2017 General Election diary Day 4: Breaking pledges before the vote

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So, about that whole one post a day thing during the election. I’d like to explain here that it was always an aspiration and never a firm commitment, but global circumstances have since arisen that will make it hard to meet that aspiration within the course of the campaign. Or in other words, I’m going to try and get an election post up here every day, but with lots of other things going on right now, there may well be more days like Thursday where I don’t quite get round to it, then Friday when I don’t have the time to write two posts, so we get slippage. The advantage of this approach is that there’s a good chance I’ll end up getting nowhere near 50 posts, and so this whole thing will end up seeming a lot shorter than it actually is in reality.

So what’s happened since yesterday morning? Well, Theresa May’s still yet to encounter a member of the public in anything other than a carefully controlled, almost hermetically sealed environment. And if your answer to that involves invoking something about the security of the Prime Minister, then please have an explanation for her happily pounding the streets during the Witney by-election. Just like Cameron in 2015, her plan is for a campaign that runs through a series of Potemkin villages, safe in the knowledge that the press is too craven or cowed to challenge her on it. If anyone ever does get the chance to ask her a question, can I suggest ‘if we can have an early election because you want to overturn the results of the last one, why can’t we have another referendum on the EU?’

Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.
In other news, the likelihood of biscuit-related headlines fell sharply with the news that Eric Pickles will be standing down at this election. One thought that crosses my mind in relation to the number of MPs stepping down here is that it might present some interesting problems for the Tories at the next election, when the number of MPs are set to go down to 600 from 650. I’ve argued for a while that that’s not the big problem some people think it is because a lot of the shrinkage will be taken up by retiring MPs and rearranging the remaining candidates to fill the gaps. If, however, all those MPs who would have retired then have now gone, and been replaced by keen young things wanting to hold on, then there might be the problem of trying to fit far too many MPs into far too few winnable seats. (That’s the sort of thing that can fall into the category of ‘nice problems to have’ if it comes about, though)

Also in potential nice problems to have, if this election was to end with a potential coalition on the table, and if the coalition was to involved the Lib Dems, then there’d need to be a Lib Dem conference to approve the deal. (This, of course, is one reason why any sort of coalition involving the Lib Dems is ridiculously unlikely to happen) The trouble is that the Lib Dems now have a system where all members can come to conference and vote, and with a party membership now around 100,000 it could make the choice of venue interesting. I’m assuming Wembley Stadium will be free in June if needed?

We’re still in somewhat of a phony war period, shown most notably by the fact I can’t yet start doing election leaflet of the day because everything on the site is still local elections related. Whoever uploads the first general election leaflet on there will be noticed, but until then the best we have is weird pictures from a UKIP candidate and a Scottish Conservative candidate yet again showing why most fashion designers shy away from the repeated Union Flag as a style statement. All very slim pickings so far, but still a long long way to go…

David Cameron believes his own spin

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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.

Hopefully for the last time: Eric Pickles fails to understand localism

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picklesbiscuitsOver the past few years Eric Pickles and his strange contradictory definition of localism – where councils get to locally decide whether they agree with him totally or wholeheartedly – have provided many posts for this blog and I may feel momentarily sad on Friday if he’s no longer around to provide me with such easy pickings in the future.

However, being a generous man he’s given me one last thing to have a shot at it before he (hopefully) goes and it’s yet again him failing to understand anything about localism while showing that his time at DCLG has been about maintaining Whitehall’s central control over everything. Indeed, it’s worth noting that while city regions have their flaws, they are an attempt at some kind of devolution and Pickles and the DCLG have been kept well away from them in case they mess that up as badly as they’ve messed up localism.

But back to the subject at hand, and it seems that Pickles spent Thursday evening going on a bit of a Twitter rant at Nick Clegg talking about ideas for local government that he and the Conservatives had blocked. As ever, these were ideas about how Councils could take more control over their areas and widen their tax base so they didn’t have to rely solely on the blunt instrument of council tax or the rapidly shrinking grants from DCLG. Pickles, unsurprisingly, gloated about how he’d said no to all of these just as you’d expect from someone who sees his job as interfering with councils and keeping them from running services in the way they choose.

Pickles isn’t unique in this approach – though he has a boorish way of expressing it that makes him so much more annoying than previous holders of his job – and if there’s one thing I’d love to see from the next government, regardless of which party or parties make it up, it’s a commitment to real localism and devolution. That includes giving councils a wide range of tools – including a variety of tax raising powers – to choose from themselves and decide which works best for their areas.

The problem with Pickles through out his five years at DCLG has been that he doesn’t see local government as something that should be allowed to get on and do its job according to the wishes of local people. Instead for him it’s just another arm of the centralised state, there to carry out whatever diktats he sends down from Whitehall, the only power it needs being to choose just how much it agrees with him. Real localism needs central government to understand that it has to get out of the way and let local government do what it wants to do, and Pickles has demonstrated consistently over the last five years that he’s a roadblock to achieving that.

The comic genius of ‘Eric Pickles’

There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.

Another strange tale of Eric Pickles

The trouble with writing a blog post about Eric Pickles is that just when you think he’s dug down to a whole new unbeatable low, he finds himself a better shovel and heads down deeper.

So today we have the news of the latest round of local government cuts which are about as awful as everyone was expected. But in an effort to claim that any cutbacks in services that result from this aren’t the fault of the Government, we get to hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government telling us that there are easy ways for councils to make more savings.

“What is it, Eric?” Councils ask eagerly, hoping that the great minds of DCLG have stumbled upon some magical ways to make easy savings without service cuts. “What great idea have you stumbled upon?”

“It’s not just one suggestion – it’s fifty!” Booms the Secretary of State, and magically sends a list to every Council throughout the land.

“Wow!” Exclaim the councils. “Fifty ways to save money! Thank you, oh wise and knowledgeable Secretary of State. We’re so grateful for this advice that we won’t even make a Fifty Shades Of Grey joke.”

“Never fear, my friends.” The Secretary of State says. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate my sage advice.”

Eagerly the Councils opened their guides and read them quickly, wanting to find what ways the geniuses of Whitehall had found for saving money. What incredible new schemes might they have found? What new advice on making the most of meagre money did they have to impart?

“Wait a minute!” One small and plucky council finally shouted. “This is just a list of things most councils are doing already, mixed in with some political dogma about Common Purpose and trade unions.”

“We’re already doing most of these.” Said another.

“We are too!” Others cried, and soon the calls of agreement became a cacophony, occasionally interspersed with bitter laughter at the idea that Councils might not have noticed that Town Halls made good wedding venues.

“But wait.” One of them finally asked. “If the geniuses of Whitehall think that this is all new and useful information, and not just reminding us of the same things we’ve all been doing and talking about for the last few years, what are they doing with their time? Are they looking at what councils are actually doing, or is the Secretary of State too busy obsessing over bins and talking to ‘Conservative madrassas’ to bother with finding out what local government is actually doing?”

And they looked to the Secretary of State for an answer, but he’d departed, leaving just a newly emptied bin in his place.

Eric Pickles’ bin fetish

For what sins committed in a previous life have we found ourselves inflicted with Eric Pickles in this one? I’ve written many times about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, each time sure that he’s reached a new nadir, that he can go no lower, and then every time he confounds expectations to find an even lower common denominator. Indeed, so bad has be been at DCLG that he makes councillors I’ve met from all parties positively wistful for the days of Hazel Blears.

One of the main problems I have with Pickles’ reign at the DCLG is the centralist localism he’s continually prescribed. The paradox in that description is intentional – Pickles et al talk about a new age of localism for local councils, but it only means that you’re free to decide locally which shade of his policy you wish to implement. It’s a ruse to try and get councils to take the blame for centrally-imposed funding cuts that will reduce services to the bone. See for instance, the Barnet Graph of Doom, or Birmingham’s Jaws of Doom for a view of how perilous the situation is. As council leaders are warning today, things are dire, and a further 2% cut could be catastrophic.

In this light, the fact that Pickles could find £250m from his budget to pay for councils to keep weekly bin collections does seem an odd priority. (Full disclosure: Colchester Borough Council is receiving money from this fund) It’s right that MPs question this – as Tristram Hunt did in the House of Commons on Monday. Their exchange is worth recording:

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): In towns and cities across England, local authorities are being forced to close museums, shut care homes and end library provision, but the Government found £250 million to empty the bins more regularly. What kind of abysmal, philistine, reactionary Government put dustbins above library books?

Mr Pickles: The people who are putting dustbins above those things are people who care about the general service provided to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a luvvie, so no doubt he is looking intensely at the drop in culture, but that is a matter for local decision, and he is wholly wrong. People should look at how an authority can get more money in by exploiting and using its cultural heritage. Frankly, he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies. He should listen a little bit more.

There we have it – bin collections are part of ‘the general service provided to the electorate’ but libraries and culture are just something for ‘a bunch of luvvies’. That’s the Pickles view of the world, where weekly bin collections are sacrosant, but the work of libraries is irrelevant. Who needs culture when you can have a black plastic sack instead?

Do Tories understand the meaning of ‘localism’?

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.

Worth Reading 71: Welcome to York

We should not send people to prison for being offensive – Jonathan Calder explains what should be a simple principle, but it’s one sadly forgotten by many people.
Eric Pickles: are you a cigar-chomping Commie? – Writing at Liberal Democrat Voice, Andy Boddington points out some of the Communities Secretary’s inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
Perpetual Peace and European Union – To mark the EU winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Chris Brooke reproduces a lecture on some of the philosophical origins of it.
NHS Reform the bill that “no one voted for”? Not really. – Mat Bowles looks at what was actually in the Conservative manifesto two years ago.
Jimmy Savile and David Icke – all the pieces matter – Not for everyone: Frantic Planet looks at the bizarre conspiracy theories being espoused on the David Icke forums. (via)