Defining ‘Levelling Up’ – best effort yet?

Chris Game

PoliticsHome, the online Parliamentary news source, recently commissioned a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll into the public’s awareness and understanding of the Government’s ‘flagship’ slogan – sorry, policy – of ‘Levelling Up’.

It wasn’t great – the awareness and understanding bit, I mean, not the poll. “Somewhat” and “moderately aware” responses formed the clear majority, with a further third of respondents shamelessly admitting “no understanding at all”.   

Which left 14% reckoning they were “well aware” – confident perhaps that they’d not be pressed for details. That’s one in seven potential voters claiming familiarity with the Government’s two-year-old core domestic policy.  Hardly impressive, but I’m sorry – I didn’t believe this particular sub-sample of the Great British Public, even when I first read it.

That is, before the week in which we learned that none of the HS2 eastern leg, the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the Government’s cap on social care costs were, as widely supposed, integral to Levelling Up

Not the least of my reasons for doubting that 14% “well aware” figure was that I’d question whether that many Conservative MPs (50+) would seriously have claimed such familiarity. Even returning from October’s annual party conference, they were openly pleading for fewer “buzzwords” and some “meat on the bones” to offer their increasingly disaffected constituents.

Hardly surprisingly, considering all they’d got from the proverbial horse’s mouth – Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien at a Policy Exchange fringe event – was that it’s a “four-fold concept”, involving empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride. Just what PoliticsHome’s 14% had in mind, no doubt!

But then O’Brien got carried away, almost parroting Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s big – You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to …” 

Adams, of course, was describing space. Compare O’Brien on Levelling Up: It’s “a huge expensive thing … and will help all people who’ve long felt neglected”.  And there’ll be even more “in the Levelling Up white paper we’ll be publishing … (pause for drumroll) … shortly”.

Or not so shortly, as we learned this past weekend from the DLUHC’s otherwise largely silent ‘big hitter’, Michael Gove – but quite possibly featuring “swathes of rural England [electing] powerful American-style governors”. Odd that O’Brien didn’t mention them!

Either way, it’s frustrating for all concerned, particularly with Ministers having been handing out – and some of their constituencies receiving – tranches of supposedly Levelling Up-type funding for over two years now. So many tranches, indeed, that it’s genuinely hard to keep up.

And that’s not the purpose of this blog, but even a highlights list would include:

* £3.6 billion Towns Fundlaunched as effectively the new PM’s first policy initiative in July 2019, this one would “unleash the full economic potential of [eventually 101] English towns … as part of the Government’s plan to level up our regions”. 

An initial 1,082 towns were narrowed down to the “most needy” 50%, then grouped regionally by “officials” into high, medium and low priority.  All 40 ‘highs’ were selected for funding of up to £25m, with ministers choosing the remainder “based on the information provided and their own judgement”.

Which enabled Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to judge his junior ministerial colleague Jake Berry’s 270th most deprived constituency as still pretty ‘needy’, in apparent exchange for Berry making a similar evaluation of Jenrick’s Newark.

* UK £220 million Community Renewal Fund awards to help 100 particularly needy places/communities across the UK prepare for next year’s launch of the (very much bigger – est. £1.5 billion) UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU structural and investment funding.                          

Bids were ranked on five ‘metrics’ – productivity, skills, unemployment rate, population density, and household income – with final funding decisions made by the Secretary of State for the (now) Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department, “after considering any comments from ministerial colleagues”. No actual mention back then of Levelling Up, and disgruntled moans this time from MPs and councils across the spectrum – but, with over £15m to Moseley Road Baths, it wasn’t all bad.

* £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – this one is definitely about Levelling Up, bringing together that department, the Treasury, and Transport to invest in “high-value local infrastructure”. Focus is on “places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”. 

Come the results, though, we were back in Towns Fund territory – Sajid Javid’s Bromsgrove constituency and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ Central Bedfordshire being levelled up still further from their positions among the least deprived fifth of authorities nationwide.

As with most of these exercises, the assessment process and criteria are explicit, but without providing the key information successful or, even more, unsuccessful bidders really want.  There are “pass/fail gateway criteria”, assessment criteria – here covering “strategic fit, deliverability, value for money, and characteristics of place” – giving GB bids a potential score of 100.  Following which, Ministers are increasingly involved, together with and guided by officials (of course), but in an essentially indeterminable way.

MPs, naturally, react at least in the first instance to whether ‘their’ patch has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in these funding contests.  Not so the Commons Public Accounts Committee – Labour-chaired, but Conservative-dominated – who, pretty well from the outset with the Towns Fund, have criticised severely the blatant Ministerial involvement in the “not impartial” selection process.

Civil servants had ranked towns into three categories by local need and growth potential, then chosen all 40 ‘High Priority’ ones. Whereupon Ministers then selected a further 60, heavily represented by Conservative MPs, from the Medium and Low priority categories. Twelve Low Priority areas won out over Medium Priority towns, including Greater Manchester’s Cheadle, ranked 535th out of 541, but with a vulnerable 2,336 Conservative majority.

“Vague and based on sweeping assumptions” was the Committee’s verdict on Ministers’ selections, which risked jeopardising the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

With something at least as sophisticated and certainly more objective evidently required, up stepped WPI (Westminster Policy Institute) with its Levelling Up Index. It attempts almost exactly what the Government claims it wants: a comprehensive socio-economic statistically based identification of those areas (though by parliamentary constituency, rather than local authority) most in need of levelling up.

WPI’s Index assigns all English and Welsh constituencies ‘Levelling Up’ rankings – from the most needy, Blackpool South (1), to the least, South Cambridgeshire (573) – then divides them into three categories: Priorities, Borderliners, Achievers.

Achievers, mainly in the South and upwardly mobile suburbs of major urban centres, perform better than Borderliners, who constitute the national average and are judged to require support in certain areas. Levelling Up Priorities, though, should be places, disproportionately in the North, Midlands, and Wales, that have historically suffered through industrial decline, and often additionally through Government spending policies.

Six indicators combine to determine a Levelling Up score: spending power; financial dependency, based on Job Seekers’ Allowance and Universal Credit claims; crime rates; deprivation scores; health measures; and empty commercial properties.

Better still, there’s an excellent interactive WPI Index Map, the enlarged West Midlands section of which shows clearly the prioritisation the six indicators suggest our region’s constituencies should be accorded in any objectively conducted Levelling Up exercise.

The map’s core message barely needs commentary, but some individual Levelling Up scores are useful. The whole metropolitan West Midlands is a Priority, with the exceptions of Borderliners Edgbaston (sounds familiar – 208) and Stourbridge (210), and Achievers Sutton Coldfield (452) and Solihull (524).

Other Birmingham scores range from Erdington, Ladywood, and Hodge Hill (9, 10 15), through Perry Barr, Hall Green, Yardley, and Northfield (43, 55, 60, 62), to Selly Oak (156).

Viewed pictorially, we look pretty determined to get our deserved recognition. To me, anyway, we resemble a rather ferocious, albeit three-legged, tail-docked Cockapoo – about to attack those South Staffs Achievers, before making mincemeat of Boris’s Peppa Pig.

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Voter ID:  proceed with caution

Jason Lowther

There is much to welcome in the Government’s Elections Bill which completed its second reading last month and is being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee over the next few weeks.  There has been widespread welcome to elements to clarify what’s meant by “undue influence” on voters, improve poll accessibility, prevent the intimidation of candidates and require all paid for digital political material to have an imprint.  But the measures to introduce voter ID need to be handled with care.

Under the Bill, voters will be required to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper to vote at a polling station for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain, at local elections in England, and at Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. A broad range of documents will be accepted including passports, driving licences, various concessionary travel passes and photocard parking permits issued as part of the Blue Badge scheme. Any voter who does not have an approved form of identification will be able to apply for a free, local Voter Card from their local authority.

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary, argued in 2019:

Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity…Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different.

Whilst concern about voter fraud is generally low in the UK, Electoral Commission research in 2014 identified some local areas where there appears to be a greater risk of cases of alleged electoral fraud being reported.  Generally these areas were limited to individual wards within 16 local authority areas (out of just over 400 across the UK as a whole).  These areas were often characterised by being densely populated with a transient population, a high number of multiple occupancy houses and a previous history of allegations of electoral fraud. 

The Electoral Commission asked national and local organisations, including those representing people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, to provide evidence of how the proposals for Photo ID affected the specific groups they represent.  The results showed significant concerns.  Charities representing people with learning disabilities, the BAME, LGBT+, gypsy and traveller communities and people without a fixed address raised general concerns that some of the people they represent are already less likely to register and vote, and they are also less likely to have ID.  Many of the responses highlighted existing difficulties their users face in accessing services requiring proof of identity, including barriers faced by people who don’t have easy access to the internet. 

Photographic voter ID has been used in Northern Ireland since 2003, and at the May 2019 local elections, ten local authority areas in England agreed to run pilots.  Interestingly, three of the ten pilot areas were in the Electoral Commission’s list of higher risk local authority areas referred to above.  There were different arrangement according to three models: In two areas, people had to show a specified form of photo ID.  In five areas, they could choose to show either a specified form of photo ID or two pieces of specified non-photo ID.  And in three areas people could show either their poll card or a specified form of photo ID.  The mixed ID model and the photo ID model both had a provision for free, locally issued ID available from the local authority, if electors did not have the required form of ID.

The Cabinet Office’s internal evaluation of the pilot declared the 2019 pilot “another success”.  The evaluation aimed to assess the pilots against measures of integrity (perceptions of the voting process, and of electoral fraud), democracy & equality (awareness, voting behaviour), delivery (planning and resource implications), and cost.  Some may feel that generalisability of the conclusions are limited by the range of local authorities volunteering to be involved not being representative of the country as a whole (table 1). 

Table 1: 2019 pilot authorities

Source: Cabinet Office evaluation report, p.7

The Cabinet Office concluded that the photographic ID model had the most pronounced impact on the measures of integrity, with a significant increase in voter perceptions that there are sufficient safeguards in place to prevent electoral fraud at polling stations (differences in the mixed ID model were not significant). The proportion of people who did not return to the polling station varied by model, but the evaluation argues that across all models this accounted for under 0.5% of those who were checked at polling stations, the report notes ‘there are some indications that the mixed ID model was accessible for electors, particularly in more demographically diverse areas’. 

As always, the devil is in the detail.  Looking at the detailed results, the proportion not returning is at least twice as high in the mixed and photo ID samples (up to 0.7% of electors in two councils).  And when you look at individual wards, those with the highest percentage of non returners were often those with relatively high BME populations.  As LGIU pointed out in its analysis of the pilots: ‘Voter ID is not a priority for voters, who are more concerned about low voter turnout, bias in the media, and inadequate regulation of political activity on social media. Only one in four respondents to a post poll survey (24%) said electoral fraud was somewhat of or a serious problem, with more (26%) stating it isn’t a problem’.

The Electoral Commission’s overall conclusion on the pilots was ‘we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice, particularly at a national poll with higher levels of turnout or in areas with different socio-demographic profiles not fully represented in the pilot scheme.’

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also considered voter ID, and published its final report in September 2021. It called on the Government to produce clear research setting out whether mandatory ID at the polling station could create barriers to taking part in elections for some groups and how they plan to mitigate this risk effectively.

As outlined in the excellent report on the issue by Neil Johnston and Elise Uberoi of the House of Commons Library, experience in Canada (who introduced voter ID in 2008) showed that ‘a significant minority of voters in Canada struggled to prove their residence address as they lack documents that prove the address used to register to vote’.

Voter ID, of course, is one of a range of measures which Government could take to change election arrangements.  The Missing Millions report made 25 recommendations to enable increased participation, such as encouraging recipients of National Insurance number notification letters to register online, and Government funding and support for a National Voter Registration Drive.  Most polling clerks experience having to turn away electors because their names are not on the electoral roll in the first place, arguably this is a much greater threat to our democracy than the fears of false identities which voter ID seeks to address.

The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution.

NOC NOC! Is anybody there – or are you all botching each other?

Chris Game

NOC – that’s what this blog’s about.  It’s prompted, like many I assume, by the topic being one the author has a ‘thing’ about – only here it’s two things. There, authorial duty done: you’ve now been warned.

The first ‘thing’, I’m guessing, originated with an enthusiastic primary school English teacher, keen for as many of us as possible to pass the 11+ or ‘grading test’ that would get us into grammar school. Anyway, it was when I probably learnt the crucial distinction between common abbreviations and what most of us interpreted even then as posher/middle class acronyms and initialisms.

Abbreviations – for the benefit, obviously, of non-native English speakers/readers – are simply shortened forms of words: approx, dept, tbs (tablespoon), etc.  Acronyms are the posh, clever ones – comprising the first letters of several words but pronounced as if they are words themselves.

Most famous in these parts is obviously INLOGOV – but not, sadly, the most structurally perfect, which must be CREES.  Outside academia my favourite, because I’d bet even some police users don’t know it, is TASER – Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

So, to initialisms, which comprise the first letters of several words, but can’t be (or are bewildering if) pronounced as words themselves – and which are regularly and incorrectly called acronyms.

Like NOC, which – whether referring to a National Olympics Committee, a prescription treatment for scurvy, or, as here, an elected body under ‘No Overall Control’ – is always pronounced, and in the case of the scurvy tablets spelt, ENOCEE.   

The elected bodies are usually councils, but strictly speaking Scotland was under NOC until recently, when the Scottish Greens’ co-leaders became ministers in the Holyrood Government, creating a power-sharing SNP-Green coalition.

It’s true that NOC sounds less alarming than OOC (Out Of Control) would be, but it’s entirely unclear what it does signify.  It’s certainly unhelpful – but worse, I’d suggest, in being a positive deterrent to trying to learn more – in metamorphosing indeed into No One Cares.

As a recent description of Kabul, as Taliban militants seized rapid control from Afghanistan’s civilian government, NOC would for maybe two days max have been fair and accurate. But not thereafter.

Nor when used for months on end apparently to describe the political management and day-to-day running of constitutionally elected UK local government councils. That, I suggest, is both disappointingly unhelpful and misleading.

Immediately following an inconclusive local election, with no single party securing an overall majority of councillors, some uncertainty – even within the council – may be unavoidable. There may well follow perhaps a fortnight’s discussions within and between the various party groups and maybe Independents before the Annual Meeting, at which ‘Who Runs the Council?’ has to be officially determined.

Whereupon there should be public clarity. If previously there hadn’t been, through no single party having an overall majority of councillors, the Council should, surely, officially announce and publicly explain the new situation – the leadership, any agreement/working arrangement between parties, Cabinet composition, and so on – ideally in the local media and certainly prominently (within a couple of clicks) on its own website.

That way it would matter less that the BBC, for instance, can’t be troubled to update its ‘Elections 2021’ statistics or even to footnote news of the actual resolutions of the 29 blackish ‘No Overall Control’ splotches and dots on its English councils map

NOC map

Still, however – and despite my having mentioned it on numerous occasions, not least in these columns – some councils don’t.  And what really p****s – sorry, incenses me is that the process and outcome of these post-NOC negotiations are not just factually informative, but frequently rather more fascinating than the elections that brought them about.

Bear with me, please, while I try to illustrate with the ‘aid’ of said map – or at least reference to it. You will observe three large blackish splotches, which you might imagine would be the three – all geographically large – county councils that have been NOC since at least the May elections: Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Cumbria.

Until you note that the top splotch is on the wrong side: not Cumbria, but Durham, which you may also know ceased being a county when in 2009 it became a unitary.  It did, however, produce surely the most historic result of this year’s ‘large’ authority elections, with Labour losing overall control of the council for the first time in over a century, and being replaced by a barely hyperbolic ‘rainbow’ coalition of the Lib Dems, Conservatives, Independents, and the North East Party – led moreover by the Council’s first-ever female leader, Lib Dem Amanda Hopgood.

So, to the two central England splotches – Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire County Councils – plus what would have been a third, had Cumbria’s election, like those of Somerset and North Yorkshire CCs not been postponed pending the outcome of already submitted unitary proposals.

In both cases the Conservatives had most councillors following the May elections, but no overall council majority. And in both cases the outcome of post-election negotiations was that the other party leaders and groups felt they had more in common with, or simply preferred working with, each other than with the historically dominant Conservatives.

And something essentially similar would doubtless have happened in Cumbria too, with the council having had a single party in majority control for just four of the past 36 years. So, when someone comes NOC NOCing on the Cumbria House door in Carlisle’s delightfully named Botchergate, they will be met not by rioting, out-of-control councillors, botching each other, but a seemly Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. 

Likewise in Oxbridge, where they will encounter what tend to qualify nowadays as ‘rainbow coalitions’: comprising in Oxfordshire the Lib Dems (yellow), Labour (red) and Greens, and in Cambridgeshire Lib Dems, Labour and Independents. Doing indeed what voters reportedly tell pollsters they want party politicians to do: work together rather than just shout across the council chamber at one another.

Personally, in case you were wondering, I have ambivalent views about ‘rainbow coalitions’ – the terminology, I should stress, not their existence, which is almost invariably fascinating to observe. I used to reckon that, with rainbows having seven colours, a ‘rainbow coalition’ ought to comprise at least a majority – i.e. four parties or political groups.

The obvious problem, though, is that it restricts the field and would deprive many local newspaper editors of potentially appealing headlines.  By my reckoning – and with possibly excessive reliance on Open Council Data UK – England currently has just seven of these ‘proper’ rainbow coalitions: Durham, Folkestone & Hythe, Lewes, North Somerset, Swale, Waverley, and our own local Wyre Forest. 

Add in three-group coalitions, though, and you almost triple the number, while still lagging well behind the 32 single-party minority administrations and the 28 two-party arrangements. 

It also enables me to fulfil a tiny part of a kind of promise to INLOGOV Head of Department and blog editor, Jason Lowther – to whom I mentioned a round-up of May’s local election results, in the tabulated form I’ve sometimes managed previously, including my patented symbols for ‘rainbow coalitions’. 

For several reasons, including the sheer number of NOCs nowadays, I stalled after the ‘biggies’, but, thanks to the previously described Oxbridge tendency, there are at least a couple of rainbows.

NOC table

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A more West Midlands-focussed version of this blog was published in the Birmingham Post on 9th September.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and author of the Local Government chapter in the just published 10th edition of Politics UK (Routledge), about the only surviving sizeable (just the 780pp.) textbook of its kind.

Petticoat Council – cheesy name, historic achievement

Chris Game

Nottingham Castle reopened to visitors recently, after a Covid-protracted three-year closure for what was anyway going to be a pretty extensive renovation. Even unrenovated, the castle has always been a good visit, not least for its exhibitions, which now include an enticingly named Rebellion Gallery, whose current Nottingham-focused displays, curated by University of Nottingham historian Dr Richard Gaunt, comprise the Civil War, the Luddite movement, and parliamentary reform with particular emphasis on women’s suffrage.

For reasons that will become clear, it was the last of these that particularly resonated with me – and one (poorly phone-photographed) bar chart in particular.

While its primary aim is presumably to emphasise the length of the continually frustrated campaign for women’s suffrage, it also showed how, near the start of that campaign, some women – those that “met the property ownership requirements” – actually lost their right to vote during the 1830s.

The otherwise franchise-extending 1832 Reform Act specified ‘male persons’ only, depriving at least small numbers of property-owning women of their parliamentary vote until 1918. And the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act excluded them from local elections – until 1869/70, when unmarried women ratepayers were granted the right to vote in first municipal council and then the new school board elections.

Between those dates, though, and with no confounding documentary evidence, it was widely believed, and taught, even in Patricia Hollis’ ‘bible’ – Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Appendix B) – that women lost their voting rights completely, just like the 0%, 0%, 0% on the Nottingham bar chart.

Taught by me too, until a few years ago when I caught by chance a BBC Sounds broadcast describing the discovery of documentary evidence of at least some West Midlands women casting votes in local elections decades before those history books told us the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act legalised it.

The BBC programme described the recent discovery in Lichfield Record Office of an 1843 Poll Book. Compiled apparently for local Conservative Party campaigning purposes, it detailed all voters in that year’s St Chad’s Parish election of an Assistant Overseer of the Poor – the bloke (naturally) with responsibility for outdoor (cash) or indoor (workhouse) poor relief.

And of the 371 voters in that 1843 election …. 30 were women, including one, an evidently very well-heeled Grace Brown, with no fewer than four votes. It was a genuine, history-rewriting discovery – though not in fact the main point of this blog.

For that we must turn to the programme’s presenter: Sarah Richardson, nowadays Professor of History at Warwick University, and author of the then recently published The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain.

Totally relevant, obviously, but Richardson’s even more pertinent role here must surely be one unmentioned in her University profile: longstanding Governor and currently Chair of Governors at Bishop’s Itchington Primary School.

Bishop’s Itchington is a South Warwickshire village/parish south-east of Royal Leamington Spa and about 18 miles from Coventry, which, as we’ll see, is more immediately relevant. It has a lengthy history too, its name combining references to the passing River Itchen and the Bishop of the afore-mentioned Lichfield Cathedral.

In many European countries, and unquestionably in France with its 35,000 communes, even its reduced present-day population of around 2,000 would make Bishop’s Itchington what we would call a principal local authority in its own right, with an elected mayor, a full range of local powers and responsibilities, and significant control of its own funding.

But in a middle England parish council, without even these basics, where, you might reasonably ask, is there the potential even for much passing interest, never mind drama?  To which the answer is: in its elected councillors, and, more precisely, those elected in 1949 to form what became the first female majority council in the UK.

It’s a hefty claim, but, in respect of a village/parish whose primary school Chair of Governors just happens to be a national authority on such matters, pretty authoritative.

Profesor Richardson herself summarises – this time on YouTube.  Edith Chapple-Hyam, Chair of the village Women’s Institute, was fed up with the all-male parish council’s lack of action on issues such as accessible electricity and running water, social housing, policing and speed restrictions, the sewage works, and public spaces, particularly for children.

In short, she and her WI members saw areas like Coventry being built up after the War and wanted a piece of the action.  So, when an election was announced, she and five WI committee members submitted their nominations.

Most of the sitting councillors assumed that, as no doubt regularly happened, the election would go uncontested and they would be re-elected by default.  Only one, therefore, bothered to submit his papers before nominations closed.

He was duly elected, but alongside all six women, who effectively – in both senses – took over.  And now, just the 72 years on, the Bishop’s Itchington story has been both informatively and highly entertainingly dramatised as a ‘folk musical’ and one of Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 events.

Entitled ‘Petticoat Council’, I saw it myself recently, and the mix of storytelling, song, dance and puppetry melded together by playwright Frankie Meredith – herself the great-niece of Ivy Payne, one of the six victorious councillors – is a delight, unquestionably worth catching if you ever get the chance.

My sole initial reservation had been the slightly cheesy title, for which I was prepared to blame the Americans, who had instantly labelled a very similar women’s power grab in Umatilla, Oregon back in 1916 a ‘Petticoat Revolution’.

But I was wrong. It apparently came from a local newspaper, reporting in 1952 how the men on the council were plotting to “overthrow petticoat rule”, as “the women have been getting too bossy”. Material for a sequel perhaps?

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A version of this blog, with an accompanying photograph – of the councillors, not me – was published in the Birmingham Post on 15th July under the title The ‘Petticoat Council’ and a slice of Midland History

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

87,214 Londoners disenfranchised for over-voting: What happened to ‘divining the voter’s intention’?

Chris Game

 

Six months ago, while Donald Trump’s backers were issuing lawsuits to have vote-counting stopped in states threatening to swing from Republican to Democrat, Biden supporters marched with banners calling on officials to ‘Count Every Vote’. Examining the statistics of the recent London Mayoral election count, I can identify at least with their message.

Our elected Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections have from the outset used the ‘preferential’ Supplementary Vote (SV) system, involving potentially a second round run-off between the two leading first-round candidates to ensure the winner is elected with an overall majority. It’s hardly brain-straining, and offers voters fractionally greater choice than ‘First-Past-The-Post’, with which – for barely disguised partisan reasons – the Home Secretary plans to replace it.

The SV ballot paper has two columns of boxes alongside candidates’ listed names: one cleverly labelled ‘Column A – 1st choice’; the other, yes, ‘Column B – 2nd choice’. Voters are instructed that:

You have 2 choices for Mayor.

Mark [X] your first choice in Column A.

Mark [X] a different second choice in Column B.

You must make a first choice or your vote won’t be counted.

Each vote must be for a different candidate.

 

I readily defer to Lewis Baston’s professional electoral expertise, but I do question his view that this rubric is “certainly among the more confusing that has been deployed in a British election”.  Seriously less clear than, for instance, that in the previous five London Mayoral elections or two previous PCC elections? This year’s 20 Mayoral candidates obviously lengthened the ballot paper and made choice-making potentially trickier, but don’t blame the wording.

Something, however, certainly was responsible for, in the FIRST count alone, 87,214 ballot papers of the 42% of London electors sufficiently motivated either to physically turn out or return a postal ballot being NOT counted, for the single reason of “voting for too many candidates” in Column A – topping EASILY the totals of 16 of the 20 candidates.

A further nearly 27,000 ballots were rejected for other reasons – being left blank, voters revealing their identities, etc. – giving a first-count rejection total of over 114,000. That’s 4.3%, over double the previous (2004) record, and one in every 23 voters who had chosen to participate.

As it happens, this was fractionally under the national total of rejected/invalid votes for all reasons at the 2019 General Election – itself nearly 60% up on 2017, but still, by comparison, totalling ‘only’ 0.37%.  It’s that 87,214, then, I found genuinely shocking – and that prompted this blog.

To emphasise, with apologies for repetition: first, these rejections have nothing to do with the verification of voters’ personal identifiers. This happens before ballots get anywhere near the count, resulting in generally some 4% being excluded, mostly for lack or indecipherability of signature and/or date of birth.

The 87,214, then, are solely verified ballots rejected from the FIRST count of the SV system that gives electors two possible votes and may comprise two separate, necessarily independent, counts.  A further 384,000 ballot papers were excluded from that second count, mainly for Column B being left ‘unmarked’.

At which point it’s worth emphasising that, for Londoners, SV is neither new nor new-fangled. They’ve been using it since 2000, while over 60% of the world’s democracies seem somehow to cope with generally somewhat trickier systems of real proportional representation. At first sight, these rejection figures suggest many Londoners are not only what my mother would have called ‘slow on the uptake’, but getting slower. Or are there other explanations?

In 2012, Boris Johnson’s second win, nearly 22,000 ballots were rejected for interpreting ‘first preference’ in the plural – still a lot, but under 1%.  In 2016, Sadiq Khan’s first win, it was over 32,000, and up to 1.2%, with total rejections close to 50,000 or 1.9%.  A lot, and worrying – you might think – but still in a different league from this year’s single-cause 87,214.

The even more worrying thing, though, is that people – official people, like the Electoral Commission and London Assembly Elections Review Committee/Panel -have been worrying about and inquiring into this and other problematic features of these elections pretty well from the start.

As with everything London you have to start with its sheer size, in this case its electorate’s size. One consequence is the high proportion of postal voters – which means additional rejection opportunities (signature, date of birth, etc.). 

Much bigger, though, is the counting itself, which for London mayoral elections has from the outset been electronic: e-counting, before England and Scotland were even officially piloting it.  I, almost needless to say, have nil understanding of how the vital, techie bits of this work, but that doesn’t prevent ignorant suspicion – despite, or indeed reinforced by, seeing it in operation.  

I don’t like any of it: the regularly changing IT companies used; the emptying of the familiar, battered ballot boxes into large, impersonal scanners that jam when ballot papers aren’t torn cleanly from their counterfoils; the whole concept of auto-adjudication, and the  automatised rejection of ballot papers because the computer can’t figure out their ‘indeterminate’ markings; not seeing the rows of batched ballot papers piling, or not piling, up against the candidates’ named signs.

Above all, though, it’s that any rejection decision at the end of this untransparent process is made first by the ‘machine’ before being adjudicated and possibly overruled by the local Returning Officer (RO). Human being finally gets to challenge advanced technology!

My sense is that we’ve seen two potentially conflicting trends over the past couple of decades. Machines are being programmed to reject anything that doesn’t have the specified number of specified markings in the specified boxes.  ROs, meanwhile, are being instructed NOT necessarily to reject ballots if, for example, the vote is “not marked in the proper place, marked other than by a cross, marked by more than one mark, if an intention to give a … vote for not more than one candidate clearly appears on the ballot paper” (my emphasis).

That last quote is from the Electoral Commission’s Doubtful Ballot Papers booklet for Police and Crime Commissioner and Mayoral elections – which also provides illustrations of acceptable and unacceptable votes. The apparent emphatic message:  look at the whole ballot paper, at all the voter’s markings, and, if the voter’s intention can be unambiguously discerned, it counts.

Understandably, the numbers of ballot papers scrutinised in this way – nowadays in a “Covid-secure manner”, of course, and this year at just three London centres – are never published; possibly not even counted. But, if 87,214 were rejected in that first count alone, one can only imagine and guess, and it’s a mind-boggling number – and that’s without my having even yet mentioned the parallel elections for constituency and London-wide London Assembly Members.      

Under that kind of pressure, with the media pestering you throughout the Saturday for the Mayoral result, which by that time clearly wasn’t going to go down to the proverbial wire, the temptation not to turn every scrutiny into an argument with “the machine” must, I imagine, be powerful indeed.

Anyway, mulling all this over, I was reminded of when I covered the 2015 General Election campaign for the international academic current affairs website, The Conversation. On Election Eve I described how we in the UK did vote-counting and adjudication, “the aim nowadays being to divine the voter’s intention wherever possible, rejecting only where it is completely unclear”.

I illustrated with the reported case from the recent European Parliament elections of a Western Isles ballot paper marked “wank, wank, good guy, wank” being accepted as an intended vote for the (SNP) “good guy” – little knowing that that very day a “detailed representation of a penis instead of a cross” would be similarly deemed valid.

Like the favoured MP himself, that particular case struck me as possibly ‘over-divining’ the voter’s intention, but it prompted me to look at some of the interpretations ROs would have been making this month in London. The Electoral Commission doesn’t have published views on the positive or negative messages of sketched genitalia, but it does provide over 50 examples of allowable and reject-worthy SV ballot papers, including my selected three from each group.

Ballots1

Obviously, none of the allowed ballots conform to the voter instructions quoted at the start.  So, would the computer have rejected them?  If so, would they have found their way to the RO – and, following scrutiny, all three been allowed back into the first count and Examples 8 and 14 into the second?  Or were one or all part of the 87,214?

Ballots2

The ’Rejects’ are slightly trickier, because it requires acknowledgement of these Mayoral and PCC elections potentially comprising two completely separate counts. Yet examples 28 and 31 do precisely what the ballot paper instructs for inclusion in the first count, while 30 does precisely what was deemed allowable in Example 14. Without going into further detail, and taking account of the latitude granted in the ‘Allowed’ examples, a case could easily be argued for all three being eligible for inclusion in the second count.

As will be evident, much of the above is conjecture.  I do, though, seriously feel we need to know more about that 87,214 and whether it comprised significant numbers of cases where the voter’s intention could have been divined.

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.