What You Can Get Away With » World

By not simply crossing the floor at Westminster to join UKIP, but resigning and calling a by-election to do it, has he now set a precedent for any other Tory MPs who want to do the same? The last MP to do that for a defection was Bruce Douglas-Mann switching from Labour to the SDP in 1982 (and he lost), and MPs who’ve done it since then haven’t followed his example.

However, if there are any other Tories thinking of doing the same (and there probably are), they’ll be watching what happens in Clacton very intently as they know that if they want to switch, they’ll face lots of questions about why they’re not calling a by-election too. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Carswell has found a way to establish himself as UKIP’s only MP (with the resulting media profile) should he win and if no one else wants to take the same risk.

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It seems that someone supports Boris’s proposal to make people guilty until proven innocent:

Britain’s most senior police chief has called for wide-ranging new powers to tackle homegrown terrorism, including a “rebuttable presumption” that anyone who visits Syria without prior notice should be treated as a terror suspect.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, chief constable of the Metropolitan police, also called for a return of control orders and said Britons who wage jihad in Syria or Iraq should be stripped of their passports.

When did we become a country where it’s acceptable for senior police officers, speaking in an official capacity, to call for fundamental changes in the law? And what made Bernard Hogan-Howe think it would be a good idea to do this on the same day he had to apologise for the Met breaking it’s own rules in using CS gas against lawful protesters?

But at least we have Police and Crime Commissioners to hold a senior officer like Hogan-Howe accountable. Except London doesn’t have a PCC, instead the Met are held accountable by the Mayor. Yes, the same Mayor Hogan-Howe has just been publicly supporting the proposals of…

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police_electionsWe often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.

Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.

This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.

Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.

(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)

The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ‘embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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Just to let you know that Colchester Council’s 2014 Trees For Years giveaway will be taking place on Saturday February 1st from 10am at Rowan House. Borough residents and community groups will be able to get free trees and shrubs from a variety of different species to help green the borough a little more. For more information, click here.

As you may have heard by now, Colchester Borough Council’s Planning Committee voted last night to reject the latest proposal for Jumbo. I was at the meeting and spoke against the plans, so I’m glad the committee agreed with me, but I thought I would expand on my views here.

Firstly, I would recommend reading this blog post by architect Hana Loftus on the proposals, which sets out some very good arguments against them.

We always have to be careful about falling into what Yes, Minister called the politician’s fallacy: Something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. I think everyone agrees that we’d like to see a new use for Jumbo, especially one that opens up the water tank and belvedere as a public space, but that doesn’t mean that any plan that does that in some way is necessarily a good one. My problem with this proposal was that the public access and usage that was proposed seemed very much an afterthought, and was not the centrepiece of the scheme.

As proposed, the scheme would have glazed the arches between the legs, allowing the open space there to be filled in with offices, apartments and a restaurant, while the tank would have been converted into a museum space. The problem for me is that while the application talked about creating a restaurant and museum, there was very little detail on what they would be, and what detail there was wasn’t very convincing. To quote from English Heritage’s response to the proposals:

If the establishment of a museum is to be regarded as a public benefit, It must be more thoroughly defined than this, and it must be secured by legally enforceable means.

However, instead of detailed plans about what could go into the space and information about groups and people who’d be interested in running the museum space, there were only vague promises and a sketchy business plan based on assumptions that hadn’t been scrutinised or challenged. Further to that, the application was only guaranteeing 90 days public access a year to that space and the space itself would not become a public or charitable asset, instead remaining in the possession of the owner of the building. If the plans had been approved last night, there would have been nothing to stop a future owner of Jumbo coming back to get permission to turn the public spaces into further apartments claiming public use was now ‘unviable’ – and with the principle of development already conceded, those proposals would have a good chance of succeeding.

The problem for me is that we were being asked to surrender the iconic status of Jumbo by filling in the legs in return for what might only be a fleeting benefit, if it was of any benefit at all. A Jumbo that’s open to all and a community asset is one thing, and quite different from one that’s become effectively a block of flats.

What I have been cheered by is that the proposal and the discussion its caused in the local community does seem to have emboldened people to take some action and start talking about other visions for Jumbo and how it could find a genuine community use. The important fact is that Jumbo is not in danger of falling down any time soon – indeed, it stood up to Monday’s winds much better than some other local buildings did – and the Council now needs to ensure that the owner meets his responsibilities for a listed building and keeps it maintained.

I want to see Jumbo being used as an asset for the community and Colchester, but I want it to be with the right plans, not simply the plans that have been submitted right now.

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If you fancy the prospect of working with me, Sir Bob Russell MP and other Liberal Democrats in Colchester, then you might want to look at this job advert for a new organiser and parliamentary assistant.

Fracking

I’ve had a number of residents contact me recently regarding fracking, and whether there’ll be any taking place in the Colchester area. Having looked into the issue, it looks very unlikely that there’ll be any taking place in East Anglia, as the geology of this area means it’s very unlikely to contain any shale gas – or, at least, any significant amounts that would be economically viable to explore for and extract.

However, if someone decided they wanted to try, they’d have to first get themselves approved by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to explore and extract gas. A license to do so in this area would then have to be granted by Essex County Council who are responsible for minerals extraction – this normally involves quarrying in this area, but would include other mining operations if someone wanted to try them – and finally, Colchester Borough Council would have to grant planning permission for any surface works involved in the operation. So, even if there were deposits here that might be accessible by fracking, there’d be plenty of opportunities for the public to have their say before anything began.

As for the principle of fracking itself, I’m still waiting to see something conclusive from the evidence. As I understand it, burning gas for power produces fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal or oil for the equivalent amount of power, but the supposed cost benefits of shale gas are not likely to be that great – from what I’ve read, gas prices dropped in the US after shale gas production started because it’s mostly separate from the global gas market, so a surge in production there affected the domestic price. However, the UK and Europe are an integral part of that market, so increases in production won’t have as big an effect on the overall market price. There’s also the question of what effect such production has on the local environment.

However, beyond those considerations, there’s the global effect of continuing to extract carbon-based fuels from the ground and release that carbon into the atmosphere. This article provides a good overview of how we’re heading for a massive overshoot of carbon targets, and even if gas does release less carbon than oil or coal, if the oil and coal it displaces in the short term is still burnt, then it all goes into the atmosphere in the long run. For me, it seems that fracking is a minor distraction in the wider vision of how we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release before it’s far too late.

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In memory of Mel Smith

Possibly the only Alas Smith and Jones sketch to involve Colchester:

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Just a short post to let people know that Colchester Liberal Democrats now have our own page on Facebook, which should have plenty of updates and discussion from our council group. If you want to like it and get updates from us, then click here and don’t forget there are also pages for Sir Bob Russell and a certain Cllr Nick Barlow.

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