All over the place

The Internet is leaking. Or at least the bits I was under the impression were only visible to me and whoever temps for 38Degrees on days ending in ‘y’. With the hilariously misjudged ‘National Service Bill’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher Day Bill’, a tiny corner of Parliament’s website, that which lists every current proposed piece of legislation somewhere gunked up within the Westminster pipework, has become an unexpected adjunct to Twitter. Well, the campaigning bit of Twitter, which I currently imagine to be a Parish Church’s community hall in which two trestle tables are manned by a rota of Guardian, Independent, and New Statesman journalists with handouts and loopy juice. I’m no stranger to it only because, as a nerd, keeping up to date with this sort of thing genuinely interests me, although Jimbo Wales’ talkpage and New Years Honours Lists genuinely interest me, so maybe I’m just completely mad.

Among the soon-to-be-talked-out Bills above lies another fringe-benefit proposal from the wackier side of the Tory backbenches, namely the “United Kingdom Register of Places Bill”, which at the time of writing hasn’t yet been published. The Bill is sponsored by Andrew Rosindell, who people may know for being the kind of Tory who speaks with an Estuary accent, walks around with a bulldog, and has a massive Union Flag as the background to his currently dead Twitter account. If ‘Working Class Tory’ still exists as a valid label, Andrew (or ‘Rozza’, maybe?) is yer man. The gist of his ‘Register of Places’ proposal seems to be a deeply held issue that the country has moved on since the 1940s, and isn’t about time we had Kircudbrightshire, Cardiganshire and Amounderness back on maps and road signs, for God’s sake, people, hmm? The bells of St Bonkers began to ring most clearly during the 10 minutes allocated for him (“Rozzi”?) to explain his reasoning. He said the Bill would “ensure that local authorities have a duty to preserve and uphold identities of genuine towns and villages that have been around far longer than…local government constructs“, whilst banging on like a broken SatNav about Dorset and Highgate and where he grew up and, oh yes indeedy, “Whitehall bureaucrats”.

By the end of his allotted time, I was no clearer to understanding what he was proposing to achieve. A big fat red reset switch, perhaps, to review every local authority in the country to ensure they represent the areas they’re supposed to, rather than be stymied by the 1970s boundaries in which many of them remain trapped? Redrawing local council wards to make way for the introduction of STV after 2015? Anything remotely progressive?

Nope. Not a hope. What Andrew wants is a time machine. He and other mavericks in the madcap organisations obsessed with ‘traditional boundaries’ wish to return to some fictional moment of English history where men were men and Lancashire stretched from Barrow to the Mersey without pausing to catch breath. And you know, I’d like to see a form of this happen in a way, but not under the leadership of Andy “Bruiser” Rozza, the man who would, he implies, force four London Boroughs to merge to enable one village to be re-united. Indeed his plea for local villages and hamlets to be respected beyond all other distractions suggests that he wants one single Government for the whole of England, to do away with pesky local councils, particularly those Labour ones oop North. It’s a charmless and blatant attempt to UKIPise the country, to redress progress in a retroactive and damaging way.

The unfortunate thing, for me at least, is how close A-Rozz gets to where I would like to see Government go with regards constitutional reform. We need to have a reset button moment, to take away all the local government constructs and start again – more representative local government with recognisable boundaries and responsibilities, and voted for by a fairer voting system. We need to do away with two-tier governance, to sweep away County Councils once and for all. We need to see true devolution of power from Westminster to Town Hall, and further to the streets. What nobody really wants is Rozza’s Register of Places, a paper-pushing exercise in nerdy nostalgia, where only people who obsess over the disapperance of Middlesex and  Lostwithel can be invited to stroke sepia maps of Ye Olde Countyies of England. The nerd-do-wells of the Traditional County Society cause enough damage as it is removing road-signs on a whim because their obsession commands they do. I don’t think an MP should be encouraging them.

True constitutional reform is the great overdue policy no Government dares touch. It’s left to “Bruiser” to tinker around with this sort of backwards looking history worship, rather than working towards a better future. We do deserve better than this.

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It’s a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we’re getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don’t do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that’s European.

“This is Britain,” went the line. “We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that’s the end of it,”.

These days there is nothing which can’t be resolved without the mention of the word “referendum”. It’s radical, it’s representative, it’s hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution – thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy’s garden shed. You can’t go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re walking down this particular road. “Referendum as threat” would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did – the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician’s acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. “I act upon what the people say” and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The “no” vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

“No” supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks – “This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER” – which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by “In” campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that’s all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn’t agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain’s future is within the EU, that’s my view now  as it’s been for years. I’m not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we “In” supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the “Better Off Out” brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn’t take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A “yes” to the EU is not a “no” to Britain. It’s not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying “no” to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An “out” vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse – economically, socially, politically. If there’s anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it……and then throw it into the sun. 

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….

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.

a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.

cutting Preston’s councillors

The City of Preston has 57 councillors, representing different wards across the borough in either pairs or threes (there are two-member wards and three-member wards elected every year,with each councillor re-elected on a four-year cycle).

Preston’s Liberal Democrat group have proposed that fifty-seven councillors is far to much a number for a city our size, not least because of the existence of the extra layer of politicians we have as a two-tier borough underneath Lancashire County Council. Note “underneath”, not “alongside”. The need to be an independent unitary authority divorced fully from County Hall is a long, long overdue priority.

Anyway, we have too many councillors and something needs to be done. The Coalition has asked the various Boundary Commissions to reduce the number of MPs (as is right and proper); it is now time for the size and composition of Town Halls. Democracy is not best served with numbers of  elected officials increasing exponentially, as the previous law was leading to. Britain does not need so many politicians at any level –  especially not at regional/local level where a combination of unrepresentative geography, central government heavy-handedness, low level (and not so low level) corruption and apathy has neutered local administrations almost to the point where there’s no point having the bits dangling around anymore.

Smaller, more cost effective, more responsible local government is vital – a model which devolves to the streets more than it divides amongst its members. To this end, I have designed a model which reduces the 57 member Preston Council to 36 –  featuring eleven wards with three members each.

In my ideal world, there’ll be proportional representation electing these in addition to the reduction, but the journey of a thousand steps and all that…

My Proposals will reduce Town Hall by over half – from 57 councillors to 36, a move which will reduce the party-political antagonism and log-jamming so often seen at councils all over the country. More consensus from fewer members is the best way to move forward through these economically challenging times.

1) Ashton-on-Ribble

This would take the existing Larches and Ashton wards almost entirely into a merger, with the addition of the Docks (from Riversway) and the properties off Tulketh Road. There is an obvious and clear relationship between the component parts – Larches and Ashton especially – and the Riversway docklands forms a natural partner through shopping and leisure use. The geography makes sense to anyone who knows the area well – it would be a fairly ‘square’ division which respects the communities within whilst excluding only those electors who live near the Lane Ends
shopping area who I deal with later.

2) City Centre

This combines the existing Town Centre ward, in its entirety, with the remaining parts of Riversway – namely Fishergate Hill, Christ Church, and Broadgate. There is a clear continuation of population and interests here, with the existing boundary of the West Coast Main Line easily extended to the Ribble. The relationship between the component parts might not be the strongest, but in terms of geography and resources, including shops, transport and the use of Avenham Park, there is clearly no other solution which wouldn’t be disruptive.

3) Deepdale and Moorbrook

In the north-east of the borough, Deepdale is a 2-member ward neighbouring the two-member St George’s. I would merge these together with the addition of some terraces from Moor Park to enable a more sensible looking border with the A6 Garstang Road. This new ward would enable the whole of the ‘greater Deepdale’ area to be represented together, with so many similar issues and problems shared between them.

4) Fishwick

A simple merger this one – the existing St Matthews and Fishwick wards joined together in one. There is an obvious shared relationship between the two, which lie on both sides of New Hall Lane. From the demographic make up of the majority of residents through housing provision and  future of transport services, Fishwick and St Matthews are natural partners. The corresponding County Council division is exactly the same and I think it’s natural to pair them for a smaller City Council too

5) Fulwood North and Woodplumpton

This new division takes the existing Greyfriars ward, which lies to the west of the A6 and the south of the M55, and pairs it with two civil parishs – Woodplumpton and Broughton. The natural line of communication along the A6-corridor makes this pairing very sensible, with a shared sense of community and with a sensible geographic cohesion between each element. This does have the problem of being unlike all other wards with its rural/urban split, but options are limited in Fulwood and this one is an inventive way to join together parts of Preston in the context of a wider review.

6) Ingol and Cadley

The whole of Cadley joins parts of the existing Ingol, Tulketh and Ashton wards in this new seat, which would see the “Ingol” parts at the south of the Ingol/Tanterton ward attached to Cadley, with the Lytham Road area from Tulketh added too. This new ward is unlike the corresponding County divisions and as such is very different from any predecessor borough ward, too. However there is a clear community link between the three parts, transport links are excellent and with local schools and services shared amongst the new combined electorate it makes sense to bring them together.

7) Lea and Cottam with Tanterton
The civil parish of Lea and Cottam would be combined with the Tanterton part of Ingol in this new ward, which mirrors to some degree the County Council ward Preston West. The Lea/Lea Town bit and Cottam parts are very different in nature, not least because Cottam is largely new build and still growing. There is a geographic connection with Tanterton and the general nature of them all together has a sense which should make the transition to a larger ward largely hassle free.

8) Moor Park and Fulwood South
This is the new division formed by merging Moor Park with College, the ward which takes in what used to be the Sharoe Green hospital and the Preston College campus, and surrounding suburbia. The wards are good neighbours, with Moor Park always the more likely to ‘go Fulwood’ given the chance. It does mean that, once again, Plungington is divided between wards but that’s unavoidable given the nature of surrounding geography.

9)  Ribbleton and Brookfield
Combining Ribbleton with Brookfield follows the County Council division which covers the area, reflecting the shared nature and characteristics of these two wards. There are other options which could be considered – such as bringing in parts of Fishwick from the extreme eastern borders – though this would upset the mathematics and result in unnecessarily complicated splits along roads and through estates. There is an identity amongst those who live in these two wards which should easily work together in a City council context.

10) Rural Parishes
The remaining rural parishes, minus Broughton and Woodplumpton, would be combined into a single, large division, covering all the farming and rural/semi-rural communities of Preston. There is a real independent streak amongst the rural communities which needs to be maintained and cherished: having three councillors dedicated to them in such a way would be a boost to their arguments for economic growth and housing.

11) Sharoe Green and Fulwood Row
This division combines the whole of Sharoe Green with Garrison, which extends in an uneasy looking manner (on paper) through the eastern/north-eastern fringes. This new division is a mix of the new(ish) and potential expansion to come, and has within it the vitally important Royal Preston Hospital (for one reason) and growing industrial estates and employment centres (for other reasons). Bringing them together reflects the nature of the area and echoes the County Council division.

12) St Walburge’s
The rest of Tulketh, incorporating the whole of Lane Ends (including the one segment taken from Ashton) is combined with the whole of University ward. This causes Plungington to be divided between wards (again), though the whole of Plungington Road’s western side would at least be together as one. There is a clear line of communication between the two wards, especially where they currently meet along Fylde Road, Plungington Road and Eldon Street. The Lane Ends/Roebuck relationship is also very strong and would be strengthened further. The name comes from St Walburge’s Church, a good neutral name to balance the competing elements of the new ward.

AV Q & A

Right, I’ve got my polling card through the post and I’m somewhat confused

By the new proviso they’ve tacked on the bottom about not getting ballot papers after 10pm?

No, the thing at the top. “Voting System Referendum”. What the merry Hell is that, I thought only backward countries in the depths of beyond held referedums. Like Switzerland and California…

Well both those parts of the world do hold referenda…Referendums…And now we’ve got one. It’s got the Internet in a right old tizz of excitement. We’re hoping members of the public will get involved around about 24 hours before.

I’m fairly certain it’s referenda…Anyway, what are we voting on exactly?

The voting system used to elect Members of Parliament.

Heavens above, what’s next, tarrif reforms relating to processed meat products outside the EEA?

Look, these things are rare and beautiful gifts given to us by our elected representatives and they must be cherished for what they are.

Fine, it just seems a bit ‘policy wonk’ to me.

You wait until I start explaining how the AV system works…

So, anyway, how did we get a referendum in the first place?

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour both agreed that the UK should change the way it elects MPs. Labour wanted AV, the Liberal Democrats a different system called STV…

Pff, another broken promise from the LibDems, then, that damn Clegg…

No, no, wait…

Where’s my gold unicorn, eh? WHERE IS IT?

Back in the room, back in the room, focus now…It is not a broken promise, it’s compromise…

Oh yeah, compromise, Coalition rules, all of that…What do you mean?

The Conservatives wanted to keep the current system, with a cut in the number of MPs to 585, whilst Clegg wanted it cut to 500. So the compromise between “same system, 585” and “STV, 500”, is “AV, 600”.

And are both parties happy with this middle ground?

Pretty much. The traditionist wing of the Tories are against AV to their very finger-nails, and I suspect most LibDems wouldn’t have asked for a referendum on the Christmas List but here we are…

And Labour?

Split. Ed Mil….Edward Miliband, forgive me, is all for it, and hopes to take most of his Party with him. There are dissentors amongst the Labour benches, though, and many local council groups are against it out of an automatic knee-jerk anti-LibDem bitterness…

Citation needed?

Yeah, well, it seems Edward is having a hard time persuading the grassroots to follow him on this one.

So what system to we currently use then?

MPs are elected using “First Past The Post”, or “Winner Takes All”. You just have to win by one vote over your opponents, regardless of vote share. If you top the ballot, you’re an MP.

And this is unfair?

In short, yes.

And long?

Many MPs sit on the green benches without a majority in their constituencies. And this isn’t a partisan point, there are MPs from almost every Party where this is the case. Phil Woolas (remember him….) “won” Oldham East and Saddleworth with 31.9% of the vote, only 0.3 ahead of the LibDems. John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport, was elected with 49.6%, still less than an outright majority.

The FPTP system was at its best when there was much more polarised support for the two main political parties. That era died many moons ago, but our voting system hasn’t caught up.

And how does this AV thing work?

Rather than forcing voters into choosing one candidate, even if it’s not one they really prefer…

…Like, ooh, forcing people into making a grubby little compromise?

Yes, thank you, I’ll choose the labels. As I was saying, rather than forcing people into making a choice they might not prefer – holding their nose to vote Labour in a ‘marginal’ seat – AV allows people to make as many choices as they see fit. It empowers, whilst FPTP anchors.

But “winner takes all” is quite easy to understand, isn’t it?

Oh it is, and in many circumstances it is the better system. Politics is not about “black and white”, though, it thrives on the grey areas, the compromise, the give-and-take, which AV promotes.

How do you count votes under AV then?

Voters rank candidates in order of preference – as easy as 1,2,3…All the first preferences are tallied up, and if a candidate reaches 50% of the vote, they’re an MP, easy.

What if they don’t reach this magic 50%?

The second preferences of the least popular candidates are redistributed until somebody does.

Isn’t there a worry that second votes from fringe candidates could swing results?

That’s the current line from the “NO” campaign, who are paranoid about the BNP somehow having a big say in British elections. It’s not as though the presence of extremists over 50-odd years hasn’t had an implied influence over policies, candidates and indeed results as it is, or anything…

Would I be forced into voting BNP? Because I sure as heck don’t want to do that…

Nope. Unlike the Australian system, there’s no compulsion. You can vote just for one candidate, as now, or all of them. Or just some.

But rank, not with a big “X”

Aye, that’s the one. Rank in preference order, and let the counters do the maths…

Don’t you mean multi-million pound counting machines which would deny a hospital of life-saving equipment?

No, no I don’t.

Is this new fangled system proportional? The LibDems liked to talk about proportional representation once…

Indeed so, and it’s a notable uncomfortable truth that AV is not exactly proportional…It was said that Blair’s 1997 victory would have been even more immense under AV….

I don’t like the sound of that…

It’s one of the ghost stories LibDems tell each other over the campfire…

I hear AV will end ‘safe seats’ stone dead? Is that true?

It is not exactly true – I doubt Birkenhead (Labour Majority 15,195) is about to turn into a knife-edge marginal constituency anytime soon…However for much more seats than at present, the contest will become much tighter – no more “tactical” voting, more votes than ever will actually be counted, rather than simply dismissed.

Why are people saying AV is complicated?

Because the NO camp seem to think that an ordinary person can carry around in their heads minute details about football results, soap opera story lines and national flags without any issue, whilst the concept of counting to 5 is beyond them…

Will AV mean more Coalition governments?

Maybe so, maybe not. The current system has had its moments – the 1970s was awash with minority governments and hung parliaments, and last year you may recall there being no single party with the right amount of seats to form a government on their own…

What would happen if the country voted no? End of the Coalition? Cameron angry, Cameron SMASH?

Er…No….Well, I say no, both men are dismissing talk of the Coalition falling if the country says “no”.

Well you’ve made that clear…

It is a tough cookie, and one which many LibDem members see as the only true prize for making such a hard choice last year…The Tory grassroots are hoping for a big fat NO so they can start tugging on the loose threads of the whole Government in the hope it all falls apart.

In summary then, the current system is not very good, proposed system is better if not perfect, and no baby monitors will be harmed either way?

That’ll do for me.

So you could provide a link to the Yes campaign website round about here, shouldn’t you?

Why of course..http://www.yestofairervotes.org

Protest votes

Just when you thought it safe to put away the Relentless and return to normal sleeping patterns, the next Constitutional reform package makes its way to the House of Lords. When the “Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill” passed from Commons to Lords, the brakes were slammed for a very, very long time.

Learned Peers are timetabled to begin their toothcomb treatment this week and all signs are pointing to more marathon sittings and strained relationships between Lords and Peers, Labour and the LibDems, and doubtlessly LibDems and Conservatives. In this regard, the Lords are very much like your boss, whose eager expectation of your Report is acknowledged with the assumption that it will be stuck on his desk with questions posed on every full-stop and comma. Copy one VLOOKUP incorrectly and you may as well clear your desk…

A principle shared between both Coalition partners, fixed-term parliaments are long overdue in the UK. The historic situation, during which the Prime Minister of the day can fire the shooting pistol at will, is a postcard from an ancient time. It’s a power which no longer has relevance, not just in the 21st century but specifically post-expenses scandal Britain. Prime Ministers have always used their power to call an election as a bargaining tool, explicit and implied, and as a result political discourse is carried on within the context of clock-watching. Fixed-term parliaments would allow governments – and importantly opposition parties – to prepare for the long-term.

When the Parliamentary Voting Syst….”PVSaC” was going through its slow, slow, backstep, slow stages in the Lords, matters of concern were small but significant. The reduction in number of MPs didn’t particularly matter, it was the detail which caused the consternation. Should the electoral quota be fixed at 5% either way of the average? When should submissions be accepted and how should they be treated? In matters of constitutional reform, it is always the specifics that count. “PVSaC” foreshadows the Fixed-Term Parliament Bill, which I suspect will slow the already considerably glacial Lords on one very specific point of argument. Should parliamentary terms last 4 years, or five?

British parliamentary terms last, on average, between 3 and 4 years. The 5 years proposed in the Bill is drawn from recent history – John Major and Gordon Brown held on as long as the could to the very end, Tony Blair’s attitude ensured all policy announcements were fed into a pre-determined polling day. There is a crucial difference between choosing a date and having one chosen for you.

Five-year terms would allow for grown-up debate, would promote reason, would allow for greater consideration of proposed laws. There is too much broken with the quick-fix demands of the political system today. Maybe – just perhaps – five year terms will iron out the fast-forward attitude of the political establishment.

What I was not expecting from the inevitable swathe of amendments to the Fixed Parl…FPB is former Labour MP Alan Howarth, now Baron Howarth of Newport, coming up with quite the radical alternative take on polling day. Let’s chinstroke for a moment about not just fixed parliamentary terms – which every developed state bar the UK seems to function with – but also weekend-long polling periods (see the first amendment and consequential changes here)

Essentially Lord Howarth is trying to modernise by taking Britain back to the 19th Century…and I certainly welcome exploring the suggestion. Having the stubby pencils and school halls ready for one Thursday in May is one tradition which works, though more people than ever are requesting postal votes for no greater reason than wanting the whole darn democratic hoohah done and dusted quick-smart. Opening up the opportunities to vote over a longer period fits into the changing social realities of peoples lives. Weekend long polling periods would introduce the flexibility with which most voters live today – and with it removes the cost and complexity of hiring out halls for a mid-week interruption. Lord Grocott, another former Labour MP, has clearly got the referendum bug: he suggests Britain is asked to choose a polling day. How would that go down amongst the bar-flies at the Cricketer’s Arms?

I am bemused at the attitude amongst the “anti” brigade. Fixed-terms are a part and parcel of everyday life. Every democratic institution runs on the basis of fixed-terms, from the smallest parish council to the European Parliament. Every European democracy runs on fixed-terms, with differing ‘get out clauses’ for votes of no-confidence based on national traditions. Every elected official in the USA, from county level to Congressman, run on the basis of one fixed-date to another in a regular cycle. Britain stands out, and not as a radical twenty-first century model of excellence. We are a nation whose political machinery has been tolerated rather than repaired, and as a consequence almost every aspect of British life is backwards, stubbornly conservative and afraid.

Fixed-term parliaments will, in isolation, fix only limited parts of the great wheels and cogs of the democratic machine. As each aspect of the repair job slots into place, from binding local referendums to alternative voting systems and greater freedom for local authorities from central State control, we should be looking at a much fairer, freer democratic system, responsible and pro-active.

What’s that? This won’t work whilst we are subjects of a Monarch and not citizens of a state? Well, quite, but maybe that’s for another post…