englandjigsawOver on CityMetric, Jonn Elledge writes that devolution is meant to be about practicality and delivery, and wonders why questions of identity are mixed up in it. I think there’s a problem with phrasing the debate in that way because both sides of it are ignoring a key third factor in delivering workable devolution: accountability.

Both sides of the practicality vs identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries and if you’re creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere are just as important as the economic links and need to be recognised too. As Jonn points out, existing devolution in Britain has been based primarily on those cultural boundaries rather than the economic ones, which has led to an expectation that further devolution (particularly within England) should follow the same course.

This isn’t actually a new argument, but one that flares up continually whenever local government structures are tinkered with. The Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local and regional government were based on similar ideas of economic practicality and foundered on questions of identity and even the more modest reforms of the 70s faced opposition to the movement of borders to reflect economic reality. This is why I live in Essex now, not Suffolk as was proposed back then.

As I’ve argued before, one of the key problems facing local government in England is the confusing mess of accountability and responsibility built into the current system. Even people who’ve worked in local government for years have problems keeping track of which acronymic organisation covering which patch of geography is responsible for which issue, which means that any attempt to do something often disappears into a mass of conflicting bureaucracies. The current proposals for devolution are doing very little to resolve this mess, and are even adding to it by adding another organisation (the city region) into the equation.

This leads us to a situation where we have some institutions and organisations that are based on practicality, while others are based on identity, but none of them end up being very accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving. The arguments from the two sides (practicality and identity) end up sailing past each other because they’re both referring to different things and basing their arguments on different sets of facts.

That’s why I think accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries, but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of ‘this is what is best for you’ has to yield to some local realities, but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish, and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that’s going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it’s accountable. Accountability isn’t just about the practical structures of the system but also recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough (if not all) of them.

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labourlogoI should say at the start that this will be a post with a lot of questions and not many answers. Sometimes it can be easy to get an idea of where a party will go by looking at their history and the history of similar parties (as well as the theories derived from those histories) and extrapolating. The problem with doing that for Labour right now is that the situation they’re currently in doesn’t really have any precedents so everyone – no matter how much they try to tell you they can make an expert prediction – is stumbling in the dark.

There’ve been situations where parties have had leaders who are popular with the party memberships but not with the Parliamentary party (and vice versa) but never to this extreme. Even Iain Duncan Smith (an often-used parallel for Corbyn) had the support of around a third of Tory MPs when he was elected (and only lost his no confidence vote 90-75) while Jeremy Corbyn appears to have the active support of 10% or less of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In any large and factionalised party, you’d expect an IDS situation to come about occasionally, where a leader isn’t backed by a majority, but has a sizeable group behind them and is also the second choice (better IDS than Porillo, as some thought) of others. Corbyn had the other factions agreeing an ‘anyone but him’ line even before he was elected.

The exact opposite situation applies within the Labour membership. Here, Corbyn has wide support which continues to regard him as doing a good job and is actively mobilising to make that support meaningful. This isn’t just the usual ‘he’s popular with the membership, and we don’t want to anger them too much’ but a membership that’s almost pre-emptively angry and working to prevent their choice of leader from being removed. That contrasts markedly with those members who aren’t Corby supporters though, where he’s regarded as doing poorly.

The most interesting thing in both the Parliamentary Party and the membership is the absence of much in the way of middle ground. There’s very little in the way of a ‘wait and see’ faction, more two polarised groups gazing warily at each other, neither wanting to take the first move because they’re not entirely sure what weapons they have to fight with. There seems little chance of the two sides coming to a mutually acceptable agreement on how the party should proceed, and even the prospect of the party stumbling on for a while appears to be lessening daily as the prospect of military action in Syria increases.

The prospect of Labour splitting is often raised, but the one thing I’ve found about splits is that even when people within a party agree there should be splits, they invariably suggest that it’s the other side that should leave the party. Looking at the history of the SDP for examples ignores that it was a one-off in British politics and most parties stick together even when factions openly hate each other because no one wants to give up the potential power of the party infrastructure and institutions. The SDP split occurred because the splitters assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that they could never regain control of the party.

Under normal circumstances, this is a conflict that would likely play out over years, fought through lots of small challenges as backbenchers challenge the leadership at PLP meetings while Corbyn-supporting members push for positions of power in local party meetings, threatening reselections and deselections. There wouldn’t be one event that brought everything to a head, just a series of little feuds that coalesce together into a final position about who was in charge of the party.

As it is, though, we’re likely to get that denouement in a much more sudden and dramatic form. What happens to Labour when Parliament has to vote on any military action in Syria? No matter what way he chooses to vote, a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to disagree with him, and the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of the membership are likely to be diametrically opposed too. That could be the signal for the Parliamentary party to attempt to dethrone Corbyn, at the very time when he’s just reinforced his support amongst the membership. The question then might not be whether the party will tear itself apart, but just how it’s going to go about doing it and what remains when the process is finished. When factions can’t find a common cause with each other, the party doesn’t become something to rally around, but something to be fought over regardless of the consequences.

Like I said at the start, I can’t predict what will happen to Labour, but I’m struggling to see any way in which this ends well for them.

TheWestWingLabour Uncut is always a good place to go to for outlandish claims that bear no relationship to reality, and the opening of this piece is no exception:

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals.

I’m not convinced it’s even the best episode of The West Wing, and the idea of it being the greatest piece of modern television feels somewhat akin to stating that Liz Kendall would be a popular choice for leader amongst Labour party members. I can think of a dozen Breaking Bad or The Wire episodes that are better than Two Cathedrals, and I’m sure people reading this can come up with lists of episodes from other series just as easily.

However, I’m not intending this to be a post about favourite TV episodes. It’s very common to see politicos and aspiring politicos cite The West Wing (and its hipster equivalent, Borgen) as being amongst their favourite TV. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given that it’s rare for people in any other profession to look upon depictions of their jobs in the same way. Indeed, the most common reaction of most people is to point out that dramas tend to hyper-idealise their profession and depict everyone involved as being way more competent than reality. In reality, we see things like the ‘CSI effect‘ where forensic scientists are seen as being able to achieve much more than they can, or that doctors and nurses complain how people see defibrilators as near-magic. Meanwhile, politicos are gazing on an obviously idealised portrayal of themselves and their abilities and are choosing to praise it rather than point out the flaws in it.

I’ve written before about how people – especially those in politics – think that ‘political drama’ and ‘drama about politicians’ are the same thing. It’s a building block in the idea that politics is just about the games white men (and the occasional woman) in suits play, while they walk up and down corridors being very clever at each other. The actual effects of the policies they’re talking about, and especially the people affected by them, rarely feature in them. Politics as depicted by The West Wing is all about the process, making big meaningful speeches (sometimes in Latin) and beating the other team, when the real thing is a lot more complicated than that. The trouble is that we have a generation of young politicos who think that’s all it is about, and it’s having the same effect as if we had a generation of A&E doctors basing their treatment plans on what they’d seen on Casualty.

What makes for good drama – and The West Wing is good drama, even if better has been made since – isn’t the compromises, muddled resolutions, and unclear endings that characterise reality. When there are so many people involved in politics who think that a drama about politics encapsulates all they need to know about it, it’s no wonder that we have such a shallow political culture that sees the main focus of politics as being the men at the top having showy disagreements instead of the effects their arguments have on the people at the bottom. You can keep watching it, but don’t imagine it teaches you anything about actual politics and what’s really important.


liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.

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Lib-Dem-logoWith depressing predictability, many people’s response to the concerns a lot of Liberal Democrat members have raised about the return of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive has been ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ It’s also interesting to note that ‘shut up and deliver leaflets‘ has now evolved into ‘go and do some phone canvassing’. This is of course mixed in with ‘don’t you know there’s a by-election on’ and ‘talking about this just gives us bad publicity’ to try and shut down any debate by blaming everyone else for the bad things.

It’s an interesting attempt at political judo: trying to make it look like it’s those people complaining about the Lords putting Chris Rennard on the FE are the ones in the wrong, rather than those who’ve actually made the decision. It feels to me very much like people who misunderstand free speech – yes, you have the right to say what you like, or elect whoever you choose, but that doesn’t free you from the consequences of your actions. Imagine if Tim Farron used his slot at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Cameron if he could tell him who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong. He’s perfectly entitled to ask that, and as leader he can choose the subject of his questions, but he’d have to face the consequences of that choice.

This is the situation the Lords group – or, at least, the 40-odd of them who voted for Rennard – are in. They’ve made their decision according to the rules they have and in accordance with the power they have to appoint a member to the FE. Having seen the decision they’ve made, a large chunk of people in the rest of the party have pointed out that it’s a really bad decision and the response hasn’t been to try and explain why they think it’s a good decision, but to complain that people are daring to criticise it. Hiding behind ‘there are more important things you should be doing’ and ‘you’re making the party look bad, go and deliver leaflets as penance’ is quite a depressing way to try and avoid a debate and shift the blame for the effects of a decision onto those who didn’t make it.

Too many people forget that liberalism is about the freedom to make decisions and act, but that freedom comes with responsibility for the consequences of your actions. No one acts in a vacuum or makes decisions that are void of consequences and to assume that you can do whatever you want without facing criticism when you get it wrong is to demand to be removed from all consequences and be unaccountable in the way you exercise your power. Unaccountable power is something liberalism opposes, and it’s those who are trying to get everyone to move on and just accept it that are being illiberal here.

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House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneThere are some words you don’t want to see coming up on your Twitter feed because you know they’re invariably associated with bad news. When you’re a member of and follow a number of Liberal Democrats, “Rennard” is one of those words, as it normally means that everyone’s least-favourite former chief executive has done something silly again.

This time, it wasn’t just him being silly. Assisted by the votes of thirty-nine other members of the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords, he’s been elected as their representative on the party’s Federal Executive. I’m not sure what was going through the minds of these peers when they decided that someone cited as the principal reason why several prominent women have left the party was the best person to represent them on the FE, or why they think that raking up old arguments is the best way for the party to spend its time when its trying to rebuild. Some credit must be given for the twenty peers who voted for Tim Razzall to take the place instead, with questions being asked of the fifty or more who didn’t bother to vote.

What’s clear now, as it has been ever seen the allegations about him were first raised, is that there is a clear divide in the party over Rennard and that there are a number of people in senior positions in the party (particularly amongst the Lords group) who want to put him back into a prominent position because they believe the legend that he’s a political campaigner without equal, who can somehow magically restore the party’s electoral fortunes if he’s given the chance to. At best, this is somewhat overstating the ability one person could have on the party’s fortunes, but I’d argue that the supposed miracle-working powers of Rennardism ignore that he was principally a tactician and it was the party’s strategic positioning during the Ashdown and Kennedy years that created the real opportunity. (See here for my more detailed argument on that)

What we have here is a section of the party establishment deciding that standing up for their old mate is more important than giving the party the opportunity to rebuild and make a fresh start. Like Jennie, I want to see Tim Farron and Sal Brinton telling the Lib Dem Lords to think again, and I want to hear from the other members of the Federal Executive what they intend to do about it. Are they happy to see it being used to make the whole party look bad?

I’m sure it’s not their intention but the Lib Dem Lords are doing a very good job of showing just what the problems are with giving power to an unelected and unaccountable group. One of the outcomes of the party’s governance review has to be to remove any power over the democratic structures of the party from unaccountable groups like them.


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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