Women in (West Midlands) Governance: A patchy metamorphosis

Chris Game

Yes, I did blog really rather recently on the topic of ‘Women in local and national governance’; and yes, I did conclude it by pledging to “retire gracefully from this particular field of research”.

But that was before I found myself fruitlessly upending my flat for anything conceivably useful to the Ukrainian refugees for whom one of my ward councillors was commendably collecting. Finding virtually nothing I could honourably offer, it was cash to the Disasters Emergency Committee, who assured me the UK Government would double my donation.

However, among the dust-covered treasures I’d totally forgotten, and spared the Ukrainians, was my 1975 Municipal Year Book (MYB) – a hefty, royal blue tome of 1,400-plus extremely closely printed pages, taking up over three inches of shelving.

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In pre-computer decades, when I joined INLOGOV, it was the proverbial local government bible – the 1975 MYB listing all 564 of the UK’s so-called principal local authorities plus, individually, their 26,467 councillors and further thousands of principal officers.

Several years later a thoughtful colleague, Ray Puffitt, bequeathed me his signed personal copy, possibly in exchange for my not pressing him to lecture to my undergraduate students.

Thoughtful because 1974/75 was, of course, the year of large-scale local government restructuring – or, in MYB-ese, ‘re-organization’. There were now far fewer councils and councillors, but these were the ‘new’ and therefore more relevant ones – which explains how I acquired my edition, though obviously not why it wasn’t binned decades ago.

Anyway, having discovered this 1975 stash of raw research data, I thought I’d share with you (and Birmingham Post readers) how much statistically women’s presence and visibility in our West Midlands local governments have changed in the past nearly half-century.

My earlier blog concluded by noting how Paulette Hamilton’s recent by-election victory for Labour in the Birmingham Erdington by-election had taken the proportion of women MPs over 35% for the first time. Moreover, that she and the six other women by-election winners since 2019 had – another first – made the Commons more gender-representative than our elected local governments, whose UK-wide proportion of women councillors has seemingly become stuck in the low 34%s.

Internationally, both percentages would get us, just, into the top quarter of the respective rankings. In educational lingo, though, it would be a “disappointing, could surely do better”.

If the Parliaments of Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, Iceland and all Scandinavia can have more than 45% of elected women, why can’t we – or, more precisely, why doesn’t our huge Conservative Party majority comprise even a quarter? Similarly, if local government in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Tunisia, Iceland, Uganda, Namibia and Mexico can attract at least 45% of women elected members, why can we barely manage one in three?

At least, though, the picture has changed, or improved, hugely in the past half-century, which is what the rest of this blog is about – focusing on the metropolitan West Midlands.

I hadn’t moved to Birmingham in 1974/75, but I reckon that even without research I could probably have named the incumbent West Midlands’ women MPs – because, though few, they were all exceptional and established national reputations.

One, indeed, would have me as an Edgbaston constituent for the latter part of her elective parliamentary career: Jill (later Dame Jill) Knight, MP from 1966 to 1997.

The other three were all Labour: in West Bromwich another Dame-in-Waiting, Betty Boothroyd (1973-2000), latterly Speaker of the Commons. In Coventry West was Audrey Wise, and in Wolverhampton NE Renée Short. A formidable quartet.

Their successors are, necessarily, impressive too, and the reason I couldn’t immediately name them all is not just my ageing memory, but that there’s a full dozen of them. Eight Labour – including all three of Coventry’s – and four Conservatives out of West Midlands’ 28, or 43%.

Yardley’s Jess Phillips is, I’m guessing, probably best known, and she is one of just two of Labour’s eight who aren’t from minority ethnic backgrounds. Overall, another massive change from the mid-70s.

What about councillors?  Would the MYB’s council listings actually identify women members, and, if so, how?  Fortunately, they all risked the accusations of chauvinism and did – though in differing ways.

Birmingham, for example, gave first names – of all women members, while initialising the men. Then, as now, it was a Labour-dominated Council, 21 (17%) of whose 126 Members were women, including two Fredas, two Marys, and an exotic-sounding Carmen from Coleshill Road, B16. Oh yes, and a future Leader of the Council, Birmingham Lord Mayor, and wife of a Professor John Stewart.

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The other councils preferred marital status: almost always Mrs, with the very occasional Miss. Across the seven West Midlands councils Labour members outnumbered Conservatives by two to one, which was broadly reflected in women’s representation, with comfortably Tory Solihull managing just one woman out of 51 members.

However, the gender blend on Labour-run Coventry and Walsall Councils wasn’t that much better – four women on councils of well over 50, and one can only imagine how, on occasion, they must have been treated.

And no point whatever seeking empathy from senior women officers – because quite simply there weren’t any. Sorry, not strictly true. Of the 101 listed Principal Officers in the seven WM Councils, Miss H Clark, Wolverhampton’s Housing Manager, was the sole woman.

It’s here that the culture has changed most dramatically. Today, try counting the number of women in the senior managements of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, and the very first name you’d encounter would be Birmingham City Council Chief Executive: Deborah Cadman OBE – heading a 13-strong team of service Directors, including four more women.

Remarkably, though, that 38% female senior management puts Birmingham at the foot of this particular league table, which is headed by Dudley and Solihull with 75% and 67% women senior managers respectively, followed by Walsall with 57%, headed by CE Dr Helen Paterson. In this sphere of local government at least, there has indeed been a metamorphosis.

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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.

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A version of this blog – ‘Equality progress – but room for improvement’ – was published by the Birmingham Post, March 24th, 2022 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220324/textview

Women in local and national governance: the balance (at least in the UK) has shifted

Chris Game

One thing I’d expect most of this blog’s readers broadly to agree on is that UK ‘local’ government should really be given what grammarians call doubt quotes. It ceased long ago to be meaningfully local, decades before the next generation of county-based levelling-up deals.

So, I thought, where better to start this International Women’s Day (IWD) overview of women’s elected presence in local and central governance than at the other extreme: Barbuda, the alphabetically secondary part of Antigua and Barbuda, the Caribbean country comprising these two Leeward Islands plus several enticingly named even smaller ones: Great Bird, Prickly Pear, etc.

Constitutionally almost just like us, A & B is a unitary, parliamentary, representative democratic monarchy: a two-House Parliament, with only the lower House directly elected, but Labour faring rather better than they have done here lately. Here’s the thing, though. The two main islands are wildly unbalanced – Antigua with over 97% of the nearly 100,000 population, Barbuda barely 2%.  Yet Barbuda is the one, for 45 years now, with the local democratic smarts: its directly elected Barbuda Council.

The island of Antigua is run by – yes, you guessed – ‘The Ministry’; in this case MESYGA, the Ministry of Education, Sports, Youth and Gender Affairs. Barbuda has not only its elected 11-member Council, but, as you’ll see from its Barbudaful website, a majority of women members and a woman Chair.

Such councils anywhere are rare, which is why – I could sense you wondering – Barbuda’s is deservedly up front on IWD, or in UoB’s case the start of International Women’s Month.  And the remainder of this blog will draw on some of the other amassment of data in surely THE most fitting sourcebook for the day.  Entitled, with needless modesty, a ‘Working Paper’, it’s UN Women’s  Working Women’s Representation in Local Government: A Global Analysis, authored chiefly by Ionica Berevoescu and Julie Ballington, published December 2021 – and it’s a treasure trove.

The overview of new local-level data that ideally should constitute the core of this blog is inevitably pretty summary, but needs to be made even more so by at least a brief reference to the subject’s overall political context and importance. Women’s rights to equal political participation at all levels of government have for the past quarter-century been variously asserted, affirmed, and endorsed in proclamations of international goals, most importantly in the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Target 5.5 being to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (emphasis added).

It’s that new indicator – extended to women’s representation in the world’s local governments, or at least 133 of them in early 2020 – that this blog was going to be primarily about.  It got kind of overtaken, though, by the even bigger question: Are women worldwide, as has long been the case in Britain, better represented in local than in national governments?

Given the nature of local governments’ usually major service responsibilities and expenditures, my personal feeling was that it would be rather regrettable if they weren’t – the more so if I was wrong on the UK figures, and, instead of simply getting closer by the year, they could be shown statistically finally to have crossed over.

SPOILER ALERT!  However, since, and probably even before, last Thursday’s Birmingham Erdington parliamentary by-election – in which Labour’s Paulette Hamilton became the seventh woman victor in this Parliament’s eight by-elections and the fifth to replace a male predecessor, bringing the total of women MPs to a record, and statistically significant, 225 – I WAS wrong.

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Here’s how. Thanks to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual tabulations, we’ve been able to track that part of the international picture for decades.  In the 1990s the top women-friendly countries were notably Euro-dominated, though with no help from us.  In !997, for instance, the only five Lower Houses internationally to have more than 30% women memberships were Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. New Zealand, the Seychelles, Argentina and Mozambique were trying, but the UK was down in an embarrassing 50th place and unable to manage even double figures. Ahead, admittedly, of France and Greece, but that was about it.

Ten years on, thanks considerably to the arrival of variously legislated or voluntary gender quotas, the overall picture had improved, and Rwanda had crashed the 50% barrier, with 45 (56%) women in its 80-seat Chamber of Deputies. Cuba and Argentina were over 40% … and the UK, though still just ahead of France, was down to 60th, struggling now to reach 20%.

Today – or, more precisely, in last month’s IPU Parline rankings – the global picture has become more variegated still. The top 15, with around 45% or more women, currently comprise five countries from each of Europe (Iceland, Andorra, Sweden, Finland, Norway) and Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina), two African (Rwanda, of course, and South Africa) and one each from Asia (United Arab Republic), Australasia (New Zealand), and the Caribbean (Grenada).

And the UK?  Up to a hardly glorious 45th alongside Dominica – with just over the one in three, which at least is better than the House of Lords’ 28.6%.

So … the big question was: Is our local government today – still, as always hitherto – more gender representative than our national elected legislature?

As you may sense, I wasn’t bringing absolute researcher detachment to this exercise. It was posed in the hope/expectation that it would prove to be what Latin scholars call a ‘nonne’ or affirmative question, expecting the answer ‘Yes.’  Of course there’d be a higher proportion of women councillors than women MPs – wouldn’t there?

I knew the 2019 General Election stats: 220 women MPs, including, obviously for the first time, majorities of both Labour and Lib Dem Members. Congrats, obviously, to them, but, with the Conservatives’ massive majority comprising under a quarter of women, local government would still have at least a narrow percentage lead – wouldn’t it?

But then began, as noted above, the striking trend of victorious women by-election candidates replacing former male MPs, and when Paulette Hamilton did her thing last Thursday, I was getting seriously nervous.  225/650 is 34.6%; rounded up becomes 35% – an all-time record, which is obviously a ‘good thing’, but worryingly close to what I reckoned the local government figure to be.

To cut a potentially tedious story short: if, as we relatively rarely do, we compare the whole of UK local government – as opposed to that of England, or sometimes England and Wales – it currently makes the decisive difference.  For the first time, authoritative, genuinely compiled and comparable statistics showed there to be proportionately more women MPs than women councillors.

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I shall now retire gracefully from this particular field of research and address something perhaps more rewarding – like whether being a plurinational, rather than merely multinational, state somehow boosts women’s electoral prospects.

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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.

Monday Jan 17th 2022 – The Great Parliamentary Resistance (Part 1)

Chris Game

About the first sizable 2022-dated research-based publication I at least scanned was the alliteratively subtitled The Great Reset: Public Opinion, Populism, and the Pandemic by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy.  Based on massive international data sets, it finds that (summarising outrageously), while the pandemic has generally reversed the rise of populist leaders, parties and attitudes, the cost has been “a disturbing erosion of support for core democratic beliefs and principles, including less liberal attitudes with respect to basic civil rights and liberties, and weaker preference for democratic government.”

The UK Government can obviously provide numerous illustrations – from its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers to a Justice Secretary who wants to rewrite the Human Rights Act minus its “wokery”.

But then, literally following the weekend of my coming across The Great Reset, we had the extraordinary, in parts even historic, Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance.

Both Houses were involved, and two separate Government Bills, both as controversial as they are important, both the subject of consequential, even history-making action simultaneously throughout the evening – and virtually all of at least interest, where not of direct relevance, to an Institute of Local Government Studies.

This Government, even in its legislative behaviour, is greedy, disorganised and unscrupulous, and on that Monday 17th it was all on display – the problem being that, with the more complicated (House of Lords) action being summarily and potentially misleadingly reported, doing justice to the historic legislative events seemed a bit too much for a single blog.  What’s more, I didn’t come across a single stealable visual aid.

So, I took a decision: two separate but linked blogs. The second – because it makes better chronological sense – will cover the hugely controversial Elections Bill, that seeks to ‘Reset’ some of those core democratic beliefs and principles referred to above: among other things, introducing mandatory voter ID at polling stations, undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission, and changing the electoral system for Mayors and Police & Crime Commissioners.

Its intentions to restrict voting are blatantly partisan; it has been rammed through Parliament, added to and amended, minimising legislative scrutiny; and on that Monday evening it received its Third Commons Reading on more or less straightforward partisan lines (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-60037651), and thereby progresses to the Lords.

Both Jason Lowther and I have blogged previously about aspects of the Bill, and Part 2 of ‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ will shortly update them.

For the remainder of this Part 1, though, it’s across to the Lords and their truly historic Monday evening, when they savaged the Government’s ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – and not once or twice but an apparently Parliamentary record 14 times! 

Even the Bill’s title suggests a huge legislative gallimaufry, and it is – a classic Priti Patel production, taking the whole of the second part of last year to progress through the Lords to last Monday’s Report stage. That time lapse proving, pleasingly piquantly, the key to some of the Government’s difficulties.

For Patel evidently thought it would be a clever wheeze to use the Lords’ extended deliberations as an opportunity to add all sorts of additional clauses to the Bill, covering some of the myriad things that had enraged her since March – like Insulate Britain’s M25 traffic obstructions last September and Extinction Rebellion protests around November’s UN Cop26 climate summit.

All of which meant that there were three distinct types of Government defeats – sorry, votes – taking place at this Lords Report Stage.  First, the ‘normal procedural’ ones, on parts of the Bill as received from the Commons last July, that the opposition parties in the Lords would like to see reconsidered by MPs and ideally amended or removed. This will kick off the process so whimsically known as ‘parliamentary ping pong’ between the two Houses.

Patel’s ‘late additions’, though, are another matter entirely: criminalising protests deemed too noisy and disruptive … and protesters ‘locking on’, either to each other or immovable objects … and interference with key national infrastructure … and obstructing major transport works … and allowing police to stop and search without giving reasons … and allowing courts to ban regular protesters from even attending protests …   The Lords defeated all of these and MPs can’t reinstate them, as they never voted them into the Bill in the first place, so they’re removed altogether – or at least until Patel repackages them into another Bill for the new parliamentary year starting in April.

Then there are the Lords’ own ‘late additions’ – reviewing the prevalence of ‘drink-spiking’ crime … and crime motivated by ‘misogyny’ … and removing police powers to determine what constitutes a ‘noisy’ assembly … and belatedly repealing the 1824 Vagrancy Act, thereby establishing that begging or sleeping rough should no longer, in this post-Napoleonic/Waterloo era, constitute criminal offences.

None of these were in the Bill when it left the Commons, but they are now – and if MPs don’t like them, they’ll have to vote them down.

What concerned me about the initial reports I read of the Great Lords Monday Night Rebellion was that most seemed, albeit understandably, excited by the record 14 Government defeats, to the point of failing to note the really rather significant differences in the categories and potential significance of the defeats – even some of those with a stake in some of that detail, like Police Professional or Green World.  

So, having recently received my copy of the Inlogov Associates Handbook and being slightly apprehensive that the Director might try to inveigle me into some actual lecturing, I thought I’d prepare the first new overhead I’ve attempted for, well, a few years now – summarising at least my understanding of the current state of play. Hope it helps!

 

 

 

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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.

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.

Photo

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.