All over the place

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

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.