all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

Advertisements

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.

masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

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….

freedom to, freedom from, freedom for

Should prisoners be denied the right to vote?
No.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday has been, predictably, rounded upon by the awkward squads. The Daily Mail has called the decision “contemptuous”. I can’t bring myself to check what the Express thinks, it’s like not wanting to open a bank statement. There can only be bad things in there.

I’m glad for the Mail and Express having apoplectic fits of fury over prisoner voting rights, because it ticks all their boxes and therefore has to be right. Dealing with their opposition is similar to arguing with the pub drunk – there’s all the relevant points there, just not necessarily in the right order. As with many of those subjects which rile and vex, the tabloids have whipped up anger on their own fears, rather than the evidence. It’s as though a student has thrown their laptop across the bedroom because the essay is over a word limit.

The UK stands almost alone in its ban on prisoner voting rights, a view that puts us far lower down the list of respectable developed democracies than the tabloids would like.  That a convicted criminal receives extra “time off” from voting doesn’t differentiate them from the rest of the population for 11 months out of 12, and with turnout in the general population this year at around 30%, it’s not as though whatever logic existed beforehand stands up today.

Whatever general principle existed at the core of the current policy doesn’t make sense. How does giving prisoners an “additional extra” punishment work? Many criminals request – and are not barred from receiving in any case – help or communication with Members of Parliament. There have been a number of high profile cases of MPs helping release convicted criminals who were victims of miscarriages of justice. There is “justice” and there is “revenge” – denying criminals the right to vote is very much the latter – it does not stand up to scrutiny. Who wins because a convicted thief can’t vote for their local councillor, or a rioter was unable to vote in the AV referendum?

Prisoners are already considerably de-humanised by society – we are told that all those convicted  of a crime, from stealing a bottle of water to raping an under-age child – must be considered the same kind of evil. Jailed for sending a drunken tweet or beating up a pensioner? All the ban on voting does is feed resentment and bitterness amongst criminals, setting them along a spiral against rehabilitation. Society is at its best when it’s trying to take people away from criminal behaviour. This ancient pettiness is not society at its best.

The issue has very little about prisoner rights if you read the tabloids. There’s no concern in there about the levels of illiteracy, drug habits, access to employment opportunities. We’re forced to read the parallel rants, barely connected, against “Europe”, in favour of David Cameron “doing a Thatcher” against Brussels and all the usual, tedious British nationalism/EU-bashing. It’s the closest thing the tabloids have to showing signs of Internet trolling – the merest mention of a European decision sends staff to the keyboards in frenzied fury.

There’s people out there right now who have not stolen so much as an office stapler, but they can exercise their right to vote whilst not knowing one policy from another. There’s former prisoners living somewhere near your house who postal voted two weeks ago, and next door to you is a cannabis smoker who hasn’t voted for anyone in twenty years. Democracy is not just the right to slam your front door in the face of a leaflet-dropper two weeks before polling day; it’s about making  difficult choices for the right reasons. If we can get to a stronger, more liberal, more humane situation for convicted prisoners, it should be worth the long stretch of anti-European bile we’re about to drown in.

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.

Second preference – Primary colours

Amongst and alongside the hundreds of council elections in England, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is an additional ballot paper fought and argued over. It is, of course, the AV referendum poll, asking the population to become interested in voting reform and constitutional renewal in a way never done before, and especially unthinkable under a Conservative-led government, but these are the days in which we find ourselves.

(And today, for me, is looking like another very beautiful summer’s day, so if the sun doesn’t sign on the righteous then at least one hopes it will on pro-AV campaigners).

The level of debate on both sides has been somewhat…tetchy. It’s been awkward, unsettling, somewhat irritating. I can’t help shake off the feeling that the anti-AV lot are more concerned by their own short-term electoral future, which explains their partisan arguments and insults. At least the pro-lobby have tried to fashion a more rounded, deeper argument, not that it has been faultless on this side either.

It could well be a fatal blow for constitutional reform where AF defeated. My head and heart are saying different things (yes, I really do consider the finer points of voting reform in my quiet moments). There is a hunger for change in the country, one which simmers still after the expenses scandal and all which spewed out thereafter like so much Donner meat on a Sunday morning. Electors have their muscles flexed still, more cynical than ever and less likely to choose any of the main three parties as first ports of call. The age of the protest vote (and, as we’ve witnessed, the age of the protest) has not been this strong in decades.

What other options exist if the AV vote is lost? Would the door slam on any future political reform, so much ideas and ideals turned to dust?

I am throwing onto the table of ideas (it’s a nice table, lots of room for wine and nibbles), the concept of American-style Primaries for almost all candidates for all Westminster constituencies.

Primaries have been tried in the UK in before, with the run up the last general election seeing the Conservatives trying them in some constituencies tainted the most by expenses sleaze. The idea, based largely on the US system of Primaries and caucuses and pulling names out of hats or whatever they do over there, sees residents register in advance their intention to take part in a public meeting at which candidates persuade the assembled bods who should be the candidate at the forthcoming election for a particular party. Crucially, the audience cannot be entirely taken from party members and supporters, it has to be a crowd made from all party supporters and none. “Oh but that could mean Labour supporters voting for the Tory candidate”, comes the cry. So? Under our tired voting system so many such choices are made in the selection of an MP, or is context important all of a sudden?

The Labour left are fond of Primaries too. Leader Ed Miliband is one of a number of left figures who has signalled support in the very recent past. In 2009, Will Straw told CommentIsFree that Primaries could work for a Labour party battered and unsettled by a drop in support. It remains true today that candidate selections are often dictated by the HQs, central office and gentleman’s agreements. Despite storming to victory at this year’s Barnsley byelection, Labour Party members on a number of their websites did cyber-sigh about the alleged imposition of a candidate above local members.

Primaries would hack away some of the grip from ‘on high’. Conservative high-ups are not entirely pleased that one of their winners from the process, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a vocal opponent to NHS reforms, but we need more people like her, and the doors would open wider with Primaries introduced. We all know how candidates would react with non-party members asking questions unbound by convention, mini-Question Times breaking out across the country with the aim of selecting parliamentary candidates in the name of ‘attracting ordinary voters’.

Bring Primaries (candidates chosen by the people) with AV (an empowering voting system), and you drag the UK into somewhere beyond the 19th Century. Greater chance of BME candidates, younger participants, greater debate in the lead up to polling day with more coverage of each party and their policies. It is not a panacea, there are lots more to do, though they would shine much needed light into the dark of PPC selections.

I would open up Primaries to as many parties as possible. Each constituency must be opened up to allowing parties and the public to scrutinise the choices put to them, the policies promised and the personalities introduced. Yes, the US examples we see over here are filtered to amplify the ‘noise’. Our system is not presidential, our Primaries would not be such big-money freak shows.

If AV falls – and I hope it doesn’t – there has to be a flame of reform kept alive. If the Coalition wants to take a lead from its own past, Primaries would be the best thing to happen for the sake of democracy.

Making the Case for AV

Ed Mili…Edward Miliband has made some good judgement calls recently, balancing his rather unwise “I have a dream” moment at Hyde Park. (Historians will not, I suggest, draw a linear connection from the Suffragettes to the Right Honourable Member for Doncaster South).

First good call – supporting the “Yes” campaign for the AV referendum, which should ensure a decent turnout amongst Labour supporters, many of whom still smart from Tony Blair’s dismissal of all things related to constitutional reform. (It was Blair who asked Roy Jenkins to come up with a new voting system for Westminster. When he did so – a modified form of AV called “AV+”, Blair decided he didn’t like having his eyes glazed over by policy documents so dumped them without apology).

Miliband’s support for AV is significant in this age of Coalition government. He is confident – and genuinely so, it seems – that there still can be bridges built between Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and others ‘of the centre and left’, to use his phrase. It ensures that he can have some of his words from last year pinned on him – that Labour under his leadership won’t oppose for the sake of it. He makes the case for AV fairly and reasonably, unlike NO2AV, whose ignorance and groundless claims have been rightly ridiculed from the start.

“Having words from the past pinned on you” draws me to my second tick against Edward’s actions. He has, quite rightly, ensured Nick Clegg is nowhere near the Yes campaign stage. Nick is currently on some kind of Deputy PM fact-finding tour in Mexico, speaking Spanish no less, so is as far away from the Yes crowd as could possibly be. This is very good news. Clegg’s “calamity” moments from the last election do tend to keep stacking up, not least his label “miserable little compromise” attached to the AV voting system he is now supporting.

Making the case for AV is absolutely vital for the wider constitutional health of our country. The chance for change is not mere rhetoric. Saying “No” to AV would mean slamming the door on almost every other reform agenda – the House of Lords especially, possibly even the proposals to allow binding referendums on council tax increases currently in the Localism Bill. Importantly “no” would mean “NO!” for generations. We would be lumbered, stuck, anchored to and disabled by the first-past-the-post system for decades to come, never again able to revisit the question of voting reform, trapped in the frigid Hell of small-c conservative opinions.

AV is not perfect, though it offers much more for our democratic process than FPTP ever would. It would stop this nonsense of candidates becoming very handsomely salaried law makers on 33% (or less) popularity in the constituency they claim to represent. Every candidate from all parties would need to work that little bit harder, sell their candidature that little bit harder, to ensure the magic 50% mark was reached. This silly “one person, one vote” campaign on the NO side, launched today, misses the point entirely. AV gives people ONE vote – just the ONE – which is given to candidates other than the initial leader under specific circumstances. There is no more “loonies deciding elections” than under FPTP (I have been around elections long enough to know how many people go into polling booths to choose one party as an alternative to their first preference, usually BNP or other extreme frapperies)

Making the case for AV means being able to concede that some problems with Coalition government is misplaced. Political rivals can, and should, work together. Political parties are not, here or anywhere, ‘walled gardens’. There can be shades of grey. Standing still, trapped within dogma, leads to stagnation. Making the small step to AV opens up the possibility of better, more proportional systems, and if STV is good enough for Scotland and if d’Hondt is good enough for Great Britain’s allocation to the European Parliament, then something over and beyond AV is surely decent enough for Westminster.

I agree with Edward. AV must pass. It may be the darkest irony that a Liberal Democrat leader cannot be associated with voting reform, but such sacrifices are often needed in the march towards the greater good. Join Ickle Ed and other progressives – and that includes the Liberal Democrats…and Nigel Farage…and vote YES to AV.

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…