Andy Howell: Political Futures

A leftish, greenish and localist kind of blog

Fairness and Re-Distribution: Labour Cannot Rely on Growth

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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.

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September 26th, 2011 at 11:24 am

Posted in Economics,Finance

Why the AV Ballot Might Fail Even Amongst Those Who Want Change

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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.


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April 12th, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Health

The Vandalism Has Commenced But We Need to Think of the Future Now

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The March

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.

Library Staff Won't be Silenced!

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.

The march

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!

The Cuts we Need

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March 2nd, 2011 at 4:23 pm

The Little City Plan …

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I popped into the Food Hall in Birmingham’s House of Fraser yesterday. Other than the Bull Ring Market this is the only decent butcher’s in the city centre.

The staff were pretty glum as House of Fraser are closing their unit down as well as the deli section. Their jobs will go in a couple of weeks. We had a bit of a chat about everything and what was clear was just how frightened all of them were about the opening up of John Lewis in Birmingham. John Lewis would not really have an effect on a food hall, rather they were thinking about the impact on the whole store.

I guess this is only to be expected in times of recession but it does raise an interesting question. Plan after plan for Birmingham proudly announces that the city could cope with (and therefore needs) another one or two department stores. Indeed, this thinking remains in the current Big City Plan.

A sustainable city requires not only shops and services in the suburbs but outlets in the city centre as well, as that’s where many of us travel every day. But the market seems unable to provide that kind of service or solution.

Obviously, a department store exists to make money. This leaves us with the City’s own indoor and outdoor markets at the Bull Ring. Over recent years some of these traders have responded to the needs of foodies as well as to the needs of ethnic minorities (the two are closely related of course). But the long term future of the facility is not really clear to me. The wholesale markets are in poor condition and will move out of the city centre. But the food markets deserve some real consideration and we should be building on their base and reputation.

Other cities and other places in the UK have recognised that these markets can not only serve an important function in providing affordable food but that they can serve as tourist attractions in their own right. In the last year I’ve been to amazing markets in places as diverse as Inverness and Cork, both of which have great examples of what I mean.

I’m sad to see my friendly butchers go. I’d like to think the better guys in the market have people working on giving them a better and guaranteed future.

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February 15th, 2011 at 10:39 am

Posted in arts and culture

The Big Society Bank & Social Investment Bonds — Long Term Planning Needed!

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In general the idea of the Big Society Bank is not a bad one. Interestingly, the issue about dormant accounts was raised ten years or so ago by a cluster of the bigger voluntary organisations. I seem to remember that they were in constant discussion with the Labour government about this but I think Gordon was too cautious to really put any momentum behind it, which was a real shame.

But there is something odd about the focus with bonds, or social investment bonds as they are becoming known. These work in the following way.

Basically, a service provided shows that they can save the government money in the long term by, for example, preventing offending. A ‘bond’ is established that will see the service develop over say 5 years. After 5 years if the service provider has met their performance/savings targets then the bond backers will receive a cut of the savings to central government.

What often is not appreciated is that the cost of the bond, i.e., the operating costs of the project for the 5 years, are met by someone other than government.

The only real sizeable SIB to be created so far is the one that is being operated in Peterborough Prison and which was pioneered by the St.Giles Trust. Here the ‘bond’ was covered by a consortium of charitable trusts who came together under the Social Finance organisation. The Trusts put up the costs for four years or so and they get their return from government if the project meets the targets that have been set for the lowering of offending rates of prisoners who have been released back into the community.

OK so far?

The problem is that the charitable trusts simply cannot meet the demands (or running costs) of many more bonds. Their funds are finite and anyway they will need to be funding non-governmental work.

So, the Big Society Bank can fill this gap by giving ‘loans’ to meet the operating costs of projects that are part of the Bond system.

But there are a few things to consider.

Firstly, the return on investment has to be paid by government at some point and often the pain falls on a different government department to the one promoting a scheme. Imagine a programme designed to limit crime. Great may say the Home Office. But it’s not the Home Office budgets that will have to ultimately pay, it is the Ministry of Justice.

There are lots of people looking at bond schemes around offending, mainly because the savings are easy to calculate. But the Ministry of Justice is apparently getting jittery. They know that these projects just stack up costs for the future.

Imagine. The Bond programme has been a great success. It comes to an end. But the work needs to carry on. Who funds it now? The original charitable funders were motivated by the desire to show that preventative work is cost effective. Their aim was to show that government should move its spending to preventative work.

I understand with the Peterborough scheme the payout — i.e. the return to the original investors — will be largely met by the Big Lottery. Interestingly, Have not this government committed themselves to taking the Lottery back to its good cause origins and to avoiding using these funds to subsidise mainstream budgets and programmes? But I doubt Big Lottery can keep meeting all of these costs.

Spare a thought for the Ministry of Justice. They have not traditionally funded much of the prevention work but it looks as if they are stacking up long term commitments for this kind of work.

So, while the Big Society Bank may make the initial lone it will have to be the government that pays it back and makes the interest payments! After all, they won’t just be able to let a successful project die when the bond has run out. Or will they?

I’ve been trying to develop a social investment project or one based on ‘calculated savings’. The project I’ve been working on is one which works to support young people who have been judged to be at real risk of becoming involved in gang based criminality.

The project can show that, for those referred, re-offending rates are half the national rates and for those young people who engage positively even less. Further, progress on the project helps those who do reoffend. The project has been able to keep four or five young people out of custody during the last twelve months, in other words progress on the project has encouraged judges and magistrates to avoid a custodial sanction (even when the young person involved may have served a custodial sentence before). The average length of custodial sentences for young offenders is over 11 months. It costs around £70,000 to keep a young person in custody per year. This project’s costs are £200,000 per annum. You can see how this gearing works. Just working on the four young people kept out of custody you have saved the costs of the whole project which might be working with as many as 50 young people. Good eh?

This project has been put together by a partnership of agencies including the local Authority and the Police. It was funded through external government programmes that have come to an end and it is likely that the council will not be able to absorb these costs given the tremendous problems they will face. The work, the experience and skills of the staff might be lost.

So, I’ve been working to see if this Bond type basis could be used to keep the project going. There are a number of problems. We can’t really get access to local or national costs of offending in any detailed way. But worse than that there is nobody in government we can talk to about it! There is nowhere that this argument can be lodged. Government advisers say that they want to be able to follow this approach. We are working along the right lines. But government’s commitment to these programmes will be defined over the next three years. So, this stuff has come too late for us. But surely it will be a good thing for those who follow?

Well, there is something of a basic to understand here. Government may get someone else to meet the cost of the original Bond period, whether that be a consortia of charitable trust or the Big Society Bank. But government will have to meet the returns needed to successful partners. And then government will presumably have to pick up the costs of those schemes that have shown to save them money. And if the performance thresholds have been set too high — and the project is delivering positive outcomes for real people — government may still have to step into the breach.

My point is this. There is no long term substitute for public spending in these key areas. We can get the banks to meet original costs. We can raid Big Lottery to meet the return demands of the original investors, but then we take money away from good causes. But as the principle of this work expands so it will be less likely that the lottery can fit the bill.

There are many good things about the Big Society Bank but it only helps cashflow and puts off the day of public, financial commitment. The Big Society Bank is not magic. It is a bank.

There are likely to be wider implications though. This work will accelerate the ‘Americanisation’ of our public services and drive more work into the hands of the private sector.

I recently met a representative from an international group who manage everything from prisons to old people’s homes. I was quite impressed by their focus in many ways. These kinds of companies, in the US, set up their own corporate responsibility programmes from their own profits. They are likely to move into areas of activity that are traditionally the preserve of the voluntary and community sector, and we should not underestimate the scale the of the programmes that they can create.

But is this what we want? Do we want our social work funded as a bonus to profits that are ultimately derived from the taxpayer? What about accountability? What about the desirability of communities developing their own ideas and accepting responsibility for their own citizens? Will we just see more and more of our public funds sucked into the private sector in the mistaken belief that it provides a better return?

The Big Lottery Bank will be an important source of funding for many voluntary, community and third sector projects. At least it will in the short term.

But we must not be blinded to the ultimate reality that we — the public —ultimately provide the funds that support the Bank — bank contributions should be probably seen as deferred tax.

We can see the whole Big Society project lurch from one unknown to another. It could easily become one huge kind of Arthur Daly style mess.

We need a public debate on public services, the need to pay for them and the need for them to be accountable. And we need to properly model the implications and impact of these schemes.

Remember PFI. Suddenly many of these schemes do not look so hot. Local authorities and health services are lumbered with charges to the private sector that they have to be met because of contracts, meaning that even more of the impact of cuts falls on the rest of their fragile budgets.

There is a lot of work to be done here before we start patting ourselves on the back.

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February 15th, 2011 at 7:00 am

Posted in The Big Society

The Bastards of Birmingham

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Not only did I spare a thought of two for Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester Council this week, but I felt rather proud of him. Manchester revealed the full extent of the cuts they are to make. No messing around, you could understand where the pain was to be inflicted. There was no sense of hiding either. Consultations with communities, unions and others have been had. And now the leadership was doing what leaderships must. They had taken their decisions and they were standing up to be accountable for them. This is how things should be. Leese was upfront and speaking to both local and national media. In his traditional quiet mannered (yet effective) way he explained how government cuts had fallen disproportionately on this city, one of the most disadvantaged in the land.

Manchester was, of course, attacked but government. They have enough money. They haven’t taken hard enough decisions, especially when it comes to ‘back office’ functions. If we are to seriously deal with the reductions of public expenditure which are, to some extent of another, unavoidable, then this attack from the Tories was cynical and disingenuous. Like all councils Manchester has been delivering  its ‘Gershon’ savings for some time now, a formula which sees efficiency savings built into future budgets and programmes. Sudden and swathing cuts like these will take a long time to absorb. You can’t suddenly change the way you run the IT structure of a major organisation, or manage the purchase ledger or any of these things. The government likes to talk about responsibility and everyone being in this together but their treatment of Manchester was one of the lowest and cheapest shots imaginable. However, the treatment of Manchester looks even more remarkable when compared to the absolute chaos in Birmingham, a council run by an alliance of the Tories and the Lib Dems!

In Birmingham there has been no attempt to enter into any kind of serious dialogue with the city and the community. You can sense the desperation and the Chief Executive Stephen Hughes tours community and voluntary sector sharing his concerns that he won’t be able to pay the wage bill.

Hughes faces life with a Leader — Sir Mike Whitby — who refuses to deal with anything other than good news. If there’s a photo opportunity Sir Mike will be there. But bad news? He’s nowhere to be found. There’s no way Sir Mike would appear before the world as did Richard Leese to stand accountable for the decisions that had been taken.

But this lack of responsibility pervades the whole of Birmingham’s political leadership. In the face of dramatic funding cuts many of the Council’s Cabinet members — indeed those who are most right wing — absolutely refuse to mention the ‘C’ word. Cuts are not acknowledged and the refusal to deal with reality is almost at North Korean levels of fantasy.

By all accounts Birmingham’s leading officers have tried hard to get the Council to think about prioritising areas of activity and ending others. Sadly, this is realistic in the current plight. But the response has been to deny that there is any prioritising of cuts or protection of services. This is plain nonsense. We all know some things will have to go. But this administration simply chants its mantra of even-minded ‘efficiency’ savings’.

This means two things that will be devastating to the city. Firstly, communities and citizens, businesses and social care organisations will not be able to have their say in where the axe should fall and where priorities should lie. We might not like to deal with cuts but we know that we have to. Denying a proper debate means that not only does the council not draw on the weight of public opinion but it probably cuts itself off from the imaginative thought that can sometimes make a big difference in some areas. The denial of debate makes a mockery of notions of Big Society. (In Chairman Whitby’s Birmingham nobody must mention Big Society without comments being cleared with him first.) Secondly, the wider community might make the case for the protection of services that cannot be delivered. But we will have had our say and we will have been part of the process. We are more likely to feel like partners rather than victims.

Of course, we know the cuts are coming and we know that they will not be equally spread about. But it will all happen very late in the day with no chance to look creatively at other options and probably not even any chance to think about Big Society type functions. Closures of key services and institutions will be dropped on us all at the last minute. Responsible? Not on your life!

One of our big problems is that both the Tories and the Liberals understand the realities of local government arithmetic. As an out-of-London Metropolitan Borough Birmingham has elections most years (a third of the council up for election every three years out of four). By 2012 they will most probably have lost control of the council and they know it. Which means they don’t have a stake in the future. If he lasts until 2012 Sir Mike will have been Leader of Birmingham for eight years I think. He will know that this hasn’t been a bad innings for someone who is anyway more or less retired.

But it’s not just Tories who play these games.

The Lib Dem Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture is the amiable Martin Mullaney. Initially his Department decided they would try and provide some guaranteed protection for arts projects. They would look at their funding to the arts, take tough decisions up front, make the cuts but then guarantee funding for those who survived for five years in order to give them some security.

There was something to this approach but then it began to all go horribly wrong. It became clear that the only organisations to survive into this protection would be the big arts companies whose value is really measured in terms of what they do for the marketing of Birmingham’s image. The community arts projects that touch much more of Birmingham’s community would simply disappear.

This presented a problem to the politicians. Somebody leaked these plans before the council could mount its PR offensive. Cllr Mullaney panicked. He is up again in 2012. He represents a very arty seat. He feared he would be lynched. So, the five year plans were scrapped. Instead arts organisations were asked to re submit their budgets for a single twelve months. Of course, there will still be cuts but they will be carried out using the salami slicing techniques described above. Of course, the arts community knows that this is just the first of three years of cuts. The devastation will come in the end. This tactic though puts off the debate that is needed about how we balance the needs of the big arts organisations and the needs of the smaller, but more egalitarian, community-based projects. Cllr Mullaney’s new tactics mean that this discussion will probably never happen (not least because the community arts teams are all now facing redundancy — probably because there will be nothing for them to manage in the long term). Cllr Mullaney has cobbled together something that might just see him through the re-election in 2012 without him having to have an honest debate with the sector and the electorate.

In reality, this is just one example of many such slights of hand that are going on in Birmingham as an administration lurches towards the end. Maybe, just maybe they think we might be able to keep the lid on things long enough to (personally) see us through.

So Birmingham is in chaos. The biggest council in the UK — and run by the same alliance that runs the country — simply cannot cope with new realities imposed on them by their national colleagues.

Strangely, central government is very quiet about Birmingham. There are no attacks here on the inefficiency of the administration and on the failure of councillors to take honest and open decisions.

Most likely Labour will take control in 2012 when further cuts will have to be made. It is possible that they may even break apart this sad alliance this May. Back in power Labour will have the unenviable job of dealing with national, Tory, cuts. But we have been here before. During the 80’s and 90’s Labour local government was at its most creative simply because it focussed on the needs and the suffering of its people. In moving forward Labour will have to manage the honest public debate about priorities that this bunch have worked so hard to avoid.

If Big Society is at important than David Cameron (today relaunching Big Society in the Observer) should take a look at the leadership offered by his colleagues in Birmingham. From a Birmingham viewpoint the key values used by ConDem politicians include cowardice, indecision , a distrust of civil society and plain ugly arrogance.

It is time for these people to be swept away.

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February 13th, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in Local Government

Democratic Labour?

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Now, here’s a thought …

This week we have seen a popular campaign of ordinary people overturn a government, using social media tools and mobile phones as the main weapons in their armoury. No, I’m not talking about Egypt I’m thinking about the campaign that led Cameron to suspend and review his ideas of selling off our forests and woodland. This campaign ignited around Facebook and Twitter and is a real reminder not all of those using these services are young! People from the right, left and centre of politics — not to mention those of no politics at all — were raging. This policy was not in any manifesto. It was not what people had voted for. It was wrong and for once an odd consensus asserted itself in record quick time.

You may not think this is, say, in the same league as the Poll Tax campaigns but I’m not so sure. The growth of Twitter and Facebook across all ages is remarkable and it will effect our politics in all kinds of ways we hadn’t expected. I wonder if Blair’s Iraq plans would have been pegged back if he had launched them today?

But while we might revel in the discomfort of the Tories and the Lib Dems the Labour Party in opposition will not be immune to this kind of influencing and campaigning. New media requires new responses. But also new media will give us new opportunities to develop a new and healthy dimension to debate and policy making within the Party.

I’m sure that no Leader wants to waste too much time early on worrying about Party structures. But do we have the structures to make the most of policy debate and reform?

There have been many Labour campaigns that have focussed on structures. The best of them have been concerned with these because they saw how these impacted on democratic debate. As one young campaigner at Compass residential put it “what is the point of Labour if it is not a democratic party, a really democratic party?” True for some to both the right and the left of the centre the point of structural reform might have been to deny debate, but in the main those campaigning for internal democracy were doing so because we believed it would lead to better policy and more effective governance.

The internal reform debate is still about better policy and better governance but now we also have to consider whether we have the right tools to do our trade. I’m struck by the very different reality inhabited by many of the young people who have joined our Party recently. They have come to politics as a result of a very different kind of communication medium. They have been inspired by the hi-tec campaigning of Obama and saw Ed Milliband’s campaign as an attempt to create a British variation of it. These folks do have energy and enthusiasm but I doubt many of them are really going to get involved in branches, constituencies and ECs. And many of them will want to talk with voters in new ways as well.

Bluntly, our creaking and old fashioned machine might not be up to the job. Consider the current policy review. Apparently the problem is not so much that of getting the ideas in, no the real headache is what do with all of the responses. How do we work with them? How do we debate the merits of different ideas and proposals? Surely we can’t galvanise politics by simply putting out tons of traditional paper?

The new technologies and social media tools probably hold the key here. Our discussion and debate needs energy and dynamism, something I don’t often associate with local meetings.

But, where is the focus on the reform or development of the Party Machine. The skill base of the ‘machine’ is based on the old world and doesn’t really address the new?

It is time for the new leadership to begin to lead this discussion, to show that they understand the need to be different and that they are set to update our machine and our structures. We have Byrne reviewing policy and Hain reviewing structure, but hold on there is something weird happening (or not happening).

At the top our Party General Secretary Ray Collins has been sent to the Lords. But he is still General Secretary and apparently thinks that he can do both jobs. How on earth can the GS cope with battles of legislation in the Lords and still have the drive and energy to reform and develop our Party machine?

By all accounts the Trades Unions are furious but by all accounts their preferred candidate is not all that impressive or energetic himself. But hang on, surely the leadership and governance of our Party is not just an issue for the establishment and the Unions?

I have no doubt that the vast number of Party members would agree that it absurd for the GS to try and continue to combine two very different roles. Equally, it is conceivable that they might want a say in who gets the job next, or at least a view of the kind of person that gets the job next.

Our finances are still in a mess and tensions mount both around Westminster and beyond. Ed Milliband is — I believe — right to want to avoid the patronage of the big donors. He is right to think of a new world of community-based activism that is driven by the micro donations of the many rather than the throw away cheques of the few. But it is time for us to start putting in place a structure for a modern age otherwise we are in danger of falling backwards

Ed can start by getting on with a search for a new General Secretary now with an open brief that meets the realities of the new age.


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February 12th, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Health

Big Society: Nails in the Coffin Time Already

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I’ve never got too worried about the Big Society. OK, it might seem a vacuous notion, but it is not rally that far away from some of Gordon Brown’s ideas on civil society and so on. Before Christmas I wrote here that within a couple of years I doubted whether anyone would ever be using the term. Remember Best Value? Community Empowerment? Labour is not immune to this kind of notion either. A Minister has an idea, they try and deal with big themes in their own way, and then they move on.

Big Society has taken two big hits this week which makes me feel my prediction is safe.

First off, Lord Wei — the government’s champion of Big Society — resigned his non paid post as Big Society thinker in government. He couldn’t afford to work for nothing for three days a week. In other words he couldn’t sustain the volunteering. In his own words he was leaving ” …to get a life”, but which I take it he needs to generate income.

It is easy to deride Wei but he is quite an interesting and sympathetic character. While still young he has developed some first class businesses and he has done so using the philosophy and structure of a social enterprise. we probably need more social entrepreneurs like him.

I’ve seen Wei speak a couple of times since the election. Friends that are more into Big Society than me got quite excited about this; they were interested to know what he was like.

Listening to Wei talk about Big Society was a little painful. His audience quickly gets to know that he and his family live on a Shoreditch estate. Maybe this seems dangerous to those from Notting Hill, but Shoreditch these days is not a southern version of Toxteth or Easterhouse. In his talks Wei liked to ramble on about life in Shoreditch. Did we know that none of his neighbours knew each other? They lived very individual and isolated lives? Wouldn’t it be nice if people came together and supported each other within the immediate community? I suspect readers of this will not be too impressed but he was genuine enough in his concerns. But now he’s gone. Let’s hope that Wei’s next work on Social Enterprise has more clout.

The next blow came from Phil Redmond the Liverpool-based TV producer. Redmond had agreed to be an ambassador for the Big Society. Redmond wasn’t politically motivated, he just thought there was something interesting in the idea and I think he was right. But now Redmond argues that the concept is pointless. The cuts in local services and in the community and voluntary sector are so great as to make it impossible to build any meaningful initiatives in this area. Redmond was not making any particularly insightful comment here, he was simply commenting on what he was observing going on around him.

This week has also been the week in which the devastation of the cuts in the voluntary and community sector are becoming apparent. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau have led the charge. Scores of CAB’s will close denying those in real need critical advice and guidance during the most vulnerable times of their lives. And many skilled advice workers will loose their jobs. Many CAB volunteers — themselves skilled and effectively trained — will have nowhere to volunteer from.

There will be a lot of noise over the next few months from voluntary and community agencies that are dying. But the noise will die down and they will be gone.

But their staff won’t have gone. Their trustees and management committee members won’t be gone. And those who have depended on them won’t have gone.

Faced with such devastation these people will dig in. They will put there minds to campaigning and political campaigning at that. Such anger and hostility will build over the next couple of years to such an extent that the Big Society might come to mean something very different, and very more threatening to the Coalition parties.

Labour has not only to harness this energy and to support these voices. Labour has to offer these people an alternative vision of how the ‘good society’ will work in practice.

I think I’ll devote some time — here on the pages — to thinking about how we might do this.

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February 3rd, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Holding Our Land in Trust for Us, the People

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I write two blog. Must be This Way is by far the more popular and prolific and is a blog for hill walkers and hikers/backpackers. Political Futures is, as it suggests, a blog on politics. Sometimes common themes roll across the two of these blogs, but this is the first time that I’ve ever cross posted to both with the same entry.

My topic is, of course, the coalition government’s plans to sell off a great chunk of our woodland and forest that is currently owned by the Forestry Commission. Many political commentators seem a little surprised that this issue has aroused such passion from all sections of our community. But this is an issue that goes to the very core of our identity as a nation and of our values of public realm and public access.

Forests and woodland have a place deep in the psyche of all Europeans and the English Wood is something that has a special place in the nation’s consciousness. We might not think about forests and woodlands that often but as Simon Schama argued in his classic ‘Landscape and Memory’ our forests and woodlands have shaped out culture and our imaginations and he points out how our response to these has shaped our landscape.

So, our woodlands and forests are dear to our hearts. Some of us use them more than other. For me the great conifer forests of our nation are quite frightening places, not least because these are the only places that I get really lost. More natural woodlands and forests, on the other hand, are magical places. Us hillwalkers climb through them on the way to the uplands. Day ramblers use them as a the focus of a day’s walk. And I know this seems a bit crass, but for many inner city young people the trip to the wood or a forest is an experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

The government’s long awaited consultation document has today being called “madcap” a “confidence trick” and “a betrayal of our great assets” and it seems to me that all of these claims are right.

We will get into a real argument about what this will do and what can be done. Can voluntary agencies play a bigger role in the management and the diversification of our forests and woodlands? Well, perhaps they can except the current ones don’t seem confident. This looks to me just another scheme that hands over assets to the private sector for them to be stripped, exploited and devastated.

But forget the technical arguments for a while because this move tells us much, much more about this government’s approach to our world.

I haven’t yet met a single person that doesn’t think this is a mad idea. They don’t talk about technical arguments, the just think that it is wrong. Great natural assets such as these should be in the hands of the state and not private industry.

In objecting to this extreme policy people are effectively endorsing the view that the government does not so much own these assets but is a trustee of them on behalf of the British public. There are, of course, many other great environmental and cultural assets that government also holds in trust for the nation.

It is this notion of trusteeship that should make government politicians stop and think. Are they wanting just to save money or are they just divesting themselves of their responsibilities?

Protestations of increased efficiency are likely to cut no ice with a public that just knows this is wrong. And on a more political note, we can look across the public sector and see no clear benefit for whole range of policies that have ended up shoving public assets into the private sector. Personally I have no problems with the notion of a mixed economy of public services — our public services have grown up in such a way. But I am very suspicious as even Parliamentary Select Committee can see no real financial or efficiency advantage in massive PFI schemes. At the heart of the issue is the profit motive, the need to get not just a return on investment but to screw as much financial return as is possible from a contract against other social need.

Some on the right — slightly bewildered by the response — seem happy to bash on with the confidence that this kind of alignment and pubic coalition only comes along once in a generation. True, this policy may unite Telegraph readers and Guardian readers, inner city people and rural squires, those who just know the woodland is there and those who use it regularly, but they comfort themselves with the view that this is a one off.

My suspicion is that this is not a one off. This is not an issue of right or left. It is a reflection of a wide spread pubic view that this is unfair and plane wrong.

Our notions of landscape may be as deeply routed in our imagination as Schama suggests. Our understanding of the need for government to hold assets and to run services on trust for us the people is more deeply rooted than the cynical minds of this government realise.

The government would be wise to give themselves to stop and take stock. These are not assets for them to dispose of as they fit. We the public understand that government has a real duty of care to our environmental assets. The government will really take a pounding if it doesn’t begin to consider this notion of trusteeship properly. They will be in deep shit as we hillwalkers would put it.

You might like to read the Woodland Trust take on all of this, which is here — Save England’s Ancient Forests. They also have a petition for you to sign.

The Forestry Commission Consultation is here.

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January 27th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Big Society? Big Collapse!

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Interesting to see how the right wing press are now beginning to realise the truth about Big Society and the government’s cuts! The voluntary sector has traditionally been a major provider of public services in what has always been a mixed economy. But voluntary effort needs professional support, Volunteers need training and mentoring. They need support services to ensure quality. Volunteers do not work in a vacuum, or it they do they soon stop volunteering.

It would appear that the new Ministers did not recognise how important their funding was to the voluntary sector. And they certainly have no idea of the mayhem that we are going to see at Easter.

Most left wing commentators and bloggers have written about the drastic effect of cuts on public agencies and public institutions. But the cuts will have an even more disastrous impact on the voluntary sector.

As I sit in Birmingham I can see our infrastructure disappearing at a rate of knots. I see the same thing happening in other parts of the country. Not only will services suffer but communities themselves will think they are being short-changed. There are going to be even more angry people out there when they realise that even their cheap services — or voluntary effort — is destined for the scrap heap.

I don’t like making political predictions. But I reckon — within two years — we’ll be seeing Heseltine hit the cities again with yet another regeneration programme. But this time around he will have even more to do than last time.

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January 24th, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Birmingham