Friday, 30 July 2010

Another referendum

Democracy is an easy concept to understand, but a difficult one to implement.

The present coalition government still appears to be making policy on the hoof and the latest one from Eric Pickles purports to extend democracy. He wants there to be referendums in Local Authority areas where LAs exceed a certain figure of Council Tax increase; the figure will be set by government - presumably Eric Pickles.

It sounds fine superficially as a sound bite, but the scheme’s half-baked. Council’s set their budgets around February for the next year. Now the referendum (which EP says will be binding) will be held at the same time as Local Elections - these are in May. If the increase in Council Tax is turned down by the local electorate is Pickles’s idea that the LA will have to go back into the budget making process - even though they’ll be into the second month of their financial year?

And what happens in LA areas like Birmingham, where, every fourth year there aren’t local elections? Will the councils have the increased burden of carrying out a referendum just on this issue - a financial cost, of course.

Local elections have turn-outs around 40 - 50 percent. It’s human nature that those against things have a greater impetus to turn out and vote than those that aren’t against things - or feel a bit OK or a bit not OK about them. The scheme is weighted therefore in favour of overturning LA budgets. This isn’t good for prudent running of councils. But it does sound good, doesn’t it?

The most effective referendum, in fact, is the election of council members themselves, and high Council Tax rises would inevitably figure significantly in Local Elections. Councillors have to stand up and be counted . . .

We should be concerned, too, about the election of Local Police Chiefs. How are we going to know who these people are? (Other than by reading small biogs of them.) The most obvious way to recognise who we’d want in the police jobs will be by political badging. So the police force will become politicised in an unwelcome way. But, heigh-ho, we’ll have been given another vote on it.

Here’s a potential scenario . . . . I enter a booth to vote in a local election, but it’s a General Election too - another vote, under AV so I have to rank. I have a referendum, on LA budgets, and another vote on who should run the police force . . . Any more on the way, Davey?

Big Society? Big nonsense (I’ve Bowdlerised this last sentence.)

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Right Deed, but missing the Right Reason?

The Shadow Cabinet has decided to vote against the AV referendum bill. Does this mean that the bill can be defeated?

What comes into my mind is a quote from Thomas Beckett in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. ‘The last temptation was the greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’

Actually the quote (while a wonderful quote) isn’t quite apposite. The Shadow Cabinet’s thinking is focused on the inclusion of constituency changes - a kind of gerrymandering on Cameron’s behalf. Another concern is the date of the proposed referendum when local and Scottish and Welsh national elections are also being held. These concerns are totally valid - and well argued this morning on R4 by Jack Straw.

However, the AV system itself is not part of their concerns. So if the referendum bill falls by quote is at least useful in part.

If the bill falls it will allow time for a fuller debate on a fairer voting system and one which will allow many of us to express our opposition to AV. An opportunity we haven’t had, so far.

Monday, 26 July 2010

It's the Count that Counts

There are moans in the air that the LP - strictly the Parliamentary Labour Party in this instance - should get its act together and become a proper opposition. An unfair criticism.

The PLP is behaving itself very well indeed over the leadership period. Besides which any new government has a honeymoon period - sometimes long, sometimes short. The LP announced quite clearly its leadership timetable. In the meantime, portfolio holders make intelligent and effective responses as issues arise. If they are measured . . . then an element of treading water is appropriate.

And the political silly season’s coming up.

Those feeling understandably impatient, just wait until the new team is in place in October.

I’ve said before the leadership campaign is edifying. What is going to be unedifying is the halting dawdle to a decision at the count. The count for the leadership is held under the AV system. Anyone following the count for the deputy leadership will remember how protracted the process is.

On the topic of AV, I have now worked out how I should vote in the projected referendum. I’d have to vote NO. Not on the basis that I think FPTP is fairer; just that I think it fairer to vote for the status quo rather than shift to a system that’s equally as poor.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Simon Hughes takes double-speak to new heights

Many of us are wondering what Lib Dem members and voters are making of the decisions and policies of the coalition Government. Stephen Hughes has made an astonishing statement in an attempt to smooth away their worries.

He said in a radio interview that, of course, Lib Dems would never have supported a policy like those that form the Academies Bill. ‘But now, we support the Academies Bill, because it’s part of the deal.’ This is the most bald statement of ‘we are supporting things we don’t believe in so we can stay in power’ that’s been admitted to, yet. How is this going to smooth concerns . . .

Interestingly, the Leader of the Labour Group on Birmingham City, Albert Bore, mentioned such behaviour more than a year ago to me . . . (Conservatives and Lib Dems control the City Council.) He said the Lib Dems would never join with Labour in the council; ‘They refuse to vote with us even when they agree with us, preferring to vote with the Conservatives even when they don’t agree with them.’

At least their dishonesty (or shameless opportunism) is consistent!

Stephen Hughes went on to explain why Lib Dem voting support is falling. ‘Labour keeps attacking us instead of the Conservatives.’ Oh dear, I do feel sorry for you, Simon.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Arts Organisations Gnawing Off Their Legs

The entire country is running around shouting ‘Cuts’ at the moment. This isn’t surprising given every pronouncement from the Government. There is an atmosphere of fear where ever I go.

But everybody rushing around is also creating untenable Alice in Wonderland situations. Here’s an example from the Arts.

Very large organisations will be safe - hugely have to cut back I suspect; but the likes of the large national organisations or large regional organisations will not be allowed to close. (Just like major banks they’re ‘too big to fail’.) But the medium scale are the ones in danger; here revenue support may be in the tens of thousands, Cuts in these grants will quickly add up, but the demise of such organisations won’t shake the country - more’s the pity.

West Midlands regional organisations have been told by ACE (and I suspect this is national) that they should expect cuts for two years, but in the third year they should expect less organisations to be funded . . . That is, some organisations won’t get any revenue funding at all. There is a two-year transition, and organisations must draw up three-year plans that show how they will survive.

Birmingham City Council is also requesting three-year business plans.

It doesn’t take too much to see that an organisation will have to put in a plan that contains an element of ACE revenue support with an alternative of NO ACE revenue support.

In order to obtain funding, organisations will have to show how they can survive without ACE funding. The better the plan, the more likely they are to receive funding. If they can show they can exist well (albeit reduced) without subsidy, why would anyone want to subsidise them? If they show they can’t, then they’ll be seen as unrealistically expecting to operate with a deficit or not able to operate in the real world . . . So why would anyone want to subsidise them? If they show they can exist with no ACE funding with a good plan, then Birmingham City Council will be encouraged to fund them, but ACE encouraged to cut them.

In the good old days, BCC had a good working relationship with ACE; will this go, or will they collude?

Animals forced to gnaw off their own legs when caught in cruel animal traps come to mind.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Adapting Brighton Rock

I’ve been anxious to write something here about volunteering but will do this asap. My time has been totally taken up with an adaptation of Brighton Rock I’m writing - and I’ve promised it for this week-end.

It’s an adaption for a multi-media production that’s going on in Brighton at the end of a week’s celebrations for the centenary of Graham Greene’s birth.

Working on the adaption (I’m nearly there) has been truly fascinating. I feel, in an odd way, that I’m getting closer and closer to the original writer. I find myself in his thinking and this makes me very humble.

Working in such close detail, I come across occasional glitches, but more, I realise what an amazing work this is. Greene’s ability to enter into the mind of his tragic protagonist is remarkable - and he sets it all up so carefully. Pinkie’s ability to take over Rose’s will, is chilling.

But the thing I’m enjoying most is the tension between Catholicism (Pinkie and Rose) and ‘non-religion’ (Ida). I confess I find Ida a beautiful character - full of life and of love of life. She’s carefully set up in the book - and she is neither a blowsy, lower-life character, nor is she over 50. I hope to be bringing out this tension in the adaptation.

I hope too, to bring out the tragic nature of Pinkie’s background.

Brighton Rock is one of the great UK novels. I become obviously aware, as I work on it, that a book doesn’t last for years and years by accident. It’s a great book, a chilling book, and one it’s hard to put down.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Labour Leadership Forum

I was one of more than 600 Labour Party members this morning attending the Labour Leadership husting in Birmingham. All five contenders were there – the two Millibands, Ed Balls, Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham. I’d heard an item on the radio this week telling me how boring these events are, how bland, how controlled, how predictable.

In truth, I found it fascinating and important. And judging by the warm reception from the audience I wasn’t the only one. It’s true that questions had to be written down in advance, were selected by the Chair and each of the five contenders was given one minute to respond. ‘Control freakery?’ – hardly – with 600 audience members and five on the panel, you could hardly have a free-flowing discussion could you?

The answers coming from the panel were superior to the platforming answers on Question Time . . . which long ago ceased to be a programme of serious political debate.

I went to the meeting today undecided – I truly did wish to hear what they had to say. I agreed with some of what was said and disagreed with other bits. Most of the panel, for instance, support the graduate tax and AV – both of which I’ve written against here. Differences came out on Afghanistan, CCTV, DNA database; Diane Abbott would take the railways back into public ownership – something that will never happen . . . at least in my life-time.

But most important (and the reason these events are important) was the genuine feeling of working together that existed in the hall. And this was supported by a genuine passion to get Labour going again.

And from each of the Leaders intelligence, thought, integrity, and a powerful ability to communicate.

I now know who I shall be supporting for Leadership; but I would hope to see all the other four take a place in leading the party in opposition and taking it into government. And quickly into government.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Cable can float it - but will it sink?

Vince Cable has floated the possibility of the ‘graduate tax’; that people who have obtained degrees will pay a higher rate of tax in order to repay the cost of their tuition.

During the course of yesterday, and in a series of interviews, the policy seemed to develop . . . That there might be an eventual cap on the total amount paid . . . That the money might be ring-fenced by HMRC to go back into HE. But Cable and his colleagues, in the main, refused to answer any seriously probing questions on the basis that we ‘don’t want to preempt any of the findings of the review into HE funding.’ (Other questions included ‘What happens to graduates who leave the UK?’ and ‘What about students who come from EU Member States?’)

Implicit in this proposal is the principle of the Treasury ring-fencing money - that is, the extra graduate tax income must go straight back to HE funding. This is a principle the Treasury avoids like the plague - if they start it for one department, the pressure is on to do it for others . . .

If Cable and his government colleagues aren’t prepared to answer questions, why trumpet the policy? What we have is another half-baked idea from this present coalition government. So why rush forwards with a plan so ill thought-through?

A lot has to do with where Cable is coming from.

Tony Blair introduced the Student Loan repayment system because his government vastly expanded the number of students going into HE. The cost of this education had to be paid for. In opposition the LibDems took the comfortable position of saying they would abolish tuition fees . . . safe in the knowledge that they would never be in a position to implement it. But now they find themselves tied into a Government that is likely to agree to a removal of a cap on fees - almost the opposite of their chosen position.

The LibDems gained great support from student rich constituencies in the General Election. They calculated this . . . and sadly many student fell for the cynical (if effective) ploy. LibDem MPs now find themselves in a potentially difficult position. Abstentions may have been made available, but they’re not face-saving enough. Cable - and in generous moments I have to feel sorry for the guy - finds himself in the position of having to square a circle.

Since I used to teach maths I can tell you that you can’t square a circle . . . which is a regular polygon with an infinite number of straight sides - a square having four. But you probably already knew that.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

But Whose Alternative Votes will be Counted?

I'm all for changing our voting system. I was born in Reigate in Surrey and know that if I'd stayed there my Labour vote would never have counted. So I'm all for change.

At last we are promised a vote on change . . . but change to what? The choice to be offered, it would seem, is the Alternative Vote - which is not a proportional system at all. But, more importantly, it’s an unfair system that will disenfranchise as many as it franchises and has other, equally as bad, consequences.

There will be many like me (from all political colours) who wouldn't be able to bring ourselves to vote for a different party; so where's our 'second vote'? But at least we choose not to use it - so although disenfranchised you could say we have only ourselves to blame.

But what really worries me is the way other ranked votes are to be reallocated. ‘Ranked’ because it goes beyond second choices.

It's stated in public forums that voters will rank candidates. If the lead candidate fails to get more than 50 pc of the vote, then alternative choices are allocated until the leading candidate achieves more than 50 pc. So far so good; but we are not usually told that the votes reallocated start with those given to the candidate who gets least votes, then next to bottom and so on. And here's the rub.

In the following paragraphs I’ll round figures, and I make assumptions about 1st choices. There isn’t the space here to investigate what happens when people put small parties as second choices.

In my own constituency of Hall Green, for instance, there was a tight three-way contest between Labour, Respect and LibDems. Roger Godsiff (Lab) won over Respect by just under 3k votes, with just under 50k votes cast. So the winner must achieve 50 pc or more of . . . well, votes of some sort or another – about 25k.

Here goes. First to be reallocated would be an Independent (190), then UKIP (950), then Conservative (7320). We now move into speculation, but it's reasonable to believe that the UKIP second choices would, in the main, go to Conservatives . . . what happens then?

Here we have about 8.5k votes to be reallocated among the Labour, Respect and LibDems. On the 2010 figures, Godsiff would need to achieve 9k more votes and Yacoub about 13k more votes to win, so there aren’t yet enough votes to win. On this next redistribution people who voted LibDems would have 2nd choices counted, previous Conservatives 3rd choices counted and the others, their 4th choices.

Did you follow that? Here’s another example. This one from the next door constituency of Edgbaston.

Gisela Stuart held on to the Labour seat (against all expectations) with a majority of just over 1k. (Lab 16.9k, Con 15.6k, LibDem 6.4k; about 42k votes were cast in all) In Edgbaston, the winner would need to win about 21k votes.) To win, Stuart (Lab) would need an additional 4k and Alden (Con) about 5k more. So far so good.

But look at how second choices would be reallocated here. Tiny parties took about 260 votes, then Green c470. UKIP 732 – so about 1.5k in all. These reallocated votes aren’t enough to win the election so the next is BNP with 1196 votes to be redistributed. Around 2.5k second choices to be redistributed. Still not enough, so another round of choices is needed. In this one, LibDems get their second choices with the BNP’s more than 1k voters’ third choices having, possibly a significant influence.

Second and third choices could have significant influence and people’s first choices down graded. And is a third choice really a valid choice? The system moves into Alice territory . . . and goodness knows how long counts and recounts might take.

So . . . Alternative Votes are no better, really, than First Past The Post. In a referendum that offers us the choice between AV or FPTP, what are we to do? AV is unfair. A 'no' to AV in a referendum is likely to close the door for electoral reform for a long time.

The only way forward on this is for politicians to vote against the referendum - if the choice is AV or status quo. The ‘no’ vote must incorporate a firm commitment to change to a fairer system. The door is then left open for a referendum that'll offer us a proper choice – and perhaps one that would allow my Labour vote in Reigate to count for something.

Monday, 12 July 2010

England, England

Now that the World Cup has finished . . . except on television and endless commentary . . . perhaps this would be a good time to consider the anthem that's played for the England team.

I noticed during our matches that 'God Save the Queen' is played.  There's a problem with this . . . it's the national anthem for the UK.  England needs its own anthem.

I've mentioned this to a few friends and the considered opinion is that we should use Jerusalem.   I was initially against this, since it might appear that we would be appropriating the hymn closely associate with the WI - an organisation for which I have great respect.  My knowledge of the WI is moderate, to say the least, but I do know it's far from stuffy and often quite radical in its thinking.  Anyway, back to the point.

I've failed to come up with a song or tune more apt and equally as stirring.  So Jerusalem it could be.  It would sound terrific sung by thousands, and most people know the words and tune (at least in part.)  If it were adopted, we'd quickly get up to speed on it (metaphorically, of course.)

On the other hand, if there are better suggestions I'd be pleased to hear them.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Let the Church of England potter into irrelevancy

Here we go again . . . the Church of England struggling to drag itself forward into the 21st Century.  Should we have women bishops?  Should we allow gay bishops?  It's clear that the C of E has a group within it that's hard-core misogynist and homophobic.  Par for the course, you might say, just like society as a whole.  But the trouble is the Church is bending over backwards to accommodate these views instead of confronting them.

I am a confirmed atheist.  I struggle to get this stated on equal opportunities forms . . . where I have to put it in a box called 'religion' for the most part!  So really I don't worry too much about what the Church is doing - these debates could be part of it's death throes.

However, the Church, as an organisation, has power - albeit perhaps, lobbying power - in this country.  So its lack of equality of opportunity should concern us all.  But we shall never have a mature democracy in this country until there is a real divide between Church and State.  People should be free to follow their religions, but not free to impose their views at all on the rest of us.

Such a disestablishment, I fear, is a long way away, though.  But I don't give up hope. 

Friday, 9 July 2010

Education Cuts - Mr Creepy's Own Goal

When Michael Gove announced his swingeing cuts to the budget for rebuilding and renovating schools, one of the disturbing aspects was his apparent glee at doing it. He appeared to be bathing in the sunlight of being the among the first, the biggest and the most brutal cutter of the new Government. Obviously keen to catch Sir's eye and one of the new prefects.

Now his untimely haste has jumped right back and bitten him. Mistakes in the first list and then in the second shows what a prat this man is.

That having been said, I find myself truly upset by the announcement. I've been in many schools of different types and for different ages, and the least we can offer young people is a decent place in which to work, learn and develop. This is not a 'hard' cut, it's a disgraceful one.

Does Gove really think he and his government can now get away with pouring money into his free schools - get the marketing ploy there. Gove is keen on pointing out that we have a two tier education system. But neither he, nor his cronies, ever mention the public (ie private) schools that truly create the inequality in the UK education system.

This education cut and the free schools policy are but the start of an old-style Conservative free market philosophy. Once again, they will try to prove that the free market can solve all ills.

Well, no it can't. Shame that our young people must be such an early victim.