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…)

No, polling companies aren’t trying to turn us into fascists

There was a minor social media storm yesterday evening when some people shared a question that YouGov are currently asking in one of their surveys. People were asked on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree how much they agreed with the statement “the best way to run the country would be to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections”.

Now, seen on its own that question might seem odd and somewhat scary, but its not uncommon to see questions like that asked in political science research. Indeed, as Chris Hanretty reminded me in a Twitter discussion, the specific wording of that question is taken directly from the World Values Survey. The WVS is a project that’s been running since the 1980s, asking people in many different countries their views on a lot of different issue,s including politics, which then gives social scientists (including political scientists like me, as I’ve used WVS data in my PhD research) a useful data set of comparative information about opinions in different countries. By asking the same questions of people in different countries, and asking those questions repeatedly in different waves of the survey over the decades, we can find out a whole lot of things about how people’s attitudes are similar or different over the world. The WVS website has details of all the questions asked in the different waves, and also has an online analysis tool where you can look at the data yourself. (Or, if you’re the sort of person who likes to analyse data in even more depth and has a stats package on your laptop, you can download the data and analyse it yourself. More of that later.)

The ‘strong leader’ question is one of four asked about people’s opinion on the political system, amidst a wider section on political beliefs and actions. People are asked to indicate if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with them (unlike YouGov, there’s no neither option). Here’s the text in full (from the Wave 6 (2010-14) questionnaire):

I’m going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing this country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing this country?
V127. Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections
V128. Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country
V129. Having the army rule
V130. Having a democratic political system

(I’d be interested to know if YouGov asked the other three questions – the formatting of the question in the image suggests it was one of several)

As I’m one of those people with a stats package on their laptop, I’ve processed the answers to those questions and sorted each one by the countries in the WVS (from Algeria to Yemen) so you can see the results for yourselves. Not to sound too clickbaity, but some of the results may surprise you. One of the purposes of this sort of research is to look at the political norms in each country, giving us a chance to compare them and see what’s actually going on beneath the surface. These questions aren’t just being asked in a bunch of similar democracies, but across a range of different types of government, so they let us see how the type of system you live in affects your opinion on different ways of running the country.

The point of the World Values Survey (and any other competently done survey or opinion poll) is to attempt to get to people’s real opinions, not just the ones they publicly express because they’re socially acceptable. Framing of the question matters too. If you ask someone ‘are you a fascist?’ they’ll most likely say no because fascism is generally seen as a bad thing, but ask them the ‘strong leader’ question and they may give you a different answer that comes closer to their real opinion. (With the disclaimer that describing something as a ‘real opinion’ is making a bunch of assumptions – see this post I wrote a while ago for more on how people form opinions) If you want to find out how many people would support dictatorship, you need to frame the question and the survey in a way that gets them to give that honest opinion. Ask people if they’d electrocute a stranger because someone in authority told them to and they’ll probably say they wouldn’t, put them in a situation where they have to do that and they might.

This is not YouGov trying to prepare the ground for a fascist takeover, it’s researchers (and I don’t know who commissioned it – it may be part of WVS Wave 7, it may be someone borrowing their question format for something else) trying to find out what people genuinely think about an important political issue. We know that there’s an authoritarian trend in many different countries, and if you want to counter it, surely it’s important to see how widespread genuine support for it is? The question about a strong leader isn’t what should be worrying you, it’s how people answer it.

2017 General Election Diary Day 1: Can we survive 52 days of this?


Until this morning, the biggest surprise news I might have expected to hear this week was who the new Doctor is, then there came news that Theresa May was going to be making an announcement at 11.15.


I might almost have preferred that, but instead it looks like we’re getting the first snap election Britain’s had for a while and everyone’s spent the rest of the day running around wondering just what it all means. Me included, and having failed to come up with an explanation for everything, I’ve decided to resurrect my General Election Diary feature just so I can chronicle all the strange things that go on over the next seven weeks and also leave a historical record of my descent into gibbering incoherence by the 8th of June. We’ve got the longest UK election campaign I can recall in a time when all politics appears to have gone stark staring bonkers, so who knows what I might be happily chronicling in a few weeks time as if it’s entirely normal?

So, what has happened today? Well, the Prime Minister called for a General Election in a speech that gets scarier the more often you see it. Talking about how “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.” and “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.” amongst other things is the rhetoric of an autocrat, not a democrat. She uses a good chunk of her speech to dismiss the various opposition parties not just as having different views to her, but of being fundamentally wrong and somehow opposed to the will of the people. The point of democracy is that because there is no single overriding, everyone-agrees-to-it ‘will of the people’ we find ways in which everyone gets their voice heard, and through those debates, challenges and discussions we come up with what’s best. Instead of that, we’ve instead got a Prime Minister who wants to sweep away and dissent and opposition as unpatriotic and invalid. It makes me quite scared for what comes next if she wins a majority in June.

Never mind, though, because we’ve got a united opposition party who’ll be able to take the fight to… Oh. Never mind. It does seem like we’re not to get the absolute civil war of mandatory reselection of all sitting MPs before the election, but they’re not looking like a party ready for the fight, or even wanting one. When Corbyn is promising that Labour want ‘a Brexit that works for you’ it’s hard not to feel dispirited.

This does feel very different from other election campaigns I’ve experienced, partly because everyone’s still trying to convince themselves it’s actually happening (and until Parliament votes to dissolve itself tomorrow, it technically isn’t). It’s an election where a lot of news that would normally come out in the pre-election period (who’s standing again, and who’s not) is going to happen in the next week or so, and meanwhile a lot of people are still out campaigning for the local elections in two weeks time. Everyone’s off-balance so look out for lots of little slip ups over the next couple of weeks as people get themselves into the game and works out their campaign plans. That this caught everyone by surprise suggests that even the Tories haven’t done too much pre-planning of it, as something would have leaked, but it’s probably a good time to buy shares in printing companies given all the election literature that’ll be coming out over the next few weeks.

One potentially interesting development is Theresa May ruling out taking part in any election debates, to which all the opposition leaders have responded to with disdain and called for them to carry on with an empty chair for her if necessary. It’s obvious why she doesn’t want to do them – no clear frontrunner in an election ever wants to take a risk like that – but pre-emptively ruling out participation in them could be a mistake. Before 2010, the traditional way around this was to say that you were open to the idea, then send in negotiators with so many demands that the broadcasters and other parties couldn’t agree to them, and watch the whole thing fall down. That might have worked this time, given the short timescale, but stating from the outside that you won’t do them after they’ve been a feature of the last two elections risks them going ahead without you. Maybe the plan is to have a debate where the opposition leaders all bicker amongst themselves, leaving May above the fray, but it feels to me that ‘we’ll need to discuss terms’ would have been a better response at this point than ‘we won’t do them’.

Come back tomorrow when we might have more of an idea what’s going on, or we might just have seen the whole election disappear as a damp squib when Parliament refuses to vote for it and May realises that voting for no confidence in herself to make it happen is just a bit too silly.

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.

    Worth Reading 180: Turn around, treble treble

    When Labour lost its soul, and the next election – Simon Wren-Lewis on Labour’s mistakes in abstaining on the welfare reform bill.
    I gave up Ayn Rand for Bernie Sanders – An interesting perspective from the US on how the concerns that drive some towards the libertarianism of the right can be redirected towards the left.
    10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Gaslighting – “Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality. There’s a good chance that you now know more about gaslighting than most therapists.”
    How Democracy Works – Andrew Rilstone examines how his conception of it diverges from Harriet Harman’s.
    A Terrorism Case In Britain Ends In Acquittal, But No One Can Say Why – Lots of questions arising from this, including ‘really?’, ‘am I breaking the law by posting this link?’ and ‘is this linked to the secret courts legislation, or some other bit of state security restrictions?’

    “The democratic will of the British people”

    2015_predicted_winnerSToday’s shock political news is that a member of a political party has said that party will vote against the Queen’s Speech of a party it generally disagrees with should it be in a position to do so. This should be something so routine it doesn’t even need to be mentioned, but apparently because the party talking about it is the SNP, this becomes a grand constitutional matter, not an issue of regular politics in the House of Commons.

    Indeed, according to the Tories, this would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people” which is a bit rich coming from a party that feels it has a divine right to unfettered rule of the country despite not having received even forty percent of the vote at a general election for over two decades. That the same British people would, in these circumstances, not have given any party a majority in the Commons while returning sufficient SNP MPs to give them this power, would be completely irrelevant. For the Tories, the democratic will is only relevant if it gives them power through the random workings of our broken electoral system, and is to be ignored at all other times. We should be prepared for lots of people telling us what the democratic will of the people is over the next few months, most of which will likely not fit with what the people actually said in the election.

    Of course, this is only a story because the SNP are involved as it seems that them doing almost anything that any other political party would do – including getting elected – is somehow an affront to the established order. Part of this is due to the belief that the No vote in the referendum should have reset the system back to the old status quo, and so they’re not following the script and disappearing back into obscurity, and so the SNP are seen as somehow illegitimate representatives, their MPs different to the others. The message appears to be that the establishment is very glad that Scotland decided to stay as part of the UK, but that they’re not allowed to use that membership to elect a party that will explicitly push for their interests, no matter how good its proved to be at doing that.

    In this context, it appears that the “democratic will of the British people” only includes those British people who don’t vote for the SNP. The people of Scotland have chosen to remain as part of Britain, and they have just as much right to have their say as everyone else in the UK. Everyone’s democratic will gets to be expressed in the election and the Commons afterwards, not just the people who’ve voted the right way.

    The Liberal Democrat peer who wants to get rid of democracy

    Ministry-of-sound-logoWhat happens if you subtract politics from itself? That might sound like a particularly difficult question from a Taoist political theory exam, but it’s something James Palumbo would like us to discover from the inside. (Yes, that’s Baron Palumbo of Southwark, appointed such for his important contribution to contributions)

    Drawing on his experience of starting a business from scratch with only a large family trust fund and eight years experience working in the City behind him, he’s decided that we don’t need to be ruled by politicians any more (people with unelected seats for life in Parliament excepted, obviously). Apparently, based on his personal experience, Government only operates at ’30 per cent efficiency’ because politicians don’t know what they’re doing, and ‘experts’ would run everything better.

    (Before you ask, don’t be silly, he doesn’t provide any evidence or quantification for his ’30 per cent efficiency’ idea, or any experts to back this up. You might think that this weakens his argument, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

    Yes, we don’t need democracy any more, because Palumbo’s invented ‘Democracy 2.0’ which would apparently ‘share many of the guiding principles to which our society holds dear’, though I’m not quite sure what they are as principles like choice, voting and the ability to remove a government don’t appear to be in there. Instead, ‘experts’ would run the country, and all of them would supposedly have some sort of qualification that would be mandatory before entering government. (Using qualifications as a barrier to stop people participating in the political process is something that would never be abused, of course)

    Once in place, these experts would all then decide what was best for the country and make sure the country got it good and hard without having to rely on such outdated Democracy 1.0 ideas like elections, parliaments or accountability. Being experts, they would all naturally agree on what the country needed – which would be entirely in agreement with what James Palumbo wants – and be able to deliver it. Presumably, they all would be able to raise Palumbo’s perceived 30% efficiency level too using their magical powers of expertness.

    From this viewpoint, Democracy 2.0 appears to have a lot in common with Technocracy 1.0 (and bears lots in resemblance with other people’s ‘upgrades’ of democracy) and suffers all the flaws common to technocratic dreams. Ironically, the biggest flaw of most wannabe technocrats is one they accuse democrats of: believing that there is only one way of doing things. It seems that in all his years, Palumbo hasn’t noticed that experts often disagree and there are many different ways to reach your goal, even assuming we can all agree on what the end goal is. You’d think someone in business might have noticed that there are are many different ways of doing things, or perhaps Palumbo thinks all clubs and record labels are run exactly like the Ministry of Sound. After all, I’m sure business experts agree there’s only one way to run a business, don’t they?

    I’ve discussed this before, but Palumbo isn’t alone in his believe that democracy could be ‘improved’ by somehow removing all the democratic aspects from it. (For more on this concept, read Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy) Indeed, I suspect that if we get an inconclusive election result in May, we’ll likely hear calls for it increasing in volume and frequency, and it’s already an undertone in some of the calls for a grand coalition.

    I have a rule that whenever someone says ‘let’s take the politics out of this’, what they’re really saying is nothing more than ‘let’s all agree with me’. Proposing to take politics out of politics is nothing more than James Palumbo believing he’s right about everything, and any potential impediments to the people being exposed to the full benefits of his rightness must be swept away. It’s an incredibly illiberal and undemocratic position for a supposedly Liberal Democrat peer to take, but I’m sure anyone calling for the party to take action over it will find themselves denounced as being illiberal and undemocratic. Maybe we’ll need to call in an expert to decide it.

    Worth Reading 158: The memory of Regional Railways

    The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman – Marilyn Vos Savant solved the Monty Hall Problem, even if a lot of people wanted to tell her that she hadn’t.
    Is Work Good? – “the problem that comes with this one-eyed focus on paid work is that there is a grave danger it reinforces the value of paid work only at the cost of reducing the value of other human activities and social roles. Paid work is only one kind of work; and doing paid work is only one way of being human.”
    Are You Man Enough for the Men’s Rights Movement? – GQ meets some of the MRAs, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. (Warning: article contains discussion of rape and abuse, as well as the usual MRA bullshit)
    Why Natalie Bennett should shrug off this ‘humiliation’ – “Therefore, nobody in opposition – not Bennett, not Ed Miliband, not Nigel Farage – should ever get into a conversation about how they will fund something without first underlining that the way things exist at the moment is completely wrecked. The status quo is broken; it’s not even static, it’s constantly worsening.”
    Democratising the Scottish NHS: A recent experiment in electing Health Board Directors did not prove successful – Relevant to my last post: just making a position elected doesn’t magically create more democracy.

    Buying justice, and why democracy is about more than elections

    One thing that surprised me when I first lived in the US, and continues to stand out as an oddity to me is the election of judges. It confuses John Oliver too, leading to this segment on Last Week Tonight:

    For me, it’s a great example of an idea I’ve talked about often, that democracy is not just about having elections, and having more elections doesn’t automatically make things more democratic. Democracy is an ongoing process, not a single event, and that process needs lots of different parts to work together to ensure it succeeds.

    Electing judges is a pretty extreme example (from the land of extreme examples) but it does get to the point that judges and politicians have different roles within the democratic process, and electing judges starts to confuse the roles. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge at the start of that LWT item, has run for several political roles while serving as a judge, and that sort of confusion between the judicial and the political is common in US politics.

    The point is not to say that judges should be free from and challenge or oversight, but that within a democracy not every post needs to be appointed in the same way. Every post in a democracy is appointed in some way, the question is who does that appointment and how – elections are perhaps the most obvious way of doing it, but that doesn’t make them the best or most appropriate in all circumstances.

    We’ve seen it in Britain with Police and Crime Commissioners who were brought in to supposedly make accountability of the police more democratic than the existing system of Police Authorities because direct election, rather than appointment through other elected bodies was seen as ‘more democratic’. What we’ve ended up with, however, isn’t any better scutiny or accountability of the police, but a network of what appear to be very well paid spokespeople for the police, who now get brought out instead of the chief constable when the media need someone for a comment.

    Democracy is a complex process, and not one that’s easily solved by simply electing everyone and hoping for the best. Sadly, that’s the message we keep getting sold, where an elected mayor trumps a complete lack of democratic accountability. We’re not likely to be electing judges here, but we need to keep making the arguments for real democracy.