Police the police

Agreeing with former Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair is not easy. It’s not without problems because this is the man who presided over the force at the time of Jean Charles de Menezes’ shooting and whose choice quotes includes referring to Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to the United Kingdom since ‘the Cold War or the Second World War’. I’d like to say it’s easy to find middle ground with him, but it’s just as easy to compromise with a patch of nettles or quicksand. Or your bank manager a week before payday.

Anyway, yesterday Sir Ian (“Baron Blair of Boughton”, if you please) told SKY News that he’d recommend nobody vote in the forthcoming Police Commissioner elections. He isn’t convinced that one elected person, almost all with party political labels, could possibly manage looking after the police force and crime fighting priorities across a massive geographical area. It’s not as though the politicisation of the police was an unknown concept at his time in office, of course, though the relationship between the Met and the then Labour government wasn’t exactly like that between choice eastern European governments and their police forces. Close, of course, but not that close.

So why do I find myself sort of, kind of, agreeing with him? I’m a constitutional reform sort of guy, I supported the AV referendum and want to see House of Lords reform and local government reform and votes at 16 and all the other things which would drag this country into the 20th century (I don’t hold out hope for us to get into the 21st for a good generation or twelve yet.)  The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are a different kind of reform though, looking tempting on the box whilst only providing fudge chews underneath. And nobody picks fudge chocolates from selection boxes, do they? I want orange and mint and mini Bountys, not fudge. Yet next month we’re all being invited to gorge on fudge, an experiment in constitutional reform which radically alters the relationship between the police and who polices them, with the SV voting system for the love of all things holy, and I can’t swing myself behind them. It’s like finding a private club available for a very specific fetish only to discover the admission price is too high. Or not high enough. Or in a different currency, perhaps. Ach you know what I mean.

Few people out there in real life world dislike the concept of democratising the police-force. Lord knows how the police need to be held accountable, more so than at the moment, and in the context of recent institutional failings the police could do with a stronger, more responsive structure around them. But American style Police Commissioners? Directly elected? And not just that, of course, directly elected and almost exclusively from political parties? In the case of Labour’s candidates, current MPs (Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester, the sitting MP for Manchester Central, and Alun Michael in South Wales is the current representative for Cardiff South and Penarth) and former Ministers (including Lord Prescott in Humberside.)  In Wales, Alun Michael’s son – his son – is standing as a candidate in North Wales. Now that’s Eastern European.

In Lancashire, the four candidates are all party political, all male, and half of them are sitting County Councillors. One is the current portfolio holder for transport, whose lasting legacy seems to be the removal of bus timetables from the county’s bus-stops. Is this really the best we’ve got? Could this really be the reform we need?

As a democrat, I’d never knowingly stay away from a polling station. I’m no stranger to making difficult decisions in that moment of secrecy – in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate at local elections I’ve been known to vote for another party rather than spoil my ballot. Next month will be my toughest challenge. I’ll vote Liberal Democrat but…what for? For whom? For what? Sir Ian has a point – there’s real reform needed at the core of our police force and this has to come from within as much as it comes from beyond. I’m not sure it needs to be done at the ballot box. Dust off Lords Reform, I say, that might be something worth contemplating. That’s how bad it might be….

Lancashire – Boundary Review, take 2

And so it’s here, Schrödinger’s review, a wholesale review of Parliamentary boundaries which is both alive and dead, relevant and pointless, current and abandoned. Is it ongoing whilst also aware of its demise? It could be worth sitting down with a large cup of tea, or something stronger, to consider its position. First of all, a personal point. Whilst I had every faith that the Commission would take some notice of the Liberal Democrat proposals I supported (and in some cases assisted in selling at two public meetings), it appears that we failed to convince the scribes there to come round to our way of thinking. In some parts of this region the revised recommendations are – somehow – worse than the already cuckoo-bananas initial ideas. I challenge anyone to find a smaller community than “Reddish North” to be name-checked in a constituency. Anyway, to focus on the red rose county, here’s what the Commission now think should be the parliamentary make-up of Lancashire. You’ll find the maps for Lancashire over here.

Blackburn, Blackpool North and Fleetwood and Blackpool South are all unchanged from the initial proposals.

 Burnley and Accrington East and Pendle are significantly different from the initial proposals. Burnley is no longer divided somewhat arbitrarily across the town centre, which is a breakout of normality. It’s good to see Accrington isn’t cut up like a badly hacked onion either, though the justification for joining the two towns together is still fairly flimsy. There’s something of the “flat map syndrome” about it to my eyes, but at least the word “Pendle” has re-appeared on a constituency map. No explanation behind the reason to ditch it in the first place, by the way.

 The seat of Chorley has been left untouched, meaning it follow the size and shape of the council boundaries as initially proposed, as will Fylde.

 In the west of Lancashire, there’s a slightly different shape and a familiar name for Lancaster and Wyre, a modified version of the initially recommended “Lancaster”. The boundary alteration is the loss of Greyfriars, the most Fulwoodian of all Preston’s Fulwood wards, which is moved from Preston to join the towns of the A6 corridor all the way up to Lancaster city centre.

As ever, the city of Lancaster is split in half at Skerton, allowing Morecambe and Lunesdale to remain unchanged, All three parties agreed with each other on the “Fishwick issue”, brought about by the Commission initially proposing that the Preston ward of Fishwick should be attached to the rural expanse of Ribble Valley.

To balance up the numbers, Fishwick is now back with Preston, which loses Greyfriars but is otherwise exactly the same, so if these changes actually make it through the Commons (stop laughing), the constituency would be formed from almost the entire city, omitting Lea/Cottam, Greyfriars and the rural communities to the north. The modified Ribble Valley is essentially the seat fought at the 2010 election, taking in Bowland, Clitheroe, Longridge and Bamber Bridge/Walton-le-Dale. The ne thing this time round is the addition of Rishton and Great Harwood (dare I suggest amending the name to “Valleys of Ribble and Hynd”?).

South Ribble and West Lancashire have not been changed either, meaning that the former stretches from Leyland to the Southport border, crossing the River Douglas, and the latter brings together Ormskirk, Skelmersdale and all points surrounding. This leaves us with two very peculiar East Lancashire seats indeed, and these really are the Commission at their most…erm….well, peculiar. The new Rossendale and Oswaldtwistle gets a bonus point for mentioning Oswaldtwistle (let’s please have an honourable member for Oswaldtwistle.). The geography of the area is a bit tenuous, to put it nicely. I suppose it’s something that the connecting road is tarmaced at least. The shape of the seat resembles a dead rabbit, just squint.

Bolton North and Darwen joins together the northern suburbs from Bolton with the town of Darwen, logically enough, with a fair amount of hilly bits, moorland and twisty turny roads in between. To be fair, it’s an improvement on Rossendale and Darwen as currently exists (which the Commission seems to hate in its dismissal of our proposal). Wiser men than I will conclude what this means for the defending parties in each seat. It’s true that some already existing marginal seats will remain so – Blackpool, Chorley and South Ribble are already knife-edge without being altered too much. Significant additions of Tory territory into Lancaster and Preston will give Labour a bigger threat than usual, and in the east all three parties will face tough challenges in Burnley and Pendle.

Of course, all of this may be so much photocopier paper and highlighter pens. If there is no agreement between Coalition partners, never mind any other parties, there will be no boundary changes at all. Here’s to a whole host of “What might have been….”

16 going on 2015

Way back in the mists of time – November 2009, to be almost precise – I recorded in a blog I now want to proof-read within an inch of its life how Gordon Brown spoke of his support for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote.  That was prior to the 2010 election, and now here we are closer to the local elections of 2013 than we are to that polling day as far away from the change being made than ever.

Today the SNP has won an important concession from the Government; young people aged sixteen and seventeen will now be allowed to vote in the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum. This is another widening of the democratic deficit between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whilst Scottish councils are elected by a representative voting system, in England and Wales voters are lumbered with the old-fashioned, out of date, unfair and unjust First Past the Post. There are still, in 2012, parts of the country where councils publish election results prior to polling day because of ‘uncontested wards’. This scandal doesn’t exist in Scotland; it only exists in England because of First Past the Post.

I’ve supported Votes At 16 from the first moment I realised that our current democratic systems dissuade young people from taking an active role in politics. Whilst party machines may hold no interest to teenagers – they hardly attract older people, let’s be honest – arguing and demonstrating for or against  specific policies has not been this prevalent amongst the young for generations. With more teenagers likely to be taking part-time jobs, or elbow deep in worry about higher education, or earning a bit of cash here and there through App designs and other computer programming endeavours, it’s no longer logical to deny them the vote. It’s hardly worth unravelling the old ‘no taxation without representation’ line, however true it is, because the logic is undefeatable. All those years ago I pointed out that 16 year olds in the 21st century are the 21 year olds of the 1960s, eager to participate in the democratic process whilst denied by the establishment. If the denial seems ‘typical’ from the Tories today, it was merely unfathomable under Labour. Why deny over a million votes out of some outdated view of who ‘gets’ politics in the round? I’ve been a party activist, I can tell you there’s a fair amount of older people who don’t ‘get’ politics either.

Let’s return to another of my obsessions – local government. There needs to be a big reset button pressed at some point in the not so distant future. We need local government elected by proportional representation, what I called ‘a coalition compromise’ , and we need the abolition of Council Tax. Added to that is the need to bring more young people into the political processes, not just as candidates or leaflet droppers or hand-shakers but as voters too. As another ‘compromise’ to act as a stepping stone between no reform and real reform, let’s lower the age at which a person can vote at local elections to 16, just as Scotland will allow younger people to vote in the referendum, to show how minded we are towards longer lasting, real reform.

It’s not because I’m a zealot that I support lowering the voting age, or because I’m a geek or idealistic or a soppy liberal. It’s because the alternative looks, sounds and feels like an establishment stitch-up, and nobody should go along with them whatever your character.

can’t, won’t but probably will, pay

Some months ago, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of The Reunion which brought together people associated with the Community Charge, aka Poll Tax, aka Thatcher’s Final Legacy Project. Guests included Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, who proclaimed his continuing belief that by the end of the affair the system was fairer and more popular than at its launch, a former council worker who recalled receiving payment cheques scrawled on the back of used underwear, and an anti-Poll Tax campaigner who confirmed she was still paying back monthly sums to a Council which didn’t exist at the time over twenty years since the scheme ended.

Of all the problems with the Poll Tax, the most galling was its ‘one price suits all’ core, which meant a struggling family bringing home all they could to fill a cupboard paid the exact same sum as the husband and wife barrister superteam two streets away with more money than they could stuff in every cupboard in their house and its comfortable extension. By having little regard to ‘ability to pay’, the Poll Tax soon struck an iron-tipped arrow through the heart of families, their communities, and to an extent entire towns. And as ever with the dying days of Thatcher’s time of office, those towns were invariably Northern English.

Council Tax replaced the Community Charge in 1993, with each repayment band based on the 1991 valuation of properties (very Conservative). These bands have not been touched in England since, so where you live today continues to be based on the early-90s housing prices. As many people moving into new build housing estates have discovered, a very well priced house in rabbit warren suburbia can be ‘bracketed’ with not so nice properties over the road, producing an unintended saving of hundreds of pounds every month. Similarly local authorities that require of developers affordable housing can inadvertently include these properties in higher than intended bands. Unfair and uneven problems at both extremes.

For the record, Band D in England is for properties valued at up to £88,000 in 1991. What chance this price today? In Scotland, Band D is for properties up to £58,000. Meanwhile in Wales, where a revaluation eventually happened (of sorts), there is something nearing a “mansion tax” in the newly introduced Band I for properties over £424,001 [that quid is important, and clearly mansions are much cheaper in Wales].

At the rotten core of Council Tax – as with the Poll Tax – is the ‘ability to pay’ argument. Wealth does not equal income. A very well to do leafy home does not mean its occupier has a well to do salary to match. The inequality at the heart of the Poll Tax has festered for 20-odd years, families unable to keep up with payments as their salaries stall and local authorities feel pressure to continually plug their financial gaps with further and further, higher and higher council tax bills. As the push-me/pull-me battle goes on between central Government and local councils over what exactly one can do for the other, and at what cost, the ‘consumer’ pouring over bills at the action end is left with an increasingly unfair, unjust, uneven funding scheme. Banding by each local authority can be at the whim of whoever is in charge – almost always  the Conservatives, or Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or a combination thereof. Invariably whoever is in charge at the time may find it necessary to raise council taxes as the most ‘palatable’ electorally. There is almost no link between the ‘central pot’ of local government funding and the local associations spending them. In 2003, Devon County Council increased its element  of the overall bill by 18%.

So why does Council Tax still exist? It is an unfair, unjust tax, punishing people on the whims of the housing valuations, the bands, and the political parties in Town Halls. The current push from Eric Pickles to persuade local councils to freeze Council Tax has left some local authorities unable to move in fear of being labelled as the council which dared to increase the costs to families and older people in times of economic hardship.

The most popular alternatives are some form of local income tax or local land tax. Both would be a jolt to the current ‘affordability’ argument initially representing a change in attitude towards a more locally relevant scheme. Local authorities could be given greater autonomy to react to changes in average wages or work with regional partners to provide a local(ist/ism) VAT claim-back scheme. Local authority funding has always been a complex multifaceted machine, money pouring into and out of local government at a pace of knots, leaving some councils with barely enough time to notice how little overall spend they have for the year ahead. There’s no good in central or local government being lumbered with a scheme which actively encourages councils to struggle in the short-term with no chance to plan genuinely long-term programmes of investment or employment (and most leisure activities can go to Hell in a provincial theatre.) The Tories love localism – it says here – so let us see some respect to the Councils. Give them the right to set their own local income or local land taxes, rejig the business rate rules, look for genuinely local solutions for a genuinely local(ist) problem.

Extending out of the authority funding arguments are the issues of two-tier government in some parts of the country and whether we need it (short answer; no: long answer; nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooooooooo), and whether existing local authority boundaries reflect accurately the live/work/play realities of a population much expanded and redistributed from that which existed when the lines were last redrawn in the 1970s. Another reason for the UK to consider a great big fat constitutional and administrative reset button, reshaping the map to provide  more responsive and autonomous local government across the whole country. The experiment with Council Tax must now be dragging itself to the very end, with enough evidence to show it’s become as unrepresentative as Poll Tax was at its launch. Any tinkering with the scheme has been put off each time due to the party political implications, and with its 20th anniversary next year, I’d suggest Eric takes some time out from bullying some authorities into submission and starts facing the considerably loud music.

thank you for your question

The time is two o’clock in the morning, the place is CSPAN, and the topic for discussion is Barack Obama mumbling and stuttering like teenagers embarking on the school’s production of Hamlet. Or public park chatting up of other teenagers. It was nervous, however you want to call it, and as every line he was supposed to say to his soon-to-be defeated opponent Mitt Romney had been rehearsed thousands of times before hand, this was not the act we had expected.

And that word ‘act’ is the problem. Leaders debates in the US remain by means of tradition and one-upmanship, not by means of democratic accountability for the President or his opponent. Everyone knows this – the television companies, the candidates, the viewers. It’s the same complicity which keeps Eurovision on television every year, for roundabout the same results. When the UK experimented with them for the first time in 2010, the result was an inflated, Internet-driven Cleggmania (oh how sweetly does nostalgia paint that recollection), and ultimately the first election result since February 1974 at which the talking heads of the good ship BBC declared, “The people have spoken, but we’re not entirely sure what they’ve said.”

My opinions towards leadership debates have undoubtedly hardened, and they’re undisputedly negative. The great breakthrough in the UK brought no tangible results. We got some new memes for messageboards and Twitter – “I agree with Nick”, “That’s a good question, Elaine”, and  “I met a one-legged black sailor in Brighton who promised he could get me some crack if I followed him just a little bit further, not long now, just about here,  not there, around the corner, he definitely said seventy quid, don’t follow him until I hear the sound of a car engine revving”.
There wasn’t any more great revelation during the three prime-time debates than we’ve experienced in any modern election campaign. It was more Kinnock on the beach than “Yes We Can.” Having convinced the party machines that another sprinkle of American political magic would work over here, the media were handcuffed to them regardless of results. When those results deflated like  a souflee in a cupboard, nobody could be blamed outside the television executives’ plush offices. Mary Berry would not be best pleased; as in the US, we ended up whipping up the batter too lightly and cooking the recipe on too low a heat. Nick Clegg wasn’t responsible for “I agree with Nick,” that was a cack-handed flirtation technique passed on like notes in a classroom, just with notes the size of novelty cheques for the whole country to see.

If the current trajectory of the Coalition continues to head euro-like into a ditch, and then through the ditch into the engine room at the middle of the Earth installed by the Daleks during their battle with Peter Cushing, leaders debates in 2015 would be even less advisable than David Cameron appearing on Celebrity Masterchef. We know the three leaders too well, now, and their traits are no good for that format. Clegg hasn’t lessened his tendency to meander through sentences as though soundbites don’t matter, Miliband is such a dorky policy wonk that he can memorise one-hour speeches like a borderline autistic man on You Bet!, and Cameron is angrier than Stuart Pearson and The Fucker combined. It wouldn’t be edifying or constructive to watch them try to battle it out on primetime ITV 1 any more than it’s enjoyable watching former boyband members sticking a spiders nest in their eyes or whatever they do on X-Factor these days to keep the viewers away from Strictly.

This is not me saying the political parties have a duty to reverse back to the 1950s and all that “Do you have any more questions you’d like me to ask, Prime Minister?” There are far more natural ways to question our leaders, in a context more natural to the United Kingdom. There’s the annual Paxman Run, for example, at which all former leaders have tended to only just scrape a pass. Michael Gove wouldn’t stand for that level of disappointing failure. There’s the soft sofa shuffle, against which Cameron came unstuck against a former Blue Peter presenter (“How do you sleep at night?”) and Blair managed to implicate himself in yet more Iraq nonsense (“If there wasn’t any WMDs, I’d have just invented another reason, Fern. Now, back to the sponge cake which as you can see here has been resting for a few minutes….”)
I’ve no doubt that the legal minds at the respective HQs of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP are already forming a joint action against the media companies hoping for a repeat of 2010 in April 2015. If they manage to scupper the debates for good, rejoice. There’s enough reality television in politics without our leaders turning into contestants on Million Pound Drop. I’m devoted far more than normal people should be towards accountability, democratic renewal and electoral reform, but putting our political leaders into contrived Q&A sessions where Downton Abbey should be is an experiment I don’t fancy repeating. Like hair gel, or reading the Observer or using my left hand….
TO WRITE WITH.