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Monday, December 10, 2007

Councillors unlimited

I have just caught up with the recommendations of the 'Independent Councillors Commisssion'. What a load of nonsense. On past form however, the real worry has to be that some of these off-the-wall ideas will be accepted by Government Ministers just so that they can justify the exercise and because they have form in constantly fiddling with local government management and organisation.

When this report lands on Hazel Blears' desk she would be well-advised to treat it with extreme caution. Labour should have learnt by now that sometimes it is better to leave things alone rather than implement ill-thought out and misguided reforms. This is one of those times.

So what is being proposed? Well firstly, they want to pay Councillors more and offer a pay-off to those who lose their seats. That would be very difficult to defend in the present financial climate. Such a scheme would need to be justified in terms of extra workload and responsibility, yet the Government is intent on concentrating power in fewer hands and emasculating the freedom of local Councils to act differently.

Secondly, they want to introduce a national framework for allowances for councillors with minimum levels according to size and type of authority but with powers for Local Authority Standards Committees to suspend and claw back part of the basic allowance when councillors measurably fail to fulfil their role description. It sounds good but where do the voters figure in this? Surely they are the ones who determine the job description of their elected representatives. How can this be divorced from the political process? We have already seen the standards framework being used to persecute individual Councillors for petty political reasons, what is to say this mechanism will not be used in the same way?

Thirdly, the Commission want to introduce incentives to vote in local elections such as offering entry to a free lottery. Talk of dumbing down. If they really want to improve the engagement between local Councils and their electors then they need to actually empower people, give them a greater say in the decision-making process in their own area and ensure that when they vote the outcome reflects how they have collectively cast their ballot.

Fourthly, they want to set up a dedicated fund from public money for political parties to spend at local level for projects to improve the recruitment, training and selection of candidates linked to enhancing diversity of local councillors. If you are going to publicly fund political parties then say so, don't hide it behind fancy schemes.

They also want public service broadcasters to fulfil their remit to facilitate civic understanding, including better coverage of local government and to introduce changes to the "far-reaching" restrictions that prevent council employees standing as councillors or engaging in political activity. If you want better to educate people then you have to do it yourself. That is not the role of broadcasters and other media. They are there to give people the news, to entertain and to make a profit. Trying to change that by giving them a remit smacks just a little of manipulation.

As for changing the rules on political restriction, I would need to see the details. However, they are there for a reason and that is to protect the impartiality of officers who give advice to Councillors. Fiddle with that at your peril.

Finally, there is the big one, term limits on Councillors. Why just Councillors? Why not MPs as well? Could it be that Parliament would not tolerate such a reform? It is for the voters to determine when a Councillor has gone on too long, not some artificially imposed rule that has no regard to the individual circumstances of the community or individual concerned.

There is also the nonsense of abolishing by-elections. How can you argue on one hand that you want Councils to engage with voters and then on the other deny them a say in who represents them. Again the test must be whether such a reform would be considered acceptable for Parliament. I think not. It is bizarre and anti-democratic. It should not even be given the time of day.

Of course out of 61 recommendations there must be some that make sense. I would support lowering the voting age to 16 for example. I would also support promoting the role of councillors and the enhanced skills they bring to workplaces to employers and compensation for small businesses whose employees have to be absent from work for councillor duties. However, I am afraid that the commonsense ideas will be lost amongst the headline grabbing batty ones.

Normally, one would rely on Ministers to sort the wheat from the chaff. My fear however is that they and their civil servants have demonstrated again and again that they do not understand how local democracy works and that they believe they can use Councils as a testing ground for some really silly proposals. When that happens it is local services that suffer, along with the confidence of the electorate in their Councillors and their Council. That is a sure-fire way to damage our democracy. Surely it is time that we said enough is enough.
Presumably the stuff about electoral reform is nonsense too?
I mentioned the suggestion of a 'voting lottery' on my blog yesterday. I can't understand who could possibly believe this to be a good idea. It's almost painfully obvious that although turnout would certainly increase, those voters encouraged by the lottery would most likely tick whichever box they took a fancy to just for the chance to win. It's not engaging with voters, it's bribing them.

I don't agree with term limits either. If a councillor is doing a great job why should they be forced to leave after a certain time period?

I find it ever-more difficult to believe that it will ever be possible for the Labour party to reclaim something of its socialist roots. I'm aware that the member base most probably remains considerably old Labour but as far as MPs are concerned there seems precious few left to fight the good fight.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic but the political landscape in Britain just seems bleaker by the day.

A Swansea Blog
James, can I draw your attention to three points in this post:

1. If they really want to improve the engagement between local Councils and their electors then they need to actually empower people, give them a greater say in the decision-making process in their own area and ensure that when they vote the outcome reflects how they have collectively cast their ballot;

2. Of course out of 61 recommendations there must be some that make sense; and

3. Normally, one would rely on Ministers to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Of course I support electoral reform. I said as much in my post and recommendation 21 is a good step forward. However, this particular proposal has been demoted to an also-ran in the press release promoting the report and the clear impression is given that the Commission wish to bury it. This post was responding to the priorities they set not the ones I would like to have seen
That's not the impression I get. My impression is that the Commission has all-but endorsed STV and that many of the other recommendations - the 'reserve places' instead of by-elections (as used in Northern Ireland and sensible under STV because an AV by-election to replace a candidate elected in a 3-member STV ward is potentially undemocratic), the call for all-out elections, the call for multi-member wards - only really make sense if you combine them with STV.

I think they played it down because of the well-known phenomenon of commissions under-bidding on the expectation that the minister isn't prepared to go as far as they would like (c.f. Jenkins). And it is the Department that has been controlling the media message not the commission itself, so it's no wonder they have been downplaying it.
What's the fuss. It's a Commission for England which Blears will just put in the pidgeon hole alongside every other commission on local government. Local government in Wales is the responsibility of the Assembly. It is an area which could see some exciting developments if only politicians had the courage.The mistake that was made in the 1990s was to reorganise local government before we had an Assembly. What we now need is for the Assembly to look at what sort of local government system is required for Wales. It requires maturity on the part of assembly politicians to see that their own position isn't under threat but it could lead to a real reengagement with the electorate. In most parts of wales local loyalty is not to the present unitary authority. Authorites such as Swansea Cardiff and Newport are the exception to the rule for historic reasons. No one has any loyalty to RCT for example. Community is linked to Aberdare, Pontypridd and the Rhondda. Bridgend is a totally artificial construction with no one in for example in Maesteg or the valleys having any affinity or interest with Porthcawl. In France towns such as Neath would have their own Mayor and their own civic pride. As it stands at the moment local government is sadly in decline with very few quality individuals interesting in even standing for the council. 2012 will be even worse. This is an area where opposition polticians should be leading the debate and ignoring the vested interests who are only interested in short termism and protecting their own position in the existing status quo.
Being forever parochial, I'm getting big vibes that the Lib Dems are split over what to do about Mayals Ward of Swansea in the May 2008 Council elections. They are dithering on whether to let the strongest ever Independent challenge kick out the sitting Mayals Tory. Or to do a deal with the Tories to keep in the sitting Tory to avoid Tories splitting votes in Lib Dem Wards? Or to parachute in an already deselected Lib Dem Councilor from a nearby Ward in an attempt to beat the Tory and the Independent? Plus other options that I'm not privy to. The whole point is - the Lib Dems are split on this. They are also onto a total beating from an extremely strong Mayals Independent who is all set to kick out the Tory there. The questions I cannot get answered are:- (1) Which Lib Dems are doing deals to keep the Tory in Mayals? (2) Which Lib Dems want to parachute in a deselected Councillor to oust the Tories? (3) Which Lib Dems are speaking to the Indepents and not working behind their backs?
Although this is off-topic I do not recognise any of the scenarios you illustrate nor do I know of any deselected Lib Dem Councillors.
I see you're in favour of reducing the voting age to 16 to improve engagement of young people in the political process.

As a matter of interest, what was the effect of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18? I can only assume that far more 21 year olds now vote than did before the age was lowered?
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