Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tomorrow belongs to meeeee

Some Tories accuse us of fighting a class war.

Reading this piece from Prospect (hat tip to Tom Watson) - I'm not sure whether we started it.

The ghost of Christmas present:
For a political party that professes itself horrified that the pre-election debate is being framed in class terms, the young Tories seem remarkably fixated on the issue. “Sorry, did you just say I was a commoner? Fuck off and die!”—is the punch-line to one bit of drunken joshing
Tim is such a common name…” one of the smokers is saying. He checks himself, not wanting to offend the Tim in question: “sorry, not, you know, common… I mean ‘popular’.”
“Yah but your surname is Jenkins,” his friend says through a mouthful of teeth. “That’s such a butler’s name!”
“Jenkiiiiiiins!!” They all boom happily at once, summoning an imaginary servant and the ghost of Conservative past at the same time

The ghost of Christmas past:

He pauses. “Well, I like these kinds of parties obviously! God… can you imagine what a Labour version of this would be like?”
“Well,” his friend replies, “there’d be a lot more ethnic minorities for one thing.”

“Oh really?” the other replies. “I thought the Labour party was trying to make itself seem more respectable!”

And the ghost of Christmas yet to come.
“Don’t get me wrong, Cameron is… necessary. But George Osborne: now he’s the bloody man,” one of them replies, supported by a cascade of floppy-haired nods.
We’re not personally going to be in power just yet. But give it ten years.
As they say, don't have nightmares. Sleep well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The real meaning of Christmas

For some, Christmas only starts with the first reference to Winterval in the press.

But for me, I know that Christmas is around the corner when Cadbury's Creme Eggs appear in the shops. Last year, I saw them on Boxing Day. This year, the 17 December.
EDIT: A comment suggests that they are on sale year round elsewhere. I've not seen them on general sale outside the 'Easter' period (which starts earlier each year) and a source at Cadbury's has confirmed that they have been released earlier this year - although those of us with a bad habit have still had the rather good chocolate bar version available.
Oh - and I will make the point whenever somebody mentions 'Winterval' (usually the Daily Mailevolent). It was never intended to replace Christmas, but to form a 'wrapper' for all the end of year festivals celebrated by the diverse communities in Birmingham - Halloween, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan and Eid and even going as far as the Chinese New Year.

The Magic Roundabout Kingdom



The obvious choices for twinning are places like Blackpool, which have a degree of excitement. Twinning the home of clean cut apple pie family entertainment with a Wiltshire town chiefly known these days as the birthplace of cultural icons Diana Dors and Billie Piper and the home of the maddening Magic Roundabout gained more news column inches and free TV and radio coverage than even Disney could ever afford to buy.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Class matters

But I still hold that this election isn't a done deal. The Tories have seen their lead weaken over recent weeks and the lead seems to have dropped below 10% again - which certainly puts the promised Tory majority at risk. It is received wisdom that oppositions don't win elections, it is governments that lose them, but 2010 may see both sides of that equation come true simultaneously.

The Tories are starting to come under scrutiny. In particular, I think that the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, is a liability. I'm trying to be objective, as far as I possibly can be, but I find his attempts to look serious and mature - a serious man for serious times. To me, he just looks petulant, arrogant and rather unlikeable. I don't believe for one second that Cameron is all that he is cracked up to be, but at least he performs well and the act is convincing. Gideon simply isn't up to that standard.

Additionally, I think that the 'class war' approach by Labour is hitting home. It may be resorting to an appeal to the core Labour electorate, but it hurts when Brown accuses Cameron of having his tax policies formed on the playing fields of Eton. I don't think it is effective simply to shout 'Toff' at the Cameroonies - the disaster of the Crewe by-election proved that it doesn't work when it is used as the main plank of the political attack. However, if it is woven into the cloth of a detailed plan, questioning how the children of privilege like Osborne and Cameron can possibly understand what it feels like to struggle, to not have your choice of public school, to not have friends at Buckingham Palace to rely on to get you a job at Conservative Central Office or friends elsewhere to help you get a job running PR for a (then) major media company. As John Curtice puts it
Cameron's poshness will get used against him [effectively] if he's unpopular for other reasons. George Osborne is not as engaging as Cameron, so his poshness is already held against him.
Labour run heavily with the Tory promise to slash inheritance tax because it speaks to that large group who recoil from privilege. The Tory promise to offer a free vote on the repeal of the ban on fox-hunting, while it appeals to their rural electorate, will be used against them, because the imagery of the huntin', shootin' and fishin' set - of which Cameron is unquestionably a part, even though he doesn't like to talk about it any more than he mentions his schooling - is also a convenient shorthand to awaken those who are permanently excluded from that gilded cage. Osborne is the most vulnerable to this label, because of his other shortcomings - not least his economic illiteracy - while Cameron, ironically enough, may just be able to sustain the armour of his 'nice-guy' image enough to prevent the 'toff' label adhering.

Charlie Brooker's description of reading Tatler's 'Little Black Book' accurately reflects the less-than-respectful view that many people now have of those that, in an earlier age, we would have considered our betters. The Tories know that the 'posh' tag can hurt - hence the suggestion that candidates' names should be made more accessible, the glossing over of public schools in biographies - although former grammar and comprehensive pupils are mentioned - and nobody talks about money.

Incidentally, Snowflake 5 reminds us that the Tory inheritance tax cut actually goes further than just putting estates worth under a million out of the the reach of the taxman. The vast majority will benefit from that tax allowance being given to both halves of a married couple, effectively allowing them to hand estates up to £2 million on to their children (there being no inheritance tax between spouses on death).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Merry Christmas Mr Cameron

Unions Together are sending David Cameron a special Christmas card and asking you to sign it.

Remind Dave why the employment legislation emplaced by this government - parental leave, 20 days paid holiday a year and the right to be consulted over changes at work - is good for the millions of ordinary people and helps to counter the power held by the employer.

Dave wants to renegotiate the terms of the Social Chapter. Good luck with persuading the rest of the EU to sit down to sort that one out.

In the meantime, wish Call-Me-Dave a happy, family Christmas and hope that he doesn't stop millions of others enjoying those rights.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mad as March hares or Nuts in May?

Much talk lately about the date for the 2010 election, with the most popular choice currently being 25 March, as Ladbrokes have now stopped taking bets on that as the date - showing the wisdom of crowds. Or not.

I don't buy it, to be honest.

My best bet is 6 May, to coincide with the metropolitan election dates. If we have an election on the 25 March, campaigners across the country will have to energise themselves after an intense five week short campaign ready for a second burst of activity in the run up to the locals. The party workers won't be happy and the public won't thank us for making them traipse to the polls again within a few weeks.

The advantage - apparently - is that it gives the government some control over the date of the poll, as the further through the year we go, the more certain the date is. That's certainly true, but I'm not sure that it makes that much difference. Certainly, the opinion polls aren't likely to shift around much before the election campaign gets going in earnest and while an earlier date does reduce the impact of opposition campaigning, it will also reduce the impact of any positive news on the economy. There may also be an argument that if - and I still think it is an if - Labour loses the election, then we may be able to save some metropolitan councillors.

On the other hand, Labour voters are notoriously reluctant to vote outside general elections and I think that there is an excellent chance that if we combined the general and the local election dates, that we would end up with more councillors in the metropolitan authorities, even if we potentially lost the election, which would give us a better starting point for the future. Additionally, if we lose the election, then we get the bad news out of the way in one fell swoop and don't give the opposition a chance to batter us again in a month, when our voters may decide it isn't worth turning out.

So, for my money, May is the date, but then I thought we'd have an election this year.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Unlawful acts?

'But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.'
'Oh yes, well as soon as I heard, I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.'
'But the plans were on display....'
'On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.'
'That's the display department.'
'With a torch.'
'Ah well, the lights had probably gone.'
'So had the stairs.'
'But look, you found the notice, didn't you?'
'Yes,' said Arthur, 'yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying
Beware of the Leopard.'

Not for the first time, I find comfort in the great man's work. I wasn't aware until now that Birmingham City Council regarded it as a handbook on public consultation.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted to move to a new system of governance. You can be forgiven for not realising that there was a change in the offing, but the governing party wanted to do it quietly and I don't think that they've done it properly.

Back in 2007, the Local Government and Involvement in Public Health Act - a mouthful of legislation by itself - mandated that local authorities in England would need to move to one of two systems of executive government, either an elected mayor or a council leader on a four-year term with a cabinet of councillors. Birmingham, as you will be aware, has operated the leader and cabinet system for a few years now, but with a leading councillor only on an annual lease. This means that the shift across to a new system is relatively minor, as it only actually extends the term of the leader to four years, starting after the next election, but the process is laid down in the Act (s33E).

Much of what is required was carried out - the proposals were drawn up with a timetable and presented to the council. The problem is with s33e paragraph 6

(6) Before drawing up its proposals, the local authority must take reasonable steps to consult the local government electors for, and other interested persons in, the authority’s area.

Now, the Act does not specify what form this consultation should take, but there is case law which demonstrates what is required of a genuine consultation. (R v North and East Devon Health Authority ex parte Coughlan, if you want the reference)

To be proper, consultation must be undertaken at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage; it must include sufficient reasons for particular proposals to allow those consulted to give intelligent consideration and an intelligent response; adequate time must be given for this purpose and the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account.

What did other cities do?

Well, Whitless' favourite English city, Manchester, laid down the gold standard for consultation on this matter. A leaflet was prepared by the city solicitor in consultation with the leader of the council and the opposition leader, which was then distributed to 213,000 households across the city and supplied to local libraries, supported by articles in the local press and a dedicated website. In addition to this programme over the course of August and September, other key stakeholders were consulted - councillors, business groups, voluntary organisations and MPs. A very thorough exercise, all in all and one that generated over 3000 responses - two-thirds of which were in favour of the leader/cabinet system.

Across the Pennines in Leeds, they did something a little more low key. Again, a council officer drew up the consultation plan with the political group leaders and it was mainly carried out through their 'Talking Point' online presence. Just like Manchester, they also directly contacted certain groups - parish councils, MPs, minority groups, council officers and councillors. This generated 740 responses from non-councillors and again, the preference was for the leader/executive model.

The Leeds process has been replicated across the country, as the Manchester model was - probably rightly - regarded as overly expensive.

So, how did Birmingham consult?

They put an advert in the Birmingham Mail and the Birmingham Post. The Mail advert - enticingly filled with small print - was ideally placed on the same page as adverts for massage parlours. This probably isn't the right demographic to catch the more civic-minded amongst the Birmingham electorate.

Apart from a brief mention on the dodgy website, that was it.

Strange, as they do have a dedicated consultation website, albeit rather underused.

Surprisingly enough, in a city of almost a million people, nobody expressed an opinion about the change in governance processes. Even the chair of the scrutiny committee, Lib Dem Alistair Dow was bored by the process and commented

'People are not interested in this issue. As long as their bins are collected and services provided they are not interested in how the council is run.'

There's nothing wrong with the consultation process - it is the people who are wrong. Remember that.

The other interesting point is that the 'consultation' process was actually carried out AFTER the proposals had been drafted, in clear contravention of the terms of the Act. Remember what the Act says?

(6) Before drawing up its proposals

The adverts included details of the option proposed for the council - that of leader and cabinet. The council had clearly prejudged the matter and have failed to provide for a consultative process that meets any basic test in case law.

Paul Tilsley compounded the error by commenting that

the Government demanded they issue public notices in the local press and have done so.
Not for the first time, Paul's wrong.

The Act does not specify the terms of the consultation in any way - it just demands 'reasonable steps.' BCC have misread the Act. What Paul is referring to should be the NEXT stage of the process.

(8) After drawing up the proposals, the local authority must—
(a) secure that copies of a document setting out the proposals are available at their principal office for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable times, and
(b) publish in one or more newspapers circulating in its area a notice which—
(i) states that the authority has drawn up the proposals, (ii) describes the main features of the proposals, (iii) states that copies of a document setting out the proposals are available at their principal office for inspection by members of the public at such times as may be specified in the notice, and
(iv) specifies the address of their principal office

Following that, then the council should move a resolution to adopt the proposals. The formal public notice is not the consultation phase. If Paul Tilsley is correct, then the council have not carried out any consultation at all. If he is wrong, then the council has simply failed to meet the minimum standards for a proper consultation and has passed a resolution claiming that they have. Potentially, the whole thing is ripe for judicial review if anyone could be concerned.

As a result of this flawed process, most of the Conservative group on the council have ended up voting for something in direct opposition to current party policy. Not only did they deny the people of Birmingham consultation, they denied them a vote on the future governance of their city. Around a third of the group absented themselves from the chamber, according to the Stirrer, a list that includes assorted parliamentary candidates and those who observers predict to have ambitions in that direction, as well as Whitby himself, who was clearly aware that the Conservative leader of the largest local authority voting against a referendum might just be front page news in its own right.

But yet again, we have a council that writes the rules as it sees fit. And if we don't make the effort to look in that hidden, locked filing cabinet, then that's apparently our fault - not the fault of the person who holds the key.

Exciting this isn't. It may only be a technical change to the governance of our city, but it has been carried out with excessive haste - almost as if the council forgot that it had to be in place by the 31st of December. But that couldn't be the case, could it?