Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

George Monbiot in today’s Guardian brings us the news that David Cameron has been writing to the leader of Oxfordshire County Council to complain about the council’s reduction in services. Probably unsure if he had an actual letter from the Prime Minister or a very clever hoaxer, the leader replied with a careful explanation of how strapped for cash OCC is, as is much of local government thanks to the cumulative effect of funding changes since 2010.

What strikes me most about Cameron’s letter, though, is the way it regurgitates the spin Eric Pickles used to spout about how councils can mitigate the effects of the cuts. Pickles’ time as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was particularly fruitful in prompting posts for this blog, but did very little for local government. Pickles came into office with a vision of local government as something bloated and inefficient that was nothing more than all the worst nightmares of Taxpayers Alliance propaganda come to life, where massive office complexes were heated by diversity officers burning stacks of £50 notes, their work overseen by council meetings that were fuelled by expensive teas flown in from China and hand-made golden biscuits. This fuelled his belief that cuts in council budgets would be easy to make, exemplified in his 50 money saving ideas for local government.

Cameron’s letter comes from the same place, completely divorced from the reality of councils (like most senior politicians, he has no experience in local government) but instead accepting the man in Whitehall (in this case, whichever SpAd at DCLG actually wrote the letter) knows best. That’s why we hear talk of how the council can find savings through efficiencies, cuts in the back office and joint working, completely ignoring the fact that these are all things that councils have already done and have been doing for years. I can recall being at the LGA Conference in 2008 and seeing a message on a comments board there saying ‘if efficiency savings were so easy, we’d be doing them already’ but it seems the impression at the heart of government still remains that councils are full of potential savings that they just can’t be bothered to make.

I’d hoped that the government’s attitude would change after Eric Pickles was found a nice sinecure well away from the Cabinet table, but Cameron’s letter shows his attitudes still remain there. Local government’s still seen as something that should get on with the job of doing what the centre tells it, not having any opinions of its own about what it might be able to achieve. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s busy believing his own spin, even when the reality is staring him in the face.

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'Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on...'

‘Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on…’

The Twitter account Majorsrise is currently marking the upcoming 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister by tweeting in real-time the various bits of news and political intrigue that led up to it. It’s a fascinating look back at a period that still seems recent to me, but is now very much a different time. It’s interesting to watch the events play out as what now seems inevitable to us clearly wasn’t at the time, and at this point – just a couple of weeks before her resignation – speculation was about when the next election would be, not who might be the Prime Minister at the end of the month.

Let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that she manages to survive the challenge of Michael Heseltine in the leadership election. There are a number of ways this could happen such as her appointing a better campaign manager than Peter Morrison, or Heseltine saying something ill-advised in the run-up to the vote that could leave her secure as party leader and Prime Minister, at least for the short term. (It’s worth remembering that she beat Heseltine in the vote, but fell short of the majority she needed to avoid a second ballot)

The Tories were already recovering from their polling lows under her leadership (see Anthony Wells’ graphs from the period) and there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have received a similar popularity boost to John Major’s after the First Gulf War was completed. Would she have had the courage to do what Major didn’t do and try to ride that wave of popularity into an election in April or May of 1991? We know now that the polling from that period was inaccurately overstating Labour support and underestimating Conservative support, so the potential would be there for her to win an unprecedented fourth successive election. However, whatever the result, what follows is interesting to consider:

A fourth Thatcher victory – military victory making voters ignore their problems with her – opens up a couple of possible outcomes, probably dependent on the size of the majority. Something like Major’s 1992 majority would probably force her to be more magnanimous in victory and bring Heseltine back into the Cabinet, possibly with a plan for her to step down in 1993 or 1994. A victory closer to the existing majority, however, could be seen as vindication heralding a swing to the right.

An election defeat – military victory not enough to overcome voters’ doubts about her and the Tories – not only brings Neil Kinnock to Downing Street, but makes things very different for the Tories in the future. Losing an election allows Heseltine to say ‘I told you so’ and take the leadership when she inevitably steps down but also neutralises the Thatcherite brand for a while as it’s proven to be fallible at the ballot box.

Finally, a hung Parliament likely gives Paddy Ashdown an ‘instrument of excruciating torture’ from the electorate nineteen years before Nick Clegg. Twenty or so Liberal Democrats are just as likely to be victims of electoral circumstance and find that they can only give stability to one party in Parliament, but could he lead his party into coalition with either Thatcher or Kinnock, and would gaining twenty MPs be enough of a boon to either to make them want to try?

What do you think would have happened if Thatcher had survived Heseltine’s challenge?

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From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.

From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.

Since David Cameron’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term as Prime Minister, a lot of ink and electrons have been used to analyse everything any senior Tory politician does in the light of their upcoming leadership battle. This was particularly evident at the recent conference when journalists were lining up to proclaim the next leadership battle would be between George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May.

The history of Tory leaders, especially since they began to be elected rather than emerging from the ‘magic circle’ of party grandees, suggests that this might not be the case. We’re probably around three years or so away from that leadership election taking place and that gives plenty of times for new faces to rise. Indeed, looking at previous Tory leaders, very few of them would have expected to become leader or Prime Minister three years before it happened.

Edward Heath was the first Tory leader to be directly elected by MPs and while his defeat of Reginald Maudling was something of a shock, he had perhaps the highest profile of any Tory leader three years before election, sitting in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal in charge of negotiations to join the EEC, having previously been Chief Whip.

Margaret Thatcher was also a member of the Cabinet three years before her election, serving as Secretary of State for Education but I think it’s fair to say that she wasn’t considered a possibility as a future leader, not least because ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher’ was still fresh in people’s minds.

John Major’s rise was swift. Three years before he became leader, he’d just been appointed to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but was generally overlooked in discussions of future Tory leaders, which looked more towards the big beasts both inside and outside the Cabinet.

William Hague hadn’t even made it to the Cabinet three years before he became leader, still serving as a Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. He’d become Secretary of State for Wales in 1995 after John Redwood’s resignation, but even when he stood for the leadership, the focus was on other candidates.

Iain Duncan Smith had been a rebellious backbencher during the Major government, but was brought into Hague’s shadow cabinet. Three years before he became leader, he was shadow social security secretary, but future leadership attention was focused on characters like Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo (both of whom he’d defeat in 2001).

Michael Howard had been considered a future leader before but three years before he actually got the job he wasn’t in the front line of politics, having returned to the backbenches from the shadow cabinet in 1999.

Finally, David Cameron jumped from backbencher to party leader in three years. In 2002, he was part of the Home Affairs Select Committee and discussing drug decriminalisation still a good few months away from being given a frontbench role and two years away from his first seat at the shadow cabinet table.

As I’ve noted before, all political trends have a tendency to be great predictors of the future right up until the moment they fail spectacularly (ask anyone who was sure Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win) and this could be the Tory leadership election that breaks the trend of relative outsiders defeating the more established candidates. However, the Tories do seem to go to outsider or rapidly rising candidates much more than the other parties have in the past, and it’s entirely possible that the same may apply when their next leadership contest comes around. Consider that the current leading candidates will all be under intense scrutiny while trying to maximise their exposure, which could well lead to both MPs and party members becoming weary at the sight of them, let alone the prospect of them leading the party for several years.

A candidate who can present themselves as a relative outsider or newcomer but with some experience at the top could, with the right timing, develop a real momentum heading into the election that could take them past their overly-exposed senior colleagues. Who it might be, I don’t know, and there’s the possibility that a fluke could propel someone to prominence at the right time, but I’d look at some of those in the lower=profile Cabinet positions or just making their way up the ranks as Ministers of State. History suggests one of them is more likely to make it to the top than someone currently high profile.

Another week in Parliament which means another week where our “independent-minded” MP has steadfastly agreed with whatever the whips tell him to do. This included Monday’s vote on the “Tampon Tax” (removing VAT from women’s sanitary products), but he’s provided a detailed explanation as to why he didn’t vote for it (original Facebook post here).

It’s a long post that meanders around making digs at the EU, claims that the content of the motion wasn’t deliverable and praise for the minister involved, and it all sounds like a reasoned and well-meaning way to explain his vote, until you look at the actual motion he voted against. It reads:

“(1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement on his strategy to negotiate with the European Union institutions an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products.

(2) A Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a report on progress at achieving an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products within European Union law by 1 April 2016.”

That’s it (you can see it here). It doesn’t mandate any actual change in Britain’s laws, but merely asks that the Chancellor explain his strategy for negotiating an exemption and for a minister to make a statement on it sometime in the next six months. So, when Quince writes:

However, this amendment was not deliverable. Parliament cannot make the change on its own. We need all EU states to agree to this change. Why vote for something that is non-deliverable? I think it diminishes respect for Parliamentary votes.

He’s either misunderstood or is misrepresenting the content of the motion he voted against. The motion doesn’t ask Parliament to make the change, it merely requests that the Chancellor include the issue in his negotiations with the EU and report back to Parliament on how that negotiation is progressing. He then tells us:

In responding to the amendment, the Finance Minister (David Gauke MP) made it clear to the House of Commons that he would be taking this issue to the European Commission and other member states to make the case for zero rating. When we have the same goal, why tie the hands of our Ministers and restrict their ability to achieve what we are all aiming for?

He doesn’t bother to explain how the motion would have tied the hands of any ministers, unless he believes that the basic level of accountability involved in telling Parliament how things are going is a hugely onerous burden. Indeed, if the Minister really is sincere in saying that he’ll be making the case, why were the Government whipping their MPs to vote against this motion which merely asks them to do what they’re already doing?

Where's Will this week?

Where’s Will this week?

It seems our MP has yet again forgotten that being “independent-minded” doesn’t mean anything unless you’re prepared to act on it, not do as you’re told then try to explain you way out of it when you’re called on it. But he got to be on TV behind David Cameron again this week, so I’m sure he’s happy.


Back during the General Election our then Conservative candidate said this to the local paper:

Which of your parties specific policies do you LEAST agree with?
Will Quince (CONSERVATIVE): “I PLEDGE to be an independent-minded MP and will always put my constituents first. If that means voting against my party, then so be it. There will always be difficult decisions to take but I will never forget that the people of Colchester are my boss.”

As I noted at the time, this was a prime example of not actually answering the question. Rather than actually mentioning Tory policies he disagrees with (of which I’m not convinced there are any), there’s instead a pledge without substance to be ‘independent-minded’.

Maybe I’m being harsh to him. Maybe he has actually been voting against the Tory whip in support of his constituents. After all, he does say they are his boss. So when 5,000 families in Colchester (a higher number than anywhere else in Essex) will be affected by George Osborne’s cut in tax credits, what did our ‘independent-minded’ MP do to support them? Obviously, he put his constituents first and…voted for them.

That was just the first vote on them, though. He had another chance yesterday to show how much this will affect his constituents by backing a vote to reverse that decision. Surely our ‘independent-minded’ MP would use this chance to stand up for the 9,100 children in Colchester families who’d be affected by these cuts? You’d think so…but he voted against the motion to reverse the cuts.

Maybe his fiercely independent mind has led him to believe that tax credit cuts are a good idea, no matter how much it will affect people in Colchester? Perhaps his voting record will show this was a rare outbreak of loyalty to the Government? Let’s check his voting record which shows that our ‘independent-minded’ MP has voted against the Governmnent a precise total of 0 times. The most commonly used word on that page is ‘loyal’ and ‘rebel’ is not to be seen at all.

quincecommonsIt’s even more obvious now than it was in April that calling himself ‘independent-minded’ while refusing to identify a single area in which he disagrees with his party was a piece of misdirection. Far from showing any independence, his voting record reveals that he’s just lobby fodder for the whips, doing as he’s told and nodding through whatever they want, regardless of what might be good or bad for his constituents. Still, he gets to sit behind David Cameron and nod enthusiastically sometimes, so what does he care?


Amidst the blizzard of tasteful words hiding monstrous schemes that made up David Cameron’s speech yesterday, there was one part that felt out of place with the rest of the recent Tory rhetoric. When he was talking about schools, he said this:

So my next ambition is this: 500 new Free Schools, every school an academy…and yes – Local Authorities running schools a thing of the past.

(emphasis added) And yes, it got a round of applause from the audience, which is odd, as the rhetoric from the Tories the rest of the time has been proclaiming devolution and talking about how they’re handing power down from Whitehall. Yet here, Cameron is declaring – and the audience applauding – the end of any semblance of local control over education. As is already the case with most health services, the first democratically accountable person in the chain of management and control over your local school will be the Secretary of State for Education.

Sure, there are lots of efforts to make it look like they are accountable, but at every point that accountability is trumped by someone else holding the real power, who can ignore anything they don’t like. The pretence is that having choice gives people power, but how much of that power remains after the choice is made? Like democracy, real accountability has to be part of a ongoing process, not just a single event.

This, of course, is the usual modus operandi for the Tories. Big, bold claims about opening up services, providing choice, freedom and everything else, while actually instituting systems that take power further away from the people than it was before. There’s a huge illusionary trick being pulled off as Cameron and Osborne dazzle the crowd with language that sounds as though they’re giving away power when in reality they’re doing anything but. Under the guise of devolution, power is actually being pulled away from the people, insulated from any direct accountability and the possibility of any real local control.

Consider Osborne’s much-vaunted city regions. How will they be run? Through a board where almost all of the members are indirectly elected and the one that is (the regional mayor) won’t have any structures around them to provide checks and balances or to scrutinise them. Just as we’ve seen with PCCs, you’ll get to vote for someone once every four years and hope that they’re doing what you voted for during that time. Meanwhile, we’ve already been told that any decision to approve an increase in business rates will need to be approved by the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership. LEPs have already been given massive amounts of money to spend outside of any democratic control, and how long before the usual steady creep gives them even more unaccountable power over local decisions?

postdemocracyTo me, it feels like the institutions of post-democracy are being assembled around us, and the key part of post-democracy is that while democratic forms still exist for the public face of the system, they have little say over the operation of power within it. The rhetoric of democracy is being used to introduce systems that hollow out the practice of it, telling people that they are free while gradually removing any of the tools they may have used to exercise that freedom and make power accountable. That’s the prospect being laid out in front of us – no sudden change from one system to another, just a gradual whittling away of power – and if we’re going to confront it, then we need to get comfortable talking abour power.

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indycoverWe probably shouldn’t be surprised at the news that the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office has declared that the ‘prosperity agenda’ is now more important than human rights in British foreign policy. We’re the country that hosts DSEI every year, after all, where it’s the weight of your wallet rather than your conscience that gets you attendance. Meanwhile, selling weapons to one of the world’s most repressive theocracies – a country actively encouraging wars in the Middle East – is worth more than a billion pounds a year, so we’re all somewhat aware that our supposedly ethical foreign policy is anything but.

It’s rare for someone – especially a higher-up in a department known for communicating through nuance – to be so blatant about admitting the truth, though. Our governments like to cling to the fig leaf that while we might be doing things that, when looked at from a certain angle, could appear to be somewhat bad, we’re doing them for entirely the right reasons and any negative side effects were regrettable but shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the useful process of engagement that these deals facilitated. The one restraint on the amorality of full-blown realpolitik was the need for it to be able to don a convincing human face afterwards to explain away its consequences.

But why should we be concerned with a little honesty about our foreign policy? It’s not as if Britain using military and diplomatic strength to secure dodgy trade deals is anything new, is it? Aren’t we just admitting the Augustinian nature – please make it ethical, just not yet – of our previous stances?

There are two problems with it. First, even if we never fulfilled our stated aims, I’d rather fail to reach a noble goal than not even attempt it and second, it shows just what contempt this government has for the concept of human rights. You can be sure that a civil servant wouldn’t be talking about their relative unimportance unless that was the signal being sent down from on high, but this government’s issue with human rights isn’t one of indifference, it’s active antipathy.

This is a government that’s talked about replacing international charters of rights with specifically British ones. The point of human rights is that they belong as of right to everyone, not just those who happen to be on a certain group of islands at a certain time, and replacing human rights with British rights abandons that, even before you consider that this is a government happy to strip people of citizenship and leave them stateless. Now, add to that the revelation that the Government considers the ‘prosperity agenda’ to be of much more importance than human rights, and you start to wonder just what their ‘British Bill of Rights’ might contain. If you can limit by geography and accident of birth, why not make everything conditional on not threatening anyone’s ‘prosperity’ too?

No, that would be entirely too ridiculous. It wouldn’t be anyone’s prosperity that would be protected, only those already doing well. After all, if trade is more important than human rights, maybe the only rights we’ll have will be the ones we can afford to buy? The quality of justice you receive is now determined by how much you’re able to pay for it, so the precedent’s there.

More and more, it feels like we’re living in the early days of a pariah nation. Worried yet?

(story and image via Barney Farmer on Twitter)