Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have? – Andrew Coulson of the Institute for Local Government Studies asks a few questions about just what local government in the UK is for.
Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal – Some interestingly accurate assessments of the party from a departing member.
UKIP: The victory of the ruling class – A typically incisive post from Chris Dillow, pointing out that UKIP are anything but anti-establishment. “The discontent that people might reasonably feel against bankers, capitalists and managerialists has been diverted into a hostility towards immigrants and the three main parties, and to the benefit of yet another party with a managerialist and pro-capitalist ideology.”
This Other England: The Inevitable UKIP Post – “A significant minority of voters who hate everything about this country except the past. It’s a depressing vision – but one that we now have to confront.”
How can we reform local elections? – A proposal from Unlock Democracy to allow councils to determine their own electoral system locally.

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How Liberal Democrat MPs voted against making it far harder to misuse libel – Depressing.
A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip – Gabrielle Giffords in the New York Times
Dead children and monied politicians – and David Simon on how American democracy is failing under the unrestrained influence of lobbyists and money.
Do you live in a Rotten Borough? – New figures from the Electoral Reform Society on how first past the post distorts results in council elections. (And I don’t live in a rotten borough, but it’s within a rotten county)
My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters – Another chronicle of the everyday sexism some of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.

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Common decency fail at the Huff Post – Jim Jepps on why posting pictures of David Miliband with his flies undone helps to drive politicians further away from the public.
Eastleigh – Why There’s No Farage – Because, explains Tim Fenton, despite his talk of the importance of Westminster, he’s no desire to actually be an MP.
Hurricane Sandy Aftermath: Storm Damage Vehicles – An illustration of the amount of damage done by the storm, that also prompts questions about why they’re all being disposed of.
Against Save Our Thing – Alex Harrowell explains why campaigning to save social hardware is misguided when its the software that’s under attack.
The Shard: beacon of the left’s skyline – Owen Hatherley on how the 1980s changes in local government led to the skyscrapers of today.

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A very short post about Iraq – The Yorkshire Ranter with a succinct response to the ‘I was wrong, but’ brigade.
The less well-paid you are when you enter the labour market, the more your degree will now cost – From the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. Under the new system of student finance “the greater your rewards from studying for a degree the less you pay for the opportunity.”
Why we need a Robin Hood tax to support councils and their communities – I suspect the potential proceeds of a Robin Hood tax have been spent many thousands of times over in op-eds and blog posts, but this is an interesting perspective from the leader of Corby council.
The HB Gary email that should concern us all – From two years ago, but a fascinating look at how fake consensuses are being generated online by mass use of sock-puppet accounts.
What If The Coup Against Prime Minister Harold Wilson Been Carried Out? – An in-depth look at some of the details around one of the murkier parts of modern British history.

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It’s Monday, and so it’s time for a new week of silly proposals from obscure Tory MPs. First there’s Michael Fabricant batting his eyes enticingly at UKIP, and then there’s this as well: (via)

For individuals aged under 25 who have not yet paid National Insurance contributions for a certain period, perhaps five years, unemployment benefit should be in the form of a repayable loan. An unemployed teenager would still receive the same amount of cash as now, for example, but they would be expected to repay the value once in work.

Like many proposals from the nuttier fringes of the Tory party, it reads like a parody – it’s not enough for the poor to be poor, let’s put them in debt to the state as well! – and the information at the bottom of the piece left me just as confused:

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood, and a member of the Free Enterprise Group.

The name, the constituency, the ‘Free Enterprise Group’ – they all sound like things that could exist in Britain and the Tory Party, but do they actually exist? Is Skidmore just the Richard Geefe of the Tory right, perhaps Craig Brown sneaking something under the radar?

Apparently, no. Like James Delingpole, and so much else that passes for ‘commentary’ at the Telegraph, it’s entirely and depressingly genuine.

But it got me thinking – how hard would it be for someone to create an entirely fake MP and get people (including the media) to believe they were real? Kingswood, for instance, is one of those generic-sounding names that could be anywhere in the country (it’s actually to the north of Bristol), but if an article told you that it’s author was the MP for Queensbridge, for instance, would you question it? After all, there are 650 MPs, and who can remember all of them and their constituencies? Then if your fake MP was spotted, you could always invent a fake Lord to take their place – even political obsessives can’t name more than a handful of crossbench peers – though that is a trick that someone else has tried to pull recently. (But then again, surely Christopher Monckton is a parody that’s gone out of control?)

And finally, if you’ve had your fill of Parliament, you could always try setting up a fake Council. The 1974 Local Government Act gave us lot of names that can fool even the most experienced geographer – Vale Of White Horse, Three Rivers, Dacorum, Adur – as well as a lot of Mids, Wests, Easts, Souths and Norths, so it should be easy enough to come up with a name. Of course, there’s no chance of the media paying any attention to you, no matter what you do, unless you find some way to make them think you’re actually a London borough. Still, you’ll likely get lots of invites to attend and speak at Really Important Conferences.

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

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

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

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

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How the mainstream media derailed addressing child abuse – Why talk about real crimes and ruined lives when you can instead obsess over what it means to you, instead?
Keeping the Lights On: a look at UKIP’s energy policy evidence base – Are you surprised to find it doesn’t have much of one, and what it does have is misrepresented and misinterpreted?
The Very Existence of Local Government Hangs in the Balance – The leader of Brighton and Hove Council explains how a government that pretends to want localism is actually removing any possibility for it.
On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls and mansplaining – Ro Smith on the importance of breaking out of your own perspective and understanding that you don’t know how others see the world.
Education is losing its validity as a way forward for the younger generations – At the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen argue that “because education cannot meet employment aspirations its main purpose has become social control over youth”.

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It’s a well-documented phenomenon in British politics that the Conservative Party Conference is where some of the oddest ideas in British politics go to get an airing. As Political Scrapbook points out, there are many made ideas getting out into the open this week, but I wanted to highlight a couple.

First up, we have Tony Baldry MP, who has clearly discovered the history of the National Liberals and seems to think it would be a good idea to resurrect them. And just as the National Liberals were eventually subsumed into the Tories, so would their new version – in exchange for Tory candidates standing down, they’d have to agree to support the Conservatives in Parliament. In other words, they’d be Tories under another banner, but this is a good idea for Baldry because he believes “The country has been trying to manage three Parties, in a House of Commons and an electoral system essentially designed for two.”

It’s nice that a Tory MP admits that our electoral system doesn’t work well when there are multiple parties competing, but his solution to that problem is somewhat odd. In effect, if the people have the temerity to have a wide range of views that need a wide range of parties to represent them, they should learn better and only expect to have two parties. If they dare to vote for multiple parties, well, those extraneous ones will have to be removed to stop people like Tony Baldry being confused. After all, how can you have an orderly Parliament when there are people there who don’t automatically vote with the Conservatives or Labour?

In other news, Ipswich MP Ben Gummer has been complaining about councillors, saying that they’re ‘mediocre people’. The fact that Ipswich was run by a Conservative-led coalition that lost seats and power to Labour may have something to do with his comments, but I wouldn’t want to ascribe all of his comments to that. No, when he starts advocating the return of the business vote and talking about the Corporation of London as a model for other local government, it’s clear that he’s motivated by other factors too, such as a contempt for democracy.

However, while it’s a silly comment being made a fringe meeting, I’ve seen other comments by Conservatives nationally decrying councils as somehow blocking prosperity – much of the thinking behind the National Planning Policy Framework is based on the principle, and Nick Boles was playing the mood music for it a couple of years ago. While the coalition has said there’ll be no local government rearrangement in this Parliament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some form of local government reform being promised in the next Tory manifesto (probably alongside promises that it would ‘unleash growth’ and ‘promote efficiency’) with the intention being to gerrymander as much as possible into large shire county unitaries where the urban votes are drowned out by the rural ones. And if that doesn’t work, start giving people who are likely to vote Tory multiple votes and eliminate any of those pesky small parties who might confuse the issue.

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My dictionary’s had an update. It now says that ‘localism’ is defined as ‘giving people things they do not want; forcing them into changes they do not need’. Yes, ‘executive mayors’ are back, even though just about no one outside of the DCLG has shown any desire for them.

As I wrote back in 2009, this is a spectacularly bad idea. One of the strengths – yes, there are some – of the British system is that there’s a separation between the political and administrative sides of government, both nationally and locally. This smashes down that wall and opens the system to all sorts of formalised corruption when the executive mayor has the power to hire and fire council officers.

True localism would be about allowing councils to determine their own methods of running themselves, not just getting to choose from a restricted list of increasingly dictatorial options offered by the DCLG. A DCLG that actually cared about giving real powers to Councils – as opposed to concentrating what little power they have into individuals – would be working to devolve more powers to them. Instead we get more hare-brained schemes, scribbled on the back of an envelope in opposition and now being imposed despite no one – outside of a small coterie of advisers who’ve never had anything to do with local government, at least – thinking they’re a good idea.

But who cares about that when there’s the opportunity to bring clientelism formally into British politics. Gather enough votes for your executive mayor, and you too could be rewarded with a nice cushy sinecure at the Council. Welcome to localism, birthplace of the municipal Berlusconi.

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As I’ve said before, I think the idea of centralising power in councils into one person isn’t a very good one, regardless of whether that person has the title of Mayor, Leader or Lord Grand High Poohbah.

But it seems they don’t go far enough for the Tories:

Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.

Yes, not content with all the political power being constrained in one individual, they want to put all the administrative power in there as well. (As a point of comparison, imagine what the Tory reaction would be if Gordon Brown announced that he was going to sack Gus O’Donnell and give the powers of the Cabinet Secretary to either himself or Peter Mandelson).

But notice the key power these new ‘executive Mayors’ would have – the hiring and firing of staff. Yes, the political machine is about to make its long-awaited return to British politics, with individual politicians, now free of all the checks and balances of the old Council system, able to dish out jobs and to their supporters and backers. Say goodbye to old local democracy and welcome instead Democracy 2.0 (which bears a striking resemblance to Clientelism 1.0, but pay no attention to the endemic corruption behind the curtain). A Tammany Hall on every High Street, ready to dish out the Mayor’s largesse (in return for your loyalty and your vote, of course) with none of those concerns about accountability, fairness or representation.

Maybe Caroline Spelman, unlike Chris Grayling, actually has watched The Wire, though it would seem she missed the point and thinks that Clay Davis was the unsung hero of the series.

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