The INLOGOV General Election Maxifesto Quiz

Chris Game

There were two prompts for this blog. The first was the politest of enquiries from the recently returned INLOGOV Blog Manager, which was easy enough to deflect. Shortly after doing so, however, while reading through one of the parties’ election manifestos – as you do – I came across ‘dibs’, a word I don’t recall crossing either my lips or barely my consciousness for a good half-century or so.

Back in my distant childhood there was much dibbing – and dybbing. On my father’s allotment I would make holes with my own potato dibber. As cub scouts, we would be enjoined every Friday evening by the ‘Old Wolf’ Akela to ‘Dyb, Dyb, Dyb’ (‘Do Your Best’), responding of course that we would indeed ‘Dob, Dob, Dob’. Back home, if there was any scarce desirable to be shared, like recently de-rationed sweeties, my younger sister Jennifer and I would compete for ‘first dibs’ (1).

In the ensuing decades, though, dibbing disappeared completely from my life. Yes, I recall registering the existence of the very top-end-of-the-market 1stdibs fine art dealership, but my INLOGOV salary discouraged closer interest. I remember being intrigued, therefore, by the context in which it did re-enter my personal/public policy world, and was fascinated again to see it an election manifesto.

So much so that I felt an urge to share the news, and decided to sneak it surreptitiously into an INLOGOV Election Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz – not exactly an established tradition, but for which there is a kind of antecedent.

A Worthy Pledge is best explained by what it isn’t. It’s not one of those a major party either wants to, or fears might, create headlines and win or lose it loads of votes – and which are likely to be known to or guessable by readers of this blog anyway. Worthy Pledges are the add-ons. Not exactly window-dressing, because so relatively few wavering voters will even glance at, let alone open, these windows. They’re mostly imprecise pledges, or often just hopes – so loosely phrased that accountability of anyone, ever, is out of the question.

They are, however, the main reason why the average length of the major parties’ 2019 maxifestos – around 25,000 words (without ancillary ‘costings documents’) – is roughly four times the total length of ALL THREE major parties’ manifestos in 1951 (Thackeray and Toye, 2019). Nearly 83% of voters turned out in that election – the last time a General Election turnout topped 80% – and, while we don’t know how many of them had read those minifestos, it’s surely a fair bet that it’s more than will have thumbed through the 60-100 page compilations this time.

Here, then, listed alphabetically, is the 2019 Local Government Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz.

Which party (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Brexit) pledges to …?

  1. Abolish both student loan interest and the target to push 50% of young people into Higher Education.
  2. Devolve full control of Right-to-Buy to local councils.
  3. Encourage councils to build more beautiful architecture.
  4. End rough sleeping within five years.
  5. Enshrine a legal right to food in law.
  6. Establish a £150m. Community Ownership Fund to help local people take over civic and community assets under threat, including football clubs and post offices.
  7. Establish a Royal Commission to develop a public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation.
  8. Explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation in higher education courses (sorry, that’s more for us in the UoB!).
  9.    Increase central government funding to councils by £10 billion a year.
  10. Introduce a levy on overseas companies buying housing, and give local people ‘first dibs’ on new homes built in their area.
  11. Launch the biggest ever pothole-filling programme.
  12. Legislate to require councils to switch from a Cabinet system to a Committee system.
  13. Provide 35 hours a week of free childcare, from the age of 9 months.
  14. Replace Police and Crime Commissioners with police boards made up of local councillors.
  15. . Stop bank branch closures and ban ATM charges.

Of course, the inherent problem with these kinds of exercises is where to list the answers. It may be that the Blog Manager can come up with something brilliant, but in case he can’t, I’ll witter on for another couple of sentences, then list them at the end – confident that you won’t have cheated and read ahead.

So, how many of you got the ‘first dibs’ pledge? It’s Labour’s, of course – a straight steal from Mayor Sadiq Khan’s attempt to give Londoners the first chance to buy new homes priced up to £350,000 before foreign investors can get their hands on them. A bit like Jennifer, after sweets came off rationing in 1953, except statistically her chances were massively better.

Finally, since you were no doubt wondering, one possible origin of ‘first dibs’ is an ancient children’s game played (by ancient children) with pebbles or sheep’s knucklebones known as ‘dibstones’.

The answers: 1. Brexit Party; 2. LD; 3. Con; 4. Trick question – Con + Lab; 5. LD; 6. Con; 7. Lab; 8. Con; 9. Green; 10. Lab; 11. Con; 12. Green; 13. Green;                    14. LD; 15. Lab.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

How other countries deal with the horror of a hung parliament.

Chris Game

In amongst all the election analysis on the Friday morning after the night before, there was a widely reported quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission: “As far as the Commission is concerned, we can open Brexit negotiations tomorrow morning at half-past-nine.”

My first reaction was quite defensive. While kicking someone when so obviously down may not be all that un-British, surely we should be allowed time to have first go. Besides, Juncker’s own prime ministerial career hardly ended in glory, so I thought I’d make it the peg for this blog about how some other EU countries, starting with Juncker’s Luxembourg, might handle Theresa May’s little parliamentary arithmetic problem.

During the two-year Brexit negotiation, several EU states will hold parliamentary elections, any of which could produce changes of government – though not necessarily instantly or overnight, as Juncker’s jibe seemed to imply he expected of us.

Luxembourg’s elections are due next October – five years after those held prematurely in 2013, prompted by Juncker being forced to step down from his record-length 18-year premiership, having lost parliament’s support for presiding either unknowingly or untellingly over years of illegal activities by the state intelligence agency.

His Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) had been in government since 1979, latterly in coalition with the Socialist Workers Party (LSAP). The CSV again won comfortably the most seats, but the resultant government was what we might call a rainbow coalition, or ‘minimum winning coalition’ – of the smallest number of parties able between them to form a majority. This one was popularly labelled the ‘Gambia coalition’, with the participating parties’ red (LSAP), blue (Democratic Party) and green (Green Party) colours matching those of the Gambian national flag. More relevant, though, is how it was negotiated.

After a few days of election recovery and exploratory inter-party talks, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg nominated Xavier Bettel, Democratic Party leader, as formateur – literally the person judged most likely, and now with official responsibility, to form a viable coalition government.

The whole process, as Juncker knew at first hand, took over five weeks – and that with a parliament a sixth the size of the Commons. The politicians weren’t “teary and exhausted”, with “everyone knackered, new or under-resourced”, as Theresa May and her office were reported as being (Sunday Times, June 18, p.16). The country didn’t shut down, and a stable government was formed.

Likewise, following Germany’s last elections in September 2013, when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic/Social Union (CDU/CSU) achieved its best result since 1990, with close to 42% of the vote, but finished five seats short of the 316 required for an overall Bundestag majority. Statistically, a position almost identical to that of May’s Conservatives. The difference was that the ‘Grand Coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats took three months to finalise – but again without the heavens falling in.

As Juncker also knew, though, the UK is not like most EU countries, particularly those with proportional representation electoral systems, for whom coalitions and working collaboratively with one or even more ‘other’ parties are seen as natural and even positive. For our politicians – and, it must be said, media – anything short of a stonking, wildly disproportional one-party majority signifies some fearful and embarrassing systemic failure, to be somehow papered over at the earliest opportunity. My personal guess, then, is that the Commission President’s Friday morning remarks were gently mocking the political frenzy he knew May had unleashed almost as much as the PM herself.

And that was probably before he knew the best bit. How this of all PMs – whose inability to share any decision with even her own Cabinet had created this potential constitutional crisis – was about to make a desperate, unplanned, ill-considered lunge for some, any, kind of voting support from the Democratic Unionists (DUP). And to do so, moreover, before she even knew the final total of her own MPs, and with nothing remotely to match the DUP’s “12-page route map of 45 priority demands” fully prepared and waiting.

The formateur system, with its institutionalised recognition of the importance of the inter-party negotiations required to form a sound and lasting coalition, seems a sensible one, which explains why it’s also used by, among others, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Israel. Not, though, by the French themselves, because the combination of their strong presidential system and their two-round elections aims, like our first-past-the-post ones, to render post-election fixes unnecessary.

This weekend, then, we’ve have the second, or run-off, round of National Assembly elections, within a month of Emmanuel Macron being elected President, the constitutional aim, highly effectively achieved, being to give the new President and his new centrist party government a ‘double mandate’.

Last time, in 2012, support for newly elected Socialist President Hollande wasn’t as great, in which circumstances the French way is – to adapt the rugby retaliation tactic – to get your negotiation in first. It’s a kind of effective version of what the Progressive Alliance was trying for in our election: an agreement among the supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties that their candidates – of all three parties, not just the Greens – would stand aside for another progressive candidate with an apparently better chance of winning that particular constituency.

In France, Left, Right, and this time Centre parliamentary party groupings are negotiated and publicised in advance of the elections. And candidates really do withdraw prior to the second-round vote in favour of a rival in the same grouping more likely to win, while voters know in advance who their candidates will ally themselves with, should no single big party achieve an overall majority.

In 2012, the Socialist Party’s 280 seats did fall short of the 289 majority figure by almost precisely the same distance as Theresa May’s Conservatives. Hollande’s party, however, already had a Left grouping negotiated with the Greens and several other smaller parties, holding an additional 48 seats. Majority effectively secured.

Across Europe as a whole, this approach and its speed are the exception. Even so, the example illustrates the obvious lesson: whether you do your negotiations before or after you know the detailed numbers, government formation following an inconclusive election result needs, deserves and almost certainly repays time.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

 

The Road to A Soft Brexit

Jon Bloomfield

The election result has been a game changer. The electorate has turned down the Theresa May/Daily Mail offer of a hard Brexit and the threat of walking away from the negotiations with the European Union. The issue did not get the in-depth discussion during the election that it should have, but the result is a rebuff to Mrs. May and all her Government Ministers claiming that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’

The new parliamentary arithmetic means that the road is now open to negotiate a soft Brexit. That means accepting the result of the 23rd June referendum but recognising that for reasons of economics, geography, history and culture a close working partnership between the UK and the Continent is in the interests of both parties. Hence, the UK should seek a partnership and cooperation arrangement with the EU across a whole range of areas – the economy, security, culture, the environment, research – where the UK has vital interests with our closest neighbours.

Furthermore, events are pushing the EU as well as the UK in that direction. Firstly, after the latest terrorist horrors in Manchester and London, who is seriously going to suggest that the UK should pull out of its intelligence sharing and security cooperation with European police and counter-terrorism services? A handful of little Englander ideologues will object to UK cooperation because it is overseen by the European Court of Justice but that will not resonate on many doorsteps. Secondly, the disastrous performance of President Trump in Saudi Arabia, at NATO and the G7 has given renewed momentum to the desire amongst European leaders for greater self-reliance. The swift declaration with the Chinese government upholding their joint commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change after Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal is an early example. Thirdly, the election of Emmanuel Macron as the new French President adds a powerful, new political figure pushing for collective action at the European level.

Until now the main political obstacle has appeared to be migration. The May government has argued that the UK must pull out of the Single Market and the Customs Union because membership of either is incompatible with the UK controlling its own migration policy. This view is regularly echoed by EU leaders and Commission President Juncker who talk about Single Market membership requiring adherence to the four principles of the Treaty of Rome, including the free movement of labour. Yet the way to combine a migration policy that is fluid enough to preserve economic dynamism and rigorous enough to inspire public confidence lies in articles 48 and 49 of the original treaty of Rome. Article 48 states that “freedom of movement for workers shall entail the right (a) to accept offers of employment actually made; (b) to move freely within the territory of member states for this purpose.” Article 49 calls for “the achievement of a balance between supply and demand in the employment market in such a way as to avoid serious threats to the standard of living and level of employment in the various regions and industries”.

In other words, these have to be managed processes. The treaty is not a neoliberal free for all. Freedom of movement is specifically tied to agreed, contracted employment and recognises the need to balance labour supply and demand. Here is the basis for a serious negotiation between the UK and the rest of the EU.

Importantly, this is the view of Jean Pisani Ferry, the author of Macron’s Presidential policy programme and now his chief economic adviser. Nine months ago Ferry wrote a pamphlet for the influential Breughel think tank with four other senior EU policy makers entitled Europe After Brexit. The authors argue that in an increasingly volatile world, neither the EU nor the UK have an interest in a divorce that diminishes their influence, especially as the balance of economic power shifts away from the North-Atlantic world. They propose a new form of collaboration between the EU and the UK, a continental partnership which would consist of participating in the movement of goods, services and capital and some additional labour mobility, as well as in a new system of inter-governmental decision making and enforcement of common rules to protect the homogeneity of their deeply integrated economies. On migration, the Brueghel authors see it primarily from a functional, economic rather than constitutional/political viewpoint. Hence managed labour mobility is required for the interdependent parts of the European economies to function smoothly and to enable firms to transfer staff to other countries easily, but there is no legal necessity for unrestricted labour mobility. Ferry’s co-authors are policy and political heavyweights including Norbert Röttgen, the Christian Democrat Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Andre Sapir, an adviser to two previous European Commission Presidents. Thus, there is intellectual heft behind the case for pursuing a managed migration policy within the framework of the Single Market. Currently, the 10,000 lorries a day that pass through Dover are the most visible indicator of how interdependent the UK and Continental economies have become. That is why it is so crucial to both the UK’s and Europe’s economic well-being that this tariff-free, seamless trade is retained. There is a viable political path here for a soft Brexit and now there is also a window of opportunity.

Throughout the election Jeremy Corbyn’s team took the political initiative. He should keep this momentum and bring the new parliamentary arithmetic to bear. For starters, his Labour negotiating team should:

* bring together all MPs regardless of party who want to pursue the soft Brexit option. They should re-draft the terms of the UK negotiating position and seek to win Parliamentary approval for it.

* open informal discussions with Pisani Ferry in France, Röttgen in Germany and other key players across Europe.

Calls for a second referendum are dead. They hampered both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP in the election. But what is on the cards is the negotiation of a proper, collaborative partnership with the EU. It will be complicated and difficult but the opening is now there. Can a progressive alliance come together to take it?

 

Jon Bloomfield is an Honorary Research Fellow at INLOGOV and an expert on EU funding, European and EU issues of regional and local government who carries out research on the EU and contributes to INLOGOV’s post-graduate programmes.

Land Value (or Garden) Tax and the General Election – more Adam Smith than Jeremy Marx

Chris Game

One consequence of Theresa May delaying until mid-April her U-turn on holding a General Election was seen almost immediately – when it was decreed too late for the General, local and mayoral elections all to take place synchronously. It could have saved money and probably doubled the local and mayoral turnouts. Which in turn would almost certainly have avoided the unfortunate situations in the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region, where the new metro mayors, Andy Street and Steve Rotheram, were elected with vote mandates – 239,000 and 171,000 respectively – significantly smaller than were achieved in May last year by their respective Police and Crime Commissioners.

Another consequence of the May delay is that, with the parties’ General Election manifestos published almost immediately after the local elections, we heard – even before ‘security’ issues captured the campaign – less directly about local government than we might normally have done. Until now, that is – for I’ve prepared a micro version of the Local Government Election Manifesto Quiz that I’d previously have endeavoured to inflict on my captive undergrads. It’s based on the local government sections of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green party manifestos – with links and page references for the exceptionally keen or doubtful.

Which manifesto do you reckon (or recall):

  • mentions “local government” just twice in 84 pages (pp. 32, 81)?
  • proposes (p.103) creating a Minister for England in the Department for Communities and Local Government?
  • will introduce (p.27) a ‘presumption of devolution’, whereby devolved powers transferred from the EU post-Brexit will go straight to the relevant region or nation?
  • wants (p.94) ‘devolution on demand’, enabling devolution of Westminster powers to groups of councils working together – like a Cornish Assembly or Yorkshire Parliament – with or without a mayor?
  • would (p.74) replace Police and Crime Commissioners with accountable police boards of local councillors?
  • will encourage councils to economise by painting yellow lines where you can park?
  • wants (p.17) more empty homes brought back into use, and a trial of a Land Value Tax (LVT) to encourage the use of vacant land and reduce speculation?

The answers, apart from the Monster Raving Loony Party’s yellow paint one – just to check you were paying attention – are in the order the parties were listed above: C, L, L, LD, LD, G. Points for correct answers, none for incorrect – except the last one, for which you can award yourself points for either Labour (p.86) or the Lib Dems (p.40), as well as the Greens.

Which is one of several noteworthy things about this relatively sudden cross-party interest in land value taxation. First, it was indeed mentioned by all three parties, and in almost identically vague terms. The Greens’ “trial” was the strongest commitment – appropriately, with their Co-Leader Caroline Lucas being probably the tax’s most prominent recent parliamentary advocate. The Lib Dems would merely “consider” it, while for Labour it’s one possible “new option” in an overall review of local government funding. In no manifesto – including, I emphasise, Labour’s – is it a policy, plan, pledge or commitment. None give it more than a part-sentence, and there’s not a figure or any other detail in sight.

Which might explain why, when the respective manifestos appeared, it received effectively no media attention whatever. Until last week, when Conservative campaign headquarters was presumably tasked with fabricating something to counter the damage done by Labour turning Theresa May’s social care charge into a ‘dementia tax’. Accordingly, the nerdish-sounding LVT was frankensteined into a culture-threatening – sorry: Marxist, culture-threatening – ‘Garden Tax’ aimed at undermining the foundations of English family life as we know it. The inaptly-named ‘red-top’ Conservative-supporting tabloids were accordingly briefed and unleashed.

“Labour’s secret plans, hidden in the small print of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto”, contain “proposals to replace council tax and business rates” with “a destructive, devastating tax on homes and gardens that a Tory analysis estimates would result in a yearly tax bill of £3,837 for an average family home in England – a massive 224 per cent increase on the current average billsend house prices plummeting, and plunge mortgage holders into negative equity.” Since when there have been daily updates in the same vein, with even Philip Hammond, in possibly his final days as Chancellor, accusing Labour of a “Marxist tax grab”.

There’s a minor irony here. The principle of land value taxation – the recognition that land’s true ‘location’ value derives less from the actions of the individual owner than from the wider efforts of the community in creating transport links, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, and the community should benefit from this ‘unearned betterment’ part of the value accordingly – does indeed have history. Far from an invention of Corbyn’s Labour Party, it dates back well beyond Marx to at least the 18th Century classical economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo: hardly proto-Marxists. Indeed, the bearded one himself dismissed it as a distraction from the historically inevitable transition from capitalism to communism.

Others, however, have supported it, and even enthused, seeing its combination of economic efficiency and progressiveness (the wealthiest paying most) as close to a ‘perfect tax’ – which even I, as an economic illiterate, can see is somewhat overegging it. Even so, its signed-up supporters make an impressive list, including the then Liberal, Winston Churchill; economics textbook king, Paul Samuelson; Mrs Thatcher’s favourite economist, Milton Friedman; the Adam Smith Institute, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The truth is that any future review of local finance would be more criticisable for omitting LVT than for including it.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

May’s Conservatives: closer to a genuinely national party than Thatcher in ’83?

General Election, opinion polls, YouGov regional poll, regional variations, 1983 General election, Margaret Thatcher, Sadiq Khan

You might think, given the record of opinion polls in the 2015 election campaign, that there’d be slightly fewer of them this time. Dream on! So far this month national voting intention polls have averaged well over one a day. Of the 28, precisely none have shown the Conservatives on less than 44% – that is, over 6% higher than they managed in the 2015 election; and just one – the ‘outlier’ of those published this past weekend – put Labour behind by less than 10%, compared to the 6.6% GB gap last time.

There is an iron law in opinion poll reporting: the more eye-catching and exceptional the finding, the louder it will be reported, and the more likely it is to prove a ‘rogue’ result. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this ‘single-figure lead’ poll prompted instant speculation about whether Corbyn’s Labour could win more votes than it did under Miliband, or even increase its return of 232 MPs, which at least temporarily displaced the McLuskey-prompted ruction about whether just 200 Labour MPs would qualify as a successful campaign.

That would in fact be Labour’s worst result since 1935, worse even than 1983, when under Michael Foot’s leadership it was reduced to 209 MPs. And, while the PM may understandably wince at personal comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, and in her party’s ‘Reddish Tory’ manifesto has certainly distanced herself ideologically, it still seems most likely that it is with that latter election that, as polling day approaches, statistical comparisons will be made – starting in the second part of this blog.

The first part looks at something arguably more interesting – the regional variations in current voting intentions, as collated by YouGov in a total GB sample of over 17,400 respondents, and compared to the actual votes in the 2015 election, summarised in the central sections of the table below.

Regional%20voting%20intentions%202.JPG

The ‘headline voting intention’ that would have been reported in YouGov’s late April/early May polls – that is, excluding ‘don’t know’s and ‘won’t say’s and weighted by respondents’ self-described likelihood to vote – would show the Conservatives with a 16% lead over Labour, with the Lib Dems on about 10% and UKIP around 7% and sliding.

The modesty of the Lib Dems’ post-2010 recovery, the recent collapse of UKIP, and the performance of other smaller parties are obviously important and will be decisive in many individual constituencies. But my main concern here is the bigger picture: the variation in the Conservatives’ current lead across the regions, and the extent to which the figures support the claim that Theresa May is increasingly keen to make of her party being truly national in its appeal and support.

We’re used to seeing political maps of the UK, whether of national or local government, from a ‘geographic’ viewpoint: each constituency or council a blob of appropriate colour the relative size of its land area. Shown such a map of the 2015 election results, an innocent visitor would probably conclude that, in England and Wales at least, we’re already there: more or less a one-party state. Even London, where Labour took 45 of the 73 seats, has to be magnified to look more than a red smudge in an ocean of bright blue.

Now, though, following the local elections, Conservatives actually are the largest party in every English county and county unitary authority except Durham, and the regional YouGov polls tell a similar story. The swing of support between the two major parties since May 2015, coupled with the respective performances of UKIP and the Lib Dems, has put us on the brink of becoming, as well as just looking cartographically, a one-party state.

In under two years, one English region, Yorkshire/Humber, has swung from majority Labour to majority Conservative. A second, the North West, has seen a 14% lead completely disappear. And, most strikingly, Wales and Scotland, for decades dominated almost monopolistically by Labour, are both currently showing the Conservatives with a clear two-party voting lead.

In general, and with one big exception, the below-average 2015-17 swings from Labour to Conservative have been in the already strongest Tory areas – the South East, South West, and East of England. And the above-average swings have been in the traditionally strongest Labour areas, where they can make the relatively greater electoral impact: the North East, an early deliverer in the form of an unexpected mayoral victory in Tees Valley; the North West, May’s choice for her launch of the party manifesto; the Midlands, Scotland and Wales.

The massive exception to all this is obviously London, increasingly unmoored in so many respects, it seems, from the rest of the country. Current voting intentions don’t quite match the 44% to 35% split in 2015, and with which Sadiq Khan won the mayoralty last year, but they’re very close.

London’s real political exceptionalism, however, is shown when we start comparing with 1983 and the figures in the final columns of my table. In that election the regional voting figures in London and the West Midlands were close to identical: 44/45% Conservative, 30/31% Labour, 25/27% SDP-Liberal Alliance, and in both cases a (highlighted) 14% Conservative lead.

By 2015 that lead had been reduced to 9% in the West Midlands, but in London had been reversed to one of 9% for Labour. And over the past two years that divergence has accelerated, with the Conservatives 23% ahead in the West Midlands and Labour 5% ahead in London.

The last (bracketed) column in the table is intended to take advantage of the fact that nationally the Conservatives’ current lead in voting intentions is effectively the same as that achieved by Margaret Thatcher’s party in 1983, and to see how the different regions compare and contrast.

Headed massively by London there are four minus signs, but the seven pluses suggest that May’s Conservatives are indeed developing a claim to be a more genuinely nationally supported party than we’ve seen for at least several decades.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Queen Cersei and the evaporating Revenue Support Grant

Chris Game

Next week is the last week of Hilary Term, or revision week at the end of Spring Term, as it’s known here at the UoB and most other universities who feel no great affinity to the probably inappropriately named 4th Century St Hilarius of Poitiers. Over the many years in which I lectured undergraduates, I used rather to like it: end of the course/module in sight, legitimate chance to share and spread gossip about approaching local elections, lecture attendances boosted by students desperate for exam hints. Plus, nowadays, plenty of discussion-prompting visual aids – one of which is the pretext for this blog.

SIGOMA is not – disappointingly perhaps – an African hip-hop band, but less catchily the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (outside London) within the Local Government Association. Yes, even the brackets are part of the full name – which has to convey that its 45-council membership comprises most major urban authorities in the North, some in the Midlands, plus the ‘South Coast regions’ of Plymouth and Portsmouth. The 45, claim SIGOMA, share similar characteristics and can therefore advantageously speak with a collective voice – moreover, with one that, particularly following the Coalition’s changes to the local government funding system, needs to be distinctive from that of the LGA with its responsibility for somehow representing the interests of all its 400+ member authorities.

These funding changes, argues SIGOMA, are so divisive, and their impacts so damaging to areas with characteristics like those of its members, that they threaten to set region against region in the manner of – well, Game of Thrones.  As even non-followers of the popular TV series may be aware, the US fantasy drama chronicles the violent dynastic struggles for control of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. SIGOMA’s spoof YouTube video is Game of Cuts Winter is Coming for Councils – and, at under 2½ minutes to Game of Thrones’ soon-to-be-five seasons, it’s inevitably (even) less subtle.

The Sean Bean character, Lord ‘Ned’ Starp, Warden of the North (possibly Steve Houghton, Leader of Barnsley MBC, SIGOMA’s administrative base?) and his mate from the Coastal Ports, protest that “our people are already on their knees … the sick have no one to care for them, and our children nowhere to read …”, while the spokesperson for “the hamlets of Bucks and Berks” remonstrates that they too are suffering, with “not enough funding to keep our tables supplied with swan and game”.  But sadistic Queen Cersei of the South and her incest-conceived son, King Joffrey, are unmoved: “All the regions have had to make their sacrifices. The money has been spread evenly and you will cope, for the sake of the Seven Kingdoms”.

Doubtless, Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins’ family arrangements are altogether more conventional, but his presentation of the 2015-16 finance settlement last December suggests similarly briefed scriptwriters:

“The local government settlement is fair to all parts of the country – north and south, rural and urban, city and shire – therefore every council should be able to deliver sensible savings while protecting frontline services for local taxpayers … Those facing the highest demand for services continue to receive substantially more funding. For example, Middlesbrough has a spending power per household of £2,441 which is £871 more than the £1,570 per household in Windsor and Maidenhead.”

As noted in my recent blog assessing that settlement this has been the standard – and increasingly disingenuous – government line for the past five years. That blog, though, was largely about ministers’ ploy – what one might call the ‘spending power sleight of hand’ – to mislead the media and public from the outset about the true severity of their cuts to the funding of the local government sector as a whole.  SIGOMA’s current campaign – Protecting Vital Services – is about the discriminatory distribution of the cuts within the sector, and particularly the impact of the funding changes since 2013-14, which cumulatively have switched the determination of government funding from assessed needs formulae to councils’ tax-raising capacity.

The big change was the introduction of the Business Rates Reduction Scheme (BRRS). It was cautiously welcomed by local government for its devolutionary principle, but SIGOMA-profile authorities were immediately concerned that, as BRRS funding increased and Revenue Support Grant (RSG) correspondingly decreased, the big gainers would inevitably be already prosperous authorities with higher rate-raising capacities, and the gap between them and the less well-off with the highest demand for services would continue to grow.

The New Homes Bonus Scheme (NHB) story was not dissimilar. It was launched in 2011-12 to incentivise local authorities to grant planning permissions for new homes and bring empty properties back into use. For each additional home they would receive for six years an annual bonus payment equal to the council tax generated – from the government’s own funding. Again, it was cautiously welcomed, although it was obvious that authorities with higher banded housing would be the bigger beneficiaries. But no sooner was it established than the government funding bit switched to a top-slicing of RSG, and again poorer authorities have been absolute, rather than just relative, losers.

The Council Tax Freeze Grant was slightly different, in being from the beginning a disadvantageous bribe to councils to cut their spending, but its relevance in this context is that it too is top-sliced from RSG. Put just these three policies together over the three most recent finance settlements, and RSG – the principal source of central government funding of non-schools revenue expenditure and traditionally the mechanism for recognizing councils’ differing resource needs – has shrunk as a proportion of local government funding by over 5% a year.

Chart Game blog

SIGOMA calculates that over just these three years authorities with higher grant dependency and greater formula share in RSG have lost proportionately twice as much (around 20%) as those with more buoyant rates bases and greater protection within RSG (around 10%).

Incidentally, further confirmations of deprived areas suffering most harshly from the government’s cuts have been produced over the past few weeks alone in an Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note, by the Association of North East Councils, and, most tellingly, in evidence from the DCLG itself in the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities (paras 8ff.).

Game of Cuts doesn’t go into the intricacies of RSG that SIGOMA’s Protecting Vital Services study does, confining itself to the billboard-style message that “Since 2010 local government in England has lost more than 40% of its core funding. Urban authorities, largely in the North and the Midlands, have lost the most money as a result of these cuts.” You don’t get SIGOMA’s proposed ‘fair and sustainable’ three-block future funding model either, but both productions, in their very contrasting ways, are worth a look – even if you don’t have a bunch of students to entertain.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.