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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Worth Reading 182: Without a blink

Political Madness Gone Correct – Flying Rodent writes a post I was thinking of doing, on why the supposed threat to free speech on university campuses is anything but. “It’s worth noting that the loudest screamers about campus activism broadly use student dafties as stand-ins for their political foes, none of whom are thick enough to give them the kind of ammunition that only a bunch of painfully right-on 19-year-olds can supply.”
Today we left reality behind and entered David Cameron’s fantasy world – Again in ‘posts I don’t have to write because someone else has done them’, Tom King discusses the bizarrely fawning response to Cameron’s speech.
Tories to build thousands of affordable second homes – That awkward moment when the Daily Mash appears to have paid more attention to Tory policy, and can thus criticise it better, than the mainstream media.
They have seen the future and it works for them – Jamie explains how the current Chinese system echoes the Tory aim for Britain.
China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans – And for everyone else too. Imagine a system that gave you a credit score-like rating for all your activities, based on how good they were for the country. That’s not Black Mirror, that’s what China now has.

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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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Mickey Bricks, Prime Minister

One of them won't con an honest man.

One of them won’t con an honest man.

They call it the long con. You find your mark, someone with lots of money and a desire for something they can’t get and a willingness to bend the rules to get it. Then you tell him you know exactly how he can get what he wants. It’ll take time and cost money, but he’s got plenty of both of those, and you’ve got plenty of reasons why it’s going to take a little bit longer and need just a little bit more cash.

He might get doubts after a while of you milking him, and you can cut and run then if you like, or you can double down. Throw him a convincer, something that makes him think you can really do what you say. Sure, it might cost you, but think of it as an investment in keeping the mark happy, and a happy mark is a generous mark so the return on that investment is almost as good as the one you promise your marks.

No con can go on forever. There’ll come a day of reckoning when your mark is going to expect to get what you’ve been promising him, and that’s when all your skills need to come out to play. You need to persuade him that everything’s gone wrong, forces outside your control have intervened and you can’t get him what he wants. The heat’s on you, you tell him, so you’ve got to flee but you promise he’ll hear from you again when it’s settled down. Before you go, remind him how many rules you and he have broken to get this far, just to stop him going to the police if he susses out that he’s been conned. But don’t worry, most of them don’t ever work it out, and you’re free to do what you want with their money now.

That’s all taken from Hustle, but it’s also what David Cameron and the Conservative Party did to Michael Ashcroft. They found their mark, reeled him in, promised him the power and influence he craved, chucked in a couple of convincers (‘Do you want to be Party Treasurer? It’s such an important role.’) but then when push came to shove and the election had been won, it was ‘sorry, I’d love to put you in the Cabinet, but Clegg’s blocked it’.

The only problem is that the Prime Minister can’t close up the shop, throw away all the phones and disappear to a nice hot beach until it’s safe to show your face again. And when you and other teams of grifters have pulled the same con on multiple occasions to the extent that actually giving the mark his prize is almost accepted practice, there’s no way you can stop him telling everyone what you did.

Con men are lucky creatures, though. Sure, you’ll face pig jokes wherever you go for the rest of your life, but maybe that’s better than being remembered as the con man who actually managed to sell democracy to the highest bidder.

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I do enjoy it when elections give British people the chance to passive-aggressively display their arguments to the rest of the world:

And you just know that there were probably some very intense negotiations between those people about which poster went where in the window to ensure equal exposure.

My prediction of the royal baby bringing a bit of a break from campaigning to allow for a regroup before the final charge to polling day doesn’t seem to have come true, mainly because it all happened so quickly. There are still news sites with live updates, but it’s barely filling a whole day’s news with speculation, let alone spreading out over the weekend and allowing for any time off. Tomorrow’s big TV interviews have already been booked in, the schedule’s already set and nothing will knock it off course. Indeed, all leaders need to do nowadays is make sure they’ve fired off a tweet or two of congratulations, and then get back to campaigning. Meanwhile the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are having a conversation around the issue of ‘but I really like the name Nicola, why can’t we use it?’

Here’s something interesting I’ve read today: an article on academic blogging site The Conversation about the prospects of David Cameron actually being able to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU before a 2017 referendum. It makes clear what I’ve always thought – there’s no desire amongst the other members of the EU to open up treaties and renegotiate, and if there was then it’d be a much more fundamental process that wouldn’t happen until after 2017 when the next French and German elections are set to take place. In effect, Cameron’s promise of a renegotiation and a referendum before the end of 2017 looks as though it’s built on sand, and the only thing he can offer by then would be a referendum on membership on the current terms against a backdrop of him having failed to deliver on his promise of reform. I’m sure that the referendum would be fought on the substantive issues not on broken promises, just like the AV referendum was.

Meanwhile, David Cameron is telling 99.9% of voters that their votes don’t matter:

But hey, we don’t need electoral reform in this country and the system isn’t completely broken.

With not much else to talk about today, let’s look at the minor party of the day, who today are the not-so-massed ranks of the Patriotic Socialist Party. (I’m not going to link to them directly because while they seem more Illinois Nazis than actual Nazis, they’re still Nazis) I find them of interest because they sometimes seem to be electorally stalking me having consistently stood candidates in Redditch (where I was born and raised) and Colchester (where I live) though with a stunning lack of success in both. Their performance in last year’s Wivenhoe by-election was a particular highlight, obtaining only 2 votes in an election where you need ten proposers and seconders to stand. They’re best described as the British version of the Strasserites in that they’re Nazis who emphasise the socialism in their name as much as the nationalism. The Strasserites were purged out of the original Nazis, and while no one seems to be in a position to purge the PSP out of their own party, their message is – thankfully – not meeting with anything resembling success so their two candidates in this election (standing in neither Redditch nor Colchester) will merely be providing a useful £1000 to the cost of running the elections.

A double dispatch from Election Leaflets today, with two leaflets for minor candidates in Worsley and Eccles South. First we have independent candidate Geoffrey Berg who wants to give you more time, but isn’t quite clear about how he’ll manage that. It seems to be through a shorter working week, but the lack of detail is one example of how independent candidates miss out by not having other people to point out that they might want to rewrite that leaflet to get their message over more clearly. There’s also a candidate from the Reality Party standing there and even though the leaflet has a big picture of him on it, it’s not Bez.

Tonight’s the last flurry of Saturday night polling results for this election. Will any of them show something other than variations within the margin of error? And when will a pollster ask the most important question of all: what are people’s opinions on Balustrade Lanyard?

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BBC_Question_TimeThat’s the end of the set piece events for this election, so the politicians will be relaxing and not expecting to be facing any more tough questions until around this time next week. Of course then they’ll actually have to come up with an answer to the question Cameron and Miliband ducked last night: just how will you govern if you don’t get a majority? I know I bang on about this, but if you want a picture of what’s wrong with our political system, it’s two leaders who won’t get 40% of the vote, let alone 50% of it, insisting that they’d have a right to govern entirely alone without any compromises. (It’s also a media who collude in those delusions and talk about winners and losers in a system where we all lose)

As for last night, I thought Cameron did the best job in ignoring the question he’d been asked and delivering the pre-prepared responses in the same subject area. It felt like there were a bunch of interns back at CCHQ playing Buzzword Bingo, and he’d insisted that none of them could win unless he unleashed every single one of them. Miliband was a bit rough at the first, especially when the audience were at their most aggressive, but improved as time went on and stayed calm throughout, which contrasted with the tetchiness that always seems to linger just below the surface when Cameron interacts with anyone. Clegg did well, though he looked quite tired at having to explain the tuition fees issue for the umpteenth time, but dealt well with the audience and didn’t pander to them, being willing to point out to the ‘eight countries are leaving the EU’ questioner that he was just wrong. (Like any Question Time, this would have been improved by Dimbleby telling some questioners the premise of their question was wrong)

Will it have changed minds and been a decisive moment in the campaign? Like all the other events in the election, probably not, but perhaps it’s interesting because it’s not been decisive. A lot of the Tory campaign strategy did seem to revolve around the idea that Miliband would fall apart under the strain of the election, but that hasn’t happened and perhaps the improving public opinion of him has been what’s stopped the Labour vote falling away through the campaign as previous experience might have suggested it would.

Perhaps that lack of reaction is what we need to give us the space to discuss how debates and other set piece events are part of future election campaigns. Discussion of the 2010 ones was overshadowed by the effects of Cleggmania and the worry that they’d unbalance the campaign, but that hasn’t happened this time, even if discussions about them did take up far too much time in the run-up to the election. I suspect some form of debates will be part of future campaigns, but I think we’ve seen that a range of formats might be the way to go in the future. As well as debates, more Question Time-type events would be good, but also more interviews where they’re put on the spot. However, I also think we need to cover a wider range of issues and people than we’ve seen this year – did we really need more questions about immigration last night? I know there have been debates with other party representatives on different issues, but these have been buried away in the middle of the day, or stuck on BBC News and maybe deserve a higher prominence. We complain about the presidentialisation of politics, but this could be a way to weaken that, and also to ensure all issues get some coverage and give exposure to other politicians.

Right, can we have the election itself now, please?

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This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.

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