What You Can Get Away With » Britain

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 What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated?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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Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Colchester Gazette in my new role as group leader. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the article online, but as I own a copy of the paper, a pair of scissors and a scanner, here it is:
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You can click on the image to see it in a readable size. The headline wasn’t exactly something I said, but otherwise I think it generally reflects the conversation I had with James.

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As the Gazette is reporting it, it must be official – I’m the new leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Colchester Borough Council.

First, the thanks – thanks to the group for backing me and selecting me as their leader, and thanks to my predecessor as group leader, Councillor Paul Smith, for the work he did during his time in the role. It’s a big role to take on, and I’m glad that they see me as the best person to do the job and take the group forward.

As leader, I want to change and improve the way we communicate with the people of Colchester. The election results from last week – and especially the low turnouts – are a message to all politicians of all parties that we need to do much better at listening to people. This means us getting out on the doorstep even more than we do now, but also expanding the way we use other methods of communications. I’ll be continuing to use this blog, my existing Twitter accounts and my Facebook page, but look out for more of that coming along over the coming months.

This isn’t about us coming out to tell you how wonderful we are, but about finding out what needs fixing in your street or in your neighbourhood, and how you want to see the borough developing in the next five, ten or twenty years. I want to show that our liberal values and principles can deliver the Colchester that people want to see, that we’ve got a vision for the future of the borough that people share.

Hopefully, I’ll have many more posts on these themes over the next few months, looking for your views on various areas, but if you’ve got any questions for me, then ask them here, on twitter or facebook, or by email, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you feel like coming along on the journey with me, you can always join us…

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These are the results for Colchester in the Essex County Council elections. Full results can be found on the Essex County Council website.

Abbey: Lib Dem (Margaret Fisher) 1273, UKIP 786, Labour 519, Green 467, Conservative 395. LD hold
Constable: Conservative (Anne Brown) 2075, UKIP 1471, Labour 504, Green 387, Lib Dem (Carolyn Catney) 303. Con hold.
Drury: Conservative (Sue Lissimore) 1957, Lib Dem (Nick Cope) 1127, UKIP 951, Labour 527, Green 314. Con hold.
Maypole: Labour (Dave Harris) 1665, Lib Dem (Lyn Barton) 933, UKIP 573, Conservative 475, Green 143. Labour gain from Lib Dem.
Mersea and Tiptree: Conservative (John Jowers) 1913, UKIP 1134, Labour 629, Green 216, Lib Dem (Gill Collings) 181. Con hold.
Mile End and Highwoods: Lib Dem (Anne Turrell) 1417, Conservative 888, UKIP 725, Labour 408, Green 180. Lib Dem hold.
Parsons Heath and East Gates: Lib Dem (Theresa Higgins) 1259, UKIP 809, Conservative 609, Labour 489, Green 192. Lib Dem hold.
Stanway and Pyefleet: Conservative (Kevin Bentley) 1723, UKIP 929, Lib Dem (Jessica Scott-Boutell) 829, Labour 491, Green 247. Conservative hold.
Wivenhoe St Andrew: Labour (Julie Young) 1895, UKIP 599, Conservative 562, Lib Dem (Shaun Boughton) 383, Green 248. Labour hold.