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are elected by a representative voting system, in England and Wales voters are lumbered with the old-fashioned, out of date, unfair and unjust First Past the Post.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 Why deny over a million votes out of some outdated view of who ‘gets’ politics in the round?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.

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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.

Good PR

Constitutional reform is the train spotting of politics, soliciting a response from anyone buttressed by enthusiasts against a wall at a party somewhere between pity and panic. It was said that Tony Blair, once part way through House of Lords reform in the early 2000s, suddenly acquired the look of a first date forced to sit through a three-hour subtitled German film on hairdressing, eyes like marbles and thumbs rolling over each other in tedium.

Most ordinary folk agree that tinkering with the constitutional machinery is a bit of an obsessive’s game, often undertaken by civil servants bored with their lot and in need of a map to scribble over. Local government in the UK is proof of this, entire counties destroyed and resurrected at the swipe of a sharp HB. Anything more significant – such as House of Lords reform, say – tends to become bogged down with more politics than, for example, carving up counties into manageable chunks, a consequence of Westminster being considered very, very important and provincial towns being regarded as very, very not. It’s little wonder that divvying up England into regional chunks or constantly jiggling about with the councils of Wales or Scotland tends to go along on cycles compared with dealing properly with a national democratic deficit, because the former is seen as necessary maintenance and the latter brain transplant territory.

As you may have noticed, it’s the realm of Westminster and its village which is occupying the time of the Coalition and its occasional bursts into behaviour more suited to a well-heeled couple going through a messy divorce. Not that I’m subscribing to the opinion that the Coalition has as much chance of getting to Christmas as a plump turkey. The issue comes down to what exactly was understood by both Cameron and Clegg as being agreed upon in those long ago hazy days of the post-election glow when the new world of Coalition government looked to the weary nation as so much unparalleled brilliance. When those feelings faded (about a week later?) constitutional reform was refreshingly high on the list of priorities, as though the LibDem influence on Cameron was a revelation on par with that experienced by a bored housewife at an Alpha course.

Sadly like the Alpha course, what burst out in bright lights and speaking in tongues (characterised by crowds of Liberal Democrat activists attempting to explain AV to bemused shoppers in town centres) fizzled out to drab coffee mornings. Whilst Fixed Term Parliaments passed without too much bother, everything else was fought over within an inch of its life – boundary changes and Lords Reform amongst them. The Coalition fought within its each other on the basis that the AV referendum and reducing the size of the Commons were the ends of the same see-saw, whilst Lords Reform was the hastily constructed barbecue at the back of the garden overseen by a slightly drunk father with lighter fluid and an indifference to food hygiene. Whilst Clegg was able to say “We took the voting referendum to the people, and the people didn’t like it”, Cameron could assure his backbenchers that a smaller House of Commons with equal size constituencies would be of benefit to them and the country as a whole. Fewer MPs, less cost, for the spin on one side, safer Tory seats and less in-built Labour bias amongst the urban cities, for the spin on the other. Nothing could be easier to get through.

And yet here we are, with House of Lords reform dead again, Clegg determined to paint his defeat as a matter of Conservative dinosaurs having a whinge about the possible end of the guaranteed retirement home. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has started to look like a man approaching the Tony Blair stage in is attitude towards reform – the glare in the eyes, the deep sighs, the doodling hangmen on the back of his hand with a pairing knife, that sort of thing. For boundary changes/Commons reduction to go through – and it really should – he needs to force the hand of a Coalition partner fuming and an Opposition party gleaming. Of course Labour were never going to agree that equal sized constituencies are a good thing, shrieking “gerrymandering” all over the place as though they knew what it meant, but the messy way that the Coalition has got here has made Cameron’s work immeasurably harder.

There is a way out of all this, I think, though it means having to say goodbye to both Lords reform and equal sized constituencies. It’s one of those trainspotter obsession things, though, so people of a nervous disposition might want to make themselves a brew.

As we’ve seen in Scotland, local government elected under a system of proportional representation has made little though significant improvements to the democratic deficit there. Now into their third cycle of PR elections, Scotland’s local councils have seen former Labour citadels turned into coalition-led rainbow Town Halls, or at least in the case of Glasgow allowed local newspapers to save on red ink when reporting election results, blobs of Tory blue and and SNP yellow appearing in sporadic splotches. Perhaps more importantly, PR in Scotland gives people far more power at the ballot box – no longer forced to make a compromise themselves, people can vote how they really feel, spreading their vote amongst a number of candidates whilst remaining loyal to their favoured party.

English councils could go the same way if the Clegg and Cameron compromise position is to ditch the two contentious issues for something positioned in the middle. LibDems get PR on a significant level, Conservatives are given a chance for representation in northern cities (and, of course, Labour can make more of a headway into bits of the south which turned away from them post-Blair).

But it’s not just party political reasons for local council PR. As most fule kno, local government is dying on its proverbial, Town Halls robbed of investment over a number of decades, turnout in elections dragging along the bottom of the teen-percentages, drab debates wrung out over a number of successive days in newspaper letter columns. Despite the best efforts of various Commissions, local government is hardly representative of the people its purported to represent, with the scandal of uncontested wards in hundreds of elections every year only making matters worse.

By allowing voters the right to break out of First Past the Post and its horrific damage to democracy, there’s chance for a last minute CPR job to local councils. It’s more than party political concerns about Knowsley or Manchester being “one party states”, council areas in which only one party returns councillors, as Barking and Dagenham did having slain the BNP. The current position means complacency and arrogance sets in amongst councillors who don’t feel the breath of contest on their necks at election time, whose debates only fall amongst themselves. The less chance of an election, or at least an interesting one, the higher chance of discord or apathy. Local government is more than just ballot boxes, of course, but if that element isn’t fixed everything else falls apart.

Lords Reform can wait another few years, having been on the boil for so long anyway. Reducing the size of the Commons is much more important, and should happen if at all possible, though clearly it’s going to be a tight fight between the Whips and their charges.

Compromise then is reform where it’s noticeable – on the streets, at the Town Halls, in cities robbed of vibrant and relevant democratic debate. Allow people to have a real say in who represents them, as Scottish voters currently do, and allow Town Halls to become more reflective of the voters outside. It’s not right that some of our largest towns and cities are effective “one party states”, that some council wards have not seen a contested election in years, or that turnout in FPTP elections can be lower than 15%. A form of PR at council level will help push greater and wider reform. Any other position might make a lot of things much worse, at national level as much as local, and neither Coalition partner wants that. It might mean an early general election, for one thing….

Vote 2011 – Every Loser Wins

Football managers are experts at finding diamonds in the rough (even Arsene Wenger, whose track record at actually witnessing contentious episodes on the pitch is quite the stuff of legend). Mssrs Molyles, Grant and the rest are wheeled out for post-game interviews to spout, by and large, the same things. “Yeah, it was two points dropped away from home, but you know, the lads really shone today and to come away with a point at this end of the season, you know, yeah, it’s really changed the way we look at the remaining games.”

This week I have been reminded that politicians can find positives in every situation with just as much ease and attraction to the tenuous. With so many elections on the same day – a veritable orgy of democracy – it’s little wonder how our elected elders have analyses the same source material and found completely different conclusions. Just off-side? Questionable linesman decisions? It’s all same-difference….

I will begin with Labour, whose leader Ed Miliband has been doing the media rounds talking much whilst saying little. “There are alternatives to everything this Government is doing” he says (well, sorry, “this Conservative-led government”). Sadly, Ickle Miliband is yet to outline exactly what those alternatives are. His Party were signed up to make public spending cuts in the same mould of the Coalition, so the “unspoken alternatives” he is failing to outline discredit his argument.

Labour did very well in two parts of the country – across Northern England they battered the Liberal Democrats seven shades of Sunday. Many great Northern towns are now without any LibDem representation at local level, or at the very least have seen their numbers slashed to bare minimum. Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Hartlepool, Hull, Leeds, Bolton – each city witnessed colossal drops in LibDem support. Here in Preston, our vote share collapsed in keeping with many others across the region, although we held onto one of our historically safest areas and increased our share of the vote in the target ward of Tulketh. As with all these towns and cities, we will be focusing on the Labour Party’s rule to ensure they keep to the budgetary constraints accepted by the Council before the election was called.

In Scotland, unlike Wales, the Labour Party suffered terribly. The SNP ripped apart the totems of Labour support – the Central Belt has almost no Labour MSPs at constituency level. Glasgow is over-half Nationalist, even Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy ditched Labour for the SNP. Fingers have pointed at Iain Gray, whose leadership did not inspire activists never mind voters, though the SNP’s success is clearly one of coherent policies. Labour went for negativity and attack, both of which failed to chime with voters who wanted to hear positivity and leadership.

Supporters of y Blaid may well be looking askance at their nationalist cousins. Labour’s working majority at Cardiff Bay clearly shows the difference with their leadership and campaign messages in the two nations. Could it be that Plaid Cymru stepping away from independence talk has made their brand weak and unattractive? What does falling to third do for Plaid’s future?

And now the Liberal Democrats. Well….

….Okay, so in Scotland we did appallingly badly. Wiped off the mainland in constituency terms we are now the Northern Isles Party in that regard, saved from total embarrassment by the vagaries of the d’Hondt voting system and its top-up seats. Clearly Scotland voted for its national parliament with one eye on Westminster politics; Scottish people have great difficulty in accepting any political alliance with the Conservatives can be sold for the national interest. That great guaranteed hotbed of liberal support – the Highlands – tossed us away like a caber. Just like the Labour Party in the South, so we have been attacked by our core supporters for not offering a credible or distinctive policy package and until we can speak with our own voice again Scotland will not e forgiving to whoever leads the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the future.

In England’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats suffered terribly in the North of England. The figures are stunning and sobering. Liverpool slapped us at every opportunity, Manchester ditched us entirely, and Sheffield stuck two fingers up at Clegg in his beloved backyard. Newcastle and Hull got rid of LibDems only a year after giving them control of their respective councils. Handfuls of LibDem councillors across Cumbria fell without so much as a handshake.

The lesson was very different in the South. We still run Eastbourne Council having lost 5 seats straight to the Conservatives, an increase of 8 Conservative Councillors didn’t change our control of South Somerset, and Portsmouth is still under our control (with no increase in Labour representation at all).

We have to learn from this. The messages we gave to voters over the period long before last year;s general election still hold true. We have thousands of dedicated councillors who fulfill their role as street champions and local representatives far better than their Labour equivalents. There is no sense of entitlement to any of our councillors and their wards. Clearly the Coalition is having a damaging effect on our representation, but that is not a reason to ditch it all in and start again.

The Conservatives won seats and councils last week, one of the first times that a ruling party has made advances after in their first year. They consolidated their southern support whilst making very limited increases from the midlands up (indeed the story in Birmingham is one of almost complete Tory collapse). Tories are still almost completely absent in the industrial towns across Lancashire, Manchester and Yorkshire. There may be blue bits in Sefton, but there most certainly are not in Liverpool, St Helens or Knowsley. In Wigan, the leader of the Tory group lost his seat in Orrell. In Chorley, the Tories lost control of the Council.

The winners/losers argument for the post-match interview is, therefore, whatever you want it to be. Labour cannot claim to have “won” the election period, having been demolished in Scotland and only reclaiming old ground in the North. Neither can the LibDems even suggest things are looking alright, for it clearly isn’t. The Tories need to examine how they break out of their comfort zones, because it still has yet to happen.

Two final points – the BNP were wiped out of Stoke Council, and seem to have only one defending councillor re-elected across the country. Their slow and satisfying collapse continues and long may that continue.

And I cannot leave without mentioning the AV Referendum. We lost. It’s terrible that the No brigade managed to drag victory from the ditches of its awful campaign, not least because this slams shut on meaningful electoral and constitutional reform for a generation. There is no two ways about this – saying No to AV has killed off any chance for a fairer, more representative voting system in the UK and that is a scandal for a so-called developed Western democracy. Labour had 13 years in charge to make a go of this, they failed, and this week their lack of action has come home to roost.

Some election periods are dull. Not this one. Much change, not least in Scotland, with constitutional and representative hoo-ha to follow. For those who found the AV campaign “a bit much”, incidentally, you wait until the boundary changes start…

Preston Guild Hall

Prestonian blogger River’s Edge has had an outburst relating to the safe-guarding of Preston Guild Hall. Despite Preston City Council suffering one of the largest funding cuts – over £5m lost in two years – all three parties in Preston Town Hall, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the ruling Conservatives, have worked together in ensuring a budget which secures Preston’s Guild Hall as a venue for music, plays and comedians.

I agree with River’s Edge view that “[c]reating and enjoying theatre, music and dance are activities that can mean the difference between civilisation and dull quotidian existence.” The news that future Guild Hall productions will have a greater emphasis on local productions proves that Town Hall members are dedicated to keeping local theatre groups and local technicians in guaranteed employment. There is still a guarantee of big names being signed – so the best in national figures and local productions will continue to appear side-by-side. Even the Pantomime is secured. We could have the Chuckle Brothers again! Or Paul Dannan….Oh, wait, no, no..Not after last time…

The figures are clear. The Guild Hall complex costs over £1 million to run and maintain, and the last two years has seen consecutive losses of £1 million each. The financial pressures on Preston Council and taxpayers cannot be put to one side. Preston has secured, through some very difficult choices, the continued opening of both leisure centres at Fulwood and West View, and maintained the future of the Guild Hall, whilst suffering the severe central Government cuts.

Preston’s Guild Hall is more than just its Charter Theatre – the complex has room for improvements and expansions which would help our city in its aim to become “The Third City of the North West”. Some expansion plans will need to be mothballed, others explored through co-operations with third parties and local enterprise. Its ‘grotty’ side, that which used to be Morrisons leading to the Bus Station, is as bad an advert for Preston as anything I could imagine; surely the Council or the Guild Hall management can explore ways to brighten up this section without breaking the bank?

The reality is all three parties in Preston agree that a closed Guild Hall would be infinitely worse than one cut back to help balance the books. As somebody with the threat of redundancy over my own head, I know the sinking sensation in the stomach which comes from job uncertainty, and I can think of nobody within Town Hall who wants to deliver the worst news to staff currently working within the Guild Hall. There are avenues to explore and I hope the pain today can soon be over. We still have a venue to attract tourists, and ultimately money to help rebuild the shaky economy.

It’s refreshing that all three parties are getting somewhere with working within the financial realities for the city. Here’s hoping continued cross-party attitudes can carry on whilst the need for such attitudes is required…