"Localism" requires annual elections

David Cameron may not spend much time considering the finer details of the City of Preston Conservative association, even when it is the ruling administration of our city, but I do wonder if he will start to take a closer look at the latest budgetary wheeze.

Faced with the requirement to fill a financial black hole given to them by 20-odd years of Labour mismanagement, the Tories are chin-stroking over the concept of scrapping yearly “in thirds” elections for Preston Council, replacing them with 4- or 5- yearly “all out” votes. This may look good on paper, but not only does it remove the democratic accountability enjoyed by people in Preston for generations, it flies in the face of David Cameron’s ambition for “greater localism” and “power to the people” and all that jazz.

I am in favour of fixed term parliaments where such a concept suits the institution – Westminster, Holyrood, Brussels – while favouring much more “instant recall” the closer one gets to everyday problems. One case in point is South Ribble Council, only 10 minutes walk from my front door. Their ongoing problems with a controversial waste disposal site angered a lot of voters, but these people could not register their displeasure at the ballot box for an entire year until the electoral cycle came round again. In Preston, with our annual “in thirds” system, voters would have been able to have their say almost instantly. And for the record, yes, the Liberal Democrats of whom I am a member were slaughtered at the eventual elections for supporting the plant from the start.

The Preston Tories may think they have managed to explain away their annual election plan without greater scrutiny. It’s not just about money – the local Conservatives doubtlessly struggle to find enough candidates to stand year on year. Well if the much smaller Liberal Democrats can do it – and in recent years we have been very open in admitting our inability to find enough members to stand even as paper candidates – then perhaps the pride of the Tories has to take a pinching too.

Local institutions need greater scrutiny. This means annual elections at district level, and I include County Councils in this too, put an automatic dividing wall between the voters and the winning Councillors. It becomes too easy to hide in a Town Hall room for 4- or 5- years between elections. Annual elections for Council ensure a reduction in complacency and an increase in democratic accountability. If Cameron wants “localism” to be the new watchword for his first Conservative Government, I suggest he takes a closer look at the administrations running councils in his party’s name.

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Jesus Christ and John Smiths

Forty days. And forty long nights. “A bit like Jesus,” suggested a lad at work. Well, quite. Our Lord and Saviour may well have survived, as have I, on powdered soup and tea leaves.

Not wanting to appear somewhat inconsistent in my argument – as if a liberal ever would! – I decided not to buy any booze for the period of my financial kerfuffles (see Missives passim). From watching the might Berske lose to Halifax in the FA Cup qualifying to last night’s High Voltage shindig in Manchester, I endured and partly enjoyed the “dry period”. It would have somewhat invalid a stance were I to claim financial responsibility in one breath while hoiking 12 cans of best ale from the corner shop every week.

Drinking that first pint of Smooth last night returned a very strong sensory recall memory. My earliest attempts to purchase booze in a pub was at the age of 15, with my best mate at High School attempting to look awfully older slurping two pints of Fosters at the Ship. I was wearing his t-shirt and his dad’s trousers in an attempt to look older. Still was refused entry to the Blue Moon, later on, though. Never forgotten.

It took about 40 minutes to drink the first pint, last night. The tight head this morning certainly seems familiar. Unlike the Son of God I dare say my month of sacrifice has not taught others to live a different way, and my blog readership stats suggest these words may well be reaching a world-wide audience, but only of thousands rather than billions. I take the view, as I sit here in a stuffy library struggling against the pinching headache behind the eyes, that in the manner of someone from Thought For The Day, drinking in Manchester and buying a Burger King for the midnight train is a little bit like Jesus….Er….and….surely when He…erm…taught the lessons of fortitude he was thinking about…er…the pocket shrapnel one does not like counting through the early fog of the morning after?

Or…you know….something. Cheers!

Chicken Supreme Court

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the banks in the on-going saga (there is no other term, really) on the right to reclaim the value of charges on such things as overdrafts.

Attention is drawn to the seemingly done-and-dusted phrase;

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the charges for unauthorised overdrafts fell within this exclusion. They were part of the price
paid by the customer for the banking services provided.

“This exclusion” refers to the notion of “value for money”, that is, are the fees or charges for going into an overdraft authorised or not a fair swap for the service of having an account with a banking institution. As the ruling says, “The charges were not concealed default charges designed to discourage customers from
becoming overdrawn on their accounts without prior arrangement”

This ruling should be viewed from all sides. Most people accept that banks are businesses and as such must find a way to make profits and secure themselves from losses. Fees and charges are one way in which this can be done. If an ordinary member of the public finds themselves in an unauthorised overdraft, are they in effect relying on other customers to supplement their lapse?

It would appear that the era of free banking could well be coming to a close, not as though this judgement has made this situation any more likely. Banks are finding “sneaky” ways to charge customers any way possible. Is it too much to ask for a watchdog – or even the government – to investigate whether the punishment fits the crime?

Clearly it IS too much to ask. The Supreme Court ruling has done a banking industry with its already tainted reputation not much good at all, with the long run consequences surely more distrust and distaste for an industry happy to soak up government aid while being rather unwilling to allow customers some reasonable boundaries. I don’t expect banks to allow unauthorised overdrafts or bounced cheques to go without any punishment whatever, although there must be surely some perspective in this age of all ages?

Not all customers in serious debt did so through splurges and irresponsibility. Banks may now have been given the right to punish low and fixed-income customers with even more disdain than before. I accept the principle idea behind keeping banks solvent and taxpayers’ money safe: however this ruling does nothing to encourage customers to trust the institutions in which so much ordinary, daily life is secured.

cabbages and kings

This is how it must feel for Gibraltar’s young new athletics hope, having saved up his own money for the trip to Beijing, only to finish last in the only qualifying heat in which he was to take part. It would take self flagellation on a Catholic scale not to feel some sense of achievement.

So, anyhoo, knowing that self-praise is no praise at all, I am happy to report nonetheless that people at work are giving me that kind of congratulations-mixed-with-bemusement on news that, somehow, I have stretched £13.48 across the four weeks of November. By a muddling together of colleagues’ generous donations, late night perusal of reduced-to-clear shelves, and walking the 5 miles to work (and back), in addition to a 40-day “dry spell” without any booze, the money has made it all the way to pay day week with 45p to my name.

As I made clear in the other posts on my temporary financial flux (see below), throughout this period I have not wanted to appear as some “poverty tourist”. At times this period from mid-October to this week has been very humbling, difficult, tiring, but not once did I feel as though mine was the worst lot of all. That I could walk three streets from my front door to people whose financial situations are far deeper and far more permanent than mine impressed upon me just how lucky I am that, in time, my situation would be resolved.

In my experience, the talk-show cliché “you think it would never happen to you: and then it does”, has had its truth shown in the weeks where so many previous months of easy spending and impulse buying seemed to have no consequence at all. I cannot claim to be immune from future foul-ups, although I dare say I will never again fall into such deep problems. However I wonder how many people are out there, possibly on no more significant take home pay than me, who assume the national economic mess is of no consequence or significance to them?

This weekend, my temporary struggle against budgetary constraints will come to a close. Just in time for Christmas, too, well done Fate, good timing. I have the proof that my bank took three days before taking out the one final big spend from October, the catalyst for all this mess. I will take a lot of lessons from this. I don’t know quite what will happen after not having any booze for 40 days: maybe my next series of posts will focus on the scientific proof that one pint can knock a grown man sideways…

Previous posts on this subject –
*no money, no excuses
*Pennywise
*Climbing out of recession

BBC Three is top-slice lamb

James and Rupert Murdoch are increasing their attacks against rival media and things will not get very pretty between now and the next UK general election in the summer of 2010. In the eyes of News International, the BBC is ripe for picking apart, not least because of the amount of “free” services from on-line news to original childrens’ programming for an ultimate cost to the consumer far below that of a typical Sky subscription package. If the senior Murdoch’s threatened court action against copyright fraud is successful the “news” tab on the top of peoples’ iGoogle pages will be one of the most high profile casualties in this fight against media rivals.

For fans of the BBC, the talk of “top slicing” the licence fee sends shivers up the spine. Conservative leader David Cameron has allowed his Shadow Cabinet to talk freely about selling off bits of the Beeb, or to assist commercial rivals with monies taken from the TV Licence hitherto reserved to keeping the BBC delivering its programmes on television, radio, and through the online platforms such as iPlayer. Expect the now passionately Tory (and Murdoch owned) Sun newspaper to increase its support for asking Auntie to give up the money underneath her mattress for the good of commercial health in the country; first to go “part subscription” will undoubtedly be iPlayer, followed by the inevitable consolidation of regional radio stations.

Even as a fan of the BBC, I accept that the digital age means all of the current certainties of broadcasting must now exist with question marks overhead. Little things seen as somewhat inconsequential at the time – such as the internet only broadcast of the England v Ukraine qualifier – could well be important footnotes in the history of broadcasting come the ending of analogue television in 2012. That the BBC are somewhat “shielded” from the stormwinds of commercial factors will come under more scrutiny than ever; the superteam of an angry Murdoch and vote-chasing Cameron will combine against the Corporation like never before.

One potential victim in all this that may be accepted in the fight to save the BBC in its current form, with a licence fee pretty much (if not entirely) untouched and the online services free from subscription. If anything has to go, why not BBC Three?

The former BBC Choice (not “BBC Quirk”) has struggled to win over any of its critics. The current programming is a muddle of sensationalism (“Too Fat To Hunt”, “World’s Strictest Parents”), and the kind of instant repeats expected from ITV 3 or Dave, such as the seemingly endless reruns of Doctor Who and Merlin. I am a huge Doctor Who fan (Second Doctor, since you ask), but even I have to wonder if there is any point in watching the Daleks in Manhattan every third week. American Dad and Family Guy should never have been shunted off BBC Two in the first place, and when stripped of all the above BBC Three barely seems worthy of a channel at all. If the Corporation wants to support new talent in acting or writing, allow BBC Four to run a series on it.

The BBC will struggle enough to justify the worryingly described “black music station” 1Xtra when the time comes to do so; in the meantime it has to check if the millions spent on BBC Three really do mean value for money. When it’s possible to split its schedule to other channels so easily it becomes clear that there’s a Murdoch sniper trained right at its head. On a multi-channel platform against Sky One or Virgin1, the loser is BBC Three. Sadly any talk of “top slicing” will mean accepting sacrificing something from the Corporation’s network: BBC Three would seem to be the lamb its best to serve up in an attempt to keep either Murdoch or Cameron away from any tastier cuts.

Police reform means democratic accountability…

Summer, 2006. In Lancaster, local Liberal Democrats are helping collect signatures for a petition against Home Office plans to merge police forces in a drive to improve services and drive down costs. Some wag has printed posters warning against the safety dangers of taking “CaLPol”, the unfortunate potential acronym for the new Cumbria & Lancashire police force.

A chubby young man with dreadlocks the colour of damp cobbles takes me to task about this latest LibDem rally. “You’re the only party I could vote for if I felt like it, and you’re sticking up for the police!” he charges. Turns out to be an anarchist, but clearly a wobbly one. Like a member of the Church of England, say, principled while not committed to anything.

Four years later and those plans, long since abandoned along with the succession of Home Secretaries, appear to be back on track. With the Conservatives citing their preferred option for Directly Elected Commissioners – something I support – there seems to be a pressing enthusiasm for cutting the numbers of Constabularies in the name of cost cutting and assisting in major investigations involving serious organised crime and terrorism. “Consolidation”, of course, always means job losses and a growing distance between provider of a service and its customers. The threat of “CaLPol” returning is ever closer; I cannot say the idea of a “super force” stretching from Carlisle to Skelmersdale makes me feel safer or confident of low-level crime will be responded to any quicker than it is today.

My preference for directly elected commissioners is based on being attracted to the idea of accountability at the very top of all police forces. This is not about introducing a layer of party politicians at the top of the local constabulary, indeed nobody has actually suggested the elections take place on party lines. Across the country there are very highly successful examples of police and communities working together to suggest aims and judge police on their performances; I have seen very popular “Police and Communities Together” meetings in church halls and schools across Preston, where the only thing missing in my opinion is an independent figure at the top of the system able to judge the priorities and how they have been met.

There would be a worsening in performance if “super forces” across swathes of England and Wales were merged in the name of cost-cutting. I am, therefore, positioned on the other side of Sir Hugh Orde, who suggests mergers could be acceptable while commissioners would not.

Budget cuts and savings are required across the Home Office, who seem to zone into the “easier” targets whenever cost cuttings are mentioned. The dreadlocked man in Lancaster who disliked my party’s support for the police in general may prefer us now Chris Huhne has spoken out against the Commissioners plan…but if faced with me again would have to jab his finger one more time.

Justified and Ancient

Well, hasn’t Nick Clegg caused a fuss today?

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has called for the cancellation of the Queen’s Speech, calling it “window dressing” and “a displacement activity”.

He is absolutely right, of course. And don’t the political establishment hate it when someone says something against the grain of the norm?

Let us be honest. Gordon Brown is a dead duck, covered in oil and mud, sinking deeper into the mud ever closer towards political death. Attempts to help Labour from the worst election demise in history is akin to racing to the beach with a bucket and spade as the first waves of the oil slick slurp against the rocks. This Queen’s Speech will absolutely be used for pushing the clean-up of politics to one side for the political benefit of the Labour Party; think about it as pinning a rosette on Elizabeth’s crown.

Clegg has set fire to the norm because, as a refreshing and radical voice in politics, all liberals and Liberal Democrats walk with matchboxes in their pockets. There would be no benefit for Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs spending their time – no more than seventy days before the next UK general election – helping Labour form their next manifesto. Labour are a deflated and dying clutch of the desperate, a Party which is hoping a list of Bills they cannot possibly get through Parliament can grab the last positive headlines of their final months in office.

Thinking out of the norm is second nature to the real, credible alternatives in politics. Let us clean up Parliament for good, make real reform possible now, and stop dragging ourselves over the deep ruts of tradition for the sake of it.

Fixed-term parliaments, automatic General Elections as and when Prime Ministers are changed, voting reform, votes at 16, full devolution for Wales and the English Regions, ending the Royal prerogative on all but the most vital of reasons of the State, an automatic maximum number of Government Ministers, a fully elected House of Lords, directly elected Chiefs of Police, halving the number of Councillors and introducing “Street Panels” and inner-city Parish Councils: so much to do with our democracy, and not a single one of them needs Her Majesty, Black Rod, or the other flim-flam of a Queen’s Speech.

Old Firm, new challenges

My post last week concerning proposals to bring Celtic and Rangers into a modified two-tier Premier League brought a very considered response in the Comments section from a reader called “Martin”. This post is a part reply to him. It would appear, following the Premier League vote last week, that this “Anglo-Scottish League” proposal has been roundly defeated.

Martin says, “Having a two-tier Premier League would divide television revenue between 36 clubs rather than 20, and considering only two of those would be Scottish teams, 14 English clubs would be better off, increasing competitiveness at the higher end”.

I think this statement presumes the television revenue would be fairly distributed and evenly granted between clubs. This presumption, under the new circumstances of an Anglo-Scottish league, lacks logic. The larger clubs, the “Big 4” of the Premier League, already command far more attention and television coverage than even those mid-table sides in the same league: it would be fanciful to suggest that Norwich or Hull or even perhaps Aston Villa would see similar benefits to a two-tier league than Manchester United or Arsenal. “Increasing competitiveness” could well be the end result, although not instantly; the special atmosphere between the “larger” clubs and Celtic or Rangers is often because of the rare European Cup ties between the sides, a relationship which would become lesser as the novelty of regular matches wears off.

Martin then lists a number of “cross country” examples, including the Welsh clubs which play in England (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, and Merthyr Tydfil), Monaco in France, and Derry FC in Ireland, amongst others. He is absolutely right to point out these examples. And he is right to suggest that “..[t]he only way that clubs from smaller nations will ever be able to compete with the financial monopoly of the big clubs is to play in their leagues, or form cross-country leagues.”

With all due respect, Celtic or Rangers playing regular league football in England is not quite the same thing as Cardiff or Wrexham playing in England. That the Old Firm are “big fish” in a small nation is perhaps entirely a consequence of a mis-handling of the Scottish Leagues over generations. If something must be done, why not the “Atlantic League”, where similarly sized nations could share revenues across borders without the wholesale negative consequences to England’s footballing system?

Martin says that the Old Firm “leaving Scotland will improve the competitiveness of that league, and fill the ground two times more a season at every English club they play“. I cannot agree completely with this all-done-and-dusted assumption. For sides already struggling in Leagues 1 and 2, the promise of expensive jaunts up to Glasgow twice a season to be roundly thumped in a stadium atmosphere completely alien to the rest of the League does not exactly glisten with gold.

Inventing traditions in football does not work. FIFA see this with their ill-fated World Club Cup competition, a globe-trotting failure completely disconnected from fans who have no attraction to watching unknown Asian clubs stretch out results against a seemingly never-ending rota of different African also-rans. There could be a great amount of financial benefit from introducing Celtic and Rangers into the English Premier League, not least for those larger clubs and more affluent fans for whom the lucrative profits would rush out of the gates and flood the club shop. Ultimately, however, the logistical difficulties and questionable benefits further down the leagues tip the balance against the proposals.

I would like to thank Martin for taking the time to respond to my first post. He makes a good case for the proposals, but ultimately I think the whole idea would do more harm than good.

Glasgow North East – Result

Glasgow North East by-election.

Labour GAIN from Speaker

Willie BAIN (Labour) 12,231 (59.4) {N/A}
David KERR (SNP) 4,120 (20.0) (+2.3)
Ruth DAVIDSON (Conservative) 1,075 (5.2) {N/A}
Charlie BAILLIE (BNP) 1,013 (4.9) {+1.7}
Tommy SHERIDAN (Solidarity) 794 (3.9) {N/A}
Eileen BAXENDALE (Liberal Democrat) 474 (2.3) {N/A}
David DOHERTY (Scottish Green) 332 (1.6) {N/A}
John SMEATON (Jury Team) 258 (1.2) {N/A}
Kevin McVEY (Scottish Socialist) 152 (0.7) {-4.2}
Mikey HUGHES (no label) 54 (0.3) {N/A}
Louise McDAID (Socialist Labour) 47 (0.2) {-14.0}
Mev BROWN (Independent) 32 (0.2) {N/A}
Colin CAMPBELL (TILT) 13 (0.1) {N/A}

Labour majority over SNP – 8,111
(2005 – Speaker majority over SNP – 10,134)