Sunday, 30 September 2012

Power to the people

Now we are into conference season I have been thinking a lot about issues of equality. I'm not a fan of positive discrimination as a way of getting a balanced mix of genders and races into politics. You end up with people like Diane Abbott  and Hazel Blears getting into positions of power and frankly in my opinion these two people are idiots. Politics is supposed to be a meritocracy and positive discrimination distorts this. Labour engages in lots of hand wringing and says all the right stuff on this issue but they have consistently failed. The Tories, the so called nasty party elected a female leader and had a female PM over thirty years ago before equality was even a hot topic, Labour and the Lib Dems have achieved neither. So what is to be done? How do you get the demographics of the elected to reflect the electors? One of the best ways of doing this would be open primaries. The people who select the candidates for the seats cannot and shouldn't be trusted with selecting those who stand. It’s estimated by the electoral reform society that 59% of the seats for MP's in the UK are safe, i.e. one party has a majority that is unlikely to be overturned by any other party. This means that that for the majority of seats, the parties hold complete control and this has led to lots of very poor candidates in power. I'm not a fan of a lot of the stuff the Tories are doing but "Call me Dave" did have a few good idea and open primaries was one of them. They even tried is as a one off in 2009 and it was a massive success. Sarah Wollaston, a local GP put her name forward to be the Tory candidate in Totnes. She has as far as I can tell become a very independently minded and good MP who has spoken out against the NHS reforms and unlike a lot of MP's has actually voted against the party whip. Unlike the parachuted in SPADS and ambitious career toadies she has had a successful career outside of politics and isn't beholden to the party leadership for her seat, the whips must hate her. I asked her on twitter the other day if there are likely to be more open primaries and the disappointing and honest response I got was:I am not holding my breath. Think they shld look at how to make them less expensive, then could be done for all parties"
Which is a great shame, the party machine has clearly realised they cannot control the candidates if they have no power over them. Labour and the Lib Dems have, despite their rhetoric have no plans to have open primaries and the Tories have now gone soft on the idea. With 59% of the seats safe, the only way the elected will reflect the electors are if the electors get to choose who they elect. The craptocracy will continue.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


Despite the dislike I have for political parties, I have come to the realisation that we actually have to fund them to fix our democracy. As much as I hate our stupid adversarial system, it won't change because people are always going to want to group together behind shared ideologies and beliefs. To quote the great philosopher Ferris Bueller: "A person should not believe in a -ism, they should believe in themselves". There will always be parties sadly, some people are in them because they believe in the parties ideologies, others because its the only way to get voted in and help people and others are just greasy pole climbing idiots who wouldn't cut it in the real world so go into politics. Politicians should be prepared to look at the evidence and facts, identify what the real problems are, not invent problems to placate their own base and make a judgement unbiased by pre-conceived ideas of what works best and pick the best way of fixing the problem.   They shouldn't care if its delivered by the public or private sector, whatever is the best way of doing something is the right way.  Some examples: Trains in my opinion should be state run, the duplication caused by the franchises are a nonsense, its fragmented, expensive and crap. Libraries should always be publicly owned, they are incompatible with private sector ethos on profit and growth and are probably the only ideologically free space we have left. Where there is real choice then its probably best to have private sector, the market (when it is a real market) is more efficient. Sadly we are lumbered with lots of fake markets that don't actually work, if it has a regulator beginning with "Of-" then its probably a fake market and should be in public ownership. In councils we have most services provided by the private sector in competitive tendering deals that in my opinion are rarely well negotiated by civil servants. It adds a extra layer of buck passing and services end up being publicly funded, privately run and accountable to nobody. (I nicked that line, cannot remember from where)

The problem is the decision making process on these things isn't really representative of what non-political people want because consultation is a sham. The Westminster bubble is full of people who don't represent us but fund the parties, setup the think tanks and have the influence and ear of the elected. The rest of us can write letters to our MP's, perhaps we can hold a protest if enough of us feel strongly about something, it rarely works though. Parliament and Blair still took us to war with Iraq against the will of the people and stupidly we still elected Blair again.

Again I must stress, I hate the adversarial party system, their behind closed doors democracy is why we are in a mess. The only way to clean the parties up though is to fund them and deny the people, groups and companies who subvert our democracy their biggest weapon, cash. The top diagram is what we have now, the bottom part is if we fund the parties and ban donations:

The unions completely fund the Labour party, I'm not in a union, they don't speak for me but they hold sway over one of our 2.3 parties, they do have their own democratic mandate but in 2009 there were only 7.1 million people out of around 62 million in a union. It doesn't give them a mandate to speak for us all. I do acknowledge the good they have done historically but I have seen the bad sides of unionism during my working life and I'm not a fan of unions today.

The Tories and Lib Dems have to rely on their members and wealthy donors to fund them. This is even less satisfactory than the unions paying for Labour. Lord Ashcroft almost single-handedly funded the 2010 election for the Tories. Then there are also taxpayer funded lobby groups like the LGA, SCL and god knows how many others that are not democratically elected or accountable and should have their funding cut.

The poor voter in the top part of the equation has almost no access, they can vote but because most of the seats are safe it rarely makes a difference. Most of us are disenfranchised by FPTP but we're stuck with it. Consultations are a waste of time as they are ignored. The media has more sway over policy than we do, we need them to act in the public interest rather than the interests of their owners. Hopefully this will improve post Leveson.

The parties are always desperate for money, peerages are given, whole bills have clauses written into them by lobbyists.  The system as it is means the people are ignored and the wealthy special interests are given access and preference. This has to end.

If we as taxpayers fund the candidates and ban all donations from individuals then this nonsense can end. The MP's will finally have to start listening and working for the majority not the minority. Union subs can pay for the full time union officials rather than the taxpayer, the wealth non-doms can fuck off back to Monaco and stop interfering with our democracy.

Parties and MP's already get to go on the news, have party political broadcasts and we already pay for them to leaflet us, they can have a few million each from the taxpayer based on how many candidates they get to stand and that's it. No donations, no special meet the minister dinners and events at £500 a head, no cash for honours, taxis for hire and a end to lobbying. Ministers and MP's should be banned for at least five years from taking jobs in companies that they have held a parliamentary interest in, either as a minister or on a committee. Meetings with lobbyists cannot be banned all together but they must be minuted and the ministers must insulate themselves from the special interests with all communications going through the civil service, no sneaky gmail accounts and pay as you go phones to avoid FOI to keep in touch with your dodgy mates. Complete transparency in other words.

There are drawbacks of course, the rules for funding would have to be applied equally so some parties I don't agree with will get funding, some people vote for them so its a price we have to pay. Hopefully it will mean independents can compete on better terms with the party machines because there will be fixed limits on what the parties can spend. It will also encourage the parties and candidates to get back to the communities to help them campaign which in turn will give power back to the local parties. Maybe some of the 60-70% that don't vote will start to believe in politics and vote again, who knows.

It won't happen though, the craptocracy will continue. I honestly feel sorry for the politicians who get into politics for the right reasons, despite my feelings towards the parties there are a lot of good people in them.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong (2)

Now the wobbly headed minister for Murdoch is off to wreck the NHS we are now stuck with EVaizey. His new boss though is someone called Marie Miller. Her views on abortion and gay marriage are not good, she is however a school governor so I hope she actually understands the importance of reading and libraries for young people. I won't get my hopes up though.

Its good news that EVaizey is still in post though, we have two and a half years to hold him to account for his inaction. Any fair reading of his position in opposition compared to his position on library cuts now shows his current position to be untenable. Politicians are very thick skinned however, especially this government.

In March I put in a FOI request asking what advice EVaizey had received, if any, telling him not to intervene where the department had taken the view the act had been breached by councils. What followed was a masterclass in obfuscation, time wasting and breaching a statutory act which gives the public the right of access to any information held by a public body. They are supposed to reply to FOI requests "promptly" and no later than twenty working days, unless there are special circumstances. The time line so far is as follows:

15 March 2012 - Initial request for information
12 April 2012 - Reply asking me to clarify my request, 19 working days later.
20 June 2012 - After a delay, they say no. 47 working days after the clarification which resets the 20 days.
24 June 2012 - I ask for a internal review (no more than 40 working days for these)
06 Sep 2012 - It is now 53 working days since my simple request for information

They have, I believe just stalled and wasted time at every stage to try and avoid releasing information they should by law. Only last year the prime minister promised a "new era of transparency" and talked up the power of opening up government information to the public:
"This incredible demand shows the power of transparency, and why we need more of it. Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats"
My experience of trying to understand the reasoning behind the lack of intervention by EVaizey doesn't really square with the lofty rhetoric of the prime minister. I have chased this via the what do they know site, I have emailed various people in the FOI team, the permanent sectary and I have even rang a few times and asked to speak to Demster (he goes to voice mail every time) but nobody is listening. The poor switchboard keep telling me that they all must be busy at the paralympics but that doesn't really cut it, that's hardly a unforeseen circumstance and billions were poured into that event so they aren't under resourced because of it. I need them to give their final, predicable response then I can finally refer this to the information commissioner, then its more waiting. Politicians will say and do anything to get into power, once there they face the other way and try their best to ignore you until its election time again. 

Link to the FOI request:

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Democracy Delusion

One of the worst things about getting involved in library campaigning is that it has confirmed my fears that democracy is in poor health in this country. Our descendants in thousands of years (if we are still here) will look back at our adversarial party system and pity us.

We have no-one to blame but ourselves of course, roughly only a third of us bother to vote, to win only a small percentage of the electorate is needed for the candidate to claim victory.

Because of the infantile way our party politics work, parties rarely admit to getting it wrong, make policy up on the hoof based on the way policies will play in the media (even now!) and are becoming more separated from the people than ever. All three leaders are former SPADS, in fact with few exceptions most of the front benches are. I think it shows the system of nepotism and patronage is getting worse in politics not better and the parties are failing to put forward the best candidates for elections. As a system of selecting the people with the best experience to run the country the parties are a complete and utter failure.

In local councils, the parties have all their meaningful debates at group level behind closed doors, unless the council is hung or in coalition then the ruling party will hold power over all the scrutiny committees and the leader of the group is chosen by the group not the electorate. Large councils represent in some cases over a million people and the leader will only have a mandate from a few thousand yet hold all the power.

The scrutiny committees are a joke, they are supposed to be un-whipped but no party member who having had the debate and been involved in the behind closed doors discussion is likely to raise difficult questions on their parties own policy, especially since they can be removed from the committee by the leader and hand weapons to "the enemy". Without any notice the leader can fire a member from cabinet, if the councillor has no outside job and relies on his allowances then he is unlikely to upset the status quo. This puts far too much power in the hands of one person with no political mandate from nearly all the electorate. It depends on the leader in questions but the potential for abuse is there as no real checks and balances exist. I was keen on elected mayors but since the goings on in Doncaster that system isn't right yet, the mayor has the power to make decisions and ignore the will of almost the entire body of councillors which is again very undemocratic. 

Council consultations are box ticking exercises, the decision having already been made behind closed doors they basically are pointless. Filled with loaded questions and ignored apart from any part of the results the party can use to promote the policy they have already decided on. I have never a seen a consultation where the council has put forward evidence, given options, explained why they prefer a certain one but give the electorate a choice on which they prefer. The people are clearly too stupid to decide make informed choices.

Things have improved a bit, councils are being forced to be more open with data but it still isn't there yet. Like religion, the power of the parties in on the wane, as less people bother to vote the legitimacy and accountability of the parties becomes more seriously worrying.

Because of the localism agenda, councils are getting a lot more power over how they spend our money. This really needs to go hand in hand with changes to the local government act to make local government more transparent, democratic and accountable. Here are a few ideas:

  • Councils have to properly consult and give a range of options with the evidence supporting why they think their favoured approach is the best.
  • The leader should not have the power to hire and fire his cabinet and the members of the scrutiny committee, there should be elected mayor in charge who is elected during every four years, but not when council is elected and similar to the president and congress in America can have his decisions reversed by a majority of councillors who control the funding.
  • The scrutiny committees should have a lay element, members of the public should be called up to committees in a similar system to jury duty and their numbers should balance out any one party holding complete sway over the committee system. They should provide a robust challenge to cabinet rather the current system of things going through on the nod.
  • At council meetings, the public should be allowed to question the cabinet, scrutiny committee and the officers. The questions should be put in advance to give them time to respond.

Nationally things are no better, spads parachuted into safe seats, too many government jobs meaning there are few independently minded back benches and the lords is full of cronies and ex-mp's, tame select committees, the vast majority of MP's never ever rebelling against their parties and voter turn out so low that they can just rely on their base in most seats to ensure victory.

Open primaries for candidates, reducing the power of the whips and of course an elected house of lords would be good steps to giving more power back to the people but the parties, despite what they say never seem to get these things done, there are always more important issues.

They like to kid us that because our system is so old it has to be good. Compared to some countries yes it isn't as corrupt and there isn't much vote rigging but it isn't a transparent, open and accountable democracy. More parties are hopefully going to emerge and return MP's in the future, hopefully some independents too, despite my distaste at some of the smaller parties, if they get the votes then the people have spoken and they should be represented, the 2.3 party craptocracy must come to and end.