Like many local authorities Birmingham City Council (BCC) has a strategic partnership, business arrangement, to support ITC development, procurement and ‘business transformation’. There is nothing unusual about this, many councils have had to develop these contracts with specialist companies simply because they do not have the skills and talents in house to deal with the change demanded by new technologies in particular. Birmingham’s strategic parter is the public services company Capita. Service Birmingham is a joint venture between BCC and Capita. It is a huge contract, one of the largest of these types of contracts in the country. It is also a controversial contract; it is not difficult to find people who work for the city who are very critical of it.
Local economist professor David Bailey has recently launched a petition on Birmingham City Council’s website calling for the details of the Capita contract to be put in the public domain. You can see (and sign if you wish) the petition here:
I believe this to be a sensible petition. It does not call for knee-jerk actions like cancelling contracts rather it aims to put contract specs in the public domain so that we can properly judge the performance of Service Birmingham.
The Council’s leadership express bemusement about the petition because they say because the Chief Executive has said he will publish a ‘redacted’ version of the contract at some point. But as I write it has still not been published.
The problem I have with this contract is not that it is so huge and so costly, after all I have no real notion of whether this represents or represented good market value. No, my basic problem with Service Birmingham is that so much of the city’s ITC infrastructure is so poor. Many services remain worryingly clunky and some — lauded as being great innovations — don’ t seem to work for me at all!
Yesterday, in complete frustration, I compiled the video podcast that you can see below. I had been trying to find out information about My local District Committee. These committees are an increasingly important part of Birmingham’s devolution policy. What information there is is very badly presented and exceptionally difficult to find. The site uses no RSS feeds or email mailing lists so that I can automatically be bought up to date with information. This is internet v. -1 let alone web 3.0
I compiled the video after I had been asked to fill in an online survey form about the website. I completed it fairly and took advantage of the open text box to describe my problems. The system asked me if I was prepared to give them my name and contact details so that they could speak to me. I was happy to do so and gave them both an email and phone number. Eighteen hours later I have had no confirmation email let alone a proper contact.
Now, I may be being too ambitious. So, I’ll give them some time — but I will report back here.
Jump forward to today.
I was watching a web cast of the council’s Governance Scrutiny Committee. Officers were demonstrating the use of their new mobile apps to access council services, report service problems and so on.
As they spoke I downloaded the app and installed it on my iPhone. I then had to create an account and I went back to the website to do this. I started the process and was emailed two separate emails.
The first email contained a link to use to activate my account. I duly clicked the link. I was taken to a page that asked me to to input the temporary password they had sent me in a second email. This I did. Next up, I was prompted to put in a new password that confirmed to certain security requirements. This I did. The system crashed, gave me an error message and told me to login again with my temporary password. I did with the same crash and error. I have now tried 20 time with the same result.
On the error box there was a link to click to report problems. I clicked it and filled in my comments on an email, explaining calmly what the problems were. I then received a third email telling me I would be contacted — but in the meantime, did I know I could create a personal account that would be really useful?
I shall give them a few days to reply and if I don’t get one I shall create a second (shorter) webcast showing how this much lauded feature just does not work.
This is what is annoying me about all of this stuff. The Councillors at this meeting were having a good discussion about the use of new technology to improve the services the council offers to its residents. The officers presenting the information were helpful and informative about what the technologies and these apps could do.
But at the very time this demonstration was happening — and was being webcast to the world — the technology they were talking about wasn’t working !!!
This is what really drives me about Service Birmingham. Just what business are they transforming?
Here is the first (and hopefully the last) video podcast of the horrors of Birmingham’s website.
But be warned Birmingham. If I don’t get a reply from you I shall continue to produce these to show the world just how poor this service can be.
The world has lost one of its greatest leadership figures. I can think of a number of great leadership figures but of no other who was, arguably, even greater in the way he led his country into transition through peace and reconciliation than he was in struggle.
I was fortunate to meet Mr Mandela in the autumn of 1993 when he paid a visit to Birmingham; I was a young councillor in the city. Birmingham was an important city to the ANC. There was a strong anti apartheid movement here as you might expect in such a diverse city. Birmingham’s political leader at the time was the veteran Sir Dick Knowles, a committed internationalist who had long supported the anti apartheid movement. Under Dick’s leadership Birmingham responded to Mandela’s release by officially twinning Birmingham with Johannesburg and, arguably more importantly, establishing a technical exchange programme for the staff of both councils. As a symbol of a link between Birmingham and South Africa Dick had agued that the prominent white anti apartheid activist Rev Trevor Huddlestone — author of ‘Prayer for Africa’ should be given the freedom of the city but sadly there was not a political consensus amongst the city’s parties that would enable this to happen.
Mr Mandela’s visit was an amazing few days. I remember a private concert for Anti Apartheid activists held in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where we all danced the night away to Hugh Masekela, Mirian Makeba and band. I also remember a meeting in the new connection centre with business representatives during which an extraordinary Mandela told the business community how he needed their help in rebuilding his country. But what I remember most affectionately was a far more intimate occasion.
Birmingham had built a new primary school in an area of the inner city which faced many challenges and problems. The school was in Dick’s patch and he insisted that it was named after Nelson Mandela at a time when many had not heard of the man. During the 1993 visit it was natural for Mr Mandela to visit the school.
I was the Chair of the city’s Education Committee at the time. I was rung up by the ANC. The visit — they told me — was not designed as a civic event but a chance for Mr Mandela to meet with the community of the school; he was exceptionally honoured in having this school named after him. Would I mind if I was not invited to the occasion? Of course, I wouldn’t mind. Fine they said. We only want politician present, Sir Dick Knowles. I told the I was happy, not least because he had done far more than myself in keeping the flame of free South Africa alive. Something changed and later in the day the ANC rang me back and said they would, indeed, be honoured if I would join them and Dick at the school.
The next morning Dick Knowles and I joined a small guard of honour to greet Mr Mandela at the school. As promised this was not a civi event. The small guard of honour comprised of a couple of parent governors, a couple of teaching assistant, a couple of dinner ladies, a couple of teachers, Dick and myself. Mr Mandela arrived and took his time moving down the line chatting away with the dinner ladies and teaching assistants as if he had bumped into some long lost friends in a supermarket. Dick and I keep exchanging wondrous glances. Eventually Dick turned to me and said, “I thought I’d seen everything in politics comrade, but I’ve never seen anything like this”.
After we were introduced we all moved to a small community room. There was some singing from the children of the school and some Asian and Irish dancing. There was then tea and cake.
The parents of the school were overwhelmingly drawn from Sparbrook’s Asian community and the women present that day were from the areas large Pakistani and Kashmiri population. The women were very nervous and had no idea what to expect, what to say or do when they met the great man.
Mr Mandela sat down in an easy chair with his cup of tea and piece of cake. He began to tell us a story. He told us that in his youth it had been the Asian community in South Africa that had first started the freedom movement. It was the Asian community that had both encouraged and inspired him to get involved in the struggle. It was the Asian community who convinced him that this was a struggle that would be won.
As he talked I could see the parents growing in stature and belief. They radiated pride, not pride in themselves but pride for their own communities. For half an hour or so Mr Mandela made these local women believe that he would not have had the strength to carry on if it had not been for them. It was an extraordinary experience to witness.
A lot of people over the last few hours have talked about Mandela’s charisma. I have been fortunate to be in the same small space as some extraordinarily charismatic people, for example, Bill Clinton carries so much charisma around him that you feel you can reach out, touch it and cut it with a knife. But this was not charisma. What Mandela radiated was simply an amazing and pure humanity. Sitting in that community room was a man who was just enjoying himself, a man who was revelling in the company of these local women. I swear he left that meeting more relaxed and more happy than he arrived.
For me it was Mr Mandela’s deep humanity and love of fellow human being that makes him such an extraordinary figure. I will not see the like of him again in my lifetime. His star will surely shine down the centuries to come.
Two items on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning caught my attention this morning. What worries me was that there was no attempt to link the two together, despite those linkages being obvious.
The first item was the heavily trailed Autumn Statement policy on retirement age which will see those in their forties and thirties working until the age of 70 and possibly longer. In many ways this might seem sensible but this is a blunt statement which in no way recognises the complexity of the position we find ourselves in today let alone that which will hit us within twenty or thirty years.
Yes, we are living longer, well some of us are. But for those living longer does longevity automatically mean a better quality of life. In reality the lifespan of the population varies dramatically from region to regions, from class to class and from the employed and the unemployed. Retirement age has already become a major issue in Scotland, indeed commitments to resist Westminster trends were given in last week’s White Paper on Independence issued by the Scottish government. What look quite reasonable in the South East will seem pretty desperate in other areas of the nation.
The second item — which should have been connected in both coverage and debate — was the announcement today by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) that the world is woefully prepared to cope with the dramatic rises in dementia that are predicted by a series of major international studies. Serious dementia hits between the ages of 70 and 75 but, of course, a rise in dementia levels will also see a rise in those who are unfortunate to develop the condition before the age of 70. Could it be that natural trends will combine with the new retirement system to conspire to ensure that many more in this country will simply not enjoy any substantial period of retirement.
Coverage of ADI’s statement focused on the unpreparedness of South Asia and Africa in dealing with dementia trends. The ADI report comes ahead of a G8 conference that will concentrate on dementia and which will be held in the UK in the next few weeks. Yet, the sis not simply a problem for other parts of the world.
Authoritative reports here in the UK show that we are seriously unprepared for the rise in dementia care needs that we will see over the next decade. We simply do not have either the domiciliary care services or the residential services to cope. And we are facing a new serious of worrying national divides that policymakers of all political persuasions must address shortly.
The vast majority of Residential Care in the UK 9 (over 80%) is provided by the private sector. Residential infrastructure development and refurbishment is funded through institutional investors and is increasingly international in nature. Yet thee figures do not tell the whole story. In the South East of England over 80% of residential care is self funded by residents. In the North of the nation this figure is reversed with the vast bulk of care costs being funded by local authorities and health trusts. As a result of continuing restrictions in public expenditure spending from local government and health continues to be under pressure, commissioning rates driven down and as a result basic care standards are being compromised. In many establishments that have a mix of self funders and public funded residents the self funders are actually subsidising public funding places a situation which continue for long without it becoming a new national scandal.
The increased pressure on public expenditure means that we are now seeing a new North/South divide in the country. It is now far more difficult for private (and not for profit) care providers to raise money from investors to build new facilities, and to refurbish existing ones, in the North. Local government — which has a power to ‘shape’ care markets is simply not able to embark on the long term strategic relationships with care providers that is regarded within the sector to be critical. In the more affluent South East key decisions on the shape of residential proviso are being taken in Board Rooms and in banks across Europe, rather than in the policy offices of local government or health.
It would be nice to think that, in the future, we will need to place few people in care and to ensure that they are cared for in their own homes. However, domiciliary care services are under just as much pressure and in the coming months we are likely to see the first major domiciliary care agency float on the stock market and no doubt investment patterns will begin to mirror those now being seen in the residential world.
But when we look at the predictions for the rise of dementia in the UK it is without doubt the case that we are going to be massively short of residential beds. People will enter residential care later in life, yes, but their care needs will become more severe Not only do we not have the residential places we need in the planning pipeline but we don’t have the means to provide for the additional nursing care that the dementia trends suggest we will need.
A few months ago I was in Worcester to hear a fascinating presentation by Professor Dawn Brooker, one of our national experts on dementia care, to the charity RESEC of which I am a trustee. RESEC is dedicated improving the quality of research in specialist and elderly care. What was clear from listening to Dr Brooker is that the dementia care challenge is greater than even that sketched out above; it will impact on a far greater swathe of UK society than that which I have focused on here.
RESEC held its AGM in Westminster a few weeks ago. Attendees were concerned about the lack of political progress in developing a consensus in ageing policy in the UK. The movement for a consensus across the political spectrum seemed building some momentum after the last election but discussion between Party leads have broken down. It looks as if social care is to be a major issue at the next election and that political arguments will run deep yet, in reality, few expect much long term difference in the policies of the individual policies.
The debate about social care in this country needs to be granted greater importance over the next parliament and our debates about retirement and ageing need to be better integrated.
Other western nations are adopting different policies on both retirement and ageing. Here in the UK ‘commentators’ are arguing that the policies of others remain unsustainable but, and here’s the rub, other nations seem happier with higher levels of taxation partially as hedge against these demographic challenges.
Here in the UK we face a simple challenge which is not simply to talk about the future of social care and retirement but to develop a real commitment to pay for it.
This morning my feelings are with the young. They will not have the benefits, income or security of the baby boomers who are today making our policy.
Taking these two news items together I can’t help thinking we are on track to further institutionalise our national complacency over ageing. This is one debate that won’t go away and today’s announcement should not be seen as a definitive statement rather as a simple staging point along the line of a long and soul searching national discussion.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.
Today’s news release from Ofsted — about the failure of schools to us the Pupil Premium to support individual students — will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked at a strategic level within an urban Local Education Authority.
For years education planners at a local level have agonised about how they can get ext a funding through to those schools with high levels of deprivation; there is nothing new about the concept of the pupil premium. Whether extra cash in itself makes a greta difference is a moot point but the only real way we had of supporting extra need was through targeted payments in the local schools budgets. But even 20 years ago education planners recognised that some schools took the money but often failed to plough it in to extra support for young people. Some, for example, used the cash to stack up reserves to support a building improvement when many would have liked to have seen that cash utilised in the class room.
This is the very same issue that is today being raised by the new head of Ofsted Sit Michael Wilshaw. However, Sit Michael Wilshaw has a new headache to deal with — the deliberate fragmentation of the education system.
Twenty years of so ago — when I was the Chair of Birmingham’s Education System — we had to deal with this. In those days some schools were building up reserves for future expansion rather than spending the cash on new support services for pupils. Rising balances were noticed by financial planners in both the local authority and in Whitehall. Threats were made about taking the funds away from schools in this position and, of course, in such a situation the people who would have lost were the very same pupils to whom the funds were allocated in the first place!
It was the LEAs who tackled this problem head on. Like many of my colleagues around the country, I found myself visiting schools who were not spending the cash as it was intended. We talked to Headteachers and Governors about their plans for their reserves, why the funds weren’t being utilised and what their long term plans were. In short, it was the LEA who applied the muscle to those who weren’t playing ball. In some cases it was clear that the school had clear long term plans for investment that would have supported educational development and those long term plans were recognised. But others could not demonstrate a benefit to pupils and they were required — shamed in some cases — to start spending that money of students.
You might say that this is what you would expect from an LEA, they were there to watch over the educational system within their patch. But who does this today? Today we have an increasingly fragmented system with some schools wanting to become Academies and others being required by government to become Academies. With each school that leaves the local system the LEA sees a reduction in resource. The more fragmented the system becomes the less able an LEA is able to make these telling interventions.
So, will central government be able to take on this role? It looks unlikely.
A few months ago Sir Michael Wilshaw himself addressed the issue of support for schools. He made it clear that Ofsted could not fill the gap — there was not way it could — or should — take on some of the roles and functions of local authorities. So, who might?
Sir Michael has talked about the establishment of educational commissioners, people who would take on both the support and the regulatory role of LEAs, but it is not clear who these people might be. The early days of OFSTED utilised an army of early retired educationalists but any new service today is likely to be let under national framework contracts to the big educational and management consultancies. I suspect that such a system would be an anathema to many schools and parents.
Once again we can see the practical importance of a Local Education Authority and once again we can see real problems being derived from the ideological assault on local democracy.
I’ll leave my final comments for the media that cover this story. They should be asking Si Michael two questions. Firstly, what can he and his team do about it? Secondly, what should central government be doing about it?
The more devolved a system becomes the more subtle it needs to be in policing policies and ensuring good practice. LEAs have years of experience of doing just that. The Department of Education doesn’t. Whitehall tends to work by diktat rather than by informed local discussion and debate.
Today’s new item shows, yet again, why local democracy is critical to a school system. Nobody wants people in LEAs determining an individual school’s management system or an individual schools larding philosophy. But the accountability of schools, the debate over how we best raise standards locally and yet the occasional application of muscle should be done locally.
LEAs have shown over recent years that they are good at coping with change, both dramatic change and more gradual change. If government — and Sir Michael — really wants to make a difference here they should tart by recognising what can be done at a local level.
As with all policy, governance by prejudice is probably not a good starting point. It is time for the government to look again at the creative and constructive role that can be played by local government. And they need to make the resources available for that to happen. Otherwise the telling observations of Sir Michael will simply fall on deaf ears.
It’s not a particularly fashionable view I know, but I still believe in importance of local government. Despite decades of centralisation and the imposition of all kinds of restrictive regimes local government still has both the power and the potential to innovate on behalf of their communities. It has always been true — and still is — that many national programmes have their origins in innovative work that was pioneered by local government.
Successive governments have utilised various tactics to marginalise local government, most noticeably in seeking to establish funding schemes were local community projects deal direct with central government. These schemes generate a lot of noise for the actual spending they control. Local government can — and regularly does — achieve a lot more, in partnership with communities, through its own funding. In times such as these marginalised communities — and those who are suffering unemployment or underemployment — rely on the determination and ingenuity of local government. Quite simply, localised needs that can be ignored by a right wing ideologue government like this one can’t be missed at a local level.
All of the fuss and the glamour of the Cabinet Reshuffle overshadowed one of the most important pronouncements of the last week. Sir Mervyn Cockell — Tory Chairman of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea — issued a warning about deterioration of local government reserves. According to Sir Mervyn the government’s policy of effectively enforcing the spending of reserves could lead — across the country — to them being wiped out over a five year period. He could have added that this is precisely the aim of the current long-term spending programme.
In essence, the value of a local authority’s reserves will be taken into account when annual budget allocations are calculated.
The use of reserves in local government has always been controversial. During the Thatcher years guidance as regularly given to the effect that local government wasn’t keeping enough in reserve. Labour councils, in particular, were always keen to use reserves to support employment programmes and to kick start regeneration programmes. Thatcher’s guidance was designed to tighten the cap on spending. Cameron’s government has gone further by literally taking the money away. Make no mistake this policy represents a major spending cut but one which rob ably won’t be noticed by most people.
Local Authority reserves are used to innovate, to pump pine development and to support those communities that are most in need. Your council might be looking to clear a development site, support the expansion of local businesses struggling to raise cash during the current banking crisis, implement a new community development initiative or maybe even to support the development of food coops or food banks. Often these reserves are critical to local business. Council development funding is often key to unlocking contributions and spending from the private sector who like to minimise risk wherever they can. Quite simply, local government spending can make a great difference.
It is time for local government to become trendy again. I would be the first to agree that councils and their politicians can do a lot to up their game, but they remain the greatest support partner for any local community wishing to develop a new support initiative or service.
Labour is now entering the critical phase of this Parliament. Over the coming months Jon Cruddas and his review team need to re-evaluate the value of local government and make plans to re-envigourate it and allow it to assert grater independence from the centre over coming years.
Central planning, standards and inspection regimes are not going to go away. Local government can respond to all of these but take away its discretionary funds and its not just Councillors that will suffer but all of us. Giving local councils grater powers and flexibility is one thing but innovation requires cash. This issue of reserves will need to be addressed creatively along with other freedoms and ideas, including local tax raising powers, if we are truly to build on localism.
Whatever else central government is, it is not a particularly effective promoter of localist development and never can be. Local knowledge and local priorities will always win the day.
Taking away local government’s reserves and forcing them to “sell the family silver” means that valuable resources are being taken away from local communities, local workers, local companies, local families and so on.
I wish Sir Mervyn and his colleagues well in their battle with both Mr Pickles and the Treasury.
This article was first published in the journal of the Socialist Education Association
How should we respond to Academies? This question is causing confusion amongst politicians up and down the country.
Locally, progressive politicians will always focus on three key issues: rising school standards and the raising of student achievement; fair admissions — critical for both the success of students and schools alike; and finally, they will be concerned that financial investment in schools is made on a need basis rather than a system that rewards the friends’ of government.
The LEA’s key political tool for intervention is the School Improvement Notice, a formal power that allows quick Invention, for the changing of senior management and governors where necessary. These powers are lost when a school becomes an Academy. The council’s remaining role will be one of either scrutiny or as a direct service contractor (and we might if these are compatible).
Each attempt by central government to centralise education has led to a greater confusion in admissions. Competition is welcomed for some but it disempowers others, especially in areas of deprivation. The rush by some schools to be first in line to join new centralised initiatives is often an attempt to benefit financially and to cash in on the incentives that are always on offer to ‘early adopters’.
Each school that leaves the LEA takes with it the funds retained by an LEA to support school improvement and the raising of standards. Deals to deliver contracted services to schools may support existing jobs or services in the short term but they will not support the LEA’s neutral role in raising standards and planning for a sensible map of provision.
In the case of an Academy, who provides the support to schools that has traditionally been given by LEAs? Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw makes it clear that OFSTED does not have the resources to fulfil this role and envisages a system of local Education Commissioners to support school improvement. But who might these Commissioners be? It just as likely that Education Commissioners will be appointed trough major framework contracts that will go to the large private, public service, sector.
It is inconceivable that a local authority in an urban area including significant areas of deprivation, and low skill levels, should absolve itself of the responsibility of securing school improvement.The centralisation of schools has long been a policy aim of the Tories and of the Department of Education. Both see schools as islands without any real consideration how they contribute to local communities and to the local economy.
If Labour wins the next election it may well inherit a new educational landscape but that is no reason to capitulate now. Many public services — and schools are critical community services — should always be part of a local system of accountability, planning and development. Centralise all schools and it will be our communities that suffer in the long term. We will have lost a critical tool to support the long-term development of our communities.
A couple of years ago Birmingham’s political classes began to be aware of a new name in town, Politics in Brum. which was using social media to promote political debate in the city. As the organisation has developed Politics in Brum’s founder, Pauline Geoghegan, has branched out into public meetings and appearances on national and local media.
In this podcast I talk to Pauline about any she established Politics in Brum and about how she hopes to see the initiative develop.
Follow Politics in Brum on twitter as @politicsinbrum
IF you were very in any doubt that the economy was the starting point for any political platform you would have been put right by a visit to Liverpool. Everywhere you turn there are senior figures wanting to talk about the economy. Some, like Tessa Jowell, are in apologetic mode. Others like Prescott are completely unapologetic; we might fight to defend our achievements in infrastructure — school, hospitals — and in new initiatives such as the minimum wage and Sure Start. While apologies aren’t enough it is also not wight to simply trumped achievements, especially when they are not made on the back on found financial policy.
Labour has a massive long-term problem. Since the dawn of New Labour the leadership has relied on growth to both deliver a redistribution of wealth and to revitalise our ailing infrastructure. Growth delivered higher tax take through a rise in income tax, corporation tax and VAT receipts. Even the utility windfall tax was possible because of strong growth in the economy. This remains the mantra for some. Yesterday heard Yvette Cooper talking about the need to restore growth in much the same way as New Labour had.
While I will be as quick as anyone to defend our infrastructure record I feel we have to take real notice of our economic failings, not so that we can flog ourselves in public but so that we can learn from our mistakes.
From 2003 onwards a number of Brown’s financial advisers were advising that we were spending right up to the limit (and maybe beyond) what was prudent. While the soundbites of the balanced economy and the management of spending over cycles were trotted out the fact was that our spending had become unsustainable and the rest is history. We may not have caused the financial collapse but when it came we found ourselves rather unfit to meet the challenge.
Today Ed Balls has begun to acknowledge this not least with the pledge to allow the Office of Budget responsibility to monitor and adjudicate on not only the prudence of our policies but on the effectiveness of our spending. You don’t have to be a high end economist or policy wonk to think we may not have got the productivity and service out of our investments than we should have expected.
But new financial rules really only play at the margins. There is a real possibility now that we will see virtually no significant growth over the next decade. Labour’s desire to soften the blow and to tackle the deficit more gently may be right, but the big effect here may be to avoid tipping us in another recession; it may not be about delivering significant growth.
But back to JP. He is right in the sense that he realises that for Labour these kinds of investments — and redistribution — are what we live for. If we are not about these, then what are we about? However, life is likely to be straight forward for a while. Look at the current state of the economy. It should be a wonderful time to export and develop our manufacturing but the problem is that there is not enough of that left. You can press the economic levers but nothing happens but there is so little there.
If we are to face a decade or so of stagnant growth — and many think we might — then fairness and redistribution will not be achieved through growth. But, we can argue that in times like these, with working individuals, families and communities suffering, the need for fairness and redistribution will be as great as ever.
Which brings us back to he old, old solutions. We will need public investment in public works — mind you will will have to focus on the right ones, such as ‘green new deal’ programmes. But how do we finance them? Slight of hands and stealth taxes will hardly do. We will have to raise the finance for investment and this will have to be trough clear, transparent and progressive taxation.
Recently I saw what happens when taxation in difficult times is not fair and progressive. I was in Ireland, a country where working people are suffering dreadfully. The financial boys may be heralding Ireland’s return to growth but that seems to be increasingly in an economic layer that is divorced from normal life. Life amongst the city’s workers, and in rural areas, is as hard as ever as factory closures continue to lay waste to hundreds of jobs at a time. While Corporation Taxes are held ridiculously low ordinary people are presented with a stream of new stealth taxes. The anger is so real you can almost feel it.
Ireland has two main priorities in moving its economy forward, but funnily enough there is nothing new about them. Low corporation taxes are designed to attract high-tech investment yet this is vulnerable to a double dip recession in the USA. Ireland has some way to go before it can capitalise on the growth in the ‘developing’ world. The second plank is tourism, but the costs of food, drink and everything else are so expensive that you can understand why even in tourist beauty spots you see so few visitors. There is a particular absence of Americans. George Soros and others are increasing vocal in suggesting that Ireland’s programme will not help it avoid some kind of default.
The UK might not be quite in this space but we amy not be that far from it. Labour’s aims and objectives remain our traditional ones. A decade of stagnation will lead to real demands to become more conventional in our tax and spending.
This is why economic gimmicks cannot work and why the public remains so suspicious of Labour and its economic policies. Balls may have begun on the long road to a more conventional readjustment but there is long way to go.
Increasingly there is talk on the right of the next election being fought in a stagnant economy and we’ll see next week if Osborne has taken notice of this. But for Balls, surely it is time to invite Will Hutton back for tea and cakes.
Hutton’s view is that we are a whisper away from a 1930′s-type recession and that we have few ideas that break with the orthodoxy that has not only led us to where we are but which is so unsuited for dealing with the stagnant world. He is not alone. The electorate know that life is hard but I also think they know tea meddling and twisting of economic controls is not enough.
Labour is likely to leave this conference without an economic policy that is seen by the public as one that can meet the real challenges that they are living each and every day.
The AV ballot is proving to be a very strange thing indeed not least as campaigners struggle to generate some real interest amongst the election. goodness knows what the turnout will be but in places where there are no local election — such as London — my guess is that it is going to be very low indeed. Life is easier for the No Campaigners who can simply just rely on rubbishing change. I guess many Yes campaigners had been more optimistic based on the public’s desire for change, but as ever in the UK there is a great danger that apathy wins the day.
So, what is happening? It’s not that easy to work out at the moment not least because to understand where we are you have to deal with seemingly conflicting information and intelligence.
The Plus Side for Reform Campaigners
I’ve been out canvassing regularly since the end of January. Just recently people have started to raise the AV ballot with me. Basically, they want to know is May 5th the date when we can vote on the election system. Of those who raise the issues with me I guess nearly all are positive about change. While some are positively looking forward to change I’ve not yet had anyone on the doorstep who has said that they are against it. I should add that there are few Tories in my area.
The difficulty is that I have no idea whether these comments are significant. Normally if four or five people in a road mentioned the same issue you would take it seriously and reckon that this was a real concern for people. But with this issue I’m not quite sure.
The Political Establishment and NO
But from what I’ve seen so far I’m pretty sure that a change in the system is more popular with the ordinary public than it is with the political world, and I include both the elites and the foot-soldiers here. My constituency Labour Party (Birmingham Hall Green) recently debates the issue and I think that there was one individual present who was strongly in favour. But it should be added that this meeting consisted of hardened, cynical politicos.
There is a danger, of course, that the political establishment are widely out of touch with the people and that many of them are going to have a big surprise when the ballot is announced. But I think the dangers are more subtle than that.
Lukewarm Responses from Constitutional Reformers
The problem with AV is that it really is not much of a reform. Many of those I know who are keen to see reform see this as a bit of a waste of time and, further, they worry that this weak-natured change will simply not catch people’s imagination enough to really deliver a solid majority for it. As a result AV — in political terms — can be seen as quite a divisive move; many reformers see many other issues that should be prioritised first.
Today’s Guardian carries a very interesting piece from Vernon Bogdanor, a long-term campaigner for electoral reform. Boganor correctly, in my view, claims that this referendum offers very little except a big stick to hit the government with.
In essence Boganor is arguing that when the dust settles nothing much will have changed even if the referendum is one.
And he has a point.
The Problem with First Past the Post
We should have had a national debate on representation and electoral systems. Without it even reformers are left feeling flat. But before the political establishment NO brigade start feeling too smug they should consider not just the referendum but the substantive issue. This ballot might fall but it will not mean that somehow the public are happy with their electoral lot.
Any analysis of the problem should start with first past the post. Just what is wrong with it?
FPTP has too problems. Firstly, it doesn’t produce a result — or distribution of seats — that reflects the way people cast their votes either nationally and regionally. As a result we come to the second problem, that FPTP wastes many votes.
As a political purist it seems to me that our system should aim to reflect the priorities of the electorate and also to ensure that as few people as possible feel that their vote is wasted. After all, of people have been bothered to go along and vote then you have to assume that they are determined to express an opinion and that they would like this to be taken seriously.
So, any new system should be nowhere near as cavalier or as wasteful as FPTP.
The Problem with AV
The real problem with AV is that is won’t deliver much in the way of change, it won’t provide a more reflective result and it won’t stop people feeling that there votes have been wasted.
Those campaigning for AV argue that at least a winning candidate can only be elected after securing 50% of the vote. Really? I suppose in some circumstances I would be happy if my second preference actually won, but this is not guaranteed. I might feel that my second preference was second by a long way. But suppose my third choice was the person that won. Would I feel that the result reflected opinion across the board? Would I feel any happier than under FPTP? I doubt it.
But what about the first point above? Would the result be any fairer in terms of the distribution of seats against voter preference?
Anyone seriously interested in this should start with the Electoral Reform Society and especially its guide to different electoral systems. Sadly, the Society has re-written this section following a ballot of its members. This piece lists the benefit of AV. The old listing used to list the downsides as well. Basically, the downside is that AV can produce results that are even more perverse than FPTP, in terms of a result that reflects the distribution of votes.
But while the ERS has moderated ints views Boganor’s piece addresses the problems full on:
(AV) … alters little; and it leaves most voters cold. Yet the issue excites the political class, whose wild and exaggerated claims for and against the system constitute a perfect example of what in the French la politique politicienne, politics for the politicians but not for the people.
AV will not, as its advocates suggest, do away with safe seats. It will make no difference in a constituency where an MP wins over 50% of the vote. Since so few seats will change hands, the system is unlikely to make MPs fight for every single vote; nor will it remedy the geographical imbalance of representation that is perhaps the greatest weakness of the first-past-the-post system. It will do nothing to ensure that Tories are better represented in Scotland and the north of England, or Labour better represented in the south.
Under AV, an extremist party such as the BNP might gain more first-preference votes, so giving it more legitimacy. That is because a vote for a small party will no longer be a wasted vote. But since only a centrist party, such as the Lib Dems, is likely to secure transfers, the BNP would be unlikely to win any seats.
It is the last point that is most significant. This poor scheme might give the Lib Dems something extra. They have to make the most of it I guess but we’re talking about crumbs from the Cameron table really.
Getting More Radical
The complaints about AV are nothing new. The use of AV has ben debated before in several Speaker’s Conference — Boganor quotes from 1931
When AV was debated in the Commons in 1931, one MP said the system reminded him of Oscar Wilde’s comment on Whistler, that he had no enemies but was thoroughly disliked by all his friends. A referendum ought to be a weapon by which the people can make decisions for themselves. The poll on AV, by contrast, is a weapon by which the coalition partners can offload on the public the onus of deciding on a system that neither of them wants.
More recently the issue was dealt with by Roy Jenkins after 1997. Jenkins dealt with the issues by developing AV+, the plus bit being a list system that would be used to provide a greater reflection of voters actual attentions. The Jenkins Report — which still makes interesting reading can be still found online.
Many of those who wish to see a NO vote will have agreed with much that has been written here. But I’m not really with them.
Over the last couple of years I’ve spoken at a number of political meetings about electoral reform, no necessarily in favour of one system or another but about the issue in general. These have been very interesting discussions, ones in which there has been a real exchange of views and one in which people’s views have shifted.
In all of these meetings those who identified with the need for change started at AV. These were Labour Party or Party related meetings and at the time it was widely thought that this was the then leader Gordon Brown’s preference. But as the discussion went on more and more people became interested in STV. STV is the system which most reflects the first preferences of the electorate in general and, as a result, wastes fewer votes.
The Constituency Link
STV makes a big difference to the constituency link with an MP and this is still important — at least — at an emotional level. But I’m more and more convinced that STV is the way forward and the multi-member constituencies can work well. Politicos rage against STV. They say it is too complicated but in reality STV — as it presents to the public — is a very simple system. Understanding how the quota in STV works is pretty simple to any political operator. You won’t need to explain, though, this system to the ordinary punter. They will simply be able to see that the result is fairer!
For a lot of people though the abolition of the strict constituency link is a step too far and for others the radicalness of the change is something to fret over.
So What Do We Do?
So, AV won’t change very much. So why do it? YES campaigners argue that if the opportunity for reform is missed then it will have been missed for a generation. And they are right. But the problem is that AV will not be seen to be a system that has made much of a difference at all!
An Even More Isolated Political Elite
My real worry in all of this is that — whatever the result — we won’t see much change and that the electorate won’t feel any change. This is something to worry about because we cannot be complacent. The public’s unease with the professional political class has not gone away!
In a perverse way you could argue that a vote NO is the way to secure real change as it is more likely to lead to a growing demand for a proper debate for change and the opportunity for people to vote on more than one option.
For my part I shall probably vote YES but I will do so with no great enthusiasm at all. We are being fobbed-off with a mediocre change that will do little to restore faith in our election system.
In finishing on this point I am agreeing with Vernon Boganov. A successful AV vote will probably change little and rather than being a first step of the road to change it will probably see the closing down of discussion and debate over the medium term.
One of the saddest thing about this campaign is the way in which the ERS has switched tacks and has adopted a hopelessly gimmicky tone — ‘ ..If AV is good enough for the Oscars’
However, the really good stuff is still there on their website. Anyone really interested in change should read two publications that are available for free and downloadable.
PR —The Myths is written by Vernon Boganov himself and deals very clearly with much of the nonsense that is aimed at electoral reform.
Review of Voting Systems — is a very interesting piece of work that should be read by all politicians. The report reflects the findings of a piece of work commissioned by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst other things this shows that alternative systems are in no way too complex for the ordinary public to understand! And, the report comes with a good introduction by my old mate Richard Burden MP (Birmingham Northfield).
If you are voting AV I don’t want to discourage you. But don’t kid yourself that it will change much. The battle for a better and more representative electoral system will only just have begun. The public may well see this ballot as a barely significant skirmish.
In Birmingham — like in many big cities — this has been a strange old week or so. For many of us the last fourteen days or so have seen horrendous spending cuts become something of a reality and not simply something that was coming.
On Tuesday afternoon I went to Birmingham Council House to watch the annual budget debate. This was the first time that I have sat through a full council meeting since I stopped being a Councillor a number of centuries ago. It felt like an important meeting. I was there not so much as a voyeur but as someone who has invested much of his life in working in the city on community and voluntary sector projects; I also spent twelve years of my life as a Councillor. It seemed to me that this one day represented the tearing of much of my life’s work.
Before trotting over to the Council House I was at a meeting with a Birmingham Partnership group. It was the last Steering Group meeting of a project I’ve been involved with for a couple of years, a project that looks to support very vulnerable young people who are on the edge of gang-related activity. The project is successful and can demonstrate this through both performance indicators and through the savings it is made to Ministry of Justice budgets but despite the government rhetoric of wanting to assess all projects in this way (eventually) the project will close. But that’s another story for another day.
As I sat in this meeting I realised that nearly all of around the table would not be around in a month or two’s time. There was one of us who would. He works in a statutory service but has relied heavily on the support that other innovative services have given him over the last few years. He and his colleagues have worked hard to develop new services to support vulnerable young people. The problem now is that it is not just one of these services that have disappeared but all of them. As a result there may be serious issues here around the safeguarding of young people. The batten will have to be picked-up by the statutory services that survive, but they too are being slashed. Even for those that had survived the cull it felt like the end of the road.
A couple of days beforehand it had been a major rally against cuts in Birmingham. As an event it had a very different feel to those I remember from the 80′s. It was a warm hearted event and even had a family feel to it. Everyone knew the cuts were inevitable and yet the atmosphere was not one of resignation. I think most present felt that this was the beginning of a long hard road and fight. We protestors set off to march around the pedestrianised shopping streets of Birmingham. Onlookers gave their support. Those of more advanced years offered their support and told us they knew of the difficult times ahead for vulnerable adults. The younger onlookers had never seen such a march in their lives before. Despite all of the ‘problems’ of New Labour it was clear to them that their world — or what they thought of as reality — was being turned upside down.
I was a little disappointed at the turnout from Labour Party members. Albert Bore the Leader of the Council was there as was his Deputy Ian Ward but there was hardly a big turnout from opposition councillors. And while Labour members had turned out individually there was no strong collective showing, no banners or other tactics that would have drawn people’s attention to the fact that Labour was at the heart of the protests. This felt to me to be a real shame. Maybe many felt that protesting against something that was clearly going to happen was not really worth it. But there is power in the showing of solidarity and the good will that this stores up will be important in the years to come.
At the Council budget meeting it was the protesters that disappointed. I’ve been at meetings where the campaigning was so strong that proceedings have had to be suspended and people ejected, so high ran the passions. But outside the protest was muted and dominated by the far left. Inside the chamber there was some vocal criticism but the public gallery was not exactly cramped to over-flowing.
As I listened to the debate of the council I realised just how important it is going to be for Labour, the public and the public sector workforce to forge really strong bonds and to forge them quickly.
Most likely Labour will take control of Birmingham back in 2012 and a similar movement will be seen in the other big cities that have been run by Tories Lib Dems (or both in coalition). Labour will, though, take back control half way through this vicious cuts round and they will have more hard work to do — something that is not lost on Labour politicians.
While the task of taking power is daunting it is heartening to think that many of the achievements of the big cities took place (or began) during the Thatcher years. Despite year after year of slashing budgets Labour councils were able to innovate and to use their creativity to better protect their communities. If we have done it before surely we can do it again?
But, there is a but. After three or four years of these unprecedented cuts our public services will look very different. Many of them will have gone, probably forever — think of the old Victorian Libraries, Swimming Baths and so on.
In Birmingham and across the country Labour will have to work to move forwards with imagination and determination but they will also most likely have to develop a new vision — and new concepts — of how local services look and feel.
In developing new ideas and new work we will have to build on the experiences and the talents of public sector workers many of whom will be cynical and suspicious. A little more solidarity now will go a long way to helping in the future.
The TUC rally in London on March 26th looks as if it will be massive. My message to Labour Party members is that you really should be there. The ordinary people who make up our Trades Unionists will remember who was there supporting them and I fear that will also remember those who were not!