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…)

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.

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.

    Four more years

    It's on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
    It’s on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
    As I get older, I’m definitely not as good at recovering from late nights as I used to be, and Thursday was a very late night. By the time I got home from the election count it was almost 7am and I’d only had to walk across Kings Meadow from Leisure World. I don’t envy those who had to drive home after the overnight count in there, nor those who had to be back a few hours later for the Police and Crime Commissioner count. For those of you who weren’t there, you can see the official result by clicking here, but the important part is that I was re-elected with 881 votes, which put me in first place for Castle Ward.

    Two days later, though, and my head’s returned enough to normal to start thinking about the next four years, though I have to admit that this wasn’t a scenario I envisaged during the election. Sure, I’d daydreamed about being the one to come top of the poll, but I’d expected that would mean Bill Frame and Jo Hayes would fill the next two spots, not two Tories. I’d like to take this opportunity thank Bill and Jo for all their hard work as councillors for Castle ward over the past few years during which they’ve both accomplished a lot for it, often in the face of some very hostile and personalised opposition. I do have some feelings of guilt at having squeezed them out, but that’s just something that will motivate me to work harder so the work they’ve done won’t go to waste.

    My priority is going to be working hard to help the residents of Castle ward, just as it was the last time I represented them as their councillor. I’ve already got meetings filling up my diary, and have been busy reporting problems I spotted during the campaign and in the last couple of days. I am away on holiday soon, but when I’m back from that, I will be back out on the doorsteps again to keep talking to residents and finding out what problems you have and how I and the rest of the Liberal Democrat team can help. I’ve already reactivated and updated my councillor Twitter and Facebook pages, so please follow and like me to keep up with what I’m doing.

    Even though I am just one councillor in the ward, there is a team around me, and we’re always looking for more people to join us. We’re always looking for new people to help with campaigning, to come up with ideas for how to improve the local area, the town and the country, or just to donate cashto keep the party running. We’re not a party who get millions of pounds in donations from big business or trade unions – we rely on our members and we’re run by and for our members, right down to every one of us having exactly the same power to make and change party policy.

    You don’t have to be a party member to help me out, though. You can help by letting me know what’s going on in your part of the ward or what needs to happen to make things better, and by letting me know if there are any events you’d like me to be at as your councillor. I can’t promise to make it to every one, but I’ll do my best. If you do have some spare time and want to help while getting a bit of exercise, we always need volunteers to help deliver our Focus leaflets around the ward.

    One thing the election result has shown me is the utter ridiculousness of our electoral system. In Castle Ward, there were 2442 votes cast for Liberal Democrats and 2414 cast for Tories, yet they got two councillors elected to one of ours. I’m more convinced than ever that England needs to follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and elect councillors using the Single Transferable Vote system. It was interesting to note how many people I spoke to during the campaign expressed a wish to list the various candidates in order of preference, not just have the blunt instrument of crosses in a box. Colchester’s results aren’t even amongst the most ridiculously skewed in the country by the voting system – just look at Manchester, where John Leech is now the sole opposition councillor to 95 Labour councillors or the many tales of rotten boroughs the Electoral Reform Society have collected.

    But electoral reform is something for the future, as it’s highly unlikely to be delivered under this Government. For now, the main priority for me is to work hard for the residents of Castle Ward and repay the trust they showed in me by placing me first. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, then you can follow my councillor account on Twitter, or like my Facebook page where I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated. I’ll share my councillor email address as soon as I find out what it is!

    Once again, I just want to thank everyone who voted for me and everyone who helped to get me elected this week. I’ve now got a lot of work to do to show you your trust in me was well placed.

    Back, but in a bittersweet victory

    IMAG0652Sometime around 4am on Friday morning, I was declared elected as a councillor for Castle Ward, and not only that I’d got the most votes of all twelve candidates and topped the poll. You can see the full results by clicking here (pdf file). Sadly, my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes weren’t also elected, with two Conservatives filling second and third places.

    I’ll write more over the weekend when I’ve had some more sleep and returned to something that feels more normal, but for now I just wanted to thank everyone in Castle Ward who voted for me and I hope I can reward your trust in me over the next four years.

    It’s polling day…

    clocktowerAfter all these weeks of campaigning, I can give you news of one confirmed loss from this election campaign – several pounds of weight from me. The election diet plan has had a very positive effect on me over the past few weeks, and there’s definitely less of me than there was in March.

    That’s what happens when you spend lots of time either out knocking on doors or delivering leaflets, especially in a ward where it’s much easier to get about on foot or on a bike than it is by car. I’ve knocked on over a thousand doors, spoken to hundreds of people and delivered thousands of leaflets during this campaign, all of which meant that taking a day off from it to walk 14 miles wasn’t too much of a hassle.

    Overall, it’s been a great experience to get out on the election trail again. It’s been good to talk to the residents of Castle Ward and find out what they want from their Council and to explain how we as a Liberal Democrat team can help to deliver them. Obviously, not everyone was in agreement with me, but if I am elected tomorrow, I will do as I did before and seek to represent all the residents of the ward as best as I can.

    I’m still standing for the aims and values I wrote about at the start of the campaign and the last few weeks have shown me that this is the approach Castle ward and Colchester needs.

    I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

    I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

    If you live in Castle Ward, then please vote for me and my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes today. Indeed, if you’re anywhere in the UK there are elections going on today, so please go out and vote so your voice can be heard. Even if you don’t like any of the candidates, use the opportunity to tell them why.

    The votes are being counted overnight tomorrow, so we should know the result sometime around dawn on Friday. Whatever the result, it’s been an interesting time but I am looking forward to catching up on sleep and TV at the weekend.

    And then we all have the European referendum campaign to occupy our time for the next seven weeks – who knows how much weight I might lose during that?

    Why I’m stepping back up and standing for council again

    clocktowerLast year, I didn’t stand for re-election to Colchester Borough Council having represented Castle Ward for eight years. (I wrote about the reasons why I wasn’t standing again here) Since then, I’ve had lots of people asking me if I would stand again in the future, and following lots of requests from many different people, I have decided to stand again this year.

    So what changed my mind and got me to put my hat back in the ring this year? For a start, my situation has changed and a lot of the things that were causing me to be under a lot of stress and pressure aren’t there any more. Being a councillor is never going to be an easy role, but it’s a lot simpler to do when there’s not a lot of other stress distracting you from it. Taking a break from being a councillor was something I needed to do last year, and that time away from the council has given me time to think more widely about things and look at some bigger issues in politics. (You can probably tell that if you’ve been reading the blog for the past year or so)

    On top of that, I realised that I did miss being a councillor. Yes, there’s stress but there’s also the victories (small and large) you can achieve for the people you represent when you are one. It means that when you see something wrong and think ‘someone needs to do something about that’, you can actually do something about it, and also help other people to get the things they want done as well.

    I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

    I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

    And this time next month we’ll see if the voters want to put me back on the council. In the end it’s their decision.

    Walking for charity again

    Pier-to-pier-website-bannerOn April 17th, I’m going to be taking part in St Helena Hospice’s Pier to Pier walk, going from Walton Pier to Clacton Pier and back again. I’m doing this to help raise money for the hospice in memory of my friend and colleague Martin Hunt, who spent time at the hospice before his death last year.

    If you want to sponsor me, I’ve set up a Justgiving page where you can do it directly online, or if you can’t use Justgiving, then please get in touch with me and we’ll arrange some other method.

    It should be a nice day out (providing there are no massive spring storms coming in from the North Sea that day) so please come along to show support for me and all the other walkers doing it – there’s lots of fun to be had on the piers while you’re waiting for the walkers to reappear. I chose Walton for my start and finish because there’s a very good chip shop not far from the pier, and fish and chips on the beach is a great way to relax and enjoy yourself at the end of a walk.

    You can sponsor me by clicking here, or if you want to take part yourself, there’s more information and a registration form on the hospice’s website. If you really want to help, keep your fingers crossed for good weather on the 17th!

    Has Michael Gove been reading The Dictator’s Handbook?

    dictatorshandbookSomething often seen in corrupt and autocratic regimes is a system that resembles democracy but is subject to an element of social coercion to ensure that the results of supposedly free votes help to maintain the existing order. As I discussed here before, there’s a whole field in international relations that discusses the idea of the selectorate theory, and how autocratic regimes use the distribution of public and private goods to reward their supporters and keep them loyal. The public might be presented with a choice of parties that they can back at elections, but they’ll be reminded that only by voting the right way can they ensure that they’ll get their share of government resources. They can vote for the opposition parties and not be directly punished for it, but the rewards for complying with the government will go elsewhere. (There’s a lot more detail and examples of this in The Dictator’s Handbook

    Of course, that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in proper democracies like Britain. Here, people are encouraged to vote for whoever they want, safe in the knowledge that the governing party won’t seek to reward those who vote for them and punish those who don’t.

    It’d be nice if someone told Michael Gove that, though. He was in Colchester last week and spoke to the local paper. During his interview he said:

    Colchester is growing dramatically and needs investment in its infrastructure.

    A Conservative council will be able to make that case and will always get a sympathetic hearing.

    The implication is quite clear – the borough needs things, but needs to have a Conservative council to get ‘a sympathetic hearing’ if it wants to actually get them. This is the politics of the protection racket, a warning to vote the right way if you want to get things. It’s not surprising that Conservatives think this way – I’ve seen too much of them in operation to be shocked – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of the Cabinet make a statement like that.

    It’s the ultimate end point of the Conservative vision of localism, where you’re free locally to tell the Government just how much you agree with them, and they’ll reward you for the level of enthusiasm you show. It does a good job of looking like democracy on the surface, but it’s a pretty long way from it underneath.