2015 General Election Day 25: Liberty, Unity and Illegality at the polls

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Two weeks to go until the election, and possibly the most interesting news in British politics today isn’t about the general election, but instead the position of Mayor of Tower Hamlets. If you haven’t heard, Lutfur Rahman has had his election in 2014 declared null and void because of his use of corrupt and illegal practices, which means there’ll be a new election to fill the now-vacant post on June 11th in which he’s banned from standing as a candidate. There were all sorts of odd things happening in Tower Hamlets during last year’s elections, and it seems that shining some light upon them has revealed the truth.

The new election will be of interest, not least because the campaign for it will likely begin as soon as the general election is over, and probably with a lot more media attention than a local election usually gets. One fear would be that if George Galloway is defeated in May (we can but hope), it would give him a way back in to politics on his old stomping ground – and putting the unchecked and unaccountable power of a local Mayor in his hands would be a recipe for disaster.

Back in the general election, there’s still two weeks to go till polling day (but of course, many have already cast their votes by post and will continue to do so) but a lot of people do seem to be getting somewhat burnt out after three months of the long campaign, then three and a half weeks so far of the main campaign. Two weeks from polling day seems a hell of a long time away, and I do wonder if party leaders and the news media are hoping for the new royal baby to arrive in the next few days, just to take them out of the spotlight for a day or two. It’d give everyone a chance to stop, refocus and then relaunch everything for the last week or so of campaigning. Indeed, maybe we should propose that all future election campaigns have a pause period during them, to give people space for reflection?

standardsWhile we wait for the pause, let’s look at today’s minor party: Left Unity. Or ‘Left Unity – Trade Unionists and Socialists’ as the majority of their candidates describe themselves, where they’re standing as joint candidates with Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) we looked at a while ago. Left Unity are yet another attempt to unite the various factions of the left into a single party and become Britain’s Syriza, and are currently doing a good impression of the pre-crash Greek left in not getting the attention of many people at all. This is nothing new in the world of the hard left, where almost every year sees an attempt at creating a new workers party or a new organisation to unite the left under a common banner, and yet by the end of the process, things seem more divided than they ever were before. Coalescences like this tend to work for a short time – as everyone calculates how they can take it over and benefit from it – but then tend to fall apart when everyone realises that this just might not be the vehicle that will bring about the inevitable triumph of the working classes.

Meanwhile, no doubt spurred on by my regular plugs for them, Election Leaflets have had over 2000 leaflets submitted this campaign with surely more to come as the paper storm reaches critical level. Today’s pick from there is a candidate who does make me wonder if the Trades Descriptions Act should apply to party names – the ‘Liberty GB’ party candidate in Lewisham West and Penge. There are many ideas and policies one thinks of in connection with the word liberty, almost none of which feature on this leaflet which is instead the sort of ‘common sense’ string-em-up or deport them nonsense, seemingly concerned solely with the liberty of older white men, not anyone else. Take it as a warning – if you’re at a loss as to who to vote for, don’t always rely on the party name to tell you about them.

Should we directly elect the Prime Minister?

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David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

The effectiveness of elected mayors

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Reading Stephen Tall’s Lib Dem Voice post on police commissioners this morning, I found myself thinking about elected mayors and how some of the claims that are made for them and their potential effects.

One thought that occurred to me is that while there’s been lots written on elected mayors and the arguments for and against them (see this pdf from the Warwick Commission for a good summation), there doesn’t appear to have been any quantitative research into their effects. (But if you are aware of any, please let me know)

Because of the piecemeal way in which the mayoral system has been introduced across the country, it seems to me that there’s the basis for doing some interesting comparative research between local authorities with and without mayors. There are currently 16 mayors outside London, in a wide range of different types of local authority – metropolitan boroughs, London boroughs, unitary authorities and non-metropolitan boroughs all have mayors – and pretty much all those authorities with mayors have comparable authorities without them.

I’d suggest that there’s scope for doing statistical research comparing boroughs with elected mayors to similar ones without. It could look at a wide range of information about those areas and see how they’ve changed over the past ten years – for instance, at what rates have their economies grown, what’s happened to their unemployment rate, how much external investment have they attracted, how have educational attainment and qualification rates changed, how much tourism have they attracted, how many new houses have been built etc – and then compare the results for mayoral areas with non-mayoral ones to see if the system of government has had any noticeable statistical effect on their area.

I think there are important questions around democracy, accountability and other issues before making any changes like that – one reason why, if we’re going to have PCCs, they should have been trialled for effectiveness first in areas that wanted them rather than imposed everywhere – but it would help these debates if people who claim that one way or another is a better form of local government for an area could have some statistics to back that argument up.

Worth Reading 50: One L of a good time

Half a century down, how many more to go?

Leicester’s Mayor sacks the man supposed to scrutinise him – As many cities reject the idea of an elected Mayor, Jonathan Calder provides an example of why mayors don’t make for good governance.
Electoral Reform RIP – One year on and Milena Popova is still angry. I think she’s right to be, and for those people who think that the change of the electoral system is just around the corner, I suggest talking to the Australian republicans who voted no in their referendum to see how long they’ve been waiting.
The day after the count – Some interesting ideas to improve election turnout from Edinburgh Eye.
The religious fanatics behind Tory plans to block porn – Unity at Liberal Conspiracy explains some of the flaws in the ‘independent’ report that recommended the Government censoring the internet on your behalf.
So you want to get elected? Then think like a clown. Or a penguin – Amidst the usual sardonic humour of Charlie Brooker, an interesting point: “The problem for politicians is that their chosen sport looks increasingly weird and arcane in the present day – like water polo or lacrosse. The uniforms are antiquated, the rules are stifling, the action is boring, and they’re constantly terrified of upsetting their sponsors. The spectators don’t understand the lingo, don’t think there’s much skill involved, and suspect the game’s rigged anyway.”

Worth Reading 30: Into middle youth

There are now officially 150 things worth reading on the internet.

The people disarmed – Chris Bertram’s take on the Libyan no fly zone.
TPA – Sinclair the Shameless – An excellent post from Tim Fenton of Zelo Street on the many ways you can describe Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage’ – The fascinating story of Vladimir Komarov’s death on Soyuz 1, his friendship with Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet politics that surrounded them. (via) Warning: there’s a pretty nasty picture of human remains at the start of the story.
Let’s look at the facts about Mayors – Richard Kemp outlines many of the reasons why elected mayors are a bad idea.
Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake – does what it says on the tin, but fascinating to see what happens in the cockpit during a situation like that. (via)

Running Colchester

Two full Council meetings for the price of one last night, as we had to follow the main meeting with a special meeting to decide whether we should stay with our current system of election, where one-third of the Council is up for election every year, or switch to an ‘all-up’ system, where there’d be one election for the whole council every four years.

My feelings on this have always been clear – I don’t support switching to an all-up election until there’s a change in the electoral system. As it currently stands, we have many wards that elect multiple members (like my own Castle Ward) and that just compounds the iniquities of the first past the post system, allowing a party to get an overall majority on a very small share of the vote, especially if the vote is split many ways and/or localised in one part of the Borough. Electing by thirds isn’t a perfect system, but it means a party has to have consistent support over a period of time to get control, and gives the voters a regular chance to have their say over the direction of the Council.

To change the system, there needed to be a two-thirds majority of the Council in favour and there wasn’t that level of support – 28 in favour, and 26 against so we carry on with the current system.

We also briefly discussed whether Colchester should have an elected Mayor, but the main debate on that will be at another special Council meeting that will take place after the December regular Council meeting. I’ve already expressed my views on why I think an elected Mayor is a bad idea but now it’s time for you to have your say on it. The Council’s holding a consultation on whether we should switch to a Mayoral system before that special Council meeting, so you can say which system you’d prefer. So make sure you get along and comment there to have your views heard.

Does Eric Pickles actually possess a brain?

Would I be breaking some sort of coalition rule by calling Eric Pickles an idiot?

I’m just wondering, because I’m sure that being the Cabinet minister responsible for a Localism Bill, yet only speaking about things in bizarrely anti-localist terms are the actions of either a satirical genius or an idiot. And as I don’t believe his performance is directed by Armando Ianucci, that doesn’t really leave many other options.

I could just about take his habit of proclaiming that he was setting local councils free – even though the rhetoric rarely matched the reality – while also laying out what they should and shouldn’t do, as being merely Whitehall doing what it always does in a vacuum: filling it with guidelines. I could even explain away his pronouncements on how often Councils should collect household waste as merely him expressing his opinion in the way many ex-Councillors like to berate those of us currently in the role for changes to what they thought was a perfectly organised system when they were sitting in the council chamber.

There’s no way to explain away the latest bit of DCLG madness though. We all knew that the 12 largest cities were going to have Whitehall attempt to foist mayors on them (yet suggest direct election of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the same people and watch them run screaming) in the name of local accountability without any hint that they’d even registered the potential irony in that policy. That was somewhat justifiable, though, on the grounds that there was a precedent in London and such Mayors would be subject to confirmatory referendums.

So, when will such confirmatory referendums take place? Why, after said mayors have been elected and taken office, of course! Because there’s nothing more localist than making the decisions for a city from afar and then asking them to tell you just how right you are a little further down the line, is there? And in this new age of austerity for Councils (it must be happening, I had an invite to a £400 one-day conference to discuss it), just who pays for the organisational changes that will have to happen to accommodate these new mayors? And who foots the bill if the public are so ungrateful as to decide they don’t actually want them?

I was prepared for the Localism Bill to not live up to the hype of how it would completely liberate councils, even before Nick Boles started playing the mood music for the abolition of districts and boroughs, but wasn’t expecting it to be this ridiculously centralist and dictating. Though I do live in hope that someday someone will tell Eric Pickles that he’s going to be replaced by a directly-elected Secretary of State, and if he objects to that then he can have his say in the entirely balanced and not at all rigged consultation that his successor will arrange.

An elected Mayor for Colchester? No thanks

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how Councils were having to choose between two new structures for organising themselves, both of which required a huge concentration of power into the hands of one individual – either a ‘strong leader’ or an elected Mayor.

However, after the General Election and with the Labour Government being replaced with the Coalition, it looked like this would be something that would quickly fall by the wayside, especially with the statement in the Programme for Government which stated that while the twelve largest cities would have the opportunity to decide on whether they wanted elected mayors, for other Councils there was this:

We will give councils a general power of competence

We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.

So, no need to carry on with the old process and a chance for Councils to determine for themselves what the best way of running their affairs would be. Sounds great, until someone realised that they hadn’t got rid of the old legislation requiring Councils to go through the changes, and so that would stay in place until the Localism Bill finally made its way through Parliament. Yes, we have to change systems in 2011, and then change them again in 2012, no doubt all in the name of efficiency.

But that’s not what I really want to write about today. As the local press have reported, we’re now in the process of deciding which of the two options we want (pdf file) – strong leader or elected mayor. While I still remain somewhat ambivalent about the choice being offered in themselves – it’s somewhat akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or out of a helicopter – I think that the elected Mayor option should be strongly opposed and rejected.

This isn’t because I’ve become a fervent supporter of the strong leader system, but because that option is the one that’s easiest to amend in the future when we have the power to do so. I’m opposed to systems where power is concentrated in individuals and I think the best Council structure would be one where power is dispersed back to committees, area panels and the like rather than concentrated upwards. It’s much easier to switch to something entirely new from the strong leader situation than it would be if we had an elected Mayor in place – you’re more likely to get a leader who’ll give up their powers than a Mayor who’ll happily abolish their entire existence.

Of course, that’s at the heart of my opposition to elected Mayors – this idea that concentrating all the power of the Council into one person is somehow a good thing and will solve all problems. (It’s also very similar to the arguments Mussolini and the Fascists used in the 1920s and have been used by anti-democrats ever since – democracy and consensus have failed, only a strongman leader can solve these problems) No matter what living in an elected dictatorship might have taught us, democracy isn’t just about voting every once in a while and then forgetting about it. It’s a system of checks and balances that should be there to prevent, not encourage, the exercise of arbitrary power by anyone. The way the Mayoral system is established in Britain doesn’t allow for this – the Council is reduced to little more than a rubber stamp (just look at how little power the GLA has to check the Mayor of London) and huge chunks of what the Council does can be determined solely by Mayoral fiat.

‘But that’s what we want!’ Some people say. ‘Let the Mayor smash through red tape, bureaucracy, political correctness, council jobsworths and whatever other nonsense the Daily Mail says is blighting the country!’ What they fail to realise they’re assuming in this is that they’ll get a Mayor who agrees with them. I know we all like to assume that the majority agree with us, no matter how silent they might be when asked, but just imagine what someone you fundamentally disagree with could do with that unchecked power over your Borough. Concentrating power into a single post might increase the reward for winning an election, but there’s always that matching risk someone you don’t like will get all that power – all it takes is one good election campaign, one last minute scandal as people go to vote, one slip up in an interview or at a hustings and suddenly someone you never wanted running your life has a huge say over it.

I’m not claiming that the alternatives are perfect political systems for local government, but they do have the advantage of diffusing power, of ensuring everyone has the chance to have their say, not just the coterie who get to surround the winning Mayoral candidate, and there’s a recognition that individuals are fallible. Checks and balances may not lead to the supposedly dynamic and efficient government that seems to be perennially just one reform away from us, but they do keep the arbitrary abuse of power away.

What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings.

Karl Popper, The Open Society And Its Enemies