Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.

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On the register

The Electoral Commission tends and cares for the Register of Political Parties, letting us keep track of who wishes to enter the great political bunfights at local or national level.

Here’s the most recent additions, which acts as a companion piece to those recorded as leaving the Register in the months after this year’s main elections.
Where a web-presence is available, I’ve linked to them. All links are followed at your own risk, I can’t vouch for their safety, and I don’t necessarily agree with the policies or contents of any/all. 
October 2012
*”Royalist Party“, registered to Mr Thomas Harrison.
*”Zero Tolerance Policing Ex Police Chief”, otherwise known as Kevin Hurley, Surrey’s first Police and Crime Commissioner
*”UK in Europe Party (UK EPP)”, registered to Mr John Stevens. It might be this which links to this
*”Nottinghamshire Independent Forum“, registered to Mr Barry Answer. 
*“UK Yorkshire Socialist Alliance Party”, registered to Mr Ian Wilson
*“Democracy2015” registered to Mr Andreas Whittam Smith. At the Corby by-election, candidate Adam Lotun stood for Democracy2015 and received 35 votes. By way of comment/comparison, David Bishop got 99 for “Elvis Loves Pets”.
*“Pro Liberty”, registered to Mr James Rigby
*“nine eleven was an inside job” registered to Mr Simon Lane. This (in)famous candidate stood at Croydon North, receiving 66 votes, three more than Robin Smith from the Young People’s Party. His Facebook profile is (largely) open and contains links to some of his other “inside job” conspiracies.
*“Bristol 1st”, registered to Chris Luffingham, the candidate from which is now the first directly elected Mayor of Bristol
*“PLC Party” registered to Andre John-Salakov.
November 2012
*”Patria”, registered to Mr Ian Johnson. I have tried numerous search terms and can find no web presence. 
*“Don’t Cook Party”, registered to Mr Richard Murfitt. A candidate aligned to this lot, Mr Mozzarella complete with comedy Italian accent, stood in the Corby by-election.
*”New Democracy”, registered to Mr Richard Laycock. There’s no website, yet.
*”The Community Party”, registered to Mr Arya Hussain. It might be this person or this one, but there’s no website that I can find.
 
December 2012
*”F.A.I.R”, registered to Mr Gordon Barker. It’s not the easiest search term to put into Google, and with a few attempts I’ve found nothing.
*”The Entertainment Party”, registered to Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa. “Your search term Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa did not match any documents”. Searching for “The Entertainment Party” and “TEP – The Entertainment Party” brings up nothing either. 
*“The Ethical Governance Party”, registered to Ms Sarah Goldsmith. 
*”Wigan Independent Network”, registered to Councillor Garry Wilkes. He doesn’t/didn’t like the PCC elections
 

Off the Register

As you might know if you’re an anorak of the highest order, to stand for election in Britain you need to register a political party with the Electoral Commission (at £150 a chuck, if I’m not mistaken). If you prefer “independent” you can just go for that, or like David Icke and Clint Bristow of the EDL you can choose to have no description at all, just a blank space in the ballot where voters could draw a smiley face.

The ‘churn’ of Registered Parties is administrative trivia which shows in some cases the deflated and defeated dreams of people who thought their political party would win the first elections to come their way.

Here is a summary from the election period onwards of parties whose names are no longer registered with the Commission, and with them pass the electoral dreams of so many….

*May 2012
“Anticapitalists – Workers Power”
“Beavers Cranford Party”
“Horbury Independent Political Party”
“Resurgence”
“Shepway Independents”
“Somali United Intellectuals Expatriates Democratic Party”
“Spiritual Unity Party”
“The Individual Reform Party”

*June 2012
“Convox”
“Downlands Residents Group”
“England First Party”
“Save King George Hospital”
“Socialist Studies Party (1904)”
“The Dover Alliance”

*July 2012
“Christian Party “Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship”
“Community Alliance”
“For Integrity and Trust in Government”
“Great Aycliffe Independents”
“Independent Republican Party”
“Romford Residents Association”
“Stone’s Independent Voice”

*August 2012
“Northumbria Party – The North East Party”
“Public Services Not Private Profit”
“Voice 4 Torbay”

*September 2012
“East Kilbride Alliance”
“Heart of Puriton”
“PLC Party”
“Protest Vote Party”
“United Unionist Coalition”

*October 2012
“East Dunbartonshire Independent Alliance”

*November 2012
“New Dawn”

Caucus envy

So, then, Rick Perry? Excited, aren’t we? He only beat God’s Representative On Earth by the narrowest of margins! And so, the Republican Party begin their long, ultimately fruitless search for a nominee to take on Obama, spending the GDP of a developing nation in their criss-crossing, attack ad developing, podium thumping electioneering jamboree.

(If you’re Rick Santorum, “podium” is “pulpit”, and if you saw his speech earlier this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking CSPAN stood for “Christians Stand Preaching, Americans Nauseous”)

The primary and caucus period in the US is unlike any other election format enjoyed elsewhere on Earth; it is truly unique. Nothing is more bizarre, out dated, over the top or free from policy details and I’ve followed local administration elections in Britain for years. Listen to Michelle Bachmann for perhaps the most outrageous delusion this side of British National Party candidates claiming they will win seats at the next election. “There maybe a different Michelle in the White House next year!” she told supporters today. Maybe there will, Michelle, I understand they are always looking for interns.

David Cameron was instrumental in bringing primary-ish elections to the UK in the run up to the 2010 general election. In two constituencies now held by the Tories – Totnes, and Gosport – anyone who lived in the constituency could vote in a ballot to choose the Tory candidate. Turnout was piddling and strains between the local associations and Tory HQ stretched to breaking point. The primaries did poke the local party members into action, however, and opened the door to the possibility of the UK welcoming them in full in time. Indeed there was talk during the election period of legislation being introduced to allow “Open Primaries” in marginal constituencies across the land.  LibDems in Glasgow, Labour members in Cambridgeshire, Tories in Liverpool – imagine  the fun and games to be had there…

One argument speaks highly of Primaries. The Conservatives struggle to fight Westminster elections in, say, Manchester or Birmingham, so why not open up selection of candidates in the first place to get names and faces out there, and then run with the built-up momentum for the next X months or years (ideally) to reap long-term rewards?

The downside arguments write their criticism in neon lights. Atop them all is the cost: millions across the country compared to barely a thousand per constituency if done the traditional way. And for the avoidance of doubt, the “traditional way” can often be the rubber stamping of a single candidate by a dozen members of a constituency party on a rainy Tuesday night. Britain does not have the same federal administration as the United States or even France where the Socialist Party undertook its own Primary system last year. The consequence of this would be a lack of reporting and explanation, potential alienation between neighbouring regions as one party pours in money at the expense of another.

Political parties are dying in some parts of the UK, which means anything goes in the ideas machine for building up membership and activism. For parties with “black holes” in the national map, Primaries could be ideal. They might not exactly bring back the Hustings of centuries past, though conversations on- and off-line would be at their most political for years. It would remind “those in the know” that ordinary people happen to care about their political representation, they’re just sick of being taken for granted (in safe seats) or swamped for a month every five years (in marginals). Primaries would engage political parties like never before – forced into a contest out of their control beyond traditional election time, some parties might struggle to adapt to candidates they don’t necessarily know.

The “curiosity” factor of the US election process blanks out the rest of the world at this time of the Presidential cycle. We shouldn’t absorb so much from the US, but we do – Blair was much more of the Congressman than he ever was an MP. Primaries are an awkward fit for the UK system, just as The Leaders Debates caused the machinery of British elections to stop/start, reset, wobble at the edges like a cartoon. We were not prepared for the long-term consequences of the Leaders Debates…would we be happy with spending months in the audience of 6 wannabe Labour candidates in Sussex or a handful of LibDems in Dagenham in the form of an Apprentice/Question Time hybrid in the cross-fingered hope of political renewal?

Early last year, I wrote a blog post suggesting that my second preference behind choosing AV was introducing Primary elections. If I was convinced then I am undecided now. There is much wrong with the British electoral system – which is why we needed AV to succeed and why STV is needed for local elections pretty damn quick. Primary elections could be “fun” but not necessarily    useful. Walker’s Crisps ran a competition some years ago which allowed consumers to vote on a new flavour of crisp; thousands of people voted, resulting in Builders Breakfast filling the shelves the next week. Sales were awful and the product was swiftly withdrawn before the month was out. Proof that things like Facebook Elections and Leaders Debates create fire…..they do not necessarily create light.

taking the register

Justice Minister Michael Willis has hailed the switch to individual registration as “radical” and “an unprecedented move”.  To tackle electoral registration fraud, including at the initial stage and on polling day, the step-change away from blanket forms for one house is a welcome development in attitudes by central Government.

Mr Michael Willis is now…….Lord Willis, and his place in the Justice Ministry is no longer occupied by a person from his Labour Party. The profound shift in electoral registration came before the most recent general election and was a direct consequence of decreasing confidence in Britain’s credibility as a place for free and fair elections. Labour had been stung by an electoral judge condemning the ease with which fraud could be conducted as something which would “shame a banana republic”

Back in 2009, when Mr Willis was flying the flag for this policy as a Minister in a Labour government, the rash of condemnation appears to have been muted. Not so now, as the Coalition’s desired move towards the same policy has whipped up the kind of furious anger reserved for filling in comments sections at the bottom of newspaper on-line content. At the core of the opposition argument is a flawed premise – “Ah, it will deny the poor a vote!” – and a disingenuous one at that.  “Elections should be based on population not electorate” is another auto-response, an attempt to suggest that all future elections should involve people who are not eligible to vote. Population figures were not used for the boundary review instigated under Labour, and nobody with much of a mind about them is suggesting that should happen again.

Labour helped bring individual registration to the United Kingdom during their time in power by way of Northern Ireland. Known for having…colourful and not always, shall we say, expected attitudes towards putting names on the electoral register, the Norn Iron experience has seen a fall in numbers. How many people were real in the first place is open to argument, and it’s that argument which now needs to be tackled here. As the Birmingham case has shown (and not exclusively), we cannot be confident that the rigorous checks we expect on validity are being made. We certainly cannot be confident that the names on an electoral register are always real.

On the politics forum I visit – Vote-UK – this issue has been roundly discussed. As an adjunct to the main debate, one poster said;

 At the 2010 election I witnessed some quite disgraceful behaviour at several polling stations in inner city Birmingham. There was clear intimidation and bribery of electors and in several cases the police stood by and watched. If they were willing to turn a blind eye to what I witnessed I have no difficulty believing that they would ignore other cases of electoral fraud.

Another poster added:

Individual registration is obviously superior and it will also hopefully help to keep people on the register who move from place to place regularly. My only concern is that complaints about it removing people from the register are being viewed solely through a partisan prism. I think we should all be able to accept that those legitimate voters leaving the register are more likely to be Labour supporters, but still agree that we ought to be making an especial effort to try to keep the register as full as possible.

Whilst a much less enthusiastic tone was set by the member who wrote:

The real issue here – which I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned in this thread – is not (thread title notwithstanding) moving to individual registration (for which there may be some good arguments, as already mentioned) but effectively making registration voluntary……

As the story says, this is a deliberate calculated decision to lessen involvement in the democratic process – something which I regard as fundamentally immoral 

 

This last post has been the prevailing tone of the opposition. It is not one I agree with – and deep down, I suspect many opponents realise that too. From my own experience in Preston, there is a clear case of “head of the household” registration in some communities, something which cannot be tackled if election officers lack the safety net which individual registration provides. Broader arguments against the change talk about working class, or black and ethnic minority or non-English speaking people having the ladder of democracy somehow whipped away from them. This is far removed from either reality or intention; it is the responsibility of everyone involved in “politics” generally, be it national or hyper-local, to ensure the people we want to represent have the ability and opportunity to case a vote. “This is excluding the poorest in society” is not a valid claim if either you do nothing to ensure that the people who worry about have registered.

Another thread in the argument involves the moves to make parliamentary boundaries fairer, and reviews of constituencies more frequent. From around 15-year cycles to 5, the first of which is now underway. “This is just gerrymandering!” cry opponents, showing another blatant misunderstanding which borders on the medically unstable. Elections have always asked those who are able to vote to do so – it makes no sense to set up straw man arguments about immigrants or under-18s.  If opponents wish to encourage individuals to register for elections who are, for example, about to turn 16 and for whom “voting” and “politics” seem like bizarre sexual fetishes, they could do well to help the Youth Citizenship Commission in their aim to roll out registration in schools and colleges.

If we are to have an electoral system people can believe in, then those seats we create for elections must be robust reflections of the voters within the boundaries who are able to vote; everyone who has the right to vote, with the ability to do so, on a register we can trust. There is too much doubt on the issue today, and partisan bleating about “fixing the system” pithily denies an awkward truth about the system as it currently stands today.

It is not evil for any Government to consider it vital that those who are willing to participate in elections should be encouraged to do so themselves. Labour recognised this in 2009, and the Coalition are now seeing it through.

Devil is in the Ballot Box

As a Liberal Democrat supporter and defender of the Coalition, I was surprised to read the results from a ConservativeHome poll that pointed to a slim majority of Conservative supporters feeling positive about a “non-aggression deal” with LibDems at the 2015 general election.

Those LibDems with long enough memories will shudder at the memory of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the subsequent trouble with ‘electoral pacts’. Democracy was not served well; loyal activists from both sides felt let down by the agreements from the opposite side.

For the Tories and LibDems to agree standing down in tough marginals would be a gift to Labour. Suddenly Rochdale would never seem like a LibDem target again, ditto both Oldham seats. What would happen in Southwark, where Labour have been denied ‘one of their own’ for decades? How would Wales react – Cardiff has a LibDem MP and both sides of Newport almost did. Would Conservative supporters in, say, Westmorland and Lonsdale [a LibDem stronghold, ex-Tory] really want to vote for Tim Farron? Would LibDems in Harrogate vote Conservative?

One consequence of a ‘pact’ which has been barely mentioned is the sudden rise of UKIP. Despite being trounced from every angle, latest figures from the Electoral Commission point to the UK Independence Party being the only mainstream group to enjoy an increase in membership. Both Tory and Labour voters would merrily troop into the UKIP fold, even with AV, if a dodgy deal is agreed betwixt Coalition partners.

LibDem voters at the last election knew that the introduction of STV (our ultimate goal) would have meant a future of coalition governments and compromises between parties. Lord Mandleston in the brilliant “5 Days That Changed Britain” hinted at his realisation that majority governments of the size enjoyed by Thatcher and Blair are things of the past. Britain doesn’t do mammoth mandates anymore. This Coalition could be the start of something big, even if AV is not introduced.

However, I agree with Nick Clegg’s words from before the election; the LibDems are not to become an annexe of the Conservative Party. Any electoral pact would start laying down the foundations. Clegg should publicly dismiss the idea. There are many LibDems who have tasted such agreements before – we tend not to return to a tree if the fruit tastes sour (and from oak trees grow acorns, and they are awful….)

Votes @ 16 B4 ’10

Last week, Gordon Brown suggested that he supported the call for “votes at 16”. The question was put by Phyllis Starkey, of the Milton Keynes South West constituency, and apparent expenses-related farago. But enough of her. The main issue is one of the few outstanding electoral improvements I think Labour should enact immediately; it took over a generation to give women the vote, decades to lower the voting age to 18, with the second decade of this 21st Century almost two generations from this last welcome move.

With the age at which people can be a candidate now at 18, the time to bring the voting age in line with most other “society says you’re an adult now” levels is all the more relevant. Sixteen is not exactly an age at which people are clueless children; “Make Poverty History” and anti-fascist demonstrations show a growing number of teenagers who are rejecting party politics in preference to single-issues. This should be encouraged as much as possible; the often sneered at world of “student politics” is far deeper than detractors would have believe.

Through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, younger people who feel marginalised by the political processes have found other means to react and interact with the matters of the day. Be it the drug legalisation debate, student fees, or how to deal with persistent illegal downloading of music, teenagers are more at the centre of the contemporary political debate than ever before. If a candidate aged 18 can request the support of a large electorate in an election, how can it be justified to ignore a growing surge of 16 and 17-year olds whose points of reference are so similar?

As a long-time (failed!) candidate in elections, I have first hand knowledge that not all adults walk into polling stations having read each and every party manifesto. This kills the notion that awarding teenagers the vote would somehow award ignorance. It’s simply not the case.

The entrenched party loyalties often stubbornly stuck to by people in their 30s, 40s, and older, do not exist to the same extent with younger voters; continued polls of the young show a taste for democracy and a willingness not to be loyal to one “brand” or “party”. Elections to and activities in the Youth Parliament continue to grow as increasing numbers of young people find their voice at a time when “youngster” so often means “thug” or “clueless hoodie” in the columns of the tabloid press.

Labour do not have a faultless record with either electoral administration, or policies which improve the lot of younger people. They should not be scared to embrace the one policy which would bring into the political process thousands of people whose minds are open to questioning the norm and walking against the tide. Relevance to the debates which alter their lives seem so distant at a time when politics is alive with issues. Sixteen year olds are in the same position today as 18 year olds were in the 1960s; a new generation of people more than able to participate in politics. It is time for the improvement to be made, for the issue to be sorted out before the next general election.

Give 16 year olds the vote.