Yet more spin as Council falls short

Conservative-run Essex County Council has failed to regain its 4 star status signifying an ‘excellent’ council, a report from the government’s independent inspectors has revealed. The Corporate Performance Assessment (CPA) carried out for all local authorities, has judged that the council has only performed at a 3 star level.

Speaking about the CPA, Cllr Tom Smith-Hughes leader of the council’s Liberal Democrats, said: “This is very disappointing news for the residents of Essex. The county council had gained a 4 star rating, but only managed to hold on to it briefly before it was downgraded to a 3 star council because of a poor report on children’s services at the end of 2007.

“Since then, the Conservative leadership has spent significant amounts of taxpayers’ money and thousands of hours of council officers’ time, in pursuit of regaining 4 stars. However, at the same time, it was neglecting basic public services and has recently seen aspects of its children service actually go backwards, particularly the crucial and sensitive area of safeguarding vulnerable children, moving from only ‘adequate’ to a damning ‘inadequate’, according to Ofsted. This ruled out any chance of regaining the 4 star rating.

“Despite the administration’s hype and so-called top priority of ‘putting the customer first’, the inspectors also found that the council’s lack of engagement with the public regarding its performance, means that local residents and taxpayers have no idea what quality and level of service to expect. In addition, the council has no overall system of dealing with residents’ complaints, no public reporting on issues raised by residents and the action taken to address them.

“At this February’s budget meeting, my group recommended a cut in the council’s publicity budget with the money going into frontline services instead. This was rejected by the Conservatives, which shows only too acutely exactly where their priorities lie – spin and self-promotion is king. Unfortunately, it is the increasingly cash strapped public that is the big loser.”

A Fair Voting System At Last?

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

Suddenly, proportional representation is back in the news. It’s always been a topic for heated (and sometimes arcane) debate when Liberal Democrats meet, but now it’s being proposed by government ministers (and ruled out by David Cameron).

Labour’s 1997 manifesto promised a referendum on PR, but Tony Blair’s majority was so huge that he was able to kick Roy Jenkins’ report on parliamentary reform into the long grass. Governments are always reluctant to change the system which has given them victory.

But the row over our MPs’ expenses has thrown everything up in the air. There is a feeling that more has to be done than simply for MPs to say they’re sorry, and for a few dozen of them to say they won’t stand again at the next election. We need to take apart the system which has brought Westminster to the brink of collapse, and build something new – a democratic structure which will be fair and transparent, which will enable voters to trust their MPs once more.


What is wrong with the old system?

There are several drawbacks to the system we currently use for choosing our MPs and our government.

One has been highlighted by the expenses scandal: in many seats, MPs, once selected by their local party and elected by local voters, pretty well have a job for life. This leads to complacency and lack of accountability, with results we have seen in the past few weeks.

Another problem with our first-past-the-post electoral system is that is doesn’t cope very well with more than two parties – by which I mean it produces results which don’t necessarily reflect the wishes of the electorate as a whole. If you only have two candidates, then voters can choose between them fairly straightforwardly, and the one with a simple majority wins (though we should note that even in this case the national government may not represent the wishes of the whole populace – it would be quite possible for a government to have more MPs than their opponents with fewer votes).

When we start adding third or fourth or fifth parties into the mix, things get more complicated. Imagine the following scenario: four candidates stand for election in a constituency, and votes are cast as follows: Smarty Party 29%, Arty Party 26%, Hearty Party 25%, and Karate Party 20%. Under our current system the Smarty Party win, having more votes than any other party. But – fewer than one in three voters supports them, and the other two out of three electors voted for someone other than the winner.

If this result was repeated across the country, the Smarty Party would get 100% of the seats with only 29% of the votes, leaving more than two-thirds of the electorate without a voice in parliament. Even if the Smarties and the Arties got half the seats each, that would still leave the Hearties and Karates unrepresented – despite their 45% of the votes.

Here’s a real-life example from Burnley, which has just elected a BNP councillor for Lancashire County Council (June 2009). The BNP won 30.7% of the vote in Padiham and Burnley West. Labour got 25.4%, the Lib Dems 24.6%, and the Conservatives 19.3%.

I wonder how the 69.3% of people who voted for a party other than the BNP feel now that their sole representative at county council level is a BNP member? One of the weaknesses of the current FPTP system is that it is very difficult to avoid the vote-splitting that has gone on in this ward, allowing a candidate to win who may be opposed by the vast majority of other voters.

The BNP has won two more county council seats – in each case with the backing of even fewer voters than in Burnley. They won in Hertfordshire with 29.2% of the vote, and in Leicestershire with 27.7%.

In the last election, in 2005, more than six out of ten of us voted against Labour, but they got a massive majority in the House of Commons (35% of the vote, 55% of the seats). This is largely the result of the increasing number of other parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the ever-increasing number of anti-Europe parties.

In 1951, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party polled nearly a quarter of a million votes more than Churchill’s Conservatives, but the distortions allowed by the FPTP system saw Churchill form the government having won 321 seats to Attlee’s 295. It’s also worth noting that the two main parties won 93% of the vote between them. In 2005 they won just under 68%.

“Back in the 1960s one third of all MPs were elected by the vote of a majority of the electorate of their constituency. Yet today the first-past-the-post system cannot handle the increasing pluralism of British opinion. In 2001 not a single MP was elected with a majority of the electorate in their constituency.” (Robin Cook 2003)


Which form of PR?

There are many different forms of voting, and opponents of change here frequently use the more outlandish ones as examples of why we should stick with what we’ve got.

Many countries use a list system. Rival political parties compile lists of candidates, the voters vote for their preferred party, and seats are allocated in proportion to the vote received. Sometimes there is a threshold below which votes are disregarded, and sometimes lists are open, meaning that voters can express a preference between candidates of their favoured party. The most extreme version of the list system is Israel, where the whole country is treated as a single electoral division. (This is what enables small extremist parties to wield such power in the Knesset – we should note that no one proposes a system like this for Westminster.)

The biggest drawback with list systems is that the parties control who gets onto the lists, and this gives them power at the expense of the electors.

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Greater London Assembly all use a system known as the Additional Member System (AMS). Most members are elected by First-Past-The-Post, with a top-up from closed lists to give rough proportionality. The proportionality is a good thing – but this system creates two classes of representative – those with a constituency and those without. And again, the political parties control the lists.

Another system is the Alternative Vote (AV). In this system, the voter gets to rank the candidates in order of preference (instead of simply marking X by their preferred candidate). If a candidate gets a majority of the votes, they are elected. If no one has a majority, the second-preference votes of the lowest-ranking candidate are redistributed, a process which continues until someone gets an overall majority.

The biggest problem with AV is that it is not proportional – indeed, it can be less proportional than FPTP. (It has been calculated that in 1997 Labour’s already huge landslide majority of 169 would has risen to 245 using AV, while the Conservatives’ total would have fallen from 165 to 96.)

The system preferred by the Liberal Democrats is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies. Each voter gets one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference and so on, as necessary. Candidates don’t need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known ‘quota’, or share of the votes, determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled.

If your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, your vote is transferred to another candidate in accordance with your instructions. STV thus ensures that very few votes are wasted, unlike other systems, especially First-Past-the-Post.

The Jenkins report says of STV:


“It is a system which has several substantial advantages. It maximises voter choice, giving the elector power to express preference not only between parties but between different candidates of the same party. It achieves a significantly greater degree of proportionality. It avoids the problem of having two classes of member, as is the case with the Additional Member System. It also avoids the likelihood of fostering a proliferation of small splinter parties, and does this without the need for setting any arbitrary threshold. It has long worked with on the whole beneficial results in the Republic of Ireland (as we have seen), a country which had previously shared at least a part of the British parliamentary tradition. It has also just produced a clear cut change of government in Malta. And STV is in addition the system which commands the enthusiastic support of most of those who have devoted their minds and their energies to the cause of electoral reform.”

One might wonder why, with such glowing report, Jenkins did not go for STV. As it happens, he judged that it was ‘too much of a leap’ for us; he was also put off by problems with geographical representation in the less densely populated areas of the country. I must say that given the strengths of STV, neither of those caveats particularly worries me. In the current climate, when people are so angry with the behaviour of their elected representatives, a leap like this may be necessary.

One of the big advantages of STV is that we could implement it without re-drawing parliamentary boundaries – we would simply need to group constituencies into fives or sixes. (Some people suggest that we should have AV in a few single seats in the Scottish highlands, just because they are already so large, being sparsely populated.)

Pros, cons and red herrings

One of the best arguments for STV is that it will make Westminster look more like the rest of the country. The current system has given us a House of Commons where the typical MP is a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. Any party which put up a slate of half-a-dozen identikit candidates for election would suffer for that in the polls. We’d be able to choose more female candidates, more young candidates, along with candidates from minority groups.

Any time PR is mentioned, a host of objections will be raised – some of them genuine, most the result of rumour, lazy thinking or ignorance.

It is suggested that PR will lead to ‘dubious coalitions and weak leadership’, often with reference to Israel and Italy. When I think of dubious coalitions and weak leadership, I think of the dying days of John Major’s second administration (elected by the old FPTP system). Major did his best – but he was trying to hold together a fractious coalition of pro- and anti-Europeans in the Tory party, doing behind-the-scenes deals with the dozen or so Ulster Unionists to hang on to power.

FPTP favours a two-party system – and inevitably those parties will tend to be coalitions – for example, both Labour and Conservative parties have pro- and anti-European factions. But the ballot paper doesn’t allow you a choice – you can take the candidate or leave them. This reduces voter choice.

In any case, I happen to believe that strong leadership is not all it’s cracked up to be. Look at Italy for a good example – would you want Berlusconi as UK PM throwing his weight around, controlling the popular media?

And it was ‘strong leadership’ which allowed Tony Blair to lead us into an unjustified invasion of Iraq (in 2001 he had a majority of 167 seats with 40.7% of the vote).

Mr Cameron meanwhile rejects any change from the current first-past-the-post system. “Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites,” he says. “Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need?”

There speaks a man who expects to gain significant personal and party advantage by sticking to the old system. And a man who really doesn’t get the idea of PR. Does he really think our current system has delivered trust and transparency? Is he not aware that the selection of candidates by local parties effectively renders voters powerless to make real choices? Does he believe that all our near neighbours have less effective democracies than we do, based on ‘secret backroom deals’? The reality is that in other European countries the parties make clear what is, or is not, negotiable in their manifestos, and the people vote accordingly. Only where there is consensus (which implies majority agreement by the electorate) are major policy changes implemented – unlike in the UK, where a government with a third of the popular vote has a big enough majority in the House of Commons to push through any legislation it fancies.

It’s also interesting to note that Cameron does not propose to give us any say in the matter – he’s decided PR is no good, and he’s the boss. One man, one vote – he’s the man, and he’s got the vote. Is that how it works?

An opinion poll in the Independent shows considerable public support for PR:

“Some 69 per cent of people support the introduction of proportional representation (PR), with 22 per cent opposed to it. Although the Tories oppose electoral reform, 63 per cent of people who support the party back PR, as well as 67 per cent of Labour supporters and 78 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters.” (2.6.2009)

Parliament has considered switching to PR before – back in 1917 the House of Commons voted in favour of using STV in a third of UK constituencies and AV in the rest – but they were thwarted by the House of Lords, which rejected the plan five times, and no party since has had the will to undertake this change again. I wonder if the time has come for our elected representatives to try again? After all, 92 years is a long time to wait …


Sid Cumberland Rayleigh Liberal Democrats May 2009

Two interesting articles here and here.


These Days I Need A Coffee To Get Me Through The Day

Chris Black

Chris Black

It’s funny how places change. About 40 years ago Rayleigh town centre had seven supermarkets all competing for business. Then the number of supermarkets went down and we had a huge number of shoe shops. And in 2009? Well, let’s just say that if you want a really good cup of coffee, you are spoilt for choice …

So this is turning into a good year for coffee lovers. But apart from that, it’s a worrying time for nearly everybody, and I’m seeing a lot of angry people these days. They are angry about a lot of national issues (you can guess what most of them are) and they are worried over a lot of local stuff too.

One of the big subjects in the last few days has been MPs’ expenses. It’s been bad enough seeing how failing bankers have got away with huge bonuses, but now members of Parliament have been caught out over expenses.

There’s an allowance that MPs from outside inner London can claim for. It’s to cover the cost of staying away from their main home when carrying out parliamentary duties. That seems fair enough; if you are an MP for somewhere outside commuting distance of the capital you will need two places to live – one near parliament, and one near your constituency.

But one Labour MP has reportedly claimed £60,000 since 2002 for a house in Harrow – when his main home is only a few miles away in Hammersmith, and Westminster is only 11 miles away. And he’s not the only one who’s exploiting the rules.

Now, this MP has done nothing illegal – apparently the regs are drafted in such a way that this is all allowed. But as a friend said to me, “Something can still be wrong even if it is legal. And someone who’s just been made redundant by Woolworths and received the minimum redundancy pay isn’t going to be impressed”

I was talking to a resident on the doorstep who was really angry about this and he said and “Just because a Lib Dem MP hasn’t been caught out yet, doesn’t mean that the Lib Dems are in the clear – there just aren’t so many MPs in your party!”

Well, so far we are definitely in the clear on this. None of the Lib Dem MPs who represent London constituencies are claiming this allowance. What’s more, Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather has now tabled a Commons motion trying to stop any London MPs doing this in future.

Meanwhile, closer to home, councillors are much less likely to be in trouble over this sort of thing. We have to be, because the code of conduct for councillors is much tougher than it is for MPs. If an MP steps out of line, they can be banned for a few days. But councillors can be suspended for a year, sometimes for not-very-serious issues.

Trouble is, councils are being seduced into adopting some of central government’s ways, such as having a ‘cabinet-style’ operation, where just one councillor can make a decision. For example, are you unhappy about the new average-speed cameras on the A127? That was decided by just one Conservative councillor from Danbury. None of his colleagues seem to want to defend him on this issue; they just shrug their shoulders. But people in Rayleigh – or Southend – can’t vote him out.

And then there’s ‘spin’. Conservative Essex County Council is one of the nine highest spending councils in Britain on publicity . The cost has nearly doubled over the last nine years, and now stands at nearly £5 million per year!

And it’s not as if everything else in Essex is rosy. The County Child protection services were investigated by Ofsted and were rated as ‘inadequate’ . Only another seven other authorities were rated as low as Essex and one of them was Haringey, where the tragic ‘Baby P’ case occurred. So we can’t do better than Haringey? And we are in the top nine on publicity spending but in the bottom eight on Child Protection?

I hope this piece hasn’t turned into a rant. But there are so many things going on that make me angry at the moment – maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age. Perhaps I need to take stroll up to the High Street and have a latte and a cake. Though times are getting tough, there’s still coffee …