Maria Eagle on Labour’s High Speed Rail policy, 6th February 2011:
Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.
Maria Eagle on Labour’s High Speed Rail policy, 28th February 2011:
[High speed rail] has the potential to bring our major cities closer together, boosting investment and economic growth in the north of England.The Tory-led government is only planning to take powers to construct the line as far as Birmingham which casts real doubt on their long-term commitment to delivering HSR in the north. They should think again and ensure the whole route is included in the forthcoming legislation.”
I’m sorry, I’m confused. Did the root and branch review take place while I wasn’t looking?
In March last year the question on everybody’s lips was: Did Hague know about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status? He said not. Then later he admitted he did, and we waited for the statement of his sacking. Nothing. Overlooked by Cameron whose compassionate conservativism begins and ends in his own cabinet.
Michael Spencer was appointed by Cameron as Tory treasurer to incentivise more small donations of £50,000, and shed the party of Ashcroft’s influence. It didn’t help. It was revealed, unsurprisingly that 50% of the Tory’s funds came from the city; £4m from David “Spotty” Rowland, £1.9m from Stanley Fink, £485,000 from George Magan. So much for small donations.
But Hague could sleep at night, Ashcroft had gone.
But now he is in the doghouse yet again.
First he made the government look foolish by repeating the unsubstantiable claim that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela.
Then amid all the media attention on Cameron’s trip to the Middle East with arms dealers, and the Mirror story that the wife of an ex-Middle East arms dealer, old chum of Jonathan Aitken, had donated £300,000 to the Tories, David Cameron has to get up and apologise for the delays to the Government’s efforts to rescue British nationals stranded in Libya.
James Forsyth for the Mail has today said the “Government has resembled little more than a budget airline”.
WalesOnline wondered recently:
… whether [Hague's] unlucky or whether there is some flaw in that superbly functioning mental apparatus of his when it has to connect with the real world?
And that’s the clincher. When people are angry, you can cover your head for a while until everyone stops noticing. But when people feel sorry for you, that’s when you’re in trouble.
William Hague should be sacked.
I have written a good deal about my concerns over the Tories’ (and until recently Labour’s) commitment to press ahead with high speed rail, irrespective of the risks of increasing regional and intra-regional inequalities.
However, I must be wrong, because 68 business leaders have written to the FT saying high speed rail is a really good thing.
Amongst these selfless business leaders, who absolutely have the best interests of this country at heart and are in no way acting out of narrow self-interest, is Hugh Jones, Chief Executive of Steer Davies Gleave.
You know, that Steer Davies Gleave – the international transport consultancy which makes a lot of its income from advising government on big transport infrastructure projects.
That Steer Davies Gleave that’s currently offering US VIPs a 5 day high speed rail ‘experience’.
Oh no, hold on…..
Anybody who reads Private Eye will know why this is funny:
Speaking from Jerusalem in his capacity as Middle East do-gooder, [Tony Blair] warned against rushing to oust President Hosni Mubarak and argued that it would be better to move to “a situation where the Egyptian government evolves and you have full, fair and free elections at a certain point in time”.
Private Eye, Edition number 1282 (18 February – 3 March 2011) [p. 5]
250,000: Estimated number of protesters gathering in Cairo resulting in ousting of Hosni Mubarak, which Tony Blair welcomed as a “huge opportunity for change”.
Private Eye, Edition number 1282 (18 February – 3 March 2011) [p. 5]
The part 1 synopsis has drawn a hostile response, and that’s predictable enough.
Just briefly for the record, I don’t think I can be legitimately called a Labour careerist interested only in my ‘job’. I’ve only been a councillor for four years, and I won’t be seeking election again in May, not least because I think I’m better positioned to help resist the current government from a position outside elected local government, while understanding what it is like to be on the inside.
But that’s a story for another time…..I don’t really mind the vitriol, as it merely reflects the current level of acrimony and lack of mutual understanding; people think I’m a careerist coward, while I’m just trying to set out the position as I see it, and to clear the decks for what I hope will be a better received part 2.
For all is not, as I hope to set out, doom and gloom.
The first five reasons I set out were really focused on what the Left needs to hear; I didn’t enjoy saying it much, but I’m only trying to establish properly where we find ourselves. In this part, I want to move on to five more reasons why we should support Labour councils making cuts, but in a way which I hope provides some strategic insight as to how we can resist more effectively in the future.
Working with the reality at it stands, I now contend, will bring us more medium and even short term benefits than fighting a losing battle over the next two weeks and falling out with ourselves in the process.
6 Reserves are finite, but not set in stone?
This links back to Reason 1, the simple fact that if Labour Councils decide to try and set an illegal budget, then section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act comes into play, and the budget ends up getting set by officers, overseen by Pickles.
But there’s another side to this councillor- Chief Finance Officer relationship.
If councillors don’t play ball with the Chief Finance Officer, then the Chief Finance Officer can’t play ball with the councillor. If councillors do play ball with the Chief Finance Officer, then there’s some room for manoeuvre around use of reserves.
If you’re not told any different, then it’s easy to imagine the reserves held by a Council as one big pot waiting in the bank to be used. This is not actually the case. Reserves are broken up into lots of little pots, mostly earmarked for specific purposes.
This is a list of the current reserve allocations and balances held by own Council, for example: usable capital receipts; major repairs reserve; housing earmarked reserves; local tax balances; investment centre reserves; community safety reserves; developer reserves; environmental health officer reserves; insurance fund reserves (against potential liabilities); and general reserves and balances.
Some of these reserves are allocated voluntarily, some are ring-fenced to specific expenditures (e.g. as part of developer agreements, one reserve can only support social enterprise) and some are matters of statute (e.g. local tax reserves can not legally support general revenue expenditure).
Thus Cameron is wrong simply to state that Liverpool City Council is hoarding reserves; such a statement displays either great ignorance or great political cynicism.
Equally, though, these reserves are not set in stone. Last year, for example, as a result of Labour’s pressure on my own (Tory) council, we were able to force as review of the insurance fund needs, and squeeze an extra million out into the general reserve, a pretty important step in a small borough council.
But you can only do this kind of thing if you’re acting in good faith with the Chief Finance Officer. With good faith, what were figures set conservatively and sensibly back in 2006 or so become matters for judgment, and the CIPfA guidelines he has to apply to his judgment become guidelines, not rules.
And the results of this good faith may be considerable in terms of hard cash. If for example, you can work with the Finance Department at a large County Council to squeeze reserves down from an overall 6 months to 5 months salary costs, somewhat below where the Finance Dept might want it but at a point they can still live with, you might be talking somewhere in the order of £50m in revenue to maintain services. Look at that in the context of the cuts proposed in County Councils, and it suddenly looks like an interesting proposition – interesting enough, I suggest, to get the Left engaged in its pursuit.
This is precisely what Jon Rogers, a leading Labour Representation Committee member and leftwing unionist, understands so well in this piece – hostile to my overall view – on how unions should engage with Councils:
Regular readers of this blog will be used to posts on these issues and will know that I can also bore for England on the related subject of local Council’s reserves .
Whilst I agree that Labour Councillors ought to be resisting, rather than implementing Tory cuts (even at the cost of handing control of their budget to their Chief Finance Officer) – there is, as far as I am aware, no ruling Labour Group in the country which is anywhere near this position……
Therefore, in the here and now, as well as advancing and defending the (correct) principled position that Labour Councillors ought not to make Tory cuts, we need also to make lesser demands which may help defend some jobs and services and/or encourage the movement of opposition to our main enemies – the Tory-led Coalition Government.
The debate about Council reserves is part of this work (however much it may be seized upon hypocritically by opposition Councillors in Labour authorities).’
In the end, the question arises of whether Labour councils stick with the political ‘principle’ of setting budgets illegally, or work to squeeze cash out in their residents ‘here and now’ interests. I’ll come back to this in Reason 10, but I know what I’d rather do.
And in turn, the question arises over whether the Left is operating in the best interests of its working class constituency by attacking Labour councillors for their cowardice, when they might be challenging and scrutinizing, as Jon recommends, those same Labour councillors on the details of how to keep services going.
7 There’s legal budgets and there’s legal budgets
This argument for ‘playing ball’ with the Chief Finance Officer and working to set legal, but creative budgets, has the same principles as Reason 6; get the finance department on side, and what exactly a legal budget is becomes a slightly (and usefully) blurred issue itself.
For obvious tactical reasons, I can’t name any of the Councils involved, but look hard enough around the place and you’ll find situation in which Labour councils are preparing, or have just set, legal budgets, but where the logic behind that legality is, let us say, open to interpretation. One example of this might be where, through tacit agreement with the unions, projections for staffing costs remain dependent on negotiations around terms and conditions of service, but where the unions may remain fairly confident that the position not stated in the budget may win out in the course of the year.
A willing and engaged Chief Finance Officer, not troubled by the idea of having to ‘go all section 114’ on her/his elected members, is much more likely to concur with such budgeting assumptions than one who is being forced into a corner s/he would rather not be in.
S/he will know, in any event, that – in a local government so used to Gershon savings that underspending on budget allocation is almost automatic – there are other areas of the budget likely to compensate, and will be comfortable enough to sign off a budget which some might see as risking overspend. That’s the way finance in local government works.
And those engaged unions and activists are much more likely to find common ground, in a way which squeezes the last drops out of the budget, than are those unions and activists who are less keen on engagement than they are on professing that their councillors are all careerists whose abiding wish is to betray the workers.
8 Borrowing with a difference
At Reason 4, I set out why borrowing for revenue is simply not an option at the moment.
Borrowing for other purposes, however, is an option, and it is this that activists and party members should be working with Council groups to pursue.
What is allowed under the Local Government Act 2003, and is likely to be better facilitated by the forthcoming Powers of General Competence legislation, is borrowing for capital expenditure which then creates revenue streams.
Typically, this has tended to be around outlay on kit and building which allow for economies of scale and savings (and in many case staffing reductions) and there may be some mileage in that route, but we also need to think more creatively about how we can use borrowing powers.
Take, for example, the idea of borrowing in order to buy out local firms which are essentially profitable, but which are under threat of closure through short-term cashflow difficulties (as a result of restricted bank lending) or for other reasons – perhaps as simple as a private firm owner retiring and her/his children not wanting to continue the business (this is a much commoner reason for business closure than generally recognized).
In such circumstances, and given due diligence, why shouldn’t a local authority borrow money to a) keep jobs going; b) draw revenue for services into the local authority from the firm’s underlying profit, especially if they are acting on concert with unions keen to expand their membership?
Could Forgemasters in Sheffield, for example, have been saved through a Sheffield City Council re-activating its 1980s commitments to local employment initiatives, but in a manner adjusted the economic realities of the 21st century (poor access to cash, but growth potential in some sectors of the economy)?
I don’t know all the ins and outs of this; that needs dedicated officer time and links to wider expertise through, say, the new Local Enterprise Partnerships, but surely if leftwing Labour councils like Sheffield and Manchester engaged usefully (if not always entirely successfully) in this stuff in the 1980s, then surely it’s not beyond us now.
Of course, such initiatives remain dependent on staying legal, and that may be unpalatable for the Left in the short-term, but more of that in Reason 10.
9 Protest, but protest elsewhere too
But all this ignores the fact that people are angry, and they want to protest. Most people to protest against are local Labour councillors, because they are the ones doing the cutting.
As I’ve said, I understand and respect that urge, but as I’ve also said – there are other points, equally or potentially as valid/effective, at which to protest.
What about, for example, the Primary Care Trusts, where unelected quangos are quietly pushing cuts of similar scale through, while the Left gets angry with itself?
More pertinent in terms of local government, though, are those local government suppliers who are continuing to take cash out of the system, and are even bullish about increasing their revenues.
Again, I’ll give an example from my own council. The Tory council gives Serco £1 million per year in subsidy to manage five leisure centres, under a 15 year contract. Serco then profits from the deal where it can. Would it not seem reasonable, in the current circumstances, for Serco to receive a reduced subsidy, brought down say to £850,000 in line with the formula grant cut imposed on the Council?
The idea of a voluntary reduction was taken to Serco at its meeting in October, at my insistence and in the context of both Francis Maude’s letter on this, and of Serco’s letter to its own suppliers seeking savings. At the October meeting, no decision was made. At the next board meeting of the Leisure Trust overseeing the contract, in January, a decision was deferred until a convenient point beyond the council’s own budget setting, in the hope that the request (contractually, that’s all it can be) might go away.
Will that request go away? I don’t think so. Is there a case for a big demo outside the next Serco meeting, demanding that Serco shareholders take some of the pain. Oh yes, I think so.
And so with Labour councils who have outsourced services over the years. It is, I suggest, perfectly legitimate to protest not just against a Council forced to make cuts, but against firms who should be taking a hit in their profits, while maintaining the services they agreed under contract.
I’ve written more on this in a ‘sites of resistance’ post.
10. What are councillors for again?
And that’s more or less it.
Of course it’s not an exhaustive list of areas where councillors and activists might come together to forge a more effective resistance in aftermath of the next couple of weeks of budget setting mayhem. There will be plenty of other options for creative resistance, and I’m perhaps a bit too focused here on narrow Council mechanisms.
The main point, however, is that such creative resistance can only really take place in a spirit of cooperation, and that this will happen less easily if the Left throws the councillor babies out with the budget-setting bathwater.
Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to engage with councillors on this does seem to come down to what you think councillors are for. I touched on this at Reason 3.
Richard Seymour has an interesting post setting out why he thinks councillors should resist cuts in a very different way to the way I suggest they do (and I hope I’ve shown that I back effective resistance).
Richard sets out his reasoning from a SWP standpoint, according to which elected councillors are functionaries of the state, according to which Labour councillors are little different from other parties’ councillors.
The SWP does not engage in elected party politics, so that’s a valid enough standpoint for Richard to take.
I was in the SWP for a while in the 1980s. I was also a union steward and secretary to my hospital branch. I left the SWP when I was criticized for engaging too much in casework at the expense of a wider struggle.
It seems to me that the choice I have made in this argument has similar roots. I’m not a revolutionary socialist. I believe revolution may come about when the ruling class does not concede to our legitimate demands, but that it is more likely to be spontaneous rather than planned (though its will need leadership to see it through).
In the meantime, my job in my remaining two months as councillor is to do the best for the people who elected me. I think that’s what makes most Labour councillors tick. To ask them to set this sense of duty aside in the interests of what will most likely be a losing, if dramatic, cause, – rather than focus on making the best of it for now and creating further sites of realistic resistance – is a strategic mistake.
There are bigger battles for the Left to win than the ones they will lose in the next couple of weeks.
And I’m sorry if I’ve offended you all.
Why people who think the No2AV campaign is full of crap should vote No to AV, especially if they’re Labour
This is a guest post by Tim Flatman.
Now is probably too late to make a stunning intervention in the AV debate.
The Yes to Fairer Votes and No2AV campaigns seem determined to act as a metaphor for parliamentary politics by giving us a straight-up choice between the politics of increasingly aggressive personal attacks made from an ivory tower by patronising middle-class liberals who think they have a monopoly on nebulous terms like “fairness”, and the cynical politics of misdirection, contradictory lines of attack and the occasional flat-out lie.
Even political geeks have stopped listening and certain victory for #meh2av seems to have been denied only by its absence on the ballot paper.
It’s in this context I’m going to try and set out a case against AV that ignores all the No campaign’s talking points. The basic thrust of my argument, strangely enough for someone who is on the left of the Labour Party, is a conservative argument – conservative with a small “c”.
It’s that the limited advantages that AV offers are not worth the risks that change brings.
I know, it doesn’t challenge the impression the Yes campaign are trying their hardest to create, that all of us who oppose AV are unreconstructed dinosaurs and the Yes campaign are shining progressive knights of the 21st century round table ready to slay us so the people can be freed from our unfair tyranny.
I’m not going to argue the acceptable progressive anti-AV case that a yes vote on AV will stop us getting a vote on a more proportional system.
It might. It might not. If we got a vote on a more proportional system I’d probably vote against that, too. I fail to see what is so democratic about a proportional system. But that’s another post. Here I’ll go flat out for ultimate Dinosaur status and try to support my preference for First Past the Post over the Alternative Vote, i.e. the choice we’ve got in May.
AV makes us think about politics in the wrong way.
When we think about a voting system, we shouldn’t just think about the mathematics of how many people voted for whom, how the votes are counted and whether it’s fair, but also about what we’re asking people to do and whether it encourages a view of politics that is healthy for democracy.
Preferential voting encourages people to think about politics in terms of sending a message, rather than making a choice about who they want in government. AV supporters argue preferential voting means people get to vote for their true first choice first, knowing that their vote will still “count” if it turns out other voters think their first choice are a few bathplugs short of an expense claim, and that in turn means voting is more honest. I’m not convinced.
Aside from the fact that by this logic, only the votes for the winning party end up “counting”, what the shiny progressive knights fail to recognise is that people weigh up scores in competing metrics when they consider their vote. They don’t vote solely on what values each party has, they also weigh up how competent, or trustworthy, or otherwise each party seems to them and sometimes competency outweighs policy, or policy outweighs trustworthiness, or some other metric outweighs some other metric.
In other words, if you vote Small Socialist Organisation Whose Collective Membership Is Made Up Of Two Extended Families 1 and Labour 2 because you like SSOWCMIMUO2EF’s policies better, it might still not be an “honest” vote.
You might want a Labour government, but still preference another party first. Tribal Labourites and die-hard Tories will end up giving their first preference to fringe parties not necessarily because they want those parties to form a government but in order to send a message. AV will reduce voting to gestures.
If you doubt this will happen, consider the last Labour leadership election.
I gave Ed Balls my first preference. But everyone knew one of the Miliband brothers would win. I didn’t want David Miliband to win. So did I give Ed Miliband my second preference?
No. I gave Diane Abbott my second preference, so it was clear that the eventual transfer to Ed Miliband came from the left. I hated voting in this way, but the system incentivised me to send a message, rather than make a straight choice about who of the available candidates was the best leader.
Tory voters on the right will use AV to try and push Tory candidates further to the right by giving their first preferences to UKIP, and Labour voters on the left will use AV to try and push Labour candidates to the left by voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF or the Greens. But it doesn’t mean they’d actually prefer those candidates.
Is this worse than First Past the Post’s own perverse incentives, encouraging people to choose between the two parties who did the best at the previous election?
After all, that incentivises people to vote for parties they may not wish to see elected, too. Actually I think it is worse. First Past The Post rewards solid organisation over a period of time.
There is nothing wrong with a system that encourages voters to make a realistic choice between parties that are the best at mobilising support. With patient mobilisation, different parties can work their way into second place and then first place within two or three elections. That has happened in a few seats where the Liberal Democrats have replaced the Tories or Labour and gone on to win the seat. So too, if a traditional party jettisons its support base, or a new section of society with new interests emerges, it may be possible for another party to build itself patiently.
I am not convinced that a system which, by encouraging voters to “send a message”, may reward the sudden emergence of parties based on zeitgeist issues, is better than one which requires parties to develop a solid support base and which therefore reflects the fundamental cleavages in our society.
Ultimately I disagree with a philosophy of electoral politics that is about each individual deriving the maximum value possible from their vote. In fact, electoral politics makes very little sense at all if you consider it from the viewpoint of an individual, whose vote is unlikely to make any difference in determining the outcome.
Elections should be about communities coming together to make a collective decision about who will represent them, anointing someone to act as their champion in parliament. They should be events, not opinion aggregators.
AV would reinforce a view of voting which is about what I get out of it, about me getting across my opinion. It would strengthen gesture politics. Perversely, in making electoral politics more about sending a message and less about consciously choosing who governs us, it would increase the distance between the public and politicians. Suddenly it doesn’t matter who gets in, it matters what message we send them. Having our say becomes more important than making a decision.
AV could reduce the power of the least-represented.
Maybe you don’t think I’m a dinosaur. Maybe you just think I’m wrong. You’re a liberal. You believe that communities are simply collections of individuals, nothing more. We should encourage a market-based view of politics that is about individuals competing with each other to get their opinions across, there’s no more authentic form of democracy than a market.
Sorry, but I refuse to accept that I’m merely wrong. Here’s where I go flat out for unreconstructed dinosaur status, by raising the spectre of class.
We don’t know what the long-term effects of changing our voting system will be. But there has to be a chance that it will increase the numbers of people giving their first preferences to fringe parties, and that over time that will enable fringe parties to come to power.
If more people start voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF, they will start getting taken more seriously, more people will join them, encourage others to vote for them, people who vote for the people they see as the “main” parties will consider voting for them and eventually a plethora of parties will get representation in parliament.
The more parties are represented in parliament, the higher the chance of perpetual coalition government and the less chance there is of the working class seizing power and making bold, radical reforms. As someone on the left of the Labour Party, that is what I want to see, and it seems less likely if we have a plethora of parties represented in parliament, some based on ideologies, some based on representing interest groups which span across classes (a Pensioners’ Party, perhaps?), some based on single issues.
AV may not lead to that outcome, but it may do, and I’m not prepared to take that risk for a system that delivers little in the way of improvement to our current FPTP system.
I said earlier that the current system reflects fundamental cleavages in our society. I was talking about class.
At the last election, a (literally, not metaphorically) toothless retiree told me the Tories were for the rich, Labour were for the working class and the Liberals were for those in the middle. It might be crude, I might want to refine his analysis slightly, but when it comes to the crunch I’m with Gums.
I’m glad we have an electoral system that reflects what I see as the most important cleavage in society. I’d like it if the Labour Party was a bit more radical, I’d like it if the British working class as a whole were a bit more radical, but changing the voting system isn’t going to fix that.
The immediate instrumental effects of AV could be bad for the working class, too. It is widely recognised that underprivileged groups are less likely to vote. Under FPTP, parties are incentivised to identify their potential vote and motivate them to turn out. The short campaign is structured around GOTV – Get Out The Vote, for any readers who aren’t political hacks. For Labour, that means especially motivating voters in deprived areas to get out and vote. Y
es, in most marginal constituencies that is not enough on its own, and we also have to persuade swing voters to vote Labour. But motivating voters who sometimes vote and who, when they do, always vote Labour, is a big part of our campaigns. And those people are usually amongst the poorest. They’re the people who Labour is there to represent, and who other mainstream parties couldn’t care less about.
Sometimes it seems like Labour governments couldn’t care less about them, either, but then the Tories get back in and we remember that compromised Labour governments are always better for the working class, and especially the worst-off, than governments of any other colour.
AV could change all that. It may turn out to be easier to get the second preference of someone who will definitely vote than it is to persuade someone who rarely votes that this is the election that really matters.
Suddenly we stop chasing the first preferences of the least-privileged and start chasing the second preferences of the already-privileged. We spend less time campaigning in our “core” areas. We spend less time listening to the most under-represented working class voters. We develop policies that are designed to win the second preferences of UKIP voters, Green voters, English Democrat or Liberal Democrat voters, rather than motivating the least-motivated to vote. We stop being the Labour Party and become something else. A pale imitation of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps.
So I think Labour supporters should vote No to AV.
Not because FPTP is better for Labour than AV. Labour supporters of AV argue it would keep the Tories out for a generation, those who oppose it say with the new alignments brought about by Nick Clegg’s election and personal coalition preferences, it could be Labour that would be kept out for a generation. I don’t think any of us can be sure about which of those is true. Probably it’s neither.
Labour supporters should oppose AV not because it could be bad for our party but because it could be bad for the people our party was set up to represent.
Labour supporters should oppose AV because it encourages a liberal individualist view of politics, rather than a collectivist view that better reflects our values. And while we’re at it, let’s reclaim the language that’s being used to demonise us.
I’m an Unreconstructed Dinosaur and proud of it.