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.

 

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 a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Our elections should be about voter inclusion, not exclusion

Chris Game

When I used to teach undergraduate Politics courses, I would try to invite along at least one overseas student when I went to vote – partly for their cultural education, partly to share their impressions.

Their customary first question was: will there be queueing?  It would be asked in relation to almost any unfamiliar British activity, but particularly after I happened to have recounted the time a Romanian Presidential Election clashed with Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Craft Market, and police were required to shepherd literally hundreds of remarkably patient Balkan voters round the fringes of the market to the Town Hall, doubling for the occasion as a regional Romanian polling station.

My queueing answer, even for a General Election, was a confident ‘No’. Likewise, to usually the next question: taking photos.

The students would already know about voting in the UK not being compulsory. So the polling station trip’s key ‘learning point’ was identity verification, as they were fully aware that, unlike many of their countries, we don’t have national ID or citizen cards, with or without a photo.

Whereupon I would produce my so-called poll card from the City Council Returning Officer, detailing the election date, my polling station and register number, voting hours, plus “You do not have to take this card with you in order to vote”. They would be underwhelmed by the flimsy, featureless B&W card that almost begs to be junked immediately upon, if not before, being read. So I would tease them by telling them initially that it’s another ‘British tradition’.

Poll cards were first produced for the 1950 General Election, and tradition requires them still to look as if printed by a pre-Xerox mimeograph machine. Compared to our queueing obsession, separate hot and cold water taps, and constant apologising, it usually struck students as among our lesser cultural eccentricities.

But how would I prove my identity?  Whereupon I would explain that, although Northern Ireland voters have since 2002 had to produce one of seven possible forms of photographic ID – including, if necessary, a free Electoral Identity Card – as a GB voter, I wouldn’t have to. Indeed, even if I proffered my poll card, the Poll Clerk would still ask my name and address – which I could easily read upside down on the electoral register as it was being marked off.

Meaning, if I wanted to cheat small-time – commit ‘personation’ by having someone illegally cast an extra vote for my preferred candidate – I could easily memorise the names of neighbours who had not yet voted, and select one least likely to in, say, the next hour or so, who could thus be safely impersonated.

Almost invariably, that voting practice summary proved among the most impactful information I imparted to my students. “How British!” was their first reaction, though generally followed by mild but real shock: at our treating so apparently casually this core act of political participation that many of them and their parents’ generation had literally fought – and then queued – for.

All of which is an anecdotal way of introducing my own ambivalence towards the Government’s commitment to extend from 2023 the Northern Ireland practice and require all UK citizens to show photo ID in all the categories of Parliamentary and local elections taking place on May 6th.

So what’s my problem? The Electoral Commission has supported it for years.  The policy has been in two winning Conservative manifestos. It will be an Electoral Integrity Bill, which sounds worthy enough. It has been pilot tested – kind of. It worked in Northern Ireland, where ‘personation’ has been largely eliminated.

Besides, since we nowadays show ID for ever more everyday services, it’s irrational not requiring it for something as important as voting. I can almost hear my students agreeing – as indeed do I. My problems are with the Government’s priorities – and the false Northern Ireland analogy.

20 years ago NI had a big, pumpkin-sized electoral problem – public perception of widespread electoral malpractice, including vote-stealing, impersonation, voter intimidation, multiple register entries. GB, thankfully, doesn’t.

The Electoral Commission’s own analysis shows that of 58 million votes cast across the whole UK in 2019, 595 alleged electoral fraud cases were police-investigated – most concerning local elections and campaigning offences. Just four led to convictions, one being for impersonation.

Partly, and sadly, because of widespread political apathy and alienation, GB’s voting malpractice problem is, pinching the Electoral Reform Society’s metaphor, nut-sized – yet to which the Government proposes bringing a clumsy, costly, partisan legislative sledgehammer.

Second, the effectiveness of the NI photo ID reform is almost always judged first by pre-reform turnout rates not having significantly fallen. What significantly rose, though, to today’s seriously disturbing levels, is the incompleteness of the electoral registers on which those turnout percentages are based.

According to the Electoral Commission, just 51% of NI 18-34 year olds were correctly registered in 2019, compared to 94% of over-65s; 88% of ‘outright’ homeowners, but 38% of private renters. Obviously, if you’re not registered, you’re not part of the turnout base. In short, NI today is not an exemplary electoral model for the rest of the UK.

GB’s genuinely big electoral problem, again based on those most recent Electoral Commission data, is that over 9 million, or 17%, of eligible GB voters were either not or incorrectly registered at their current address – particularly, if unsurprisingly, the young, persons of colour, renters, low-income, disabled, and simply those with no fixed address.  Many/most of whom – how to put this – would on balance probably not be natural Conservative supporters.

There is an obvious solution: Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) – the direct enrolment of citizens on to the electoral register by public officials; no citizen initiative required. But that’s for another blog.

Meanwhile, if anything should be made compulsory, let’s make it not photo ID, but poll cards: “You SHOULD take this card with you when you go to vote”.

 

 

 

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.

Source: Electoral Reform Society

Stop playing party politics with Mayors and Police Commissioners

Chris Game

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about choropleth maps and the accuracy, or otherwise, of the UK’s locally compiled electoral registers, in which I indulgently referred to the University of Essex, and particularly its Department of Government’s late Professor Anthony King, thanks chiefly to whom, as a 1960s postgrad student, I first became interested in such abstruse matters.

For me those UoE years were transformative, as no doubt they were for countless successors, including two prominent MPs – former Commons Speaker, John Bercow, and current Home Secretary, Priti Patel – whom The Times somehow mixed up in Professor King’s obituary. Recounting King’s tale of the now well-known ex-student whose thesis had been “so bad I virtually had to rewrite it” … the student was incorrectly identified as Bercow … rather than Patel. Grovelling apologies ensued, and not inconsiderable mirth.

It’s a pleasing story, but I’d have struggled to justify raising it, were we not currently witnessing a further example of Patel’s either inability or refusal to grasp the workings of surely King’s specialist Mastermind subject: electoral systems. The Home Secretary, in reviewing the role of our 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), wants to replace from 2024 what she calls the “transferable system”, by which they – plus the Mayor of London and nine Combined Authority Mayors – are elected, with the ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) system we use for MPs.

Patel offers several reasons. It is “in line with the government’s (2019) manifesto position in favour of FPTP”, creates “stronger and clearer local accountability”, and “reflects that transferable voting systems (her plural, my emphasis) were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum”.  Plus presumably, though unmentioned, she reckons on balance it would benefit the Conservative Party.

None of her assertions are straightforwardly true; only, strictly speaking, the bit about voters rejecting the 2011 referendum question – by a certainly decisive 68%. But that referendum was about one particular system, the Alternative Vote (AV) – supported ironically by neither party in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and rejected understandably by voters as a contribution to producing the more fairly elected and representative House of Commons that at least many hoped the long awaited referendum would be about. Nothing to do with electing powerful, high profile and individually accountable public officials.

Moreover, if referendums are important, in the 1998 one creating the Greater London Authority, London electors voted by 72% for a Mayor elected by the then novel, but much debated, Supplementary Vote system she wants to abolish for us all with no voter consultation at all.

Her ‘transferable voting systems’ is anyway a potentially misleading term that I doubt Professor King would have used. ‘Preferential’ better describes the several systems allowing voters to express their ordered preferences for a list of candidates.

Best known is probably the highly ‘voter-friendly’ Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in multi-member constituencies, as in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections, where there are two objectives. First, to elect perhaps more representative ‘slates’ of local councillors than our FPTP system produces, and ultimately to elect more community-representative councils (or parliaments) by greatly reducing the numbers of ‘wasted’ votes cast for losing candidates.

Voters rank-order as many candidates as they like. A ’quota’ is set, based on the numbers of seats to be filled and votes cast. Then, once a candidate reaches that quota, proportions of their ‘surplus’ votes are transferred to voters’ second and subsequent choices until all vacancies are filled.

By contrast, PCCs and Mayors, as even the Home Secretary will have noticed, are elected individually. So the relevant ‘preferential system’ here is the Supplementary Vote (SV), using ballot papers with two columns of voting boxes, enabling voters to X both their favouritest candidate and their second favourite.

If no candidate gets over half the first-column vote – as in 36 of the 40 contests in the 2016 PCC elections, all five London and roughly two-thirds of all mayoral elections to date – just the top two candidates continue to a run-off, and will probably have campaigned with that eventuality in mind.

If either your first- or second-choice candidate gets through, they get your run-off vote. The important consequence is that the winner – here, every elected and accountable PCC – can claim the legitimacy and authority of having secured a majority electoral mandate.

Under Patel’s preferred FPTP system, 229 of our serving MPs could be accused of having slunk into office on minority vote mandates of regularly under 40%.  Personally, I’d feel slightly diffident, even as a Conservative MP, knowing both I and my party’s Government were elected on way short of majority votes. But for a PCC, daily exercising wide-ranging policing powers, it would be potentially undermining.

In our ‘local’ 2016 West Midlands election, the incumbent Labour PCC David Jamieson, seeking re-election, managed ‘only’ 49.88% of first-preference votes – fifth highest out of 40 English and Welsh contests, incidentally. But in the necessary second-round run-off against the Conservative, Les Jones, that was raised to a significantly weightier 63.4%.

The difference, and demonstrable majority electoral mandate, would be handy for an MP – but of genuine weight and almost daily importance for Police and Crime Commissioners, more than half of whom received under 40% of first-round votes.

Or, indeed, for elected mayors. I can’t but think West Midlands Conservative Mayor Andy Street feels considerably more comfortable being able to claim a 50.4% run-off victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in 2017, as opposed to the 41.9% that would have given him a FPTP victory.

Time now, with a final paragraph already typed, for a very belated declaration of interest – personal and academic interest, that is – in an electoral system effectively invented, developed and, I’d argue, deployed effectively during my university teaching lifetime. I knew, at least distantly, both possible claimants to the SV’s invention, and, while I’m well aware of its limitations, I do believe it was and, after 20 years’ usage, is the best system realistically available for the election of mayors and PCCs.

If you’re interested in more, try the excellent evaluative paper written at about the halfway point in that history – and so before the invention of PCCs – by Colin Rallings and colleagues.  Pluses include a neat summary list of SV plus points (p.4), and some colourful and interesting bar charts.

But nothing to rival the Electoral Reform Society’s recent effort: a creation of interactive beauty (the real thing, not my reproduction, obviously!), produced especially for this year’s elections, and showing for instance, as you’d possibly hypothesise, that first-choice Britain First and One Love Party voters split their second-choice votes proportionately really rather differently.

Election of London Mayor

To conclude: my hope is that at least Patel’s intervention will prompt a few interesting campaign questions – I was going to type ‘hustings’, but I’m not sure we’re allowed those this time – for Conservative PCC and mayoral candidates. The 20 successful Conservative PCC candidates in 2016 averaged 36% of turnouts averaging under 25%, or under 10% of the registered electorates.  Do they, I wonder, think election on their minority first-round votes alone – 11% of registered electors in Andy Street’s case – would give them the “stronger and clearer local accountability” Patel suggests it would?

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 a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Andy Burnham was right: this Prime Minister can’t handle devolution

Chris Game

Negotiate? Look what happened last time!

“Unlike previously, there will be no negotiation with local leaders … financial support will be allocated on a uniform per capita basis”.  Simply a Guardian report, not a Prime Ministerial quote, but it didn’t need to be. What happens after December 2nd, the local restriction tiers to which we’re allocated, affects every person in every English locality differently.  But discussing, never mind attempting to negotiate, with experienced elected representatives who live in and know those localities – nah! It will only complicate things, and besides, look what happened last time!

Pleasingly, thanks to ITV News and Facebook, we can. The date was October 20th; the place – Manchester’s Barbirolli Square; media briefing convenor and main speaker – Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham; in attendance – several leaders of Greater Manchester councils; topic – Prime Minister Johnson’s imposition of the most stringent Covid lockdown restrictions on Manchester city region and refusal to increase the ‘standard’ £60 million financial support even to Burnham’s ‘bare minimum’ £65 million, that had prompted the latter’s accusation that the PM was “playing poker with people’s lives.”                                                                                  

It’s both melodramatic and genuinely climactic – when Burnham learns (about 32 minutes in), from a council leader’s mobile phone, the breaking news that the PM was punishing the Mayor’s protest, and Mancunian citizens, by peremptorily withdrawing the previously promised £60 million. That it later had to be restored – not by the PM, but by Health Secretary Matt Hancock – seemed merely to confirm all initial impressions.

The following weekend, Burnham and London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote a joint Viewpoint column in The Observer/Guardian – ‘Mayors are a force for good. And it’s time Johnson recognised that’.   

The theme is easily conveyed: “The UK nations and regions should have been the government’s biggest ally in the battle to control the spread of this virus … As mayors … we are uniquely placed to help … [we] work hand in glove with local NHS leaders and regional health experts … we have strong links with local business leaders and understand the strengths of our local economies.  Crucially – we have shown ourselves capable of reacting to events more quickly and devising more innovative solutions than national government.”

 

“Prime Minister, you can’t handle devolution!”

It was the next paragraph, though – tone and content both – that really hit home: “However, the government has at times treated us as the enemy.  Westminster has sadly shown it is not mature enough to deal with devolution (my emphasis).  The government may have all the money and power, but ministers simply cannot cope with differences, disagreements or compromise.”

Remind you of anyone?  Top 20 Movie Quote?  Jack Nicholson/Tom Cruise courtroom scene?  “You can’t handle the truth!”  Yes, Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup defending his issuing a ‘Code Red’ in ‘A Few Good Men’.  I thought so, anyway, so please bear with me.  Some brief, imagined extracts from a kind of role-reversed “You can’t handle devolution!” speech, with Andy Burnham doing the Nicholson/Jessup lines and Johnson as Cruise/Lieutenant Kaffee:

Johnson:            “You questioned my Tier 3 lockdown order?”

Burnham:          “You bet I did.”

Johnson:            “I demand to know why.”

Burnham:          “You want answers?”

Johnson:            “I want the truth!”

Burnham:          “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!   Prime Minister, we live in a world where so-called ‘local’ and devolved governments manage and finance over 1,600 separate services.  A world that has responsibility for 400,000 care home beds – in homes that have seen 40% of all Covid-19 deaths.  We’re expected to fund all this with one single local tax that you cap and inadequate grants that you either ring-fence from the start or cut later when it suits you.

Who’s going to handle that scale and scope of responsibility? You, Prime Minister?  You have your graphs of aggregated infection and death rates and make your big decisions shutting down whole communities.  But most of those communities – our communities – are in the poorest parts of the country, where poor housing, pre-existing health conditions, and decades of neglect and financial discrimination mean infection and death risks are the highest.

We, our local councillors and officers have greater responsibilities than you can possibly fathom. You have the luxury of ignoring and compounding what we know – that, despite your collective and repeated ministerial failings and private sector contracting obsessions, we have saved lives, and our existence, while inconveniencing and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you WANT us out there … you NEED us out there.  You and your manifestoes promised “full devolution across the UK”, and “an English Devolution White Paper … so every part of the country has the power to shape its own destiny.”  The truth is that there is no White Paper.  The truth is that YOU CAN’T HANDLE DEVOLUTION!”

 

When Johnson was a Mayor himself

‘Irony’ is among the most misused words in the English language, but we do seem to have a case here of either situational irony or straightforward duplicity.  A decade ago, Johnson was Khan’s predecessor as Mayor of London. Especially in his second term ‘Heineken Tory’ period, he very deliberately used London as a headline illustration of how devolved government in the UK generally was centrally over-controlled and under-funded, compared to other countries’ systems.

He established a London Finance Commission, chaired by LSE Professor Tony Travers, which swiftly produced a neatly entitled report – Raising the Capital – with some seriously radical content.

Impossible here to summarise satisfactorily, the Commission concluded that London’s growing, changing population placed increasingly acute pressure on local services, while its existing sub-national governments lacked the powers to provide effective solutions.

Under 7% of tax paid by London residents and businesses was redistributed directly by locally elected bodies; 74% of London’s funding came through central government grants – compared with Berlin’s 25%, Paris’s 17% and Tokyo’s 8%.

Taxation powers were merely one part of the required reform.  But the Commission recommended (p.11) that “the full suite of property taxes” – council tax, business rates, stamp duty, capital gains tax – be devolved to London governments, which should have responsibility for setting tax rates, revaluation, banding and discounts. There was plenty more, but the point here is less the Commission than the CommissionER. 

Ever the catchy phrase-seeker, Johnson launched his report by referring to tax-enfeebled London as “an economic and political giant but a fiscal infant …”  However, while his Commission’s proposals were for London, the Mayor himself seemed more ambitious.

So, come the 2013 Conservative Party Conference – in Manchester, by happenstance – there he was, leading a cross-party campaign with the London Councils and Core Cities Groups – the latter comprising then, pre-devolution, the Leaders of the eight major English cities, including Sir Richard Leese, then-as-now Leader of Manchester City Council and also Burnham’s Deputy Mayor, whose mobile phone would be the one conveying to Mayor Burnham the PM’s Greater Manchester lockdown news.

Piquant, isn’t it!  Because, back then, Johnson was asserting that England was much too centralised and calling for a comparable suite of fiscal reforms for England’s largest cities. Ever the historian manqué, it would be an “historic and significant move … a partial but practical answer to the conundrum of English devolution … good not just for the cities involved, but for the country at large.”

 

What changed, what didn’t – the current state of English devolution

Financially, of course, nothing fundamentally changed.  London could still be tagged a tax-enfeebled “fiscal infant”, the difference being that it is now blatantly treated as such by its former Mayor.  As recently, when the now PM resorted to apparently “lying to Parliament” about Mayor Sadiq Khan’s financial management of Transport for London, before grudgingly granting a £1.8 billion bailout and dropping demands for fare increases. Greater Manchester, London – you may sense a certain pattern emerging.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), as it happens, was the first of these new devolution models to have been launched – by the Labour Government back in 2011, although its actual Treasury-negotiated ‘City Deal’ didn’t happen until November 2014, shortly after the Scottish independence referendum. It established the pattern, though, for the now 10 CAs – 8 Mayoral, 2 (West Yorkshire and the North East) currently non-mayoral – set up by two or more neighbouring councils wishing to co-ordinate responsibilities and powers over services such as transport, skills training, economic development, housing and social care.

However, since the most recently created, North of Tyne, was in November 2018, the policy has effectively stalled.  The October 2019 Queen’s Speech promised a White Paper with plans for “unleashing regional potential in England”, replicated almost verbatim on p.29 of the Conservative Manifesto: “full devolution across England … so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny.”  

 

“Full devolution across England” – or have things gone backwards?

In normal times one would now turn straight to the Institute for Government’s Policy Tracker for the first 100 days of the Johnson Government.  As comprehensive as ever, it compared ‘Commitment’ to ‘Current status’ for some 28 policy fields – one of which was to “Publish an English Devolution White Paper” … “Yet to commence”.

In fairness, it was far from the only such pledge, and the first Covid cases had been diagnosed about halfway through the 100 days.  Understandably, the agenda changed, as in July did the proposed title – to the ‘Local Economic Recovery and Devolution White Paper’, though the envisaged content and appearance dates stayed as vague as ever.  Through the summer it was to be September, then the Conservative Conference in October, then “Autumn”, then “on the back burner, pending a rethink” or simply “in due course”.

But, while ministers did their thing, local councillors recalled Robert Jenrick, Housing, Communities & Local Government Secretary, opining that he saw no “long-term future” for two-tier local government.  Cue serious speculation about just how large and non-local single-tier ‘local’ authorities might be – 300,000 minimum? 500,000? 1 million? – drawing lines on maps and speculating about how many fewer councillors there might be.

Meanwhile, ministers specifically responsible for local government came and went – one, Simon Clarke, just possibly, I suggested in these columns, because he became overly enthusiastic about anything describable as “the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history”.  

I may have been wrong in detail, but right in practice. For Sir Bob Kerslake, former Head of the Home Civil Service and Chair of the UK2070 Commission, recently reckoned the White Paper is “postponed until 2021 – and the local government reforms scaled back. Its emphasis will be less on devolution – it does feel like it has gone backwards” – and recently, it seems, at gathering speed.   

First it was Scotland, with the self-isolating PM struggling to explain which kind of devolution was disastrous and which he supported, and then clarifying completely that, come the end of this lockdown, there would be no repeat of Barbirolli Square.  Quite simply, “there will be no negotiation with local leaders”.

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 a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Meeting like this…

Bryony Rudkin

The fieldwork for my PhD has consisted in part in watching and transcribing webcasts of council meetings. This was in the ‘before times’. Councillors like me up and down the country would put on their glad rags once a week or so, tip up at town halls up and do their thing.

Some of them would be filmed doing so and webcasts of meetings put up on council websites. Some recordings would be professionally produced using external platforms with nice little extras such as the relevant papers attached and easily referenced timings making it easy to watch the part of the meeting you were interested without having to wade through matters arising from the last one. Some of them were a little more homespun, filmed on phones and iPads, as one colleague put it, “local government styled by the The Blair Witch Project”.

Audiences for these would vary. Anecdotally, I was told officers would watch meetings in their respective councils to follow how their policy ideas were translated and received by councillors. Planning Committee meetings would get more hits from residents who were unable to attend in person but nevertheless wanted to know about their neighbour’s home extensions. One Chief Executive told me her mum watched and sent notes back on how her hair looked. And then there was me, collecting data with which to test my research questions.

All well and good. Then came the pandemic and lockdown and everyone went online. Whether it’s Zoom or Teams (other providers are available…) everyone from toddlers to great grannies logged on it seems. Quizzes were ubiquitous at the start and my family played some great drawing games (none of us will trouble Hockney). It’s not all been plain sailing though and we’ve all heard tales of Zooms gone wrong. Kids, dogs, nudity and those chat messages sent to all in error. I sat through one where someone, in response to a dull peroration on cycle paths, lifted their foot up and started to scratch it.

My rather niche research field has become a daily reality for most of us. I get regular messages along the lines of ‘you won’t want to miss this one….watch from 29 minutes in!”. I’ve been asked to comment on individual performance and style – “does my bookcase look big in this one?” – and I’ve taken part in virtual peer reviews and given feedback, online of course. I’ve been a participant myself of course and not just in council meetings. I’ve presented to an academic conference, chaired a meeting with a shadow minister interrupted by an ice-cream van outside her house and next month I’m monitoring elections in Bulgaria.

What has all this brought to my research? Well, put simply, meetings held online are a different matter to those held in person and publicly broadcast meetings something else again. Being at home, being alone in a room without colleagues to encourage, moderate or provoke can lead to unguarded moments. ‘Home truths’ are just that sometimes.

The organisation and direction of online meetings is a different process and the outcomes unpredictable. I recently watched two recent meetings in one authority, one calm, the other chaotic but the former was darker in tone and raised issues of bias and the chaos of the latter simply demonstrated a community at ease with itself and its challenges.

How we move on from here is a brave new world. Viewing figures are undoubtedly up and residents are getting more engaged. Hybrid meetings are now a reality. We all have new skills to learn and mute buttons to press. Watch this space….

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

Simon Clarke – first his speech goes, then him

Chris Game

Boris Johnson didn’t start the modern trend of hyper-rapid ministerial turnover, but he did ratchet it up.  His election last July produced a larger ministerial cull than in any other recent transition between ministers of the same party, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government being no exception.

So, were you paying attention?  Can you recall who was the minister specifically responsible for English local government on the first day of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, and how many there have been since?

For a department not traditionally one of the most sought-after steps on the ministerial promotion ladder, 18 months in Marsham Street evidently did Rishi Sunak no lasting career damage. For he it was who was junior Local Government Minister when Johnson arrived and was promoted by him to Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The number of Sunak’s successors is less straightforward, as, following Simon Clarke’s recent resignation, he is replaced by Luke Hall, the man he himself at least formally succeeded in the role barely six months ago. This was interesting, as back in February it had apparently been necessary for an MHCLG “spokesperson” to dismiss as “nonsense” rumours that Hall was being “quietly moved aside” because Secretary of State Robert Jenrick “does not rate him”.

Interesting, but marginal, for this blog, although again featuring MHCLG in a key role, is about Clarke’s resignation and its possible policy ramifications. In the BBC’s rather odd choice of library photo he himself looked positively delighted.  But his letter to the PM cited “purely personal reasons”, so, if distressing circumstances are involved, one must obviously sympathise.

I don’t know Clarke, but from a distance he seemed one of the more committed, interested and listening Local Government ministers (as opposed to Secretaries of State) we’ve had recently.  And, given the limited options, I felt reasonably positive about his taking lead responsibility for the local government part of the Government’s anticipatedly radical ‘Devolution and Recovery’ White Paper, long expected sometime this month, but now at the Conservatives’ virtual annual conference in early October – possibly, or possibly not.

I wasn’t expecting to like what the White Paper had/has in store for the future gargantuan structure of what we could once meaningfully call local government. Clarke, though, almost from the outset, enthused – talking of producing a “genuinely seminal document … helping the process of unlocking devolution everywhere and empowering communities on a scale never seen before.”

The ”everywhere” and “communities” seemed perhaps that bit more meaningful, given Clarke’s having apparently made a point of meeting personally with the National Association of Local Councils, acknowledging the role parish and town councils had played in responding to Covid, and talking of strengthening that role in the future – along, albeit, with the extensive unitarisation.

His departure does, therefore, leave several question marks.  First, the resignation’s sheer hint-less suddenness.  Second, Clarke’s personal – and very recently well publicised – centrality to both the content and presentation of the White Paper.  And third, almost inevitably, the ‘Was he pushed, or at least nudged?’ conspiracy theory – and ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Speech”.

The Local Government Chronicle (LGC) recalled Clarke’s ‘ground-breaking’ July speech to a Northern Powerhouse audience, promising “a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.”

The speech duly appeared on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website … then suddenly disappeared.  A manifestly crass piece of business, whatever the motive, and, of course, guaranteeing immensely greater interest and speculation than it initially attracted.

Happily, therefore, LGC was able to satisfy this ramped-up curiosity by publishing the full speech on its website (see preceding link).  Which means, if any pushing from No.10 were involved in Clarke’s resignation, we can at least speculate about possible prompts.

“A new deal for the North”?  A £5 billion ‘New Deal’, rebuilding public infrastructure, creating thousands of new jobs, helping our regions “build back and bounce forward” – no, that rallying vagueness is almost straight Boris.

“New mayoral devolution”?  “Responsible and effective mayors representing 100% of the north of England.”  Again, Johnson playbook stuff.  He proved Londoners would elect a Conservative mayor, despite most boroughs being Labour-run, as have Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley.

Remember in December how voters in those North and Midlands ‘red wall’ – now ‘blue wall’ – constituencies elected Conservative MPs for the first time?  They should have a similar chance next April to elect a Conservative metro mayor in the new but traditionally very Labour West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

This is the Government’s apparent strategy: abolishing – sorry, combining – large numbers of already big city, borough and district councils into, by any traditional and international standards, huge unitary ‘Combined Authorities’ headed by directly elected and hopefully Conservative mayors, thereby simultaneously saving money and providing more ‘streamlined’, if hardly local, government.

All of which leaves at least as many questions as it answers.  Why the apparent rush, mid-Covid?  This seems best explained by the Winston Churchill/Rahm Emanuel injunction to “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  Councils have been hit massively by Covid, with County Finance Directors especially warning throughout the summer of budget shortfalls and the looming necessity to issue Section 114 (Bankruptcy) Notices.

Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, made it clear from the start that he saw no “long-term future” for two-tier local government and especially for all those pesky ‘lower tier’ Labour councils. Unitary councils with directly elected mayors would be “strongly preferred” by the Government in considering devolution deals – the major issue for debate being the preferred and maximum permitted size of said unitaries.

Minimum size seems likely to be 300,000.  The arguments will be over the maximum: the District Councils Network’s preferred 500,000; the 1 million+ that whole-county unitaries could involve; or something in between?  Clarke’s position seemed flexible, but not that flexible: definitely closer to the former than the latter.

These things are already under vigorous discussion, but, if elections to new authorities are to be held as early as 2022 or even 2023, the legislation needs to be in place by summer 2021. Without even mentioning the Br…. word, and Covid clearly not going away any time soon, could the departure of the key minister signal at least a slowing-down of the timetable?  Which would also postpone the point at which, along with all those Labour district councillors who would lose their seats, there would be plenty of disgruntled Conservatives.

On the other hand, and returning to the ‘Missing Speech Conspiracy’, could it be that Clarke was going just a touch too far for ultra-centralisers Johnson/Cummings and had started seriously to believe in his “greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history”?

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 a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.