Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Ed-less Chickens

So Ed[ward] Miliband has gone as Labour party leader, and the contest is on for his replacement. This often happens just after a failed General Election attempt – but should it?

The Guardian, of all places, raises a number of valid points in its editorial today, suggesting that the party should have waited for the new MPs in particular to have settled in and to have had the chance to witness those who would become leadership (and deputy leader) contenders in action, at close hand.

The piece also criticises several features of Labour's leader election methodology – partly improved since five years ago, but still with many issues that could be avoided. For example, Tristram Hunt has been unable to secure the 15% of MPs' nominations that he needs to be able to enter the contest. That seems to be a significant loss, whatever one might think of him (and views are very varied, including that he is or is not leader material) and the resultant choice is diminished as a consequence.

It currently looks like Andy Burnham is the front-runner – which is great for the other parties, the Conservatives in particular, as he has such a bad personal track record and is even easier to skewer than Ed-M has been. Future Prime Minister's Questions sessions will be highly entertaining for those who are not Labour supporters if Burnham becomes the next Labour leader.

Yvette Cooper looks to be second choice, though there is a school of thought that suggests Labour people would never accept a female leader – deputy, yes, but not the party's actual leader. This factor alone also tends to scupper the chances of the other current contenders, Mary Creagh and the quite promising Liz Kendall (though I'd suggest her for deputy rather than leader anyway, myself, and not just because of that issue I just mentioned).

Of course, that school of thought might prove to be incorrect; and there are still a few more weeks to get in one or two additional candidates, each with the 35 MPs' support that each needs. Obviously with 15% being the magic fraction, only six candidates at maximum can enter the race.

Overall, procedurally I go along with the suggestion in the linked piece of having an interim leader and a decision on a 'permanent' replacement for Ed-M taken two or three years down the road. However it is already under way, and the Unions are still finding ways to manipulate the leadership decision (a large number of current Labour MPs are tied-up with the big Unions one way or another, for a start, which helps), so perhaps it wouldn't achieve anything to push for it this far in.

The consequence is that the party is now all over the place, and is already in what Iain Martin calls 'a dangerous position', with a risk of 'teetering on becoming a joke'. He's not wrong – and it could have been avoided. Now they are likely 'Ed-less' chickens...

Monday, 11 May 2015

Apportioning Blame – and Votes

The predictable 'votes-to-seats' argument about our supposedly 'broken' (i.e. inconvenient to some) electoral system has started in earnest. Many are again blaming our so-called 'first past the post' system for lots of votes resulting in no seats, yet all went into the elections – both candidates (and their parties) and voters – in full knowledge of how the system worked..

Regular readers here will recall that I took one of my occasional looks at this topic less than three months ago – but what I mooted then, and devised earlier in the decade, wouldn't suit those with vested interests in manipulating our electoral methodology to benefit those they support – which is their real aim.

Firstly, this (now mainly UKIPper) complaint that the party got nearly four million votes but only one parliamentary seat is based on a false premise. All subsequent analysis is undoubtedly pointing toward the following...

The only reasons they had that many votes, and distributed as they were, can be boiled down to (a) they spread themselves too thinly by trying to look impressive and important by fielding too many candidates (running before they could walk); and (b) much of that voting was tactical and was because of the present electoral system. Under a different methodology they'd have gained only a fraction of the number of votes.

This is one power that the electorate has over 'the establishment' (as the in-vogue terminology puts it) – we can vote tactically if we choose. Some are in favour of this in particular circumstances, others advise against it; but we can still decide for ourselves. The north of England results show this very clearly: they aren't interested in having UKIP Members of Parliament (obviously) but they were and are very interested in sending Labour a close shot across the bows to sharpen up its act, and get a decent leader in particular.

They are getting at least part of their wish, probably all of it in time.

This nation of ours already, quite recently, rejected – in a referendum – a change to even a 'half-way house' Alternative Vote system. I was pleased, because it (like other supposedly but not really 'proportional' methodologies) gives the possibility of some electors having two (or more, in other systems) bites of the cherry – those who voted for the losers at that.

Obviously, right from the basics, that is a dishonest way to fiddle a result so that a non-winner can – and often does in places that work with such systems – 'beat' the actual winner. The sales pitch is that this produces an 'overall majority' or words to the same effect; but it's a lie, and often results in an unwanted (by the majority) 'winner'.

If we wish to maintain integrity we either stick with the present method, or we change to something along the lines of what I proposed years ago and revisited back in February in my above-linked post. The latter would be quite a shake-up in how our parliamentary democracy functions in the country, but is a twenty-first century solution to many if not all the most significant issues people have with our present way of doing it.

Nothing that anyone else either does or is proposing comes anywhere near that.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Medway Council Elections 2015

Although the bottom-line outcome of the Medway Council elections, held on the same day as the General Election, is almost exactly as I anticipated, I was wrong in a few (minor?) areas in how we got there! I should mention, in passing, that as always when the elections coincide, turnout goes up in the locals, and we had record numbers of votes this time round.

The main local newspaper covered this quite well, with snippets of information that many might not have realised. Note that this was added to chronologically, as results were declared, so is in a kind of reverse order with the most recent entry at the top, but in normal sequence within each 'chunk'.

The main oddity for which I couldn't have legislated was the election of what I believe were three so-called 'paper candidates': those who stood purely to fill a gap in a theoretically hopeless election for their party. I am fairly sure that Mike Franklin was not intending to get back onto the Council (after a long absence, by the way) nor Mrs Reckless who has a young family demanding her attention.

Much of this kind of phenomenon stems from split voting in multi-member wards, and the alphabetical placing on the ballot paper. This is because those who split their votes across parties generally go down the ballot paper from the top, looking for the party symbols they are after. Thus Albert Aardvark is almost certain to get more votes than Zienia Zowie, even if they are standing for the same party.

It's easy enough to check this by looking at these and other council elections' results. Sometimes an incumbent councillor will have a substantial personal vote and voters look for the person specifically before casting their other vote(s). This happened with me, despite my best efforts to 'share the credit' in newsletters and elsewhere, as my own (and my colleagues') vote shares reveal from over the years, so I am well aware of both these factors.

Anyway, overall, the restoration of a 36-strong Conservative group on the Council, Labour at fifteen members, no Lib Dems but four UKIPpers, means a change at the 'minor parties' end but essentially a return to more-or-less the starting situation after the previous all-out council elections four years ago, but with UKIP supplanting the Liberal Democrats and minor changes in numbers.

Personally, I consider this to be a less than healthy situation, but largely caused by local Lib Dems frankly not bothering to put in the effort during these past four years. They might try to (conveniently) blame their coalition participation and the effect of that which they attribute to their national standing – which is partly valid, though not entirely – but the reality is that they haven't been mounting any kind of on-the-ground activity base.

When an election comes round, then they seem to emerge from the woodwork and then, yes, they're knocking on doors and the rest of it – but for years at a time they are next to invisible. Even their local website(s) over the years were completely inactive in between elections, the original completely so and the more recent one merely copying the central party's posts and with zero local content.

They seemed to think that support would be gifted to them without their having to put in any work at all, even the minimal effort of writing something on a website. Now they have their reward – and hopefully someone will at last learn the lesson! They have only themselves to blame, and it has been going on for over a decade: it has almost nothing to do with 'the coalition'.

In the Council itself, I anticipate the four 'Kippers causing as much trouble as their characteristic arrogance can devise, but in the process merely turning the electorate against them, over time, as the truth seeps out. I don't expect them to survive the next council elections.

Interestingly, the controversial Lodge Hill development issue that seemed to be the primary driver of UKIP's success within Medway Council has been shown to be a damp squib from the party's point of view. Not only has their former group leader – who made such a big (and, frankly, ill-informed) fuss over it failed to be re-elected, the two UKIP members in the ward where Lodge Hill is located have also failed to be re-elected, and Strood Rural is fully Conservative again.

There is a big lesson in that, though I suspect that it will be lost on those three ex-councillors...

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Peninsula ward, two of the four UKIP members have been elected. I suspected something of the sort would happen, because of the ill-informed poison being spread by the member I mentioned just now, also because the two Conservatives who were not elected there were not exactly well-known around the ward. Indeed one of them stood in Rochester East ward last time, of all places. Nevertheless, they can now start to rebuild their party's standing in Peninsula, so that next time they will be able to displace the 'Kippers – which will almost certainly be a walkover if they do what I have suggested.

My old ward of Rochester South & Horsted enjoyed a better outcome than was at first on the cards, and it has taken considerable (secret!) effort on my part [EDIT: and, I have since discovered, at least one other's efforts as well] to help protect the third seat in particular. Others in the ward branch were well aware of the danger, though even they don't know how it was averted in the end, and (for very good reasons) I'm not telling...

Beyond all of this, the Council will continue to function, running reasonably well under the (seriously flawed) Cabinet-and-Scrutiny system until and unless that is scrapped, perhaps by national legislation. Thus the potential of Medway will continue to creep out into existence, there will be the inevitable (and predictable!) 'anti' campaigns, mainly by Lefties, and plans will be refined and fine-tuned or even delayed in some cases. Ultimately we're in for more of the same style of local governance, and this will be (broadly) a good thing, though less than perfect.

This is life, and it's good, following a good election outcome, both nationally and locally!

Friday, 8 May 2015

That Was The Election, That Was!

Well, that was one for the history books!

The General Election saw a small Conservative overall majority (something I had been privately saying was now a distinct possibility) and the loss of most Liberal Democrat seats – fifty of their 58 now gone.

My scientifically-modelled (such as it is: I don't really go in for making nationwide predictions) expectations were cautious to the point of pessimism, though still better for the Conservatives than any poll or betting market at some 295 seats, with only Harry Cole of Guido Fawkes fame making the same prediction.

In Scotland, the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats, interestingly leaving one seat each there continuing to be held by the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. The expectation (mine and many others') that they would largely wipe out Labour north of the border has been even more devastatingly accurate than anticipated! The Conservatives had virtually no seats in Scotland to lose, which turned out to be a significant contributor to the asymmetric shifts during this election

Another such shift was in the target seats 'battleground', where the Conservatives took a fair number of their target Labour seats, whereas Labour failed to take more than a handful of their targets. Even the two most marginal such seats remained with the Blues, as did many more of their 106 targets. The Conservatives had concentrated on just forty target seats, and that focus aided their greater success, despite having significantly fewer activists and helpers on the ground.

Locally, the results have been exactly as I predicted – but only because, by now, the Conservative candidate for Rochester & Strood constituency – Kelly Tolhurst – had been able to make herself known more fully around the other eight wards in the 'patch' – rather than just her Rochester West presence as a councillor for the past four years.

This, as I said at the time of the by-election some six months ago, was the biggest ingredient in the equation at that time, as the by-election had, then, just been dropped on everyone with no time to work toward it. As I urged back then, the time to start working toward the General Election was immediately, right then – and to her credit and that of her team, they did just that. I then knew that the seat would be hers, and indeed it became so, and by a very healthy margin of 24k votes to UKIP Mark Reckless' circa 16k votes.

That was a good win, on so many levels!

Obviously, Tracey Crouch and Rehman Chishti held their seats easily, which was hardly a surprise. Poor Tristan Osborne, having door-knocked in Chatham & Aylesford for some weeks and getting the same response, reportedly had in effect resigned himself to abject defeat and has been reported as conceding that 'Tracey is doing an OK job as MP'.

The upshot of all of this is that the country now has a truly Conservative national government (despite what some try to claim) and all the drag of the past five years is now lifted away. Some will try to portray that as uncaring, a 'government without a heart' – but those who are both honest and intelligent enough to see past the Lefty spin will know that this is not so.

The breaking of the 'client State' will release the true potential of all our citizens who have true value, while protecting those who genuinely cannot contribute. These days, I fall into the latter category owing to age and health issues – though I still do not claim any benefits.

This election has done what I had been hoping for so long: it has made the next phase of our country's ascendancy back into the top echelon of the world's nations possible, and indeed highly probable, within just a few years.

Indications are strong that the international community has been waiting (dare I say eagerly?) for this, if anything even more strongly than they did five years ago, when the high probability of a Conservative-led government was the only prospect staying the hands of the big credit rating agencies who would otherwise have severely marked-down Britain's credit rating back in the Spring of 2010.

Now all we have in that respect (by the way) is a sliver shaved off our rating, purely symbolically (it was the minimum possible downgrade) to keep other affected nations happy, and only because of the Eurozone's woes that have impacted a chunk of our trading. In other words, none of that, slight though it was, has been because of any real deficiency here in Britain.

Thus the scene is set for what promises to be a very interesting few years immediately up ahead!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Locked Away in a Cabinet

Those with narrow or slanted views of politics are just as susceptible to reaching incorrect conclusions as anyone else making the same kind of error.

Take this look at Medway Council's democracy, which is probably well-intentioned but reaches the wrong conclusion and indeed falls into the trap that was set  almost fifteen years ago for those who have issues with the way the majority of councils are run nowadays. This is to blame the make-up of the elected Council for any perceived lack of local democracy, thereby missing the actual cause and maintaining the status quo.

The real culprit for any lack of local democracy is the Cabinet-and-scrutiny political system that was introduced and indeed enforced onto the majority of Councils by the then Labour government back in 2001. I know: I was there...

I have said it before, and have known it all along: although it was easy enough to 'sell' to a compliant Labour government (a Conservative one would probably have seen through the ruse and not implemented it), the real – and only – purpose of the Cabinet system was to give Whitehall 'mandarins' more-or-less complete control over the local agenda.

The first thing the change did was to take voting rights on most policy matters away from all Council members who were not in the Cabinet – even the mayor lost those rights. In Medway Council, with (in those days) eighty members and a ten-strong Cabinet – the maximum number allowed, by the way – this meant that seven-eighths of councillors lost those voting rights overnight, on 1 October 2001. I was one of those seventy.

Even items of business that had to be ratified by the Full Council had by then already been discussed, debated and effectively decided by the Cabinet – and it is very difficult to come along after the event and try to oppose them. Indeed, the 'call-in to Council' facility for any Cabinet decision was very rarely applied by the opposition. We kept a record, which I have on file here...

Now, in the only model of the (limited) options offered, this meant the Council Leader chose his own Cabinet. This made sense, because in those days the ruling group had only 38 members, and the opposition – who had nearly always ganged-up to oppose them – had 42. Therefore, had they been given the opportunity to choose the rest of the Cabinet, they'd have stuffed it with their own members and nothing would ever have been approved – everything the Leader proposed would have been opposed. The council would simply have stopped and nothing new would have gone ahead.

If there were any doubt of that having happened given the chance, I witnessed that motivation in operation in every situation where the opposition members could gain their own political advantage from doing so. For example, they voted all the Scrutiny and other committee chairmanships (and the vice-chairmen) for their members, with none at all from the ruling group.

As if that wasn't bad enough in terms of local democracy (although I had no serious issues with it personally, adapting to suit), those opposition chairmen abused their positions in several ways – too long to go into here, though I have covered them in the past, including on my old Councillor website – manipulating as much as they could to suit their own party's ends.

It is to be noted that, when the Scrutiny Committee chairing changed hands to the ruling group, ALL those bad practices ended. The Labour spokesmen boycotted their invitations to pre-meeting briefings and the like, in a sulk, whereas others (Lib Dems and Independents) were at least more concerned with doing their elected jobs than everything having to be geared to their party's own interests.

This of course all helps to show that it is not the specific party that is the problem: it makes little if any difference – with the possible exception of Labour, but that is just in their nature. It is the way the system is designed that allows and (I often think) encourages such practices.

The result is the intended (by the mandarins) centrally-dictated Cabinet agendas, which if you look have only token localism and are essentially the same nationwide. Even the format and content of what goes into all those Plans and Strategies is dictated by Whitehall, while contract letting hardly requires the full Cabinet to decide.

What is the point in paying Portfolio Holders five-figure salaries if they can't even make such decisions themselves, and have to hide behind 'we work as a team' style excuses? There is nothing in a typical Cabinet agenda that is truly from and for the people of the area, only time-wasting dross!

Eric Pickles has offered councils the opportunity to scrap the Cabinet-and-Scrutiny structure, allowing councils to keep any of the benefits (such as summoning and questioning rights of various officials from the likes of the emergency services and health bodies) in the process.

Before this was passed in Parliament, I – and I alone – asked the question at a meeting of the full Medway Council whether they would be taking up this offer. The response I received was not only non-committal, it was sufficiently hostile in tone to tell me that they were not interested in pursuing this – and indeed they haven't done so.

Those in charge are far too comfortable to change now: another trap that was planned from the outset, but that only a few of us realised right from the start. They won't change unless this optional reversal becomes a legal requirement – but, unlike Labour, Conservatives aren't naturally inclined toward imposition unless it is genuinely necessary, so that is unlikely ever to happen.

Thus we end up with an ongoing fairly rigid structure that inevitably (seemingly unavoidably) produces the effects the linked piece points out in its simplistic analysis, with potential agitators wasting their efforts pointing at the wrong culprits. Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey dines with Sir Arnold to report that everything is still going according to plan, and their own positions remain unassailable.

Note that the moral of this story is that only those of us with the insight and maturity to at least tackle the underlying problems that now exist within local democracy have managed to get something concrete on the public record that could prove valuable in what might lie ahead. The Sir Humphrey types continue to dismiss the others as gullible sheep...

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

UKIP – the ZX Spectrum of British Politics

One of the interesting side-effects of the rise and rise of the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is that they can longer be the simple cult-of-personality outfit thay had all too comfortably slipped into once Nigel Farage had become their leader again.

Those who are familiar with both current and defunct outfits of similar origins – Robert Kilroy-Silk's Veritas and George Galloway's Respect in particular, though one can include several others including the rump-ends of the old Liberal party and SDP when the Liberal Democrats were formed – will no doubt recall that UKIP was also of this nature until around three years ago.

Then, when anti-Conservative movers and shakers realised that an Ed Miliband-led Labour party was never going to be able to dislodge David Cameron from Number Ten, they began to promote UKIP as they perceived that it was the only feasible alternative, working from the other side of the electoral equation to leech away the Conservative vote, rather than (impossibly) boosting the Labour vote.

How right they have been proven on both counts!

Awkwardly, UKIP was never really structured or even intended to become such a significant force in British politics as it is now having to face up to, and it shows. Quite apart from a number of other issues with the party – which are almost entirely of its own doing and its poor screening of candidates – the whole entity now resembles a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer with all those add-ons hanging off the sides.

It still has the rubbery keyboard, which is bad enough, but it also has parts of its new self hanging on via electrical connectors alone, and the whole thing is dodgy, unreliable and distinctly intermittent. UKIP has had to bolt things onto its organisation, such as it was, to cope with entering the Big Boys' world. They are not coping very well, and it isn't surprising. It looks from where I sit to have been almost as devastating in practice as the Galactica's last jump in the recent TV series.

They of course will claim that everything is wonderful – just as Sir Clive Sinclair generally maintained about his products (and I have some tales I could tell about this from when we tried selling Sinclair kit for a short period!) which were, frankly, poorly designed, specified and manufactured.

Thus it can be seen that UKIP are in the unusual, perhaps unique, position of having been thrust into their current position, and are therefore not entirely to blame for their inability to handle themselves all that well. Their arrogant attitude, though, is their own doing and has made things a lot worse than they needed to be, it has to be said.

With dwindling support, as evidenced by consistent polling trends during the past six months, they will be lucky to have any seats in the House of Commons this Friday. Even Douglas Carswell could lose his seat in Clacton, though I have consistently said that this is an unlikely scenario. Mark Reckless will probably (and correctly) lose his, and Nigel Farage is unlikely to win the South Thanet seat – though anything could happen, of course!

In the next five years, if Labour change leader to someone at least reasonably competent, those anti-Conservative 'big voices' will then perceive UKIP as a potentially negative influence from their point of view, so will drop tham and they will fade back into obscurity. Perhaps the British electorate might even learn the odd lesson from this period from 2012 to (say) 2016 or so – who knows?