Saturday, 28 April 2012

Library Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The Conservative group in Oxfordshire have elected their new leader to replace the outgoing Keith Mitchell. The leader is a man called Ian Hudspeth. He was a cabinet member but was booted out when he challenged Keith for the leadership last year. Why this is significant for libraries is Cllr Hudspeth spoke out against the current library scheme both at the scrutiny committee and cabinet. He was one of only two elected Tories to speak out against the flawed proposals.
Cllr Hudspeth fighting the PM for the brolly (pic Oxford Mail)

 His rural division of Woodstock is one where the staff are being cut and the library will be forced to rely on "volunteers". Having a look on Ian's site there is a post he wrote at the time when the current proposal was voted through and gives his thoughts on the way forward for libraries in Oxfordshire, here is a snippet:

"The one glimmer of hope for Woodstock and all libraries is that the budget for next year allows them to remain as they are with the savings budgeted for future years. This does mean that we can continue to fight to have a fully funded library in Woodstock."

I understand a lot of the Tory group were unhappy with the proposal and didn't get a chance to vote at group level. The idea behind it came from a meeting with David Cameron and Cllr Mitchell when Cameron intervened when the threat to the City libraries caused a lot of negative publicity involving celebrity authors. I don't think the staff in the library service itself had very little to do with it nor the flawed and misquoted data used to support it. Sixteen of the twenty one cut libraries are in Tory divisions.  

Whatever Cllr Hudspeths ideas are for the library, he seems more pro library and I hope this means a scheme that will save money, keep the libraries fully staffed, open and most importantly restore their status as statutory (in the view of the council). When asked by the Oxford Mail why he won the vote he said:

"But I would hope they can see that I am bringing fresh ideas and a new approach to the county council."

I hope the new approach means a reprieve for the libraries but also a more consensual approach, Keith did rub a lot of people up the wrong way, the job of a politician is to lead by consent in my opinion. Most non party people like myself don't like tribal politics, despite how entertaining it can be to watch them insult each other. We care about what works, want evidence based policy, not policy based on ideology and then trying to find the evidence to fit the policy. 

Finally on Cllr Keith Mitchell, although I find myself disagreeing with him on lots of issues, all the people who know him I have spoken to have all say he is a workaholic and was always putting in long hours as  leader. He is also a very accessible politician, he always answers emails and tweets, sometimes with insults! But he is always up for a debate. I wish him luck in whatever he does next.  He is speaking at a "Do we need libraries" debate in Liverpool next month, despite having a annoying title I look forward to hearing his views. I do hope he understands that people like me are happy to volunteer to improve the library but I refuse to be forced to volunteer to replace staff. The rural voters are as entitled to a statutory library service as those in cities.

Oxford mail article on new leader:

Link to the new Leader Ian Hudspeth's website and his library page:

The Liverpool Uni's "Do we need libraries?"  (YES!)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Those who search through piles of rubbish in the hope of finding something of value

The slightly misleading title is according to wiki what scrutiny actually means: Scrutiny (French: scrutin; Late Latin: scrutinium; from scrutari, meaning "those who search through piles of rubbish in the hope of finding something of value,") Which I think is quite apt considering some policies that come from government at both local and national level. What has been clear to me quite recently during the libraries fight and watching the various select committees is that politicians are incapable of following the rules and putting tribal politics to one side and actually scrutinising policies and departments on evidence. I don't think it applies to all of them of course, there are some very strong committees in Westminster which are chair by independently minded back benches who are unafraid of upsetting their own governments and whips. I think though although the committee system in parliament and scrutiny at local level is a improvement at what has gone before I think improvements are needed. I had jury duty last year and spent a week mainly just sat about waiting to be called, I did get to sit on a case for the last two days which was a very interesting experience. Why can we not have citizen involvement in the democratic process in a similar vein? I would imagine it isn't beyond the wit of government both locally and nationally to arrange "scrutiny service." It would of course still need a professional chairman and deputy, this could be a civil servant and politician but this should only be to run the meetings and answer the questions of the lay members of the committee. They should be the ones doing the actual line by line scrutiny and making sure what has been proposed and that it stacks up. Currently what we have is committees at local level where the bulk of the members are from the party that holds power, in Westminster from what I have seen the committees appear to be a bit more independent but watching how partisan some members of the DCMS committee are I feel they cannot be trusted to be impartial. The system will of course bang on about the cost, considering how much departments like defense waste every year on very, very poor procurement I think it will more than pay for itself. If its good enough for law, its good enough for government.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Lies damn lies and statistics

Because of the sad death of a Councillor Roger Belson over Christmas, Oxfordshire County Council held a by-election for the vacant division of Watlington in the South of the county. The division was held by the Tory candidate Caroline Newton. Although the share of the total votes for the Conservatives was only down by about 4%, the actual drop in votes was very dramatic. There were 1720 votes for the party in 2009 but only 865 in this by-election. The turnout was very poor, only 24% of those eligible to vote compared with 54% in 2009. I don't know if this is a common trend for by-elections but the fact that most of the voters stayed away and the vast majority of them were Tory doesn't bode well for the party next year. The Greens didn't put up a candidate this time but UKIP did. UKIP got 110 votes, obviously this helped bring the numbers down for the Tories. What I decided to do with the data "just for fun" as Peter Snow would say is apply the percentage changes to the three main parties to the other divisions in Oxfordshire. Only having a small sample and the numerous other variables that can come into play means it is only a very rough estimate but if the trend for the Tory voters did hold out until 2013 and similar happened in their other safe divisions then the Tories could be in trouble next year.

Here is the divisions as of 2009:

And then the projected divisions for 2013:

On this extrapolation the Tories would a two seat majority over the other parties. Of course this is based only on tweaking the numbers for the three main parties. If Labour and the Lib Dems put in a strong performance in most of the seats  then it could get end up looking a lot worse. I personally think the Tories have more to fear from the UKIP candidates as they can split their vote in the places were they're not really safe like Kennington and the Abingdon East and North divisions. The boundaries are being redrawn soon so we end up with less county councillors, not sure if this is in time for next year but this could also have unforeseen consequences. 

I hope the Tory group are having a long, hard look at themselves before the next election. Reading the reports in the newspapers about my favourite "oik assessor" Keith Mitchell (thanks to @daddyofbob for that one!) taking decisions on his own, announcing them to the media and expecting the group to back him, have done I think massive damage to the parties standing. Having also witnessed the "scrutiny" process first hand thanks to the pointless, vote killing library cuts, this is something that I believe also needs sorting. They are supposed to be independent and non-political, I personally don't think they are and they just follow the party line.  I have been searching the committee papers and have yet to find a single instance where the actually didn't approve something put to them and forced cabinet to look at something again. If true it means ideas and evidence are not being tested and it can only lead to bad decisions and policies being waved through. We see plenty of evidence of this in the Oxford Mail.

The time has come for the Tories to start listening to voters and not take them for granted in their rural seats as they have done for the past ten decade. And some proper, evidence based policies with real consultation that engages the voters with proper independent scrutiny. If they don't they could end up watching a coalition of Labour and Lib Dems running the County Council until 2017. Democracy demands it.

P.S I normally put up a link to the data. I'm not this time because I had to painstakingly cut and paste the results from annoying web pages on the OCC site because the council has thus far not put up the data in a actual data format! If anyone wants the data though just ask nicely and I will send it.

P.P.S here is a link to the Oik Assessors site with more info on the new county councillor, who unlike a lot of politicians has actual experience in the real world