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Archive for February, 2010

Sunday reading and something to look forward to

February 28, 2010 12 comments

I don’t normally do lists of posts or blogs which people should read, outside of the awesome Carnival of Socialism, but I’ve been feeling ridiculously unproductive for the last few days. On the other hand, there’s been some interesting material posted around the blogosphere, and everyone needs all the links and comments they can get.

Before we get to that, however, I’ve spent Sunday compiling my own reading list for the next while; a different kind of Sunday reading, I grant you, but Sunday reading nonetheless. Prizes for spotting the theme running through what I’ve chosen to order from the local library:

Benjamin Farrington, the Faith of Epicurus and Greek Science; Richard Levin and Richard Lewontin, the Dialectical Biologist; James Gleick, Chaos; Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality; Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, the Evolution of Physics; Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages; Nikolai Bukharin (ed), Science at the Crossroads and G.W.F. Hegel’s Logic.

In a few weeks, readers should begin to notice some of this filter through into the oeuvre offered on the blog. I’m continually reminded that there’s so much to know and nowhere near enough time to learn it, and the history and philosophy of science is one I’ve never mastered outside of the usual tracts on Aristotle and Plato which classicists are expected to write for ungraduate degrees.

On the blogs, for more immediate reading, there’s some good articles demonstrating the ignorance of various parts of the commentariat. Paul Sagar has good stuff on Barbara Ellen, who has written the most patronising and ignorant article ever on the subject of interns who want to be well treated. Meanwhile, Reuben at the Third Estate writes of Tamsin Omond’s political ineptitude in her decision to stand against Glenda Jackson.

There’s an article at Socialist Unity outlining why the Falkland Islands should be part of Argentina regardless of what the locals think, which I think is complete rubbish. The proper orientation of the Left should not be towards attempting to coerce people to pick and choose their national allegiance, but to render to those locals, rather than corporations, the proceeds of the new natural mineral wealth of their islands.

Closer to the usual fare of this blog, Jack Graves has an article up about the problems of the rigidity of party structures that may restrict the rise of party members from outside certain backgrounds (which I think is an epiphenomenon of the key issue of undemocratic structures). Regarding LP structure, Peter Kenyon justifies a media appearance on the subject of Jack Dromey’s gaining a seat in Birmingham – judge for yourself whether you think it hurts Labour more than it helps.

Lenin discusses polls – and Paul is close behind, with part one of a two part series. Raincoat Optimism carries a personal addendum to my piece on Orwell and nationalism. Splintered Sunrise has an excellent account of recent struggles in Greece. Bleeding Heart Show’s Neil Robertson and Left Outside issue a call to arms; musically-orientated politicos of the world, unite!

Next Left has a recent article on the launch by Tory MEP Dan Hannan and co of the British Tea Party, an attempt to copy the anti-tax movement in the USA. I think Next Left is unduly dismissive, and I have said before that the Left is missing a trick in this regard – that we are seen to be generally pro-tax at a time when most people are not awash with money at our peril, but that the structure of tax can be disputed.

Chris Dillow has a must-read article on the feasibility of a post-war Keynesian solution to the current crisis; Laurie Penny seems on good form with a tirade against the misplacing by the media of female agency in the debate on over-sexualisation; lastly River’s Edge from Lancashire has a report about a North-West meeting of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition electoral group set up by the Socialist Party, which seems to be benefitting by a lot of good will in places like Cambridge, where independent activists have come on board.

This is despite worrying reports from Southampton Itchen and some sniping by other groups in Manchester (which may or may not be justified).

And that’s your lot. Hopefully I’ll actually have something interesting to say tomorrow. Even if I don’t, stay tuned; 8th of March is International Women’s Day and in the run-up TCF will be proud to showcase original work by some of our favourite female bloggers, who we think should have a wider audience.

Categories: Miscellaneous

The Conservative Campaign Crisis (part 1): 1992 doorsteps revisited

February 28, 2010 5 comments

TCF doesn’t usually get to hung up with opinion polling, but heh, it’s election time, so here’s my tuppence (in two parts) on what’s going on in the polls.

The weekend papers are full of analysis about why the Conservative poll lead is slipping, with most of it even before the latest poll giving them just a 2% lead

No need to link to them, you know where to find all the stuff, though if you want an explanation focused almost entirely on the personal and working relationship between four men, try the Financial Times. It’s wrong mind.

In blogoland Tom Harris makes a start by comparing principally with what went on in 1997:

I’ve always maintained….that there isn’t anywhere near the same levels of enthusiasm in the country for Cameron’s new Tories as there was in 1997 for Blair’s New Labour. I’m sure we can all at least agree that that much is true.

True enough, but 1997 is not the best comparison because it’s conceived in (understandable Blair loyalist) terms of election victory.  Whatever you may think of New Labour under Blair, Labour won that election. 

This time around no-one’s going to win the election; someone’s going to lose it.

My ‘doorstep sense’ suggests a much better comparison for 2010 is the 1992 Conservative victory.  That election was decided to a large extent by votes who voted Conservative with reluctance, and who even denied to pollsters that they were going to do so; it was the election when people were a little ashamed to vote Conservative but did so anyway because they saw no better offer.  As UK Polling report put it:

In 1992 the British polls famously got it wrong. All the polls showed Labour ahead or the parties neck and neck. In fact the Conservatives had a solid lead. In the post-mortem that followed one of the problems that was identified was the “spiral of silence” or “shy Tories”. In short, given the unpopularity of the government some people were embarrassed to admit to a pollster that they would vote Conservative.

The sense I’m getting on the doorstep is it’s happening in reverse this time around.  People are almost ashamed to say they’re considering voting for a Labour government – a party which did, after all, conduct an illegal war, amongst other things. 

 Plenty of people are still undecided, but I sense that as polling day nears, more are headed to the relative safety of Labour than to what may lie in store for them under the Tories.

 And I do understand what voters tell me.  I did win a quite surprising election victory once.

 But why this reluctance to go all the way to the polling both with the Tories?  Why does it look like voters will jilt them at the last? 

 More in part 2, when I’ll talk about 1979, oh and that election in 2008 too.  

Of course, none of these elections had Ashcroft’s millions, and the idea that the election will simply be bought by the Tories can’t be ruled out.

Nation and Nationalism in Orwell

February 27, 2010 23 comments

Orwell’s ‘Notes on Nationalism‘ is one of his most interesting, most confused, essays. It attempts to assert the existence of a phenomenon in English society of 1945, “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”.

Specific ideologies are identified as exhibiting this trait: “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.” Orwell goes on to separate these fanatic nationalisms from ‘patriotism’, love of place and way of life, unrelated to the morality of a people, and purely defensive in sentiment.

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception,” remarks Orwell, and nationalists will decide every question prima facie, in the interests of a competitive prestige for the entity into which they have sunk their individuality, rather than on the basis of evidence gathered by the disinterested, which should prove more accurate.

It should be obvious that Orwell’s methodology is confused and bears its own ideological connotations. The conflation of all these ideologies, ignoring their material context or aims, establishes by elimination a ‘normal’ world where everyone is rational and not prepared to die or kill in the name of ideas, rather than cold hard facts.

The ‘normal’ man exists in a value-free world where ideology is not ingrained into the very practices which make up one’s daily routine – not to mention the more obvious kind contained in the written word. Far from his consciousness being impacted by the conditions in which he lives, making him more or less amenable to certain facts and political ideas, man, in this vacuum-world, can stand apart, tally up all facts and select a political view accordingly. It is philosophical idealism.

Needless to say, of course, that ‘normal’ man doesn’t exist except in Orwell’s head. Nor, I would contend, does that pure “way of life” that Orwell argues can sustain a non-nationalistic ‘patriotism’. There is no borough, city, county, region, nation, federation or continent in the world which can draw a line around itself and declare that all the people on one side of the line share a “way of life” and all the people outside it do not share that way of life.

This is contrary to many of Orwell’s claims in ‘the Lion and the Unicorn‘, about the differences between nations. But cultures, national or otherwise, like religions or any body of shared ideas, traditions and practices, are syncretic – and in any one geographical location, there will be a polyglot of ideas and practices, some shared with people to the north of the dividing line, some with people to the south and so on. This polyglot cannot itself be defined as a “way of life”, for many reasons.

Seeing as it does not exist in a vacuum, no culture is stable. It changes over time. Seeing as it is subject to real, material pressures which limit or extend the capacity to engage in certain practices, no culture is shared universally in a society that permits inequality. Seeing as a culture is a combination of ideas and practices, and that these ideas and practices are unlikely to have set or shared boundaries, no culture escapes geographic amorphism.

I’ve dealt with this essay before, as it was once approvingly quoted to me over at Labour Members’ Net, but my views on the subject appear to have been deleted and, moreover, I have recently read Raymond Williams’ excellent short account of Orwell’s life and politics, particularly this patriotism, which deserves to be reproduced.

“England, whose England? In the Road to Wigan Pier…Orwell is describing the ‘two nations’, discovering how (in that middle class phrase) the ‘other half’ lives. He is at once compassionate and indignant, drawn and repelled. He is describing a country in which two-thirds of the population are working class people at a time of depression and wide-spread unemployment. All his active arguments and images are of contrasts, intolerable contrasts.

“‘England’, as any simple idea, has been destroyed by these contrasts. The single image of his childhood has been replaced by the particularities, the variations, the inequalities, of mine and mill, slum and council house, caravan site and slagshop, teashop and Tudor villa. This is an active England, an England to move through.

“The England of the later essays, written in wartime is different…leading to a particular climax which comes ‘as near as one can…to describing England in a phrase': a family with the wrong members in control. Now Orwell was neither the first nor the last to say something like this. The statement’s interest is in where it comes on the scale of his development.

“There is not much sense of a family or of emotional unity in the depressed and suffering England of The Road to Wigan Pier. The emphasis there is on the realities and consequences of a class society. What happens, I think, is that Orwell first moves through two phases of response to ‘England': the myth of his boyhood – the special people, the ‘family’ – is succeeded by the observations of his return – a scene of bitter and bleak contradictions.

“But then, in a third phase, he creates a new myth which until quite recently has remained effective. Qualifying the original image with the facts of the economic and social inequality, he creates the sense of an England of basic ordinariness and decency, a ‘real England’, ‘an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past’, in which it can be seen almost as an accident, or at least as an archaism, that the ‘wrong members’ of the family are in control.”

This is an image obviously lacking in historicity. It is easy to mine a selective past for features exhibited in the present, and to weave them into a narrative that sets up the present context in a way that recommends itself. This is what writers from the Levellers to Tom Paine did with the ‘Norman Yoke’, to embed a theory of lost rights into English history, and grant the commonweal an equally ancient lineage to the divine right of kings.

In reality, evidence for the ‘Norman Yoke’ is hotly contested, and even when the term was first coined in 1642, citations of biblical precedent were more often heard for the equality of man, than was a Saxon golden age. Christopher Hill reminds us of John Ball’s words from the 1381 Peasant Revolt, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” This mining of the past – any past, real or imagined – is a recurrent motif.

Orwell’s monolithic England, of past, present and future, is no less unhistorical, no less unable to accept a dynamic model of society – subject to all sorts of pressures and consisting of all sorts of processes, which themselves change over time, some of which are exerted or expressed in contradiction to one another.

Raymond Williams is more gentle than I:

“Orwell’s great influence since the 1940’s owes as much to this powerful image [of a family with the wrong members in control] as to any other single achievement. And it would not be so powerful if it did not contain some truth. Orwell’s emphasis on the depth of civil liberties in Britain and on the feelings that support them is, in the world as he knew it, and as we continue to know it, justified.

“His furtherness of the gentleness and mildness of much ordinary English life, on these qualities being positive achievements in a world of much killing and anger, is again reasonable. Certain kinds of informality, friendliness and tolerance in much of every day English life support his emphasis on ‘decency’ as a virtue. But it is possible to know and acknowledge all these things and still, in analysis, go either way.

“Orwell is nearest to what I believe to be the truth when he describes these characteristics as part of a genuinely popular culture that ‘must live to some extent against the existing order’ (CEJL, II, 59). Or again when he speaks of a ‘subtle network of compromises’, of adjustments through which certain virtues, certain achievements, are maintained alongside certain evident and radical injustices. (…)

“It can never be enough to say that certain virtues exist alongside certain injustices, as if they were contrasting facts of the natural world (on which, in his social imagery, Orwell so commonly draws). In a society, these facts are relationships of an active, historical, developing kind. And it is this kind of reality which Orwell’s image of England obscures.”

I don’t necessarily agree with Williams that Orwell’s views must contain some degree of truth in order to be powerful, or at least they need not necessarily be true in the ‘patriotic’ way in which Orwell understood them.

Rather I think Orwell’s views were and are socially acceptable, and it is no accident that Orwell’s later, less radical work, garnered more publicity than his earlier writings. Here Orwell identified traits which some people like to see in themselves and in their country, certifying these as in some way English much in the way that the English character is often cited as the reason for England’s relative passivity in the face of tumult and revolution in Europe.

We should remember that Britain, at this time, had just fought a war for its own independence and the freedom of other nations from the tyranny of Nazism. The order of the day – which firmly tied one end of the mainstream Left to the national Establishment – was national unity in the face of opposition. The election of a Labour government belied the national unity a little, ditching the face of that unity with indecent haste.

Yet it should come as no surprise that, with ‘nations’ very firmly a part of national discourse, people liked to feel that theirs had been worth defending; that it had consistently stood up for civil liberties at home and abroad, that the war had been a principled opposition to Nazism, rather than an opportunistic war brought on by inability of the British ruling class to reconcile their interests with the ruling class of Germany, Italy and Japan.

In reality, that is to say in documented history, civil liberties in this country have ebbed and flowed. From the days of the militias, when habeas corpus could be suspended, to the Official Secrets Act to the emergency war powers used by governments in the inter war years while the country was nowhere close to being involved in a war, civil liberties have fallen and risen and fallen again, and popular sentiment has often had other things to think about.

Similarly the gentleness and mildness of the English character, and the contrast with other nations. I’m sure much gentleness and mildness did and does exist in the English character – civility and kindness and generosity of spirit in the most unlooked for places. But that is not to say that one can separate these off from other, less admirable qualities, which are evident throughout the shared history of these islands. This is Williams’ key point.

Nor, a point which Williams misses, is it to say that these qualities or even a certain combination of them, is exclusively English and therefore something which makes England an actual entity rather than an ideological rallying call to a self-selecting group of people, a group much smaller than the sum of all the English. The overall point at stake is the validity of nation as a useful analytical category and on all counts, I think it fails the test.

Sir, Massie’s been copying again, sir

February 27, 2010 3 comments

Alex Massie in the Spectator today:

[T]here’s at least one terrible promise here that contradicts the Tories’ interesting, promising, commitment to localism and decentralisation. That’s the commitment to freeze council tax……How serious can the Tories be about decentralisation when they seem to want to make local government more not less dependent upon central government? Where’s the accountability and transparency in that? Nowhere, that’s where.

Paul Cotterill in Though Cowards Flinch, the day before yesterday:

No wonder Conservative Central Office, in a move not entirely compatible with the supposed spirit of localism, has already instructed from on high council tax freezes not for one but for two years, irrespective of local conditions, local needs, local people, local jobs. 

Localism, my arse.

Very suspicious. 

His loathsome mate Liddle’s already been caught copying TCF’s work, but I really thought better of Alex.  Very naughty boy.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tories and the concept of reality

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t cross-post much from my local blog to Though Cowards Flinch, but I thought a wider readership might be interested in how my local Tories have adopted a quite interesting approach to dealing with reality.

Imagine, if you will, a school receiving an Ofsted report in 2007 and receiving a report grading them as an ‘excellent’ school.  Imagine then that the same school is revisited by Ofsted, who inspect the school using a somewhat different but also more rigorous process, and decide that the school is only in fact worth a ‘fair’ rating.

Would it be legitimate for the school to decide that it would maintain the old ‘excellent’ rating on the basis that the way the inspection was conducted differed somewhat?

I don’t think so.  I think the headteacher and governing body might quite quickly come in for quite a lot of flack.

Astonishingly, though, this is precisely what my local Conservative-run council has done. 

I kid you not.

Look at the top left of the West Lancashire Borough Council website homepage (and also at the bottom of all the emails from the council), and what do you see?

“Excellent” as rated by the Audit Commission.

Erm, no it’s not.

It was indeed scored as excellent back in mid-2007, in a ‘Comprehensive Performance Assessment’ which (in the Audit Commission’s own words) did ‘not include diagnostic assessments of service areas.’  

The rating then was excellent because the Tories had by that stage not managed to destroy all of the previous Labour administration’s achievements (Labour was in control until 2002).  It’s finished the job now.

In the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Area Assessment, however, published on published 09 December 2009, the council scored 3 out of 4 for ‘Managing performance’ an 2 out of 4 for ‘Use of resources’.

You need to get 4 out of 4 to be said to be performing ‘excellently’.  They did not.

The 2009 Organisational Assessment looks more closely at service delivery than the 2007 assessment, which focused on ‘capacity’.  The new assessment  finds a number of faults with the council. 

In any reasonable interpretation, the 2009 assessment supersedes the earlier report.

But the Tories in West Lancashire do not go in for such things as reasonable interpretation. 

This is what the council has to say in the local newspaper when I raised the matter (report not yet online):

Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) is a new test that has replaced Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) and is very different from the CPA……In the organisational part of the assessment the criteria used are different from those used previously in CPA in many respects so that both the system and the scores are not comparable.

Oh well, that’s alright then. 

The Tories of West Lancs say they’re still excellent, so we’ll just have to believe them.  And of course an assessment focused on capacity to deliver is much more relevant than an assessment of what’s actually delivered!

The council makes no offer to remove the misleading information on its website or its emails, and it will presumably be left there until the next external assessment.  And if that external assessment is not carried out on exactly the same basis as the 2007 assessment, it will presumably be left in place again. 

Perfect logic. If you’re a Tory with a reality problem.

Even more astonishingly though, this is the second time in  just over a year that the council’s been caught red-handed inflating its own performance rating. 

In December 2008,  the council spent taxpayer money having five stars added to the livery on its vehicles alongside the ‘excellent’ from its 2007 Audit Commission. 

Unfortunately, the 2007 Audit Commission system only had four different ratings.

(You can trust me on this, I’m a trained nurse.  Well, when I  say ‘trained’, I mean I qualified in 1988 and haven’t practised for a new years.  But the assessment methods to see if I am still competent are somewhat different from what they were 23 years ago.  So that means I’m still competent to practise, I think.)

Categories: Terrible Tories

Localism and blind faith

February 25, 2010 14 comments

Matthew Taylor is an intelligent liberal commentator, so I was interested in what he might have to say about the virtues of ‘localism’.

And in pointing out what’s wrong with the centralizing tendencies under New Labour (itself a continuation of Thatcherite and Majorite doctrine) he talks good sense. 

 In particular, I like his point that:

 The messages sent by the centre (especially if there are lots of them) are very different to the messages eventually heard at the front line.’

This reflects my own earlier contentions, around the Welfare Reform bill, that the intentions of that bill might actually have been good ones, at least in a naive communitarian sense, but that by the time it has all fed through into implementation all of the good intentions will have been lost at the expense of a bureaucratic hounding of the poor.

Matthew is less good, though, on what to do about this over-centralizing tendency in UK governance.

He has, it seems, been seduced by the superficial attractions of the Conservatives’ ‘localism’ agenda, to the extent that, in the absence of Labour willingness to confront the problem, and sclerosis within Whitehall:

 [I]t may have to be a different administration that makes the shift.

Sorry.  That’s utter, utter bollox, however briefly set out.

In offering up this bollox, it has to be said, Matthew’s not alone.  Many public policy wonks have been taken in, including the New Local Government Network, who, with someone as good a natural leftie as Anna Turley to guide them (see para. 54) really should know better; perhaps they are unable or unwilling to judge what’s actually going on at the front-line.

So let’s just be very clear about what the Conservative localism agenda is all about.  Beneath the veneer of ‘power to the people’, the Conservative localism agenda is all about creating an environment for massive cuts in public service delivery.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Dave has so ably shown that the Conservatives’ sudden new enthusiasm for co-ops is nothing more than a smokescreen for service reductions and the start of a race to the competitive bottom.

I have  (perhaps less ably) provided ample evidence that Cameron’s eagerness to sign off ‘General Powers of Competence’ legislation ‘within weeks’ of coming into government, simply provides local authorities with absolute freedom to do what they want, and creates  a back door way of enabling them to do as little as they can now get away with, and then outsource the rest in a Ridley-ite orgasm of contracting skeleton services to the lowest bidder; this will generally be the bidder most able and willing to exploit a reduced number of workers most effectively. 

We know what will happen, because under the most ideologically driven Conservative councils, it’s already happening.  

Kate Belgrave has been reporting for two years on what’s been happing in Barnet, even before it gained its EasyCouncil title.   Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex county council until thrown out of office for alleged theft, has already driven through a massive sale of every service under the Essex sun to IBM, and Lancashire County Council is embarking on the same scheme, without even bothering to tell either councillors or unions what they’re up to, leaving it the guys at Computer Weekly to bring us the news of a contract notice worth £1.9 billion for all IT-related services, including services there’s very little IT involved, not just in their own council but all the second tier councils in their area as well. 

How is that localism, exactly?

No wonder Conservative Central Office, in a move not entirely compatible with the supposed spirit of localism, has already instructed from on high council tax freezes not for one but for two years, irrespective of local conditions, local needs, local people, local jobs. 

Localism, my arse.

 The Tory agenda is clear, and I’m just a bit surprised at how people are being taken in by the rhetoric, though at least Dan Drillsa-Milgrom gets it right.

(Hat tip to Anthony Painter via twitter for the link to Matthew’s post.)

Categories: Terrible Tories

And on the matter of apologies

February 25, 2010 1 comment

And while I’m busy on apologies, I’ll take the opportunity to apologise to David Simister, of the Simantics blog, for not linking to him earlier, like I promised.

David is a local (to me) journalist and his blog offers up some interesting views from a journalist perspective, not least about changes in local and regional media. 

He says he’s not got many readers at the moment, which is a shame, because of course getting readers means you’re encouraged to write more stuff, and he’s got stuff to say.

As I’ve set out here, I’m increasingly interested in the shape of local media to come in the context of declining reader numbers amongst the more traditional city papers (the Liverpool Echo excluded), but also the way in which titles like David’s Ormskirk and Skelmersdale Champion are still able to expand into other areas (they’ve just started up in nearby Litherland and Crosby, as well as being in Southport). 

More particuarly, I’m interested in how leftwing blogs might either supersede or complement the varying quantity and quality of local political and economic coverage, and will soon be devoting quite a lot of time and whatever remains of my energies around this.  Insa’allah.

For that reason alone, I’m interested in what people like David have to say from the local journo coal face, even though it’s not leftwing stuff, and I’d be interested in any links readers have for local journo blogs elsewhere in the country, which they think offer up interesting stuff about how local media is changing/can be developed.

In David’s case, I think Paul Sagar from Bad Conscience, who comes frmo Southport and was until recently the LibDem MP’s researcher/constituency manager, might also be interested (and David interested in Paul’s blog). David, meet Paul.  Paul, meet David.

There you go, apology made, introductions done.  I try to be of service.

Categories: Uncategorized

Financial Times makes full apology to Though Cowards Flinch

February 25, 2010 3 comments

Apologies are all the rage in the centre-left and leftie blogosphere at the moment.  Fair play to Andy.  Very courteous.   Especially as Dave’s a totally cantankerous bastard (in print at least – I’ve never met him).

The apology-based  mood even spilled over into full council down my way last night, where an apology was demanded of me for something I’ve never done,  never even thought about doing, and never would do.  But in the spirit of the times, I think I may apologise anyway (over at my local blog later, people, if you’re interested).

So I think it’s an opportune time just to note that the Financial Times has made a full apology to the team at Though Cowards Flinch for miscontruing its views and saying we’re thicko conspiracy theorists when we’re not. 

Very technically, it’s not actually a full apology from the paper itself, but from its excellent new columnist Giles Wilkes, who also writes at Freethinking Economist, and whose rise to financial media fame began when he started slagging me off at Liberal Conspiracy (not technically Though Cowards Flinch) over my thoughts on Credit Rating Agencies, thus making me more or less directly responsible for his success and therefore morally entitled to the odd plug in his new column.

And I suppose, even more technically, that apology came long before he was approached by the FT about a new column –  an approach well deserved in light of his excellent blogging repertoire over recent months, and his very particular ability to set out quite complex financial stuff in a way even I can half understand. 

So in some ways the apology does not come from the Financial Times at all, even a bit, and I suppose it could be argued that the headline used above is totally, totally inaccurate and misleading and may land me in big legal trouble with a newspaper that has massively more resources to take such action than I have to defend myself (that being zero).

But I stand by the general principle.

Categories: General Politics

The investment vs cuts debate in microcosm

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

As a bit of a hobby, I act as Glorious and Wise Leader of the Labour Opposition on West Lancashire Borough Council.

In this position, I made a speech last night setting out Labour’s alternative budget proposals for 2010-2011. 

In many ways the difference between the two sets of proposals reflects the wider debate between Labour and the Tories about how to manage public finances in the post-recession period.  In short,  it’s the ‘invesment vs cuts’ debate.

So, at the very least to prove that this blog is far from ‘consistently otherwordly’, I’ve copied the speech (minus the odd ad-lib on the night in response to what the Tories had already come with). 

It’s long (40-45 minutes), it’s detailed, and some of the detail will be imprenetrable to those who do not know the local scene, but I thought it might give a taste of the public services battle on the front line.  Or at least in the Council chamber, which is a councillor front line of sorts.

And anyway, I spent ages writing it, and it’s my blog (note: not actually true, it’s Dave’s), so I’ll publish what I want.  Enjoy.  Or ignore.  There’ll be another post along soon enough.

Budget proposal speech, 24 February 2010

Opening remarks

The budget proposals from the Labour group have one central theme.  This theme is about taking responsibility.   It’s about looking outwards towards what the people of West Lancashire need and want, and working out how best to provide that.  It’s about looking for opportunities, and taking responsibility for seizing them.

It’s not about looking inwards, not about self-congratulatory verbiage on ‘careful management’ or ‘prudent planning’.  It’s not about cut-backs that councillors think make them look ‘firm-handed’, while the rest of the population of West Lancashire askance about the loss of important services at a time when reserves remain ample.  

It’s also about getting money circulating in the local economy, not letting it sit unnecessarily, at low interest rates, in bank accounts. It’s about seeing the wider picture, and the councils place in that.

It’s not about avoiding doing things.  It’s about actually getting on with the job of local government.

Process

Before I get into the detail of our proposals, a word or two about the process involved in drawing them up.

We know of course that we will lose the vote on the budget this evening, unless of course my powers of oratory are somewhat larger than I think they are.  Our proposals are therefore indicative of what Labour will do if, as is planned, it sweeps into power in the coming local elections, but perhaps more importantly of the broad strategic direction this council will take when Labour does take control of the administration.

It would not have been appropriate, in circumstances where senior officers are (as acknowledged by a cabinet member at the January meeting) ‘very stretched’, to have spent huge amounts of time with officers going through the budgets line by line, seeking savings where they may lie, and judging where additional ‘micro-investment’ might be necessary.  That will be a job to do when we are in control and in a position to make our budget proposals happen.  

Instead, the proposals we set out here are fairly broad brush, indicative of what our direction and our commitment to the priorities of the people of West Lancashire.  Given this, we largely accept the ‘starting position’ provided us by officers and presented to cabinet and then to Executive Overview and Scrutiny, along with the more recent updates on the position. 

This starting position reflects, more or less what would happen in term of the overall budget so-called ‘gap’ if the same things happened over the course of the year, but without taking into account pay increases.

Before moving on though, I do just want to offer  a comment the way in which the pre-budget papers are always presented to the meetings preceding this full council, and indeed on how budget material is always presented to the public of West Lancashire.

While the information presented is always of a high standard of ‘finish’ from officers, with coherent analysis of the main issues facing the council, there tends to be one glaring gap. 

This is that the question of how much there is in reserves never receives specific mention pre-budget.  This is particularly the case in the leaflet that accompanies the Council Tax announcement to all residents – a matter which I know has been taken up with the council by alert residents.

While for the last two years a paper on reserves has been produced separately, their level is not configured into the overall pre-budget analysis, and therefore only a partial picture of the financial position of the council is ever provided. 

Any business or charity worth their salt, when reporting back to share and stakeholders, will always provide a ‘bottom line’ figure in the balance sheet which includes an assessment of reserves, and of how much might be used appropriately to grow the business or charity while retaining sufficient funds as a buffer.

It is good, therefore, to see some progress this year in the full council papers before us tonight, with – at paragraph 4.6 – a clear setting out of how much is in the reserve, and how much is available the General Revenue Account, namely 5.4 million when other sections of the overall 22.6 million reserve have been accounted for.   Labour will, though, be pressing for more explicit recognition of reserves both in public literature and in subsequent pre-budget analyses.

The appropriate use of reserves is a matter to which I will return. 

Detailed proposals

So to the detail of our proposals.

Because there is an interrelation between our General Revenue Account and Housing Revenue Account proposals, particularly around the matter of re-charging, I will cover both aspects of the overall council budget in this set of words,  and will restrict myself to a few comments when it comes to the Housing Revenue Account budget item – I’m sure Cllr Hopley will be delighted to know. 

First though, the General Revenue Account.

I won’t go through this line by line, but will pick out the main features as they relate to our commitments over and above the ‘base budget’ gap identified by officers, before moving on to how these commitments can be met through judicious use of income that the council can secure and through the appropriate use of reserves.

So our main commitments (which you’ll see at Section D of the GRA budget handout).

Sports Development

We’ll put money back into the Sports Development Team, and get back up and running again a service which was, until recently, the subject of celebratory press releases about the effectiveness of the staff’s work in reducing anti-social behaviour, but soon after tossed on the job-slashing scrap heap in the so-called ‘downsizing’. 

In putting this money back in, we’ll have the courage of our conviction that this type of socially beneficial activity can drawn In external funding to help it not just get started again, but to increase its service over time.  This is the kind of service which is perfectly well fundable from other sources, not least in the context of the 2012 Olympic push around sports and physical activity, and it is frankly, ridiculous to have the service in this way, and to have denied staff the opportunity to draw in the external funding available.

Investment in transport

As an adjunct to the investment set out above, we’ll also make available a small amount of pump-priming money to the Youth Council, or to another suitably responsible body to use for getting young people to and from leisure activities. This is in the realization that the cuts already made both to the Sports Development Team, and more widely within the youth service, mean that young people are likely in the short term are going to have to travel further than they might otherwise have done.

While it would be up to the recipient body to make best use of the resource made available, both in terms of levering in other cash on top of it and getting best value for money, it might be sensible to link it in – at least in part – to the planned Phoenix Demand Responsive Transport scheme.  That is, of course, if a scheme that has now been deferred form cabinet 9 times ever sees the light of day.

Additional benefit payment capacity and money advice

Providing additional benefits payment capacity in this delicate post-recession period is clearly necessary, and we are delighted that sensible officers within the council have gone against the cut-cut-cut grain of this administration and advised that additional expenditure really is needed.  We are happy to support this recommendation from officers.

But in a further move, we’ll also put money into the money advice service – an essential adjunct to what officers recommend.  We know full well that this is an essential service for many of our poorest residents at this difficult time, and while the challenge to the service is that will pay for itself in terms of monies saved on rental and council tax defaults, it is important simply to get on with a service which keeps vulnerable households and families together.

Free swimming

Our objections to the, erm, objectionable decision by the administration to turn down thousand and thousands in government grants for the provision of free swimming for young people, alongside entry into the programme for refurbishment of swimming pools which recently brought £600, 000 to Wigan’s swimming facilities, is well-known.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to access government grants has now closed, and there will be no money in from central government.   This is the reality of Conservative negligence towards the young people of West Lancashire.  The calculation that were used to decide that free swimming was NOT viable for this administration while it was perfectly ok for local authorities all around were based on the cost of staffing if usage increased 40%. In contrast, use of West Lancashire’s pools by young people declined by 8% during the summer holiday period just gone.  We still await figures for the whole of 2009. 

But even in the absence of such external funding, we must do something about this mess.  Therefore we’re putting £25,000 into the budget, to be matched by a similar sum we would envisage coming in from the Primary Care Trust – just as the Primary Care Trust indicated might happen back in September 2009 – to get on with a free swimming offer even in the absence of the government support spurned.  The issue of how much Serco might be ‘invited’ to contribute, given their track record to date, remains an open question.

Neighbourhood management

We know from the evaluation conducted at the end of the Safer Stronger Communities Fund programme, funded from central government, that neighbourhood management works – not just in terms of effectiveness, but in terms of cost.  The savings produced for the agencies involved – for example in terms of reduced fire service call outs – far outstrip the cost of making neighbourhood management in the first place.  The police are convinced enough of this to be already putting money into retaining their part of the overall neighbourhood management contribution, although this is still dedicated to their own resources rather than to the overall pot.

If the approach works, we need to roll it out, not least in light of the emergent findings of the Corporate Overview & Scrutiny review.

We  are therefore putting into the budget the cost of a neighbourhood manager (based on the period post –recruitment) for another area of West Lancashire, with the challenge that future costs of this staffing be met from partner agencies in light of the savings to be made.

Neighbourhood management works.  That’s clear.  We need to get on with doing it.

Bin collections

We’re putting in a reasonable sum to the Street Scene Division to develop and pilot ways in which the refuse collection service can be improved; while many councils continue to offer a weekly bin collection service, this administration has simply decided this is not achievable, or even desirable. Once again, it has opted out of responsibility for sorting out the things its residents actually want. 

What we’ll do is offer up this investment in the context of the Street Scene director’s thinking around ‘area by area’ collections, with the challenge that moving to this ‘clear it all, then move on’ approach might develop enough economies of fuel and time that areas can start to be revisited for refuse collection more frequently.

Of course this is an outline proposal, and would be firmed up much more if we were n control, but it remains as a commitment to reversing this administration’s reduction in service, while still being open to the laudable innovation of officers doing their best under a Conservative administration’s short-sighted directions.

Pest control charges

We’re putting in £10,000 to the immediate reduction of pest control charges, with a view to their complete abolition as an when it is proven that a reduction increases uptake.  This is a gradual approach because the downsizing has taken capacity to deal with pests out of the system and we need time to restart the pest control service completely.

Bulky waste

We’re putting in £10,000 to this service to give scope to officers to recommend what we should do – enter into full partnership with a suitably funded social enterprise creating a ‘double bottom line’ of much needed service and employment opportunities, or get on with the job as a council and get back to the levels of service that were being provided before the price hikes drove down demand so hugely.

Reduced recharges to the HRA

We are budgeting for additional expenditure in the GRA by way of transfer into the HRA to support what we consider priority projects, and I’ll come back to this when I tackle the HRA budget.

Concessionary travel

We are committed, quite simply, to ensuring that older people in West Lancashire get fair deal, and this means putting money where our mouth is – not in the appointment of an Older People’s Champion, worthy idea though that may be – but in doing the things that really count.  One of these things is making sure older people can get around the area.

At the moment, the concessionary travel package offered by the council is insufficient, particularly in respect of train travel.  The voucher offer of £28 each is, quite frankly, an insult.  Are older people only allowed to go out somewhere 8 times per year?

We’re therefore putting in an additional £150,000 to concessionary travel. While we’re not earmarking it specifically, we would envisage that it might be devoted principally to allowing, through negotiation with the operator over the first few months of the financial year, free rail travel and therefore superseding at least in part the need for vouchers and rail cards. This would create additional finance for the package and bring us closer to the point where free travel is open to all older people.

There is, though, a wider dimension to this offer, and one which requires the kind of aforethought that does not come easily to this administration. 

First there is the issue that responsibilities for this area of spend are likely to go to the County Council in 2011.  Given this, it’s vitally important to set the precedent down, and get down a marker of what is provided to older people, so that the county needs to build that provision into its plans subsequently.

Second, and perhaps even more important, is the issue of rail infrastructure improvements in West Lancashire. We are, thanks to Network Rail’s utlilisation strategy in particularly, nearer than we have been for many years  in West Lancashire to securing real improvements to the rail network, whether it be through Ormskirk or through, and into, Skelmersdale.  But a key issue for the rail network and operators going forward will be latent demand for any new service – knowing the services will be used is what really makes the business plan tick.  To do this, we need as an authority to take real responsibility, get people traveling even on the existing network, and help provide the case for additional investment – not in terms of £150,000 we’re talking about here, but in terms of the many, many millions that new track and a new station would bring.   In other words – invest to gain.

Redevelopment of regeneration capacity

We will reinvest in the capacity of the regeneration division, which has been reduced to a shell by this administration via its downsizing.  Specifically, we will re-invest in external funding expertise lost in the last year. 

In terms of this budget, this will link across to the efforts to re-inflate the sports Development Team in particular, providing additional capacity in the skill area of project development and bid writing, but will be a resource across the council to ensure that opportunities for additional income are seized.  This is particularly important given the recent conclusion to the European Regional Development fund programme, and the pending conclusion to the Investing in Business programme brought to the area in 2000 under a Labour administration.  Yes, the policy framework has changed in that large scale regeneration funds are dispensed less through competitive bidding processes and more via strategic frameworks, but this only increases the importance of having expertise within the council which can not only bid for resources on its own behalf, but also work with local partners on bids for resources that bring benefit to residents, whoever the formal applicant.

We envisage that this renewed service will pay for itself within the year.

How to pay for these commitments

How do we meet these commitments financially?

Put simply, we’ll use reserves as they should be used, and should have been used for years by this administration – to pump prime activities which either create future savings or draw in income which will cover costs in the future.

While, then, we identify £509,000 of the additional spend coming form reserves, our calculations suggest that only around £30,000 is on items which are other than temporary input, either because they are ‘one-year only’ or because they offer savings and income down the line.  Frankly, a £30,000 hit on reserves of 5.4 million is a drop in the ocean, well within normal in-year budgeting sensitivities.

This then, while it offers so much to the residents of West Lancashire that have been denied so much by this administration, remains a conservative (with a small c) budget.  This budget comes even in advance of the more rigorous examination we will take on when we regain control of exactly how and how far the reserves should be reduced so that they both meet immediate need AND develop provision for the longer in a wholly sustainable manner.

Of course, as you can see from the paper presented, not all comes from the reserve. There are three other main sources to close the budget ‘gap’.

First, there are the savings identified by officers and contained at section B of the paper. These of course, include a projected £100,000 saving on the top-tier re-organisation.  This is a saving identified by officers on the basis of the ‘pink paper’ tonight, and in light of the paper’s ‘pinkness’ I set this aside for now, happy to accept the officer recommendation for now. 

Also included in this section is an £80,000 saving on the initial projection for the pay settlement.  This was at 1%, which in our perspective is the least that hard-working, committed and often low-paid staff should be getting.  As it turns out, the Local Government Employers organization is offering 0%, which we consider an insult.  We therefore, for the purposes of the budget, assume a final settlement of some 0.5% after what I hope will be robust negotiations.

Other income we assume in this budget, and allocated to appropriate priority areas, is £100,000 from the LAA Performance Reward Grant, which will amount to perhaps a third of a million in this year, and will be spent via the Local Strategic Partnership.  In particular, we would want this funding to pick up the neighbourhood management investments we identify above, as well as other initiatives in keeping with the LSP thematic objectives.

Finally, what of council tax?

Finally, what of council tax?

Let us make clear here and now that, in principle, we have no problem with council tax rises which reflect both the rate of inflation and the cost of additional services which we, as democratically elected members, learn from our constituents are worth investing in as a local authority.  This is why we supported the 1.75% council tax increase proposed by our county colleagues, because in their considered view it was better to raise the tax slightly than see some of the massive, ‘swingeing’ (to use a Cameronian) adjective) cuts bow being imposed by the reckless Conservative administration in Preston.

We also need to point out what an increase in council tax actually means in real terms, as the Conservative administration is always so keen to boast about its 0% rise as though it was the most important budgeting decision it could possibly ever make. It is not.  1% in council tax equates to just £69,000, or – put differently – a pint of beer per year for an average household.  Or 5p per week. 

Council tax is less important to the council currently than the rate of interest received on the money held by the council, and the way the Conservatives harp on about the council tax as be all and end all, is somewhat disingenuous.

With all that said, West Lancashire is different from Lancashire.  Quite simply the level of reserve hoarded by the council over recent years is such that on this occasion it is simply unnecessary to increase the tax. Our proposal, therefore, is for a 0% tax increase.

Housing Revenue Account

Now let’s move to housing.

In brief, this is what Labour proposes. 

The way we have managed the budget means that we are able to meet both key priorities for the future of housing in West Lancashire, and meet current expectations.

First, the commitments.

In short, the way we have managed the budget means that we are able to meet both key priorities for the future of housing in West Lancashire, and meet current expectations.

Revenue

As far as initial estimates are concerned we accept officer calculation but highlight the following potential ‘invest to save’ options:

First, we will prevent the “churn” in young people not sustaining tenancies by appointing a dedicated officer to provide support this would generate savings of  £45,000.

Second we will re-let long term vacant warden accommodation, generating additional income of £21,000.

We will appoint a dedicated officer to bid for council House New Build to ensure a supply of rented accommodation for those needing housing.  This post would be self funded through the Homes and Communities Agency’s grant and future rental income.

In the interest of time, I’ll move quickly on to perhaps the more substantive issue of the capital programme, and the expectations of tenants.

Put simply, and in keeping with the paper you have before you, our proposals would ensure that the Council can fulfil its prior commitment to tenants – now cast into doubt by the Conservative administration – to invest in all the new kitchens for the next year, Further we will provide an immediate investment in new kitchens in Findon and Firbeck and provide for double glazing for many tenants including Firbeck Court.  I know that other colleagues will want to pick up on the importance of such a commitment to a group of tenants who have been excluded from the capital programme on the basis that they and their homes are simply not worth the effort.

Finally we will also provide finance to start upgrading properties with electric storage heaters.  I know Cllr Pendleton and others might want to make some comment, given their experience in this area, on how this might be most successfully managed.

Our other commitments are set out in the paper provided, and confirm our commitment to decent housing for all in West Lancashire, in keeping with the wishes clearly expressed by tenants w have talked to, including their representatives on the Tenants and Residents Forum.

How to pay?

How to pay for it?  Again, you’ll see the main sources set out on the paper provided. In particular thought, I point first to the reduction in central recharge by the GRA on the HRA, or – as it might be put – a reduction on the additional tenant tax levied by the council for works such as grounds maintenance.  My colleagues may wish to say more on that.

Second, and more importantly to the overall picture, we create the ‘headroom’ to pay for the things people really, really want and need by getting rid of the plans for the things people in West Lancashire really, really don’t want or need.  I refer to the Abbotsford Regeneration plan and the building of new council offices – not a council priority, and not something we should be wasting thousands on, first through needless demolition of perfectly good housing stock, and now on a vanity project to enhance the council’s status, but not its performance.  Again, my colleagues may wish to comment further.

Summary

Members, I have presented budget proposals – albeit in outline form – which reflect what a council should be about. 

Taking resident priorities on board, taking responsibility, making it happen.  I ask for your support.

 

Power 2010 Pledge

February 24, 2010 20 comments

The Power 2010 pledge was set up as something to encourage parliamentarians to endorse the types of reform which voters have called for. This was done via an online campaign, and several targeted real-world events.

My own objection to Power 2010 is on record, and I’m not hopeful that it will change anything – and it does seem to have become just another pressure group at this time. That said, I am of course signing the Power 2010 pledge, as some of the measures are worthwhile, even if they won’t have the sort of effect aimed at by the group.

Clauses of the pledge are, in order of popularity:

1. Introduce a proportional system

2. Scrap ID cards and roll back the database state

3. Replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber

4. Allow only English MPs to vote on English laws

5. Draw up a written constitution

When signing the pledge, the site asks you to make clear why you are signing it, and which bits you agree and disagree with. Salman Shaheen has posted up his views over at Third Estate. On the Power 2010 site, I have written as follows:

“I support the POWER Pledge parts 1, 2, 3 and 5. I think the democratisation of the parliamentary system and the protection of the civil liberties of the British people are vitally important to ensuring a better degree of accountability when it comes to the government, both legislative and executive branches.

“I do not support English votes on English laws.”

As someone who lives in England, and is liable to be affected by English votes on English laws, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I see it as an expression of nationalism, and there’ll be more coming up on this in a subsequent post on Raymond Williams, George Orwell and “Real England”.

If you have signed the Power 2010 pledge, feel free to leave your own remarks below as to why, or why you won’t.

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