Tag Archives: localism

If you’re a small community campaign, the #gagginglaw will affect you.

Save Totley LibraryI’m annoyed that I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this blog, but I feel the need to go back to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill again because of a potentially explosive confusion that has arisen.

Earlier today Joe Otten, a Lib Dem Sheffield Councillor, made the following claim on this blog:

No James, the Totley library campaign is not partisan, and the rules in the transparency of lobbying bill (and equally PPERA) do not apply to it. It is blatant scaremongering to suggest otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Totley library campaign. No doubt the Labour council are claiming they have to shut it down due to central government cuts and the Lib Dems are claiming that it is solely closing because of Labour irresponsibility and opportunism. Whatever. But the argument that the bill won’t apply to such campaigns is dangerously misleading. I make no claim as to whether Otten is spinning here or has been spun to by his constituency MP Nick Clegg’s office, but either way it’s utterly fallacious.

The clue is somewhat in the name of the bill: “non-party campaigning”. “Partisan” campaigning is covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The reason this bill has been introduced in the first place is that the coalition feels, in its wisdom, that non-party campaigns have been poorly regulated, and are seeking to change that.

Here are the various ways in which the bill will directly impact any small local campaign:

  • The minimum threshold that a local campaign can spend before coming under the auspices of the legislation is being cut from £10,000 to £5,000. That will include any in kind or pro bono work (such as legal advice) donated to it.
  • A new per-constituency limit of £9,480 (or, more precisely, 2% of the party spending limit, divided up on a per-constituency basis) is being introduced.
  • If your campaign is in a coalition with another organisation (for example, you are supported by a trade union), the spending limit will apply to all the organisations in the coalition in aggregate. In other words, if your coalition partner(s) spends any money at all in the constituency, your own spending limit will be reduced accordingly.
  • The regulated period will apply for 12 months before an election takes place. So, for the 2015 general election, it will commence in May 2014.
  • Once parliament has dissolved and the “short” election campaign itself has commenced, your group will have to submit weekly spending and donation reports to the Electoral Commission.

All of which is all very well, but will it apply to a non-political grassroots campaign that explicitly doesn’t support any candidate?

Well, it all depends on whether it is deemed that your campaign has a significant effect on the election or not. Fundamentally, that will all depend on how successful your campaign is. Campaigns that are deemed to not put politicians under any pressure will have, of course, little to worry about. Most campaigns however, at least aim to make an impact. And if you do, while the distinction in your mind between publicly criticising a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue and calling for people to not vote for a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue might be clear in your mind, it won’t necessarily be quite so clear in the mind of the solicitor the candidate your are criticising has paid to write you a stern and threatening legal letter. The Electoral Commission, who will be the ultimate arbiters of this legislation, have themselves repeatedly warned that it is too vague to be enforced.

There’s a bit more to it than that – especially if you are based in Scotland or Wales – but in a nutshell that’s why all small grasssroots community organisations ought to be concerned about this bill and the fact that it is being forced through parliament with so little scrutiny (the brief “pause” the government have reluctantly been forced to now observe is little more than a bit of breathing space really). If you want to know more, don’t trust me but go to the website of the National Campaign for Voluntary Organisations, who have a useful list of resources.

Of course, take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt. The nature of campaigning is that the rhetoric is often quite shrill. But if your Lib Dem or Conservative councillor tells you that it doesn’t effect you at all, they are either lying or have themselves been deeply mislead.

Was Monday the beginning of the end of the Cameron bubble?

By rights, it should have been. The Tories are in a total mess over the economy. I have to admit, I held my peace on Sunday over this idea about having the Bank of England step in when banks get in trouble. It sounded pretty much identical to what the government is doing now, only with even less oversight, but I felt that I must have been missing something obvious. 36 hours of listening to the empty soundbites emanating from the mouths of Cameron and Osborne and I can safely say it is every bit as vacuous a policy as I thought it was.

Ditto this idea for an Office for Budget Responsibility. We live in an era where the government ignores its own watchdog regarding compensating the people caught up in the Equitable Life scandal; why should they worry about another quango wagging its finger at it?

This issue also threatens to divide the party. Hardliners are unlikely to take this lying down. At a stroke, Osborne has directly contradicted two of the main principles behind Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell’s much vaunted “plan” – specifically:

* Devolving power to the lowest practicable level
* Replacing the quango state with genuine democracy

Quangos are now the panacea for everything while localism has been completely abandoned. As Carswell and Hannan like to remind people, they speak for a growing number of Tories these days, Tories who thought all that stuff about Cameron representing a new kind of Conservativism actually meant something. All that has been trashed now.

I actually got it wrong yesterday. I assumed that the Tories would underwrite a council tax freeze if inflation was running at 4-5%. Inflation may well be at that point if the Tories seize power at the next election (I hope not, but a massive interest rate cut now looks likely), yet Osborne only committed himself to a 2.5% freeze and even that was contingent on local authorities making cuts in their own public spending. So he isn’t willing to commit to public spending cuts at a national level but he is willing to impose them on perhaps the most efficient arm of the state, local government. Clue, anyone?

But perhaps the greatest indictment of the Tories on Monday was the video below. Highly reminiscent of Spinal Tap (note the shots of people sleeping during the speech – approx 1 min into the video), Osborne and Cameron manage to come across as feckless amateurs who are treating the whole thing like a jolly lark:

Seriously. Does anyone watch that video and not think “novices”?

See also: Sara Bedford, Jackie Ashley.

Osborne calls for more centralisation

That is the effect of calling, similar to Alex Salmond, for a two year council tax freeze. Ploughing national revenue into local government may sound attractive in the short term, but in the longer term it means even less fiscal autonomy. Given this will be happening during a higher than average period of inflation, we’re talking about a real shift here. My rough calculations put that as representing local government going from raising £1 in every £4 it spends to nearer £1:£5. How can the Tories continue to claim to be localists?

Clegg and localism: early thoughts

I’ve just trawled through Nick Clegg’s speech on localism to the LGA today. A few thoughts:

1. He lets the Tories off too easily (unintentionally I’m sure). He is of course perfectly right to give them a hard time for refusing to even contemplate devolving spending, but the truth is it’s far, far worse than that. To quote Gideon Osborne’s interview in Prospect this month:

But surely this devolution process just means the health and education services are captured once more by the professionals? Not at all, says Osborne. “Accountability will come through payment by results.” This, he says, is a superior approach to the Labour model of targets. “Targets mean you have a big monolithic service and the secretary of state decides how you achieve something—how much time you spend on a task and how many times you do it. This is a different approach, where you say to a private company that is, say, running a prison: we will pay you according to reoffending rates. So we will choose the objective, but they will decide how to achieve it.”

Replacing targets with “payment by results” is an oxymoron. What he means is that he wants to replace the government’s present system of targets by a new system of targets. The fundamental problem with targets – that it creates an incentive to game the system – will remain. Contrast this with Clegg’s definition of the role of central government:

The central state has a vital role – of course.

It must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis, to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals, and to oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off.

This is genuine localism. Osborne’s prescription is for more, but different, centralisation. If he and his colleagues are going to insist on uttering such drivel, we have a duty to point and laugh.

2. There is still an LVT-shaped hole in Lib Dem policy. Clegg’s redefinition of local income tax in this speech is actually quite encouraging, in that it is clear that his real enthusiasm is not for replacing council tax with LIT but replacing national income tax with local income tax. I share his enthusiasm.

His problem is that he is extremely unclear about how inverse the current 3:1 national:local tax raising ratio without creating a system that would reward rich areas while penalising poor ones. Indeed he only mentions this dilemma once:

The government needs some leeway to make up the differences between needier and wealthier councils with a grant that varies between areas.

… and doesn’t even allude to the fact that localising business rates will actually make this even more pronounced.

The question is how do you create a clear, transparent way of squaring this circle. The solution, in principle at least, is obvious: create a national tax on wealth and redistribute it on a per capita basis. That means a national system of Land Value Taxation. The alternative is lots of complex formulas which can be manipulated by the government of the day. You couldn’t redistribute a national income tax in this way equitably because, as we all know, a lot of the richest in society don’t actually pay a penny.

You couldn’t introduce a fully fledged LVT system in a single term of office, but we could at least talk about it. As I said before, it is curious that we are so shy about doing this while at the same time so enthusiastic about rolling out a system of national road pricing over a 10 year period.

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.

Polly Toynbee – where do I start?

Polly Toynbee is waging her war against local democracy once again, insisting that only centralised super-states can be socially progressive and blithely ignoring the fact that all the Scandinavian countries she worships so much are far more decentralised that we can even dream.

This week, she has come up with the bizarre hypothesis that ‘localism’ and electoral reform are two mutually exclusive proposed solutions to democratic renewal. Of course, apart from the recent Tory and Labour converts to localism, the two reforms have always tended to go hand in hand. Indeed, how can you truly claim to want to bring decision making down to as low a level as possible while defending an electoral system that tends to ignore the votes of the majority of the people?

She bases her assertion on the fact that people voted on broadly national issues in the local elections, not local ones. Leaving aside the fact that I happen to think that isn’t true – the results varied wildly from council to council – why should we expect people to vote on local issues when local authorities don’t have any power? It’s not far off from bemoaning the fact that the votes cast in the Eurovision Song Contest aren’t about the quality of the music. Yes indeed they aren’t, but as it doesn’t really matter either way, so what?

If further prove were needed that Toynbee doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, she claims that the Lib Dem’s performance in the local elections was worse than Labour’s (it wasn’t), and that her preferred model for electoral reform is the Jenkins System which, erm, isn’t actually a proportional voting system. Indeed, it makes the partially proportional system used in Wales look representative.

While we’ll never know, I’m convinced that if Roy Jenkins was alive today he would be pleading for people to ignore the proposals he drafted for Blair back in 1999. They were an attempt to fudge the issue and come up with a system that Blair and the wider Labour Party would be willing to accept at a time when they were riding high with a 170 majority. Needless to say, they failed. He was too clever by half and didn’t satisfy anyone. Yet to this day I still hear people going on about it as if it were the Holy Grail. I’m convinced that in the centuries to come, whole organisations will be established to campaign for this system which no genuinely independent review body would recommend in a million years.

Toynbee’s objection to local democracy appears to be rooted in the perceived worst excesses of Conservative councils. In this respect it is entirely tribal and rooted in the typically Fabian notion that the people should not be trusted with too much democracy. Of course, with a fair voting system, the chances of the Tories or indeed any party wielding an unassailable majority in a local authority would be remote. The idea that we should have more representative local authorities but be content to leave them as glorified talking shops is faintly obscene. At least bread and circuses sounds a little more fun.

I’ll show you my conference if you show me yours

I’ve added the main fringe meetings I plan to be going to onto flock together and added my personal feed from that website onto my sidebar. If you’re a Lib Dem blogger, why not do the same?

Personally, aside from the day job I’ll be busy promoting my chapter on intergenerational equity in Graham Watson/Liberator’s new pamphlet “Liberalism – something to shout about” (fringe meetings on the Sunday evening and Monday lunchtime) and I will also hopefully have an article printed in ALDC’s update of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics.

Taxation Okey-Kokey

The Observer has been given a sneaky-peak of the Lib Dem’s Taxation Commission’s current thinking and it sounds good. 2p off the basic rate of income tax, paid for by increases in environmental taxation and “tougher tax rules for the wealthy”.

By the latter, I’m taking it to mean, at least in part, to some kind of “progressive property tax,” although Vince Cable’s quotation about share income being taxed at a lower rater than general income suggests reform of capital gains. Nonetheless, I welcome it: the Lib Dems absolutely should be the party of low income tax. These reforms suggest a “direction of travel” that I’m very comfortable with.

But there is a cloud on the horizon however. Read carefully, and it is clear that we are just talking about national income tax here. Existing Lib Dem policy is to replace Council Tax with a local income tax of, on average, 3.5p in the pound. If this policy isn’t significantly changed by the Tax Commission, we would have to go into the general election with the highly confusing policy of saying that, nationally, we want to cut income tax while locally we want to pile it on. In net terms, every taxpayer would end up paying 1.5p more in income tax.

Kiss goodbye to any electoral benefit we might expect from the tax shift, in other words: our message to the electorate would be horribly confused. We wait and see what the Tax Commission come up with, but there seem to be two solutions. The first one is to replace Council Tax with something else, maybe a genuine tax on property that is continually revalued (every 1-2 years for instance, like everywhere else: Council Tax is mostly based on 1991 values and thus has little to do with actual values) and taxes high value property at the same rate as low value property. The Band system of council tax leads to effectively a subsidy on the rich that the middle classes have to pay. Better yet, base it solely on site values and leave the capital entirely out of the equation. The second solution would simply be for our policy to not have a policy: local authorities should be free to raise their taxation however they pleased. Of course, that would be pretty meaningless as a policy if 75% of local government expenditure continued to come from national government: a shift to 50% or even 25% would, at a stroke, give local authorities far more clout, and enable us to drop the basic rate of income tax even more.

The problem is, a lot of senior Lib Dem spokespeople have gone on record to say that our local income tax policy is here to say. It seems to me though that we’ve reached a crunch point: either we think income tax is a good tax that we want to shift the burden onto, or a bad tax that we want to shift the burden away from. There is no middle way or third position. That is the decision the Lib Dems, collectively, have to make over the next 3 months. Fudge this, and all our critics will be vindicated.