It is tempting to vote “No” to AV to punish Nick Clegg — he could have reached a simple supply and confidence arrangement with the Tories but the lure of the cabinet table was too much for him. The lack of any leaflet from the “Yes” campaign or from the Lib Dem in the council election could be another reason.
But I will be voting “Yes” and this is why. This referendum is about the future, not current politics. The first past the post system has generally, but not always, produced governments with good parliamentary majorities in the past 60 years.
It was not always so, and in the 19th century, before party discipline became so strong, prime ministers had to fight for every vote in debates over great decisions.
In more recent years we seldom see really good debates. Blair famously avoided attending the House of Commons. I believe coalitions and even minority governments can be good for democracy: they force leaders to argue their case, under tough scrutiny, to win the important votes in the House.
AV will ensure that MPs have support, even if it is sometimes reluctant, of a majority of voters. It is a system used in many elections here and around the world without problem.
But let’s look at what AV might mean here in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency. Dan Poulter, who is showing himself as a good constituency MP representing all his constituents, would have been elected MP last year.
He just squeaked past the winning threshold with 50.8 per cent of the votes. It is just possible that more people might have voted UKIP in a first round under AV, but he would certainly have won, probably with a bigger share of the votes. The Lib Dems overtook Labour to come second in this election.
Looking at previous elections things become more interesting. In 2005 Michael Lord, Conservative and a deputy speaker of the Commons who was not a very active constituency MP, was elected on 43.9 per cent of the vote. It is likely that he would have won but it might have had to go to a third count.
In 2001 Lord got 44.4 per cent of the vote and was only 3,469 votes ahead of Labour. Everything would have depended on second preference votes of Lib Dems.
In 1997 Lord was elected with 42.6 per cent of the vote and a majority of 3,458. Again everything would have depended on Lib Dem voters’ second preferences.
The elected members for Mid Suffolk and North Ipswich could well have been the same throughout this period if we has used the AV system. But clearly the candidates would have had to work to widen their appeal.
Under first past the post, the objective of candidates here needs to be to gain the support of about four out of ten electors.
I would much rather see MPs campaigning to get the support of more than half the electorate. That is why I will be voting “Yes” to AV.
Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has told the Commons that Andrea Hill, chief executive of Suffolk Count Council, was detracting from Suffolk’s reputation by refusing to take a pay cut.
He was answering a question from David Ruffley, the Conservative member for Bury St Edmunds, about representations he had recieved on local government pay. In reply to a suplementary question, Mr Pickles said:
Chief executives’ pay has got completely out of kilter. There are now 800 local government employees in the top 1% of all earners according to Will Hutton’s figures. With regard to the chief executive of Suffolk, that county does many fine things and is an exemplar authority in many ways, but the chief executive’s refusal to take a pay cut has meant that she has detracted from Suffolk’s many fine achievements.
The full Commons exchange is on Mr Ruffley’s website. It is interesting that Mr Pickles chose to quote from Will Hutton’s report which Ms Hill also used in her message of justification in the latest edition of Inside SCC.
The village newsagent is not simply a place to buy a paper, it is a centre of news itself. This morning in Webster’s, Debenham, the talk was of three successful weekend fund-raising events in the village.
Central and local government both talk about building capacity for volunteering. They are employing increasing numbers of people to tell us how to do it.
Yet village across the country already have the capacity both to raise money and organise projects large and small. On my desk I have a 150-year-old report from the Ipswich Journal of a concert in which raised £5 towards renovating the Market Cross to become the Debenham village library.
The two largest 20th century buildings here were both community projects. The Odd Fellows Hall — a precursor of the welfare state — is now the Old Fashioned Bathrooms business. The leisure and community centre, which includes sports and exercise facilities as well as a hall, continues as a village project.
Debenham is running pretty close to full capacity at the moment. Some of the schemes are imaginative such as that for the primary school to build a swimming pool which will be open to all and the Debenham Project to support the carers of people with dementia.
Yet we are being told to do more in the name of a doctrinaire idea called “Big Society” (in Suffolk aka New Strategic Direction). We don’t want to be patronised. We had a big society before any of the current political parties came into existence.
And it is going to be tough finding the money for the things people here are doing already: supporting local things and people in other countries.
The Observer yesterday reported:
The Office for Budget Responsibility has raised its prediction of total household debt in 2015 by a staggering £303bn since late last year, in the belief that families and individuals will respond to straitened times by extra borrowing. Average household debt based on the OBR figures is forecast to rise to £77,309 by 2015, rather than the £66,291 under previous projections.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist, commented on these British figures last week:
… the only way the economy can avoid taking a hit from government cuts is if private spending rises to fill the gap — and although you rarely hear the austerians admitting this, the only way that can happen is if people take on more debt. So we have the spectacle of a government that inveighs against the evils of debt pinning all its hopes on an assumption that over-indebted households will dig their hole even deeper.
All in all, it’s quite a spectacle. It would be funny, except that millions of people will suffer the cost of this folly.
Substitute “county council” for “government” and you have what Suffolk County Council is also asking us to do. Our capacity to support existing projects, let alone do more, is going to be stretched in the next few years.
The credibility of Suffolk County Council is in tatters as it claims that its own responses to a Freedom of Information Act request was “misleading”.
It took the Evening Star in Ipswich five months and four FoI requests to discover the council had paid £1,474.74 for photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.
The story was published on Friday and it soon became apparent that this was being followed-up by most national newspapers. The council’s communications team went into action and, according to the Sun started backtracking.
Yesterday the Evening Star reported a council spokesman saying:
It is true to say that the figure of £1,474.74p for photography supplied in a recent FoI request was assigned to the name of the chief executive.
Unfortunately and on reflection, that was misleading. The actual invoice supplied by the photographer shows that £1,474.74p was the total figure charged for two separate pieces of work on June 25 and July 3.
The work also included portraits of 14 councillors, the election of the chair and vice chair of the council and coverage of a community seminar.
It is entirely wrong to suggest that £1,474.74 was spent solely on photographs of Andrea Hill.
This came at the end of the week when frustration in Whitehall came to the surface, with local government minister Grant Shapps directly criticising Ms Hill.
Daily Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson wrote:
Eric Pickles [communities and local government secretary], that delectable love-child of Humpty Dumpty and Ena Sharples, may talk tough, but he is hamstrung by the Government’s strategy of devolved localism. Is it really such a good idea to give even more power to the regions when a sense of grandiose entitlement has spread like fungus through councils across the land? Suffolk is closing libraries, has sacked lollipop ladies and cancelled children’s travel cards. Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests reveal that Andrea Hill, Suffolk’s chief executive, who is paid £218,592 a year, spent £14,188 of public money on a leadership adviser who gave her lessons in how to “liberate herself” to do her job better. For £525 an hour plus VAT, I’m sure we’d all be delighted to suggest how Mrs Hill might liberate herself. Slashing her own monster pay packet in half and distributing the excess to starving librarians would be a start.
That is the crux of the matter, Suffolk has become a damaging embarrassment to the Conservative-led government’s plans for localism and the big society. Insiders talk of “tension” between Whitehall and Endeavour House.
Monday, March 21: Robert Johns, the photographer, has now responded on his own blog under the heading The Truth Behind the Andrea Hill Portraits. It generally confrms that the county council FoI response to the Evening Star was “misleading”. But his attack on the Evening Star seems to be misguided, probably because he has only read the online version and did not have access to the full detail printed in the paper.
He also writes:
I have worked with Andrea before when she was the Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council. Under her leadership the Council went from no stars to 3 Stars in less than 3 years. I shot a very iconic picture, a portrait of the council to illustrate the journey upward. The picture was shortlisted in the British Press Photographers Awards 2006 for Business, Industry and Technology.
A Suffolk photographer was used prior to me being commissioned and he didn’t do a great job. I make no apology for the fact that I am good at what I do. I’m not a photographer who turns up and simply ’snaps’.
The pressure on Andrea Hill has been increased today by an extraordinary and direct call from Local Government Minister Grant Shapps for her to take a pay cut.
Grant Shapps, the local government minister, told the Daily Mail:
Spending money on life coaches or banning journalists from asking questions in our new era of transparency is unacceptable. Andrea Hill needs to do the right thing and make a personal commitment to protecting frontline services by taking a pay cut.
The paper said her salary of £218,000 was £70,000 more than the ptime minister’s and she gets a near £50,000 pension contribution.
It is very unusual for a government minister to make such a direct and personal comment and reflects growing irritqtion in Whitehall.
Tuesday evening: The East Anglian Daily Times has the county council’s response, linking Shapps’s comment with the Hutton report on pay. it starts:
SUFFOLK County Council leader Jeremy Pembroke today backed a new government report into the pay of top public servants.
He said it was right to link pay to performance – and praised county chief Andrea Hill for her “experience, drive and ability to deliver.”
These are, indeed, strange political times. BBC Suffolk reports that Dan Poulter, the new MP for Central Suffolk, is supporting the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in their protests against cuts being made by the Conservative county council.
The FBU claims anticipated cuts in which full-time firemen would be replaced by retained (part-time) men could endanger lives.
Dr Poulter is quoted by the BBC saying:
All that central government is asking the county council to do is go back to spending levels of 2007/08 – three years ago.
My view is that we should be investing in the fire service and it should be ring fenced.
That is why I am supporting the Fire Brigades Union and all they are doing.
Mr Poulter is, of course, echoing the claim by local government secretary Eric Pickles that cuts in front line services are not necessary. Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the county council, responded to that in Wordblog last week.
Labour desperately needs to get some red back on the map of the east. The Shadow Chancellor is know as an attack dog and should inject some life into local politics.
They are aiming to turn Ipswich, Norwich, Waveney and Great Yarmouth red. Conservatives are already anticipating substantial losses, partly because they are defending a lot of seats they won last time round.
This year’s local elections, for district and borough councils, should be more exciting than in the past because of the scale of cuts being made.
And the role of the Lib Dems will be fascinating: will they distance themselves from their parliamentary colleagues, or let themselves be branded as pseudo-Tories? Where they are the main opposition they will no doubt decide they are very anti-conservative.
County councils are not being contested until 2013.
Until last night it was, if not unthinkable, unsayable to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt, with events in England. During a Tonight programme focusing on Egypt, but considering the history of revolution, Jeremy Paxman said it was perhaps “inappropriate” to bring in the protests against cuts in this country.
Yet they did, in a report by Paul Mason. A common factor, he suggested, was young people with a university education and facing unemployment. They were reacting to a broken pledge that if they became well educated they would be better off than their parents. (It seems seems this segment, or something like it, was originally planned for last Friday. Look at Paul Mason’s blog for more on this.)
The British link has to be seen in context of the whole programme discussing Egypt and the record of revolutions. It included historians Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Simon Schama. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for some time.
While the pattern of revolution may not change much, one thing is different now. That is the horizontal nature of protest, loose coalitions of people without obvious leaders.
These two factors: youth alienated over education and jobs, and horizontal organisation through social media has been clearly seen in the tuition fees protests in England.
The library protests, while polite and peaceful, show unmistakable signs of horizontal organisation through social media with the use of email, twitter (#savelibraries), Facebook and blogs. No obvious leaders have emerged either nationally or locally here in Suffolk, but there is cohesion and common purpose.
British governments have long been terrified of losing control of the streets. They have adopted gradual change to avoid revolution, probably since the Civl War, three-and-a-half centuries ago.
There was no domino-effect here from the French Revolution, Chartism in the 19th century did not turn into a revolution, nor did the General Strike in 1926. Margaret Thatcher fell after poll tax riots 20 years ago. John Major then replaced poll tax with council tax.
In the 19th century Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police with control of the streets of the capital as one of the principal reasons. He also adopted gradualism when he switched from opposition to Catholic emancipation to getting it through parliament when he realised the old policy was untenable.
No one is seriously predicting a revolution in England except for some Marxist and Trotskyist survivors from another age. Yet, I feel sure that in Downing Street developments are being watched carefully and a Plan B is being prepared whether or not they will admit it. Gradualism (that means concessions) may yet rule if protests become loud enough.
Local government secretary Eric Pickles has agreed to have one-to-one conversations with “gung-ho” councils about the cuts, according to the Guardian today. It would be very surprising if the “gung-ho” definition did not include Suffolk County Council.
The paper says Pickles blocked proposals from Downing Street to protect the “big society” project from the harshest of the council spending cuts but agreed to speak to “gung-ho” councils. The story says:
The Guardian has established that ministers and No 10 formulated plans to reward councils for their contribution to the big society or force them to show they were cutting their own costs as much as their contracts with charities. But Pickles rejected the proposals.
Media stories about the crisis in the big society idea are coming from all shades of opinion (you can do a Google News search for “big society”). The Daily Mail is on the defensive today with, “Ministers hit back over claims Big Society is at risk because of spending cuts”.
A more thoughtful consideration from the Conservative-supporting press comes from Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph in an article headed Big Society RIP. He concludes:
The stakes could not be higher. If the Big Society collapses, Cameron does too.
Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction
If the Big Society collapses so does Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction, which is really a doctrinaire version of the Big Society.
We are coming up to local government elections (district councils but not counties) and the Conservatives are preparing for big losses.
The influential Conservativehome local government blog accepts a prediction that the Conservatives will lose 1,000 or the 5,000 seats they will be defending in May. And continues:
What is harder to predict is what will happen in the large number of councils where there are no Labour councillors at all, or only a handful. Will the Conservatives make gains from the Lib Dems…. But I suspect that Conservatives losses to Labour could be partially offset by gains from the Lib Dems.
In this context, it is not surprising that Lib Dem councillors are trying to put clear water between themselves and their parliamentary colleagues in the coalition government.
The Guardian story (quoted above) refers to a private email sent to Liberal Democrat councillors in the Local Government Association which says:
Concerns about the weakness of the secretary of state have been raised within all three of the main political groups here at the LGA and the message has been heard loud and clear by leading figures in the government. The situation has been likened to having a republican in charge of the monarchy….
A key difference between Lib Dem and Conservative views on localism is that Lib Dems believe in representative democracy – Conservatives are happy to bypass elected local government and give power direct to local residents.
Here is Suffolk we may well see district councillors facing election trying to put clear water between themselves and their ruling group of county councillors.
It is being to look as if theelections here on May 5 are going to be more interesting and with a higher turnout that we have seen for many years.