Governing, auditing and opening up the Council

An unreviewed council meeting (picture via Colchester Chronicle)
Some of you may have heard the news that I’m the chair of Colchester Borough Council’s Governance and Audit Committee for the next year, after being Deputy Chair of it last year. As I wrote last year, Governance and Audit is a committee with somewhat of a dull reputation because its main job is to review the council’s procedures and oversee the various audits the council undergoes, and they’re the sort of things that usually only get very interesting when something has gone, is going, or is about to go wrong.

However, one thing my predecessor as chair of the committee, Chris Pearson, introduced last year was to make it a bit more proactive in looking at ways we could improve the governance of the Council. That’s why last year we had the snappily-named Review Of Meetings And Ways Of Working (the ROMAWOW, as no one has yet been heard to refer to it in public) which I wrote about here, and which has its final report coming back to the committee tonight. There are a number of changes coming about as a result of it, most notably to the public that Have Your Say public speakers at council meetings will now have the opportunity to speak again in response to the answer they’ve been given, but there are a number of other changes in how we present information at meetings and how they’re run that should hopefully make them better for members of the public and councillors. One of these changes is starting some meetings later, which is why tonight’s meeting will be starting at 7pm instead of the usual 6pm.

Having done that review, though, I’m aware that a lot of people’s frustrations can’t be addressed by just changing the way we do meetings. So, that’s why I’ll be suggesting tonight that we build on this review with another one that will look at issues around elections and public participation in the democratic process. This will hopefully have two element. First, looking at the procedural elements of how the council runs elections to see if there are ways it can be improved to make it better for the public. Obviously, this has to be done under the rules set out by the Representation of the People Act so my favoured solution to a lot of problems – change the electoral system to Single Transferable Vote, like they have in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections – is a non-starter for now, but there are other aspects that can be looked at. For instance, I know people have suggested the design and information provided on polling cards could be improved, but I’m sure there are lots of other suggestions that could be made.

The second part is a bit more nebulous at the moment, but I want us to also look at how to improve public participation in elections and local democracy more generally. One thing I’ve always tried to stress is that democracy isn’t just an event, it’s a process, and for that process to occur we need to have those public spaces – which can be physical or virtual – where people can access information and share opinion. What the council can do directly here is perhaps limited by law and current levels of funding, but how can we as a council and a wider public improve the levels of information and debate available to everyone so we can move towards a better and more responsive local democracy?

All thoughts are welcome, and we’ll hopefully have a wider discussion on this at the next committee meeting on 25th July and see how to move this forward. (And yes, I should have posted this a while before the meeting, but I was on holiday last week…)

If your plan for resurrecting the British centre is ‘Macron’, you don’t have a plan

When everybody from Conservative Anna Soubry to Vince Cable, through to those on the Progress wing of Labour is talking about the need for a new centrist party, it is logical to assume someone has a plan to form one.

Sometimes Paul Mason manages to stumble towards the truth. When I wrote about the problems in creating a new centre party a few weeks ago, I was aware that it was being discussed by various people, and while those thoughts and discussions may have been somewhat muted by the election, they’ve not completely come to an end.

One thing above all has been adding the fuel to the centrist flame: the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential election. It’s played out like a centrist fairy tale as the young technocrat minister spots an opportunity, forms his own political movement and then capitalises on the flaws of the tired old parties of left and right to rise above the extremes and become President in the first ever election he’s contested. And it is a remarkable achievement, for no matter how much luck Macron had as the Socialists and Republicans imploded, he still had to show enough political nous to actually win the election. It’s just not one that holds too many lessons for those hoping to emulate him in the UK.

For a start, French politics is intensely personalised around candidates at an order of magnitude beyond anything we see in Britain. It’s tempting to look at the Gaullists and Socialists as being roughly comparable to our Conservatives and Labour Party, but both are not really parties as we understand them, more convenient labels for the cats-in-a-sack factional infighting that characterises much of French politics. En Marche! (now known as La Republique En Marche – REM) was different in that it was separate from the Gaullist and Socialist movements, but not in that it was an organisation heavily focused on its leader (and whether EM! was targeted at the Socialist primary or becoming a separate movement was an open question around its foundation). Because so much of the power in the country is held by a directly-elected President, French politics encourages this level of personalisation. Even formal party structures have tended to follow the needs to individuals, with parties forming and dissolving with much more rapidity than any other Western democracy. The Socialist Party was the oldest organisation in this year’s elections and they may well deal it a death blow before it’s even reached fifty years old.

It’s this personalisation and factionalisation, coupled with the power of the Presidency, that will likely earn Macron a majority in the Assembly elections next month. Even if REM doesn’t win a majority in the elections themselves, his appointment of Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister has driven a wedge into the Gaullists, pulling those close to Alain Juppé into alignment with him. Macron is benefiting from fissures and divisions already present in French politics, and an understanding amidst politicians and the public that factions will move in and out of different party groupings as they see fit in their quest for power. Macron has surprised by showing a centrist can win in France, but he’s done it by exploiting the way the French system works in ways that can’t be simply transposed to Britain.

For a start, politics in Britain isn’t based around the individual the same way it is in France. As the relative sizes of ‘Theresa May’ and ‘Conservatives’ continue their inverse relationship in election branding, we may talk about an increasingly presidential style in our politics, but that’s firmly based on the control of existing party structures, not supplanting them and remaking and/or fundamentally rebranding the party every time there’s a new leader. (Momentum is somewhat of a departure from this, but it still came about as an offshoot of a traditional leadership campaign, rather than predating it)

There’s simply no way for someone to ‘do a Macron’ in Britain as the processes are the opposite way around. In France, you win the Presidency and then try to win a majority in the legislature, whereas in Britain you can’t become Prime Minister until you’ve won that majority. There’s no shortcut to power, it has to be the long slog though the trenches of winning a majority in Parliament, and to do that you need to build a real organisation that can find and campaign for candidates, rather than just creating a campaign movement to get one person elected.

Macron also had (and will have, in the Assembly election) an advantage thanks to the French electoral system. The French two-round system is a massive boon for centrists who are popular enough to get into the second round as in any head-to-head contest with a non-centrist, they can expect to hoover up the votes from the side not represented in the runoff. If voter distribution follows a vaguely normal pattern with a centre, than a centrist is likely to win any two-way contest, but the trick is being able to make it a two-way contest in the first place. The problem in Britain is that our system doesn’t create that situation (hence why Liberal Democrats play up the ‘two horse race’ in constituencies to try and artificially create it) and any new centrist party is going to find that winning from the centre in one jump is harder than doing it in two.

“Ah,” comes the objection, “but people like the idea of a centrist party with centrist ideals, so they’d vote for it in large enough numbers to win.” The problem with that is that people like a lot of things in the abstract, especially when they’re being asked what’s little more than ‘would you like nice things or nasty things?’. People’s views on most things political are effectively a nonattitude, especially when they’re dealing with hypotheticals. There might be lots of people out there who think a centre party is a good idea, but each of them has a different idea in their head of what it’s like, and aren’t guaranteed to support each others’ vision of it. How many people who say they like the Party Of Guaranteed Nice Things For All will change their minds on it when they discover its leading lights are Tony Blair, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, for instance?

The circumstances may seem right for a realignment of British politics if things go the way a lot of people expect in the election, and all the nebulous plans floating around before it might gain some solidity. However, it may be that all this talk of realignment in the middle of the election campaign may go the same way as the millions of words that were written about potential coalition deals and arrangements in 2015. If something is to happen, though, it needs to rely a lot more on the practical details of just how one would create and build a new party in the British political system, not just assuming you can copy-and-paste something from France to here.

Twenty years ago today (been going in and out of style)

Looking out of the window at a rather grey and cool day, I remember that the weather on May 1st 1997 was nicer than it was today. There’s every possibility that’s just the memory cheating on me, but I don’t recall it as being one of those election days where we spent it huddled in the committee room waiting for a break in the clouds, or where your hands started getting numb from cold after too much final hours door-knocking as the sun went down.

I was in Colchester, of course, having come here to work at the University the year before and only discovering after my arrival that it was a Liberal Democrat target seat – indeed, the Liberal Democrat target seat in the East of England. One thing that’s hard to get over today in a time of easily spread information – how many sites can give you a list of every party’s targets from the possible to the ridiculous in just a few seconds? – is just how little anyone knew about what was going on in the rest of the country. There was the just the little bubble of what was going on in your constituency, and I was just a foot soldier then, doing deliveries and the occasional evening of canvassing when I had the chance. From that little bit of voter contact, things felt good to me but it was the first General Election campaign I’d been involved in so I had nothing to judge it against. For all I knew, we could be ten thousand votes ahead or ten thousand votes behind.

I was up early on the morning of the election, delivering a bunch of bright yellow Good Morning leaflets along Mile End Road before the polling stations opened at 7am. That’s a good piece of exercise to get you going in the morning as the road goes up a hill and a lot of the houses are set back from the road putting them further up the hill, meaning I was going up and down a lot of stairs to get those deliveries done. That’s something that hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years – there’ll be people out doing the same this coming Thursday for the local elections, just as they will on June 8th for the general election. The rest of the day, though, was in something’s the changed completely in the last twenty years.

1997 was right on the cusp of technology changing elections. We were wowed by talk of how all Labour candidates had pagers to keep them in constant touch with party HQ (there was a probably apocryphal story about a Labour MP refusing to take part in a sponsored swim because he’d have to be separated from his pager for the duration). Desktop publishing meant leaflets were being designed and printed in-house and canvass cards were printed grids from EARS, into which all canvass data was entered. There weren’t enough resources or knowledge around, however, to enable all of the constituency’s polling day to be run by computer, so most of the constituency was still doing it the old-fashioned way. Every polling district had its own committee room, and in each of those rooms was a big table with a bunch of Shuttleworth lists stuck to it.

Shuttleworths are named for the printing company who used to produce them for the Liberal Party. (In the Labour Party, they’re known as Reading lists, because it was Reading Labour Party who popularised the use of them) They were several sheets of carbon paper in different colours (always the same order, though someone else will have to tell you what that was) onto which you’d print details of all the people you expected to vote for you, usually with one sheet per road. When telling sheets arrived from the polling station, the person in charge of the committee room would go through the numbers on the sheet, check them against the numbers on the Shuttleworths and cross through anyone who had already voted. Because they were all on carbon paper, a line drawn through on the top would cross them off all the sheets below. Then, when it was time for someone to go out and deliver to or knock up people who hadn’t voted yet, they would take the topmost sheet from each Shuttleworth and have an up-to-date list of who needed to be got out to vote, while the committee room still had list with people who had already voted crossed off. The different colours and the visibility of the lines crossing out voters enabled you to see quickly which areas were most in need of attention during the day, with the aim being that the only sheets remaining on the table at the end of the day would be the ones where all the targeted voters had been crossed off. There was an elegance and ritual to it all that had built up over the years to make it a very efficient system given the constraints of the time, but it’s not hard to see why this would be its last hurrah.

The day passed by through door knocking while carrying around sheets of carbon paper and then it was time for the count. On the surface that looked just like it does today: Charter Hall with two big squares of tables (one for North Essex, one for Colchester), lots of people wearing rosettes wandering around outside the squares while inside them a small army of council staff were verifying, sorting and counting ballot papers. The key difference was in the amount of information from outside that was getting in there. In counts now, there are TVs in the hall and almost everyone’s got a smartphone where every bit of election news is at their fingertips. Then, there were just a handful of phones and information came via a whispered telegraph as people who’d been out to their cars told of what they’d heard on the radio. ‘Landslide’ and ‘400 seats’ started circling the room, followed by names of Cabinet members reported to be in trouble, even an obviously crazy rumour that Michael Portillo might be in danger of losing his seat.

And amidst all that, the Colchester count was turning out to be agonisingly close. Every new set of votes to be verified or counted brought a rush of people to the relevant tables to watch and count, the information being totted up on calculators to try and calculate what was going on. As the night drew on, there were more names of fallen ministers, more talk of seats that had fallen to the Liberal Democrats – we might win over 30 seats, someone even said 40 was possible! – and more obviously ridiculous mentions of Portillo. Meanwhile, it became clear that Colchester was looking too close to call. There were three big stacks of bundled votes in the centre of the tables, the ones for Russell (Liberal Democrat) and Shakespeare (Conservative) were almost identical in size, both just a little bit bigger than the pile for Green (Labour). It was past 3am now, and ‘recount’ was being muttered in resigned tones as people eyed the last dozen or so bundles of counted but unchecked votes that would perhaps break the deadlock. They were brought over to the counters, triggering another rush of people to watch, looking to see how they all were split.

And all of the bundles were Bob Russell ones. Suddenly what had looked close was now a clear victory by over a thousand votes, no recount required. All that work had paid off, and we finally had a golden oasis in the East of England, one Liberal Democrat victory amidst the red and blue that made up the rest of the region.

After that, there was a private party in the Britannia pub – now a Gurkha restaurant, while the campaign’s HQ on North Hill is a Thai – where I saw a TV for the first time that night and saw that all the talk was true. There was a Labour landslide, Blair was heading for number 10 and a dejected looking Michael Portillo was there in Conservative HQ while John Major conceded defeat. A world where Bob Russell was going to be an MP and Michael Portillo wasn’t felt very different from the one I’d known for the past two decades.

I finally got home sometime after 6am, more than twenty-four hours after I’d got up the day before, but still not tired. There were results still coming in, Labour’s number still ticking up over 400, as the Liberal Democrat one went over 40 and the Tories stuttered and slumped well below 200. It was another sunny day, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was on a constant loop and Tony and Cherie were off to the Palace. It was finally time to catch up on sleep, and when I did, I didn’t dream of a future like this.

It looks like you’re starting a new centre party. Would you like some help with that?

There used to be a distinct summer ‘silly season’ in British politics. Unfortunately, global warming and the catastrophic meltdown of most rational sense about politics in this country means we’re now living in a permanent silly season where ideas that would normally be laughed off are now taken utterly seriously. So, we have this:

Blair has publicly stressed that the institute will not become a new centrist political party. But in private, close allies admit that the idea of a new party emerging around the time of the next British general election is being seriously considered.

With Theresa May’s Conservative Party resolute in its hard Brexit stance, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn declining to offer resistance to the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU, and the Lib Dems a minuscule parliamentary force with just nine MPs, the question of whether a new party is needed to oppose Brexit has become a favorite topic in Westminster.

While the Lib Dems publicly eschew such talk, Farron was contacted last summer by a close ally of former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, who suggested the creation of a centrist party called “The Democrats,” the New Statesman reported. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, met with Blair in November, ahead of the creation of his new institute in March.

Like so many ideas associated with Blair, this one too has its roots abroad, this time in the remarkable and rapid ascent of Emmanuel Macron to frontrunner in the French Presidential election. In the past year, he’s jumped from the Socialist Party, set up his own movement (En Marche! – or, as Google Translate likes to call it, Walk!) and become very appealing to a population that’s become very tired of the old parties of left and right. (By the way, if he gets into power and disappoints his supporters with his education funding policies, I’ve already copyrighted ‘Nick Cloeuf’)

Of course, if Macron wasn’t there to be held up as the shining example, then the mantle of Great Centrist Role Model would have remained with Canada’s Justin Trudeau who took the Canadian Liberals from third place into majority government in 2015. Like Macron, Trudeau was an outsider if you squint hard enough – the son of a former Prime Minister, he’d eschewed a political career until a few years ago – but unlike him, had the advantage of becoming leader of a party that, while it was at a low ebb, had provided more Canadian Prime Ministers and governments than any other.

Somehow, these two pieces of electoral fortune outside of the UK have translated into a belief that what the British people are crying out for is a new centre party led by Tony Blair and George Osborne. Like a rushed undergrad essay, it’s making a big leap to some rather bold and unsupported conclusions, but it is based on some solid ground.

Voter left-right self positioning, 2015 BES
First, there’s the fact that the voters of Britain do tend to describe themselves as being generally quite centrist. The graph to the right here (from the 2015 British Election Study) shows how voters position themselves on a scale from 0 (left) to 10 (right), showing a marked peak in the centre and fewer and fewer voters the further you get from it. Second, there’s evidence to show that in Britain when the two main parties move away from the ideological centre, there’s an increase in support for the centre (see Nagel and Wlezien, 2010).

Obviously, people talking about setting up new centre parties is of great personal and academic interest to me, but the actual prospect of Blair, Osborne et al doing it doesn’t fill me with any great hopes for its success (even if they’re eminence grises, kept well away from the public spotlight). It feels to me as though they (and others) have spotted that there’s a gap in the electoral market and decided that it’s necessary to fill it without asking why no one’s come along to fill it already.

The first problem is that the term ‘centre party’ covers a wide range of different parties and proponents of one don’t seem to have any clue about which of them their party would be. We can probably assume it won’t be one of the old Scandinavian Centre parties which tied old agrarian parties in which the urban bourgeoisie, but are they looking at following the model of the Christian Democrat parties that sought to occupy the centre between extremes of right and left, or the various post-dictatorship Democratic Centre parties (like the one David Sanders advocated last year) that sought to rebuild the democratic foundations of a country, or are they looking towards the model of catch-all liberal parties that try to combine both right- and left-liberalism in the same party? They’re all commonly referred to as centre parties, but they have a very different approach to politics and come from different political circumstances. It’s all well and good talking about the need for a centre party, but what is that party actually going to stand for?

Second, there’s the problem that just saying ‘we’re going to create a new political party’ is just a tiny part of the process. One can set up a nice shiny office somewhere in London, pay someone to design you a nice logo, but political parties need people to function, especially in Britain. Not only do you need to recruit a membership, you need to find an activist base within that membership who’ll go and do all the donkey work of populating the institutions that make up a political party. The key driver of the RoadTrip 2015 campaign that’s got the Tories under such heavy investigation at the moment was the problem of getting actual feet on the ground to do campaigning in key constituencies. It’s all well and good having lots of people to make interesting graphs in your HQ, but who’s going to be calling members and supporters in Easthampton West to find out who’ll agree to do polling station telling on election day? The idea that a party might somehow ’emerge’ shortly before the next election ignores everything that’s involved with creating an actually functioning political party.

Third, there’s what you might call the SDP problem (and I deserve some sort of congratulations for going a thousand words into this without mentioning them): the British electoral system makes it ridiculously hard for a new party to break through into Parliament. There’s a catch-22 problem for all new parties: you’re going to need well over 20%, possibly 30% of the national vote share to make a significant breakthrough into Parliament, but unless you’ve made that breakthrough into Parliament, people aren’t going to think you’re credible enough to be worth voting for to get you that share of the vote that gives you a breakthrough. Otherwise you’ll be following the example of the Alliance in the 80s (and UKIP in 2015) in doing moderately well in a lot of seats, but winning next to none of them. As I’ve said before, being an equidistant centre party is good for winning votes and terrible at winning seats.

That’s three questions anyone wanting to set up a new centre party has to answer, just as a preliminary: What does your proposed party stand for? How are you going to build an actual party, not just an HQ? How are you going to win Parliamentary seats and not just accumulate wasted votes?

Once they’ve got the answers to those, then we can move on to the more important ones, like how are they going to actually work in the current British party system. But we’ll save the advanced questions until we’ve got answers to the basic ones.

Dear Liberal Reform, declaring something is ‘a solution’ doesn’t make it one

The Earth, greatly relieved at hearing all its problems have been solved.
Jimmy Carr has a joke about being stopped on the street by someone asking him ‘can you spare two minutes for cancer research?’ ‘Sure,’ he replies, ‘but I don’t think we’ll get much done.’

I suspect members of the Liberal Reform pressure group don’t get that joke, as going by their recent publication ‘The Environment: A Solution‘, they’re probably thinking about what they’d do with the thirty seconds they’d have left after curing all cancers. Yes, the brave minds at Liberal Reform (and despite this having only one author – Joe Otten – it’s presented as an official Liberal Reform publication, so they can all share the collective shame for it with him) have clearly spent whole minutes thinking about the environment and managed to solve the entire environment in under 17 pages, including title page, contents and footnote.

Yes, footnote singular. There is precisely one reference in the entire document. When I wrote about Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, I headlined the post as ‘citation needed’ to remark on just how little he backed up his assertions with any sources. Compared to this, Browne’s work was akin to a PhD thesis in its attention to facts and justification. Pretty much every paragraph involves at least one vaguely asserted idea, poorly researched fact, or blatant straw man summation of potential objection, and only one of them gets the privilege of a reference. Even more oddly, it’s for a tangential reference to how aircraft contrails have different atmospheric effects at different times of the day. Maybe I have a slightly fussy academic insistence on wanting people to actually evidence their arguments, but surely someone purporting to have solved the environment ought to be demonstrating that their study of the subject consists of a bit more reading than one article in Nature?

I admit that I’ve had training in many different types of quantitative and qualitative research methods in the social sciences, and I am currently writing this post while seated in an academic library, but some of the assertions in it are easily checked using that obscure research method known as JFGI. Using this method I find that where Liberal Reform have written “The ozone layer has been saved. Acid rain? What happened to that?”, current research suggests that ‘no it hasn’t‘, and ‘still a lingering problem, likely to be exacerbated if the Trump administration guts previous environmental protections’ are more accurate statements. It’s pure chance that I’m writing this on the day Thames Water gets fined £20m to make the assertion that ‘we have clean water’ look somewhat weaker than the author intended, but surely the fact that the richest country on Earth can have something like the Flint water crisis is perhaps evidence that things aren’t as rosy for everyone.

This lack of engagement with any actual evidence permeates the entire piece. The widely understood phenomenon of induced demand (building roads creates more traffic) is dismissed as ‘anti-car environmentalism’, while any attempts to point out that issues might be linked are dismissed as ‘holistic (i.e. woolly) thinking’. There’s no attempt to engage with any contradictory ideas, no desire to go out and look at what other people have discovered, thought or written, but instead there’s pure bloke-in-the-pub certainty that they can all be dismissed with a contemptuous handwave and the certainty of Liberal Reform’s reckon can substitute for all of them.

And in the end, what is the solution to the environment? Well, apparently governments should do something about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we should stop releasing so much pollution into the atmosphere to improve air quality, and we definitely should do something to protect the natural environment but not so much that it damages the economy and development. In other words, Something Must Be Done. If only all those moaning environmentalists had realised that the solution to all their problems was merely deciding that someone must Do Something, then we could have sorted out the environment years ago. I eagerly await future publications in this series from Liberal Reform, and having solved the environment, might I suggest taking the bold step of tackling war next? The world is surely crying out for a recommendation that if we all stopped fighting then we wouldn’t have wars any more. With that sorted, I’m sure Liberal Reform will be able to spend those couple of minutes they have free finding a cure for cancer.

Three party constituency tri-points

Following the forthcoming resignation of Jamie Reed from the Commons, there’ll be a by-election coming soon in the Copeland constituency. As someone who regularly visits the Lake District I was curious about what the full boundaries of the constituency were, both to scope out the potential for an excuse for a quick holiday campaigning hard in the by-election and to work out what would be the highest represented point in England in the period when Copeland, which includes Scafell Pike, has no MP. The answer to that is the summit of Helvellyn, which forms part of the boundary between Copeland and Penrith and the Border (represented by Rory Stewart).

I discovered something interesting while looking at that border – when I went up Helvellyn a couple of years ago, it seems the route we took up (following the stream from Dunmail Raise to Grisedale Taren, then over Dollywagon Pike and Nethermost Pike) first followed the boundary between Copeland and Westmorland and Lonsdale, then the boundary between Copeland and Penrith and the Border, which means that around where the two pictures above were taken was the tripoint where all three constituencies meet. The first picture is the view down the stream towards Dunmail Raise, so the left hand side of it is the Liberal Democrat gold of Tim Farron’s Westmorland and Lonsdale, while the right is the bright Labour red of Copeland. The second is Grisedale Tarn, in the true blue lands of Penrith and the Border.

But that got me thinking: while there are obviously plenty of tripoints where constituencies meet (and I’m sure someone will tell me if there’s a quadpoint anywhere in Britain), how many of them are places represented by three different parties like this one. From what I can work out (and I’m open to corrections) this is what I found:

Scotland: none. Despite having four parties holding seats, the three non-SNP seats don’t border on each other and even when Dumfries and Galloway touches a non-SNP seat at the border, it’s also Conservative-held (Penrith and the Border).

Northern Ireland: Eight of them, helped by having several parties in Parliament. I’m also not sure if there’s a quadpoint in the centre of Belfast, which would have been four-party between 2010 and 2015 but is only three party now.

  • Foyle (SDLP), Londonderry E (DUP) and W Tyrone (Sinn Fein)
  • Mid-Ulster (Sinn Fein), Antrim North (DUP) and Antrim South (UUP)
  • Antrim South (UUP), North Belfast (DUP) and West Belfast (Sinn Fein)
  • West Belfast (Sinn Fein), South Belfast (SDLP) and North Belfast (DUP)
  • South Belfast (SDLP), West Belfast (Sinn Fein) and Lagan Valley (DUP)
  • South Down (SDLP), Newry and Armagh (Sinn Fein) and Upper Bann (DUP)
  • Fermanagh and South Tyrone (UUP), Mid-Ulster (Sinn Fein) and Upper Bann (DUP)
  • Fermanagh and South Tyrone (UUP), Newry and Armagh (Sinn Fein) and Upper Bann (DUP)
  • UPDATE: Thanks to Nicholas Whyte for clarification that Belfast has two tripoints rather than one quadpoint:

    Wales: Seven seats, all involving Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives.

  • Dwyfor Merionedd (Plaid Cymru), Clwyd South (Labour) and Clwyd West (Conservative)
  • Dwyfor Merionedd (Plaid Cymru), Clwyd South (Labour) and Montgomeryshire (Conservative)
  • Dwyfor Merionedd (Plaid Cymru), Ceredigion (Liberal Democrat) and Montgomeryshire (Conservative)
  • Ceredigion (Liberal Democrat), Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Plaid Cymru) and Preseli Pembrokeshire (Conservative)
  • Ceredigion (Liberal Democrat), Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Plaid Cymru) and Brecon and Radnorshire (Conservative)
  • Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Plaid Cymru), Llanelli (Labour) and Gower (Conservative)
  • Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Plaid Cymru), Neath (Labour) and Gower (Conservative)
  • England: Despite having a lot more seats than the other three nations, there are only eleven in England, because so many seats are held by the Tories and Labour. Two of the seats held by other parties (Norfolk North and Clacton) are wholly surrounded by Tory seats.

  • Copeland (Labour), Westmorland and Lonsdale (Liberal Democrat) and Penrith and the Border (Conservative)
  • Leeds North West (Liberal Democrat), Pudsey (Conservative) and Leeds West (Labour)
  • Leeds North West (Liberal Democrat), Leeds North East (Labour) and Elmet and Rothwell (Conservative)
  • Sheffield Hallam (Liberal Democrat), Penistone and Stocksbridge (Labour) and High Peak (Conservative)
  • Sheffield Hallam (Liberal Democrat), Derbyshire Dales (Conservative) and Derbyshire North East (Labour)
  • Southport (Liberal Democrat), South Ribble (Conservative) and Lancashire West (Labour)
  • Richmond Park (Liberal Democrat), Brentford and Isleworth (Labour) and Twickenham (Conservative)
  • Richmond Park (Liberal Democrat), Hammersmith (Labour) and Chelsea and Fulham (Conservative)
  • Carshalton and Wallington (Liberal Democrat), Sutton and Cheam (Conservative) and Mitcham and Morden (Labour)
  • Carshalton and Wallington (Liberal Democrat), Croydon North (Labour) and Croydon South (Conservative)
  • Brighton Pavilion (Green), Hove (Labour) and Arundel and South Downs (Conservative)
  • So there we are. Twenty-six tripoints in total, which means I have another twenty-five to visit if I want to complete the set, though not quite sure how to visit the two Richmond Park ones, which are in the middle of the Thames.

    Update (February 2017): The tripoint that inspired this post no longer exists following the Copeland by-election, but a new one has been (re)born to replace it.

    New US Presidential trivia

    Chester A Arthur, possibly the least experienced President to date.
    Chester A Arthur, possibly the least experienced President to date.
    Because I’m still sorting out my serious thoughts since the US election, here’s a couple of bits of new Presidential trivia that Trump will create:

    Trump will be the seventh US President to have not held any elected office before winning a national election. The previous six were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant, Chester A Arthur, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower. Of those six, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower were all generals, Arthur was a Vice-President who became President and Taft and Coolidge were both Cabinet secretaries before being elected. Arthur is the only one without any real federal-level political experience upon becoming President, having been involved in New York Republican politics before being brought in to balance the ticket with Garfield and then becoming President after just six months as Vice-President.

    In short, Trump is a massive outlier in terms of pre-Presidential experience.

    The other bit of trivia (and coincidence) is about his wife. Melania Trump will be the first First Lady to be born outside the US since Louisa Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams). Her husband is the only President to date to have followed three consecutive two-term Presidents (Jefferson, Madison and Monroe). Assuming Obama makes it to the end of his second term in January, Trump will be the second (following Clinton, GW Bush and Obama). To add to the coincidence, both those periods were preceded by a two-term President being succeeded by his Vice-President for a single term (Washington and Adams, Reagan and GHW Bush). This coincidence led me to predict a Jeb Bush presidency four years ago having decided that ‘son of the one term President’ was the important factor in history repeating, rather than ‘having a wife born outside the US’.

    Those of you looking for a silver lining will take heart in the fact that, like his father, John Quincy Adams only served a single term in office. Those of you expecting it all to get worse will likely note that he was succeeded by Andrew Jackson.

    On democracy and dull politics

    Spot the tweeting councillor (picture via Colchester Chronicle)
    Spot the tweeting councillor (picture via Colchester Chronicle)
    Walking home from the Council meeting on Thursday night I was struck with the initial idea for this blog post. The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting was a pretty light one- the one big contentious motion had been withdrawn from the agenda, so the only things we’d be voting on would be a set of policies that had been reviewed at the last meeting of the Governance and Audit Committee. The Governance Committee is no one’s idea of a glamorous assignment within the Council, dealing as it does with looking at the council’s internal policies on areas such as health and safety, risk management and ethical governance, as well as approving the audit procedures for the Council’s accounts. Apart from those times when it has to decide on any complaints about councillors, it’s usually the committee that has the least number of journalists writing about it or members of the public speaking or attending.

    Which is nothing unusual. Almost any democratic system has something like the Governance Committee within it, and it’s likely to be one of the dullest parts of that system, as its main work is reviewing procedures and checking they’re right, again and again, and no matter where the system is, there are normally lots of procedures that have to be reviewed to check they’re working correctly, and none of them ever make headlines until they go wrong, at which point everyone demands to know why they weren’t working properly. (The answer to that is often ‘we wanted to review them, but you said it was too dull’)

    The point is that these sort of items on the Council agenda might seem dull and pointless to the social media peanut gallery but they’re an important part of actually running a democratic organisation. Yes, they’re dull, but there’s a case to be made that you should be glad they’re dull because when basic issues of how everything is run become contentious and the focus of angry debates, you’re likely wandering into the space where the operation of democracy is having some problems.

    Which is just about where I’d written this post in my head, probably to be consigned to the ever increasing file of things I don’t have the time to write up and post. Then we had the last day and a half of the ongoing clown car crash into a dumpster fire that is British politics in 2016. Just when you think we can’t limbo down any further in our attempts to show the world just how degenerate we’re becoming, we now have newspapers damning High Court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ because the tabloids have a set of creeping fascism bingo cards and they’re determined to cross off every box on them by Christmas. Even by the standards of this year, watching judges be criticised for upholding the power and sovereignty of Parliament against an executive wanting to use power unchecked is utterly bizarre, and even more when it’s coming from people who normally find it hard to say twenty words without shouting ‘Magna Carta!’

    Without wanting to sound so jumped up on my own self-importance that I compare myself to a High Court judge, it strikes me that there is a common root to Wednesday’s yawns of boredom and Thursday’s howls of rage. Democracy, at its heart, is a collection of systems and processes and rules that can be applied objectively ranging from the national constitution right down to the question of how a council selects its auditors. The point of the rules is to ensure that power is not exercised arbitrarily, that there’s a body of rules – the law – we can all point to as the agreed way things will be settled. Now, we might (and often do) disagree on what those rules are, and what things they might apply to, and we might disagree about how those rules are defined and who gets to write and review them, but one of the benefits of having had this system for a long time is that we’ve come up with rules to help determine how we deal with these disputes. Sometimes we decide them through elections, sometimes we decide them through taking them to a court, but they’re all part of the same overall process of democracy.

    It strikes me that one of the reasons people are getting so angry about judges doing their jobs is that we’ve forgotten that democracy isn’t an event, it’s a system and a process. ‘We had a vote, it’s been decided, that’s democracy!’ and the like get repeated ad nauseam at the moment as though all that matters in democracy is the voting, not the rest of system that surrounds the voting, or the reasons we have regular and repeated votes in the first place. the world is a complex place, and decisions can rarely be reduced to simple binary choices with no further consequences. Sure, there are other ways to deal with that complexity other than complex democracy but they all tend to mean getting rid of an agreed upon set of rules in favour of making decisions by the arbitrary fiat of a small group or individual, none of which have been more successful in dealing with the complexity of the world than democracy.

    It all comes back to another part of Wednesday night, in the public Have Your Say section. One of the people talking there was Autumn from a new group called Teen Speech, wanting to get more political education into schools, and to give young people the skills and knowledge they need to understand how the system actually works. We’re very good at telling the world how wonderful our democracy it is, but very very bad at actually making sure people who live here understand how it works and what it means. Democracy needs an informed population who understand what’s going on to work properly, and too much of what happens – not just over the last few months, but throughout my life – shows that we don’t have that. And yes, learning about how the government works can be dull, but I’d be much rather be living in a time when things are dull because they’re working fine than incredibly interesting because everything’s collapsing all around us.

    Making Colchester Council meetings better for the public

    One of my roles on Colchester Council is being deputy chair of the Governance and Audit Committee, which is almost as thrilling a role as it sounds. It’s one of those jobs – checking that the council’s operations are running correctly, and that the finances are properly audited – that’s necessary for good government and democracy, but doesn’t usually generate headlines and vast public interest when it goes right.

    One task the committee is dealing with this year is hopefully of more interest than our usual agenda though: reviewing how the Council runs meetings and our ways of working. The committee is looking at four different themes in order to identify ways in which we can improve the way the public democratic functions of the Council are carried out:

  • Improvement of public participation at meetings
  • Making public meetings more accessible and engaging for residents
  • Make the way we work more flexible to improve the opportunity for an increased diversity of councillors
  • Offer councillors a more efficient way of working through better use of new technology
  • So, what I want to know is: what do you think we should be doing? If you’ve been to a council meeting before, what did you like and not like about it as a member of the public? What parts did and didn’t make sense? If you’ve never been to one, what might make you attend one, or interact with it in some other way? More generally, what can we do as a council to improve the way our democratic processes interact with the public?

    haveyoursayOne thing I do want to flag up here is the Council’s Have Your Say system, which gives members of the public to right to speak at all Council meetings, either on the topics on the agenda, or on more general items. (Click on the image to the right for a breakdown of how it was used at different meetings in 2015/16) Are people aware this exists and how to use it? Would you want to see it expanded in some way or used in different ways?

    If you’ve got views on these questions or any other issues related to the review, then please let me know about them (either here, on Twitter, on Facebook or via email) so I can feed them back into the committee – or come along yourself and speak about them (there were no public speakers at all for the Governance Committee in 2015/16, so help us break that duck). The meeting’s next Tuesday at 6pm in the Grand Jury Room at the Town Hall.

    A theory in progress: Managerial vs transformative politics

    More new ideas will lead to the Political Compass folding itself into the higher dimensions.
    More new ideas will lead to the Political Compass folding itself into the higher dimensions.
    So, this is a rough outline for an idea I’ve had about how to understand and interpret some bits of British politics. I’d appreciate any comments on it, just to know if it’s worth thinking and working on further, or if it needs to go onto the great pile of big ideas that didn’t work.

    Beyond the more obviously ideological axes we arrange politicians and parties along (left-right, authoritarian-libertarian etc) I think there’s also an axis on a scale I’d refer to as managerial-transformative. (Another name would be conservative-radical, but I’ve tried to go for something more neutral, and less confusing, as we shall see)

    Managerial politics are based on improving things as they currently are through processes of gradual reform. It’s not a blind acceptance of a status quo, with no desire to change it, but more a belief that surface level reform of a situation is enough to make it work better. It presents itself to the public as a vision of competence – the idea behind ‘valence politics‘ – saying that the basic system is fine, it just needs to be run better than it is now.

    Transformative politics, on the other hand. say that the system needs to be radically altered in order to achieve anything. This could be because the system was designed badly in the first place, or has just become unsuited to present times and conditions. Transformative politics are about bringing in a whole new way of doing things, not just making small changes to the old system. It presents itself to the public as a change and a break in the existing order of things.

    It’s worth noting that these are an axis, not two alternatives. Politicians and ideas can tend to one side or the other and have different opinions on different subjects, though there is a general tendency in which side people present themselves as being overall.

    Until historically recently, British politics had followed a rough pattern of alternation between the two poles. Managerialists would run the system until the problems within it became too much for it to continue, at which point power would be won by the transformatives, who would bring in a raft of changes to the system in order to renew and refresh it, be it the Great Reform Act or the NHS. After a while, though, they’d run out of things to transform – or start transforming things that didn’t need it – and they’d lose power to those who would now come in on a promise to manage the new system better than they did (in some cases, these would be the same people who’d managed the old system, but had since accepted the change and were happy to manage it).

    The problems we face now stem from this system starting to break down in the 1960s and 70s. Up to that point, the Tories (and their ancestors) had generally been the party of managerialism, while Labour (and before them, the Liberals) had been the party of transformation (in this case, bringing in ‘the white hear of technology’). However, the Tories of the 70s, instead of promising to manage Labour’s changes better than they could adopted transformative ideas of their own – Heath’s ‘Selsdon Man’ and then Thatcherism. This led to the confusion of 70s politics, with Wilson and then Callaghan trying to sort out the mess they inherited, rather than pushing transformative ideas of their own. This then led to the full switch of Thatcher’s government bringing in big changes to the system, followed by Major’s attempts to maintain them and finally Blair being elected. Blair represents both both the end result of the switch that began thirty years before – a managerialist claim to be able to run the changed system better than its creators – and a switch back to the old system, promising to make radical changes to the system. Is the failure of New Labour down to people thinking they were getting something transformative, and instead ending up with something managerial?

    The problem we have now is that just about every party now contains a mix of managerialists and transformatives. They can sit in similar positions on the conventional political scales, but are radically opposed on the managerialist-transformative one. However, because our political system is still built on the idea that there’ll be a steady oscillation between the two poles of that axis, things have started going wrong on a more frequent basis. In some areas, new ideas get piled on top of new ideas, with no time between them for them to be managed and allowed to bed in, while others remain stuck in the same mindset they’ve had for decades or more, no one willing to break away from the managerialist consensus.

    So, that’s the rough shape of my idea – is it worth exploring further, utterly pointless, or have I just reinvented a wheel that someone else had already explained with much more detail and accuracy?