Just two this week:

122034: Listed Building application for change of use etc, North Hill
121742: Change of use from office to residential, Manor Road.

Please note that I am a member of the Council’s Planning Committee for this municipal year. This means that I’m required to act in a ‘quasi-judicial’ manner with regard to applications before the Committee and as such, can’t make comments in favour or against planning applications as I may then have pre-judged them before they come to Committee. I can give advice on planning issues and what to do if you have a comment or objection. However, my ward colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes aren’t members of the Committee, so they’re free to comment as they wish.

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Yesterday’s Guardian had a very interesting interview with Arnie Graf, a veteran community organiser from Chicago who Ed Miliband brought in to advise on how to change the way the Labour Party works to make it more effective. Graf produced a report with various recommendations on how to improve the way the party works, but his recommendations appear to have stalled somewhere in the party machinery – which is perhaps not surprising, given how critical he is of it. This perspective on it from Mark Ferguson at Labour List is an introduction to the way some Labour people see it.

Now it would be easy to write a post here about what this shows us about the Labour party, but reading about Graf’s suggestions in the Guardian piece, I found that they resonated with my experience of the Liberal Democrats (and I suspect other people in other parties may find the same too). We obviously don’t have the full report, but there are four principal ideas expressed in the article that we would do well to consider in the light of our own experience:

First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party’s “bureaucratic rather than a relational culture”. A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.

Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.

Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.

Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: “We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that.”

While the structure and culture of the two parties is different, I think there’s something in all four of those points that Liberal Democrats should consider. We all want to get more people involved in the party, but what can we offer them to get them there? A chance to sit in a draughty room discussing the minutes of the next meeting, before being given a bunch of leaflets to deliver? If someone was interested in the party and wanted to find out more about what we do, would they feel welcomed at a meeting? More to the point, would we actually be able to offer them anything interesting to do? (And no, for most people delivering leaflets is not interesting)

The problem we face is that as a party, in many cases we’ve come to see campaigning as an end in itself. (See for instance this LDV article, where getting people out to campaign for PCC elections is seen as an unambiguously good thing, but it’s a common theme) It’s where Liberator’s description of the party as a ‘leaflet delivery cult’ comes from, which is true despite the fact that no one I’ve ever encountered in any party got into politics because they really love delivering leaflets.

The problem all parties have is that a lot of our ideas about how politics work in Britain are based on parties with mass membership and strong links into the local community. It’s not just about delivering leaflets, but knowing the people around you and what they think to feed that into the process. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost that, and we’ve lost that wider engagement which has led to all parties becoming odd clubs where the like minded spend time together. While party membership was never quite as common here as registering as Democrat or Republican is in the US, it was a lot more common. (As an aside, how much did party membership cost in the 50s and 60s before the decline started?)

If we’re going to survive and thrive as a party – especially in a post-coalition world – then we have to start questioning how we’re going to do it, and why we’re doing it in the first place. Even if it’s bogged down in bureaucracy, Graf’s work shows that Labour are properly thinking about this problem, and we should be too.

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Two interesting stories from recent weeks that show what a couple of Secretaries of State think of it:

From last month, Michael Gove wants more powers to change how schools are run, to stop people having their say over what happens to their local school.

And today, Eric Pickles has started threatening councils that don’t do what he tells them with cuts to their funding. It’s about waste collections this time, but who knows what hoops he might make councils jump through for funding in the future?

As someone once said, while talking about something other than localism: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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There’s an interesting article on Buzzfeed about American right-wing bloggers and their determination to prove President Obama was somehow unfit or unqualified for office.

(Spoiler: they failed)

It’s interesting because it’s an examination because even though it doesn’t use the word, it’s an examination of political groupthink. We have a group – however informally constituted – who have decided on a plan of action and then continue to press on with that course of action despite evidence that it isn’t working. The article goes through a lot of the ideas that this group were pushing, having committed themselves to the belief that Obama was a dangerous radical and that all they needed was the single piece of proof that would bring him down. (In that light, the belief in, and desperate searching for, the seemingly mythical video in which Michelle Obama used the word ‘whitey’ becomes something like a grail quest)

The consensus that soon emerged on the right was that if Americans were fully aware of Obama’s relationship with extremists like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, they never would have elected him. And since tank-dwelling mainstream reporters couldn’t be trusted to expose The Real Obama, it would be left to the crusading online right to get the job done.

The reality – that Obama is a moderate Democrat, whose political views would likely place him on the centre-right of European politics – just doesn’t get a look in. It’s very easy for us to point and laugh at the Tea Party types because their errors are so extreme. Outside of the bubble. the idea that he’s a radical socialist, a secret Muslim or Kenyan-born is obviously nonsense, but does that help us to forget that we’re sitting in our own bubbles?

It’s easy enough to point to groupthink on the extremes where it’s obvious – the belief that if the Tories swung hard to the right and embraced the UKIP agenda, they’d get a majority, for instance, or the old Left belief that Labour’s mistake was not being revolutionary socialist enough in 1983 – but I think that there are many examples within the mainstream of politics too.

In the closest parallel to Obama, consider the attempts to depict Ed Miliband as some kind of socialist firebrand dominated by the unions. As with Obama, the idea that ‘Red Ed’ wants to take the country back to some cartoon version on the 1970s is barely plausible in the real world but is an article of faith on the right. (The same applies to an extent on the left, though, where the caricature David Cameron drinks the tears of starving children with his nightly caviar)

The problem is that the web has made it much easier to slip into groupthink mode. It’s very easy now to launch an attack on a political opponent, get lots of support and back-slapping from an army of Twitter warriors and congratulate yourself on a job well done, despite the fact that your attack has never registered with the public at all. However, you can point at the blog hits you’ve got, the retweets you’ve received, the likes and +1s you’ve achieved while not drawing attention to the fact that all these are coming from the same pool. It’s a classic reward for groupthink – do something that appeases the group and reaffirms their central idea and get praise, criticise it and get ostracised. (Or at least, not linked to.) Compare that to the work the old political operatives had to do to create their networks.

Of course, you could argue that in order to exist and thrive, political parties have to practice some form of groupthink, otherwise they’ll splinter too easily over internal divisions.

And no, I’m not excluding myself and my fellow Liberal Democrats from falling victim to political groupthink. Indeed, I think much of the party is falling into groupthink mode over staying in the coalition where lots of evidence is being ignored or twisted in order to proclaim that it’s a good thing and that we must stick it out for the long term. Slivers of good news get praised to the skies, while bad news is ignored or rationalised away. Don’t worry about a lost deposit in Corby, praise some local by-election victories instead!

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Why was turnout so abysmal in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections?? – Great post by Jennie Rigg looking at the reasons.
Spoilt Ballots in the PCC Elections: What Do the Numbers Tell Us? – And following that, some data on just how many ballots were spoilt, and for what reasons.
Don Jimmy Gambino OBE – Archie Valparaiso on how Jimmy Savile’s activities in the 50s seem more like those of a mob boss than a DJ
The Lib Dem Activist Blues – Jennie Rigg sets them to music.
The curious question of Tory nationalism – Simon Titley writes for the new Liberator blog. “Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner. It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.”

And as a special bonus, a fun quote from here: ‘the ideal Labour supporter’s article now consists of the words ‘One Nation” repeated several hundred times, with an occasional “audacious“, “Ed Miliband“, “transformational” and ‘details need to be explored further” leavening the one nation pudding.’

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The General Council of Monty Python have today rejected moves to enable women to become directors of Monty Python films. This comes twenty years after it was agreed that women could attempt to tell jokes on screen, but were not allowed to ascend to the position of director.

Hopes had been high that women would be allowed to achieve this status, however opponents had pointed out that the holy texts had made it perfectly clear that women were only allowed to direct if they were portrayed by Terry Jones in drag. The Forward in Farce group – which opposed women telling jokes, feeling their role is clearly defined in the sacred texts whilst rejecting Fawlty Towers as mere apocrypha – celebrated the result today.

However, a majority did vote in favour of the move, including overwhelming votes in the House of Upper Class Twits and the House of Gumbies. A majority of the House of Fans was in favour of the change, but did not achieve the two-thirds majority required under the rules (designed by the Silly Party).

“My brain hurts.” A member of the House of Gumbies said after the vote. “Other comedies have women directors, but not the Python? Need brain surgeon.”

In other news, the Church of England’s credibility has passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, has expired and gone to meet its maker. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

(If this made no sense to you, watch the video below)

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Another week, another big idea from David Cameron to boost the economy. Well, I say another big idea, but it’s just a reiteration of an old one. Yet again, just about the only thing standing in the way of unbridled and unrivalled economic growth for Britain is government regulation. After two and a half years in power, though, he has managed to narrow it down to a smaller target than just generic ‘red tape’, at least. Yes, the specific problem is the annoying fact that the Government takes the time to consult on proposals and try and assess what impact something might have before doing it. From his speech this morning:

Next, government consultations. When we came to power there had to be a three month consultation on everything and I mean everything, no matter how big or small. So we are saying to Ministers: here’s a revolutionary idea – you decide how long a consultation period this actually needs. If you can get it done properly in a fortnight – great, indeed the Department for Education has already had a consultation done and dusted in two weeks. And we are going further, saying: if there is no need for a consultation, then don’t have one.

in government we have taken the letter of this law and gone way beyond it, with Equality Impact Assessments for every decision we make. Let me be very clear. I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates. I care about making sure we treat people equally. But let’s have the courage to say it – caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense. We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff. So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments. You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered. That way policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.

Ironically, David Cameron is arguing for a reduction in Government legislation on the grounds that it’s not needed because the Government knows best. What he completely misses is the point of a lot of regulation – no matter how much the Tories like to pretend, it’s not to slow things down just for the hell of it, it’s there to help ensure that the Government is doing the right thing and to look for unintended consequences. It’s very easy for a minister to say ‘right, we’re doing X’ but surely a proper governing process requires the ability for someone to say ‘hold on, that won’t work’?

Cameron invoked the idea of the country being in the ‘economic equivalent of war’ as though that trumped everything. Leaving aside the issue that the response to war is often a heavily centrally-directed economy, not laissez-faire, this is a particularly fatuous argument, even by Cameron’s standards. As the last Government used ‘the war on terror’ as a supposed trump card in civil liberties arguments, the state of the economy is being used to block all counter-arguments here.

Consultation and impact assessments are part of having policy that’s evidence-based. The point of them is to take a proposal, put it out there and see what problems people can see with it, then change it accordingly. To borrow a war metaphor, what Cameron’s proposing would have seen Eisenhower decide on the plans for D-Day on June 5th and expect them to be implemented without anyone else getting a chance to point out the flaws in them.

However, that Cameron regards consultations and the like as a waste of time does tell us something about his approach – he doesn’t like to be told he’s wrong, and doesn’t change plans if he is. This is a common complaint about government consultations at every level – that they are merely a box-ticking exercise, when they should be an important part of policy making. What he’s revealing is that he doesn’t think consultations should be listened to anyway, and if that’s your initial position, why bother having them?

Cameron is proposing that the Government abandons sensible policy-making and replacing it with panicked lurches from one pet theory to the next, never testing them to see how they might work or what the long term effects might be. One would hope that Liberal Democrats in government might stand up against this – given how it goes against principles of liberal and democratic governance – but bitter experience has taught me not to expect that.

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Petition watch

A couple of petitions to the Government that people who read this might be interested in signing:

Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Nov 15th elections : My vote was a “No” vote – I plugged this a lot during the week on social media, and it’s a very good way of making clear that people object to the concept of police commissioners, and the low turnout last week wasn’t just apathy.
Add legally binding ‘Reopen nominations (RON)’ & ‘Leave position vacant’ options to all ballot papers – It would be an interesting addition to voting, and give people who don’t like any of the candidates an option to choose beyond spoiling or abstaining. Personally, I’d go for None Of The Above, rather than Re-Open Nominations. From personal experience running elections at Essex SU, many people didn’t understand ‘re=open nominations’, but ‘none of the above’ makes a lot more sense to people.

And an old petition that you can still sign and I think deserves support: put Alan Turing on the £10 note.

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Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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There were no new applications in the ward last week, so that’s why there was no update. For this week:

122010: Erection of conservatory, Margaret Road
122013: Advertisement consent for replacement signage, Culver Street West.
121941: Penthouse flat to be added to existing building, North Station Road.

Please note that I am a member of the Council’s Planning Committee for this municipal year. This means that I’m required to act in a ‘quasi-judicial’ manner with regard to applications before the Committee and as such, can’t make comments in favour or against planning applications as I may then have pre-judged them before they come to Committee. I can give advice on planning issues and what to do if you have a comment or objection. However, my ward colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes aren’t members of the Committee, so they’re free to comment as they wish.

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