package of measures of fiscal measures which local authorities could use to raise their own money.

I have to tag eight people, which will be Anthony Barnett, Stephen Tall, Tristan Mills, Duncan Hames, Jock Coats, the Millennium Elephant, Tom Papworth and Ming Campbell.

Lies, damned lies, and election results

Iain Dale points me to two differing accounts of the local election results, one by Sean Fear and the other by Mark Pack. Dale hails the former and dismisses the latter as “desperate post election spin” but I know who I’d rather have on my psephological team.

Sean peddles the increasingly desperate-sounding myth that these results show that the Tories are back in business in the North, but his own statistics give lie to the real situation:

The Conservatives gained more than 110 seats across Yorkshire, the North West and the North East.

That would sound quite good, were it not for the fact that total Tory gains were just south of 900. Those regions represent just over a third of the population of England, yet only an eighth of Tory gains were in them. Meanwhile, Tory gains stacked up in areas where they already hold seats. In the most densely populated part of Yorkshire, the West, Sean admits that they actually went backwards. They couldn’t go backwards in many other parts of the North, because they have already been wiped out.

True, they have made a small step forward, and no doubt the Tories will be pinning their hopes on a handful of Northern seats in the next General Election. But a handful does not suggest a comeback.

Meanwhile, Mark points out that, essentially, that where the Lib Dems did badly we did very badly, but elsewhere we held our own. Iain might want to dismiss this as spin, but it is actually a very important point for a party serious about what the implications of last Thursday actually are. As has already been pointed out, the Lib Dems did well in held or target parliamentary seats – overall, they suggest that we are likely to move forward in the next General Election. Meanwhile, I haven’t done the analysis, but I suspect you will find that the Tory gains are concentrated in relatively few areas, suggesting that while they too should move forward in the next General Election, it will not be by as much as they seem to currently think they will.

A caveat to all this, before I get too carried away. I’ve been looking at these results through a Parliamentary prism. From a local government point of view, they are undeniably bad. From a longer term perspective, they are similarly bad news as they suggest a decline in a whole slew of areas that we will struggle to recover from. Jonathan Calder’s suggestion that we perhaps ought to be wanting rather more than just yet another small step forwards next time round also should be considered.

Tristan Mills makes the following point in a comment to one of my posts:

I also think that we need to look at our local politics – reasses whether we are actually practicing community politics or populist pavement politics and also use the Focuses to promote liberalism by framing the debate in liberal terms not populist terms.

I think that is very pertinent. I suspect the genuine community politicians managed to hold out against the Tory horde better than the pavement politicians. The ones who had made great gains in the past due to tactical populism will have struggled as soon as the shoe was on the other foot.

Ed Davey promised a big campaign to promote Community Politics within the party last autumn, but thus far we have seen very little sign of it. Hopefully this set of results will encourage the party to get moving on this.

One thing I do agree with Sean Fear on is the importance of local councillors to keep parties going in areas where there is no immediate prospect of parliamentary representation. The problem we have as a party is that we are terribly good at the tactical business of winning elections but not terribly good at the strategic business of developing a local party over the longer term. There are places where we are better at this than others, but how do we spread best practice, and how do we ensure there we dedicate resources to training and development without harming our target seat operation? These are questions that need to be tackled.