Monday, 27 September 2010

Well done Ed - now get your backers to start being democratic

A genuine "well done" from this Lib Dem to Ed Miliband for winning the Labour leadership. Well done because I bet £5 on Ed to win when he was 5-1. I'll be donating the £25 to the Lib Dems to help us get our message across over the Labour lies machine!

The Labour party has put up the exact figures for the results of the bizarre electoral college the Labour party uses, where MPs and MEPs, members and Trade Unions get a third of the votes each. In proper democratic parties, party members get one member, one vote. Of course, if that had happened it would be Miliband senior who would be leader. The local constituency Labour parties of Hexham, where I live, and Blaydon, where I stood at the last election, voted overwhelmingly for David. Their turnout percentages were very impressive. Ed is the choice of Trade Union members but the turnout amongst them is laughable,  for example only 6.7% in Unison, the large public sector union - which is not the lowest turnout by far.

Far be it from me to give Labour some tips but I really think they have to engage with their trade union base. Firstly because the unions are keeping Labour financially afloat but also because there is a fundamental problem in grass roots trade union member involvement. I was briefly a shop steward for Unison many years ago and was often irritated that the officials were elected on tiny turnouts and then proceeded to spend political funds to pursue their own political careers. I remember being really cheesed off when I went to see the singer Billy Bragg to find that it was sponsored by Unison and all the top brass had free tickets. It struck me as a case of preaching to the converted as virtually everyone there was sympathetic to the union movement.

Of course it is a difficult balance for Ed as he can't be seen to be a tool of the unions. He really should be challenging the trade unions to reinvigorate their internal democracy.

Then he has to be honest and say what cuts he would have done as part of Alistair Darlings cuts agenda, which as a cabinet minister he signed up to. Local Labour activists now pretend no cuts are necessary, which just makes them look silly.

One thing is for sure. Having won under a form of (admittedly a crazy form of) AV, he cannot be anything but wholeheartedly in favour of Fair Votes in the referendum next May.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Mutually ours: a solution for public sector reform?

Public services are at a crossroads – the Lib Dem conferences fringe events were dominated about the future. Today I am attending a “meet the primes” event for the voluntary sector in the North East . This a curious name for a event organised for the voluntary sector to engage with private and third sector bidders for the larger contracts likely to be put to tender in the North East. This reveals the classic problem that public services are cheaper when put out on a big scale but that innovative local solutions to local need are often best provided by locally rooted organisations.

Many local publically owned and run public services provide excellent services to residents. I would argue that this is despite being part of a government bureaucracy than due to it.

For 3 years I was a trustee of Leisure Tynedale, now the much larger North Country Leisure, which was a voluntary group set up to run the Tynedale districts leisure facilities. It is run by the former director of leisure and I remember him talking of the liberation he felt from being able to run his service like a business when it separated from the council. The charity has repeatedly cut its costs, whilst increasing participation. It has become recognised as a leader in the provision of leisure in the North and has now taken over the running of leisure services in North Northumberland and Copeland in West Cumbria.

The still large degree of subsidy from the local authority has meant they have still had a big say in strategic development but the independence of the charity has meant they have been able to lobby for the council to fund new leisure facilities, such as the extension to Prudhoe Waterworld and the new Wentworth leisure centre swimming pool in Hexham.

Successes such as this across the country has encouraged Tory run Suffolk County Council to go the whole hog and announce that it is going to disinvest and that the council will not directly run anything in four years.

So there are definitely benefits from “outsourcing” but I am worried about the ability of local and national commissioners to effectively tie national and multinational contractors into terms that allow the public body to hold service providers to account and not to overpay for services in the long run. The last governments PFI contracts are a classic example, I worked at a council department where we just couldn't afford to bring in a PFI contract manager with the requisite knowledge to compete with the private sectors team.

I want to see a really vibrant market of public sector provision emerge that has lots of local providers providing innovative solutions with local community ownership.

There is definitely a role for the voluntary sector to take over some services but in other areas there is a real role for the existing staff to tun things. Under Labour, the term “social enterprise” became very fashionable but many of these social enterprises have very loose legal structures and feel very much like pure private businesses. They often are controlled by a few individuals with little democracy. Their not for profit nature is corrupted by being run by and for the high wages of senior managers.

The answer, in part, surely is to embrace mutualism and co-operatives. This feels out of fashion at the moment and bizarrely wasn't heavily promoted by the many ministers of the previous government who were the joint MPs of both the Labour and Co-operative party.

Mutually owned organisations, whether by the public, customers or workers would add the local responsibility we need whilst still allowing public services to be run at an operational level free of the “dead hand” of council bureaucracy. But fostering this new environment will not save as much money as the quick fix of tendering services out to large national charities and companies who can provide immediate lower costs but at a cost to local accountability and ownership.

I still think a lot of public services could follow in the footsteps of former local authority stock transferred out of the state and of Welsh Water which was mutualised after being privatised and is now owned by its customers. The public sector could sell the assets to a new not for profit structure. This would realise capital receipts, free them up from state control and put in a more philanthropic ownership. I still think this could be a very attractive thing to do with Northern Rock.

Anyway here are a few suggestions for the new government and for local commissioners:

  • Let public sector contracts in sections small enough to allow local contractors to tender and place value in the tender spec for local community involvement
  • Make the Financial Services Authority (FSA) more amenable to approving new co-operative organisations
  • Promote potential spin offs of workers into mutual enterprises but accept that it will take a few years for efficiencies to bed in – this is the price you pay for more community ownership
  • Accept that if you fund charities they must be allowed to campaign and potentially criticise the people funding them
  • Don't think that because it is run by the voluntary or co-operative sector it will be cheaper than the private sector, focus on the social capital you are developing

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why I'm backing Tim

Tim - campaigning in the North East a few years ago
The Liberal Democrats are a party that has a lot of internal democracy, as you might expect. The two positions that all members vote on is Leader and President. Most people know who the Leader is and what they do but the President has been more of a strange post. The President has the job of motivating and working with the party but also of reflecting grass roots feeling to the party establishment.

In the current political climate I think the President also has a role in communicating a clear Lib Dem position that is clear from the coalition perspective. The post has been held by party establishment figures (Simon Hughes MP and Charles Kennedy MP) and also well known activists (Navnit Dholokia and Ian Wrigglesworth for example) and has seemed to change from being a external facing post to beong more of an internal position similar to Tory party chairman (although much more democratic of course!)

Ros Scott, the outgoing president, has done a great job but has said she will not be standing again because the party needs a different type of President. I was really pleased to hear today that Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, is standing for the post. I am backing him. Here are a few reasons why:

- My parents now live in his constituency and I've seen how he has helped turn around a "true blue" constituency into a Lib Dem seat with a large majority (over 12,000) He has done this by working hard all year round and by being a great local activist. The local coucnil has gone Lib Dem too and the local party is energised and enthusiastic about selling the message to local people. If any of this approach can rub off on other areas, we will be doing well.

- As alluded to above, he's a really, really hard worker who is an instinctive Liberal. He supports the coalition but will always fight to ensure that there is a strong Liberal Democrat voice

- He is a genuinely nice guy who, despite being passionate about politics, has a lot of time for his family and for other people. I was once in London and took a workmate out for a curry with Tim and other (nameless!) politicians. She was totally uninterested in politics but Tim got her interest and she remarked what a good communicator he was.

- He is a great public speaker and motivator. At every conference he gives a speech and it strikes the right balance between funny and passionate.

- He knows the North East well, having gone to University here (he was president of Newcastle University Students Union) and having been involved in North East life (he stood for North West Durham many years ago and is an expert on the Rupali menu!). He will come over here and help us get our message across as well as communicate regional concerns to Westminster.

So I think he has the best balance between someone who can act as a touchstone for the wider party, can "walk the walk" when it comes to winning elections and will be a great voice for our cause in the media. You can support him at his Facebook page,

Monday, 6 September 2010

Circular lobbying - is it right for the public sector to lobby itself?

In the North East we have two regional health offices that are increasingly concerning me. Fresh North East, the regional Smoke Free service and Balance North East, the regional alcohol office. Both do good work in terms of raising the risks of smoking and excessive drinking with the public. However, both of these agencies encourage you to lobby central government through your MP.

Fresh have no current campaigns but Balance have a widget for you to send a pre-written email to your MP and MEPs campaigning for a minimum price on alcohol.

Now I have no issue with these issues being raised but as an example, Balance is funded by the Police, PCTs, the Department of Health and the Home Office. Essentially they are being funded these bodies to get you to lobby your MP to put pressure on the Departments in question to bring forward legislation. The ideas may have some merit and it is perfectly fine for people to write to their MP about them. I know that some will say that the Alcohol and Tobacco lobbies have far more money and resources so this is an attempt to redress the balance.

Sometimes it is OK for one branch of government to lobby others, for example for the Local Government Association to put the case for more local government powers to the Department for Communities and Local Government. But I object to this circular lobbying where departmental funding directly finances the lobbying of themselves. Even the Primary Care trusts and Police forces though lack democratic legitimacy and are essentially just a local division of the ministry in question. In this time of tight government budgets it is particularly wrong.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The plague of referenda

An intriguing consultation paper has come out of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). It proposes that if a council wishes to raise council tax above the level that the Secretary of State caps it at then they can ask the people if they want to increase it that much in a referendum.

This is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, it is good to see that the government is considering applying a local ability to circumvent capping of council tax rises. It is wrong, in my view, that the government can cap council tax rises. I think councils would have to have amazingly good reasons to raise local tax excessively but it removes local accountability when they can not do so. One of the problems is that some councils are pretty stale one party states (fortunately not a problem in No Overall Control Northumberland where I am a Councillor!) and do not worry about getting booted out. That however is more of a problem about the unfair electoral system used in Local Government Elections.

However, I am personally very uncomfortable about the increasing use of referenda in a representative democracy where we elect people to make the hard decisions. Electing them and then constantly regulating their behaviour through referenda potentially gives you the worst of both worlds, i.e. politicians who can't do what they want but who can hide behind referenda as a reason for failure.

Interestingly, the power is proposed to be extended to local councils, i.e. Parish and Town councils. Up to now they can increase their part of the precept by whatever they want. In small parishes, this is understandable as they have very small budgets and increasing the precept by a Pound for a band D household could be a 30% increase. However, bigger Town Councils are growing in size and council tax precept. I have seen a few adverts for Town Clerks in this region advertised at £55kpa and some have seven figure budgets and band D precepts of £100+. My Town Council recently increased it's precept by 20%+ despite opposition from the community (and me - I lost a vote for a more modest 3% rise 11-1!). So I think its right in theory that if the secretary of state has capping powers they should include parish and town councils. However looking at all parish and town coucnils and taking a mature view of an acceptable rise in precept would be a nightmare - there are more than 100 in Northumberland alone.

So really I think the problem is that we need to make all levels of local government more democratic with contested elections that are proportional and fair and then let them set what ever tax they want and face the consequences from the electorate. It would help if the tax was a fairer system than the grossly unfair council tax too.

But until that Liberal nirvana happens is this proposal a good idea? Well I can see the good intentions but  I am unsure.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Investing to fail?

At the meeting of Northumberland County Council on Wednesday, we reflected on the County Councils investment last year of £250,000 to help Northumbrian Foods in Amble get a management buy out. At the time councillors knew it was a risky decision and I know many of us thought there was more chance it would not go well than the chance it would be a successful investment.

But we did it anyway, because 200 jobs in a vulnerable town were at stake. It may be that some of the money is reclaimed as the administrators are talking about selling the business but even if it now closes and we knew that this would happen a year ago, I think many councillors may have been tempted to lend them the money anyway. For 200 people and their families they have had an extra year of employment, which at about £1,000 a job is less than what unemployment benefits would have cost.

But that causes people like me problems who believe we should let the market work effectively and that state subsidy doesn't really work. Long term, this kind of support is not the way to turn an area around. We need to look to areas like Germany, where long term mentoring of manufacturing has resulted in a much more resilient sector. But I still think the Council made the right decision.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Is Labour thick or misleading?

Or both? Today I was horrified to read in the Granuaid ( that the coalition government were being condemned from Dennis McShane, former Labour Europe minister, for "opting out" of a EU wide directive on sex trafficking.

Except for when you read the article properly, you will see the UK governments position is much more intelligent. The home office is quoted as saying "The government will review the UK's position once the directive has been agreed, and will continue to work constructively with European partners on matters of mutual interest. By not opting in now but reviewing our position when the directive is agreed, we can choose to benefit from being part of a directive that is helpful but avoid being bound by measures that are against our interests."

So in other words we are using our right to veto UK involvement until we see the directive in full and we then choose to enter into it or not. A sensible thing to do. So in fact the UK hasn't actually opted out. Unfortunately, Labour and the Granuaid  explain this in the text and proclaim it as though the coalition isn't bothered about EU wide sex trafficking. Bad journalism and opportunistic politicking.

Northerners Drink more? So what?

The BBC brings us the news ( that the North West health observatory reports that problem drinking is more prevalent in the North of England than the South. The North East and North West have a much higher prevalence of health problems often linked to alcohol consumption.

Now I'm not going to say that alcohol is good for your health. Far from it. But I really object to the way journalists immediately portray it as a North South divide and then immediately conclude that problems of higher alcohol consumption will be dealt with by minimum pricing.

Funnily enough looking at the graph below (from the BBC website) its interesting to see that Westmorland and North Yorkshire have a much lower level of harm. Its because they are more affluent areas.

Now look at the map below, based on the Indices of Deprivation, showing roughly which areas of England (and Wales) are richer than each other. Purple areas are the most deprived. So, unsurprisingly it isn't that Northerners are intrinsically more alcoholic. It's that they are poorer and it seems that poorer people tend to self medicate with more alcohol to get through things. It's not surprising. But will minimum pricing stop people drinking? Possibly not. It could just mean Alcohol becomes a bigger part of peoples budget. Hard to say. As a Liberal, I believe that people should be able to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others. Obviously Alcohol consumption harms other people by reducing life span and by the problems in alcohol related violence. But I think the argument is still in favour of personal freedom.

I think it is interesting to see where alcohol harm is disproportionate to poverty. That would take an additional study but it was interesting to read that it was in London where Alcohol related crime was disproportionate. However, having once worked with crime statistics, I would take them with a pinch of salt!

In Scotland, the devolved government has been able to introduce specific initiatives to deal with problems more prevalent in that country, such as Heroin addiction. It would be nice to have more freedom to act on that in the North. But this report does not alter my lack of comfort with the idea that public health bodies can make a poor area as healthy as a rich area. What we need to do to reduce health problems in the North is turn the economy around and reverse the post war slump in the relative prosperity of it. That will need government investment but crucially freedom to let us come up with our own solutions.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The North needs it's own parliament

There is something distinctive about the North. As a Lancastrian who has lived on the banks of the Tyne all my adult life, I love it all from the Albert Docks to the Hull waterfront and up to the moors of Northumberland and Cumberland. I have always felt in discussions of Englishness vs Britishness a crucial link has been missed out. Not whether you are from the Government Office region for the North East, North West or Yorkshire and the Humber. I am a Northerner. I always feel like I have a lot in common with people from the north than I have with other people. A certain wry sense of humour and a pride in our heritage.

All very good but what is the political interest? After Labours failed regional project and the overwhelming vote in the North East against a regional assembly there is still a gap in Britain for an effective voice below the nation state but above that of local councils. I was up in Scotland recently for the Edinburgh festival and the sense that you are in a region of the country that makes the best of its membership of the UK but does its own thing when there is a better local answer was strong. Despite the current coalitions good intentions to devolve power to the citizen and to local councils, it is all too easily a power that can be taken away by the next centralising government, which is most Westminster governments after a few years!

I think the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that will replace the Regional Development Agencies will be fine for local business support. However, on areas like how we turn around our great Northern cities, which despite a lot of tarting up of the city centres under Labour lack a strong private sector with enough indigenous companies to mean we can be in control of our destiny, a genuine Northern voice would be useful. A lot of times on issues such as Education and housing the English solution dreamt up in Westminster feels like a solution for London. Until these decisions are taken in the North they will not be right for our distinctive region.

I do not accept the arguments for an English Parliament. There is a need for an English version of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly to help overturn the centralisation of the UK but England is too large and too disparate for an English Parliament to have any use – the problems of the North are too different to those of the South.

Local Councils need more powers and so do individuals but large areas of public policy, Health, Education and Transport for example need a genuinely Northern answer. Ironically, I think the idea might get more buy in from the public than powers for the North East or other parts of the North. On Teeside, there was a large vote against the assembly and we have seen Tees Valley councils wanting an independent voice from the rest of the North East with call for a separate LEP. A wider northern identity might calm fears that the neighbouring town is taking power away and give the area the scale necessary to differentiate it from local areas but to still keep a distinctive voice.