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

Big changes to the NHS

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Big changes come into effect this month in the way our local health services are managed. Eight clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), including Brent, have merged into a single North West London CCG. This CCG  will also be working with every hospital, mental health trust, community trust and local authority in North West London as part of an ‘integrated care system’ (ICS).

People often ask if such changes really matter. My sense is that they really do and that they can be both a risk and an opportunity.

NHS doctors and managers tell me that the benefit to patients is that a single organisation and system can drive a consistent approach to high quality services, using data on population health to target improvements and tackle health inequalities. There are huge inequalities across our patch, with outcomes and life expectancy varying widely between the poorest and more affluent areas. We saw this play out tragically during the Covid pandemic, where the least well off, including many people in Brent, were disproportionately affected.

The role of local authorities in the ICS – which is expected to become a statutory body in April 2022 – is also important, as it means we can better join up health and social care services, building them around the needs of our communities by working as a single system.

We also have to recognise the risks. A bigger system across eight London boroughs – North West London will be the biggest CCG and ICS in the country – could easily become far removed from local needs and concerns in each area. We know public input to both health and local council services improve those services. So ensuring a strong resident voice, at both borough and North West London level, is going to be critically important.

So too is local decision-making. I am pleased that the single CCG will have strong borough-based teams – and particularly, that the intention is to create a local ‘integrated care partnership’ (ICP) between all part of the NHS and the council in each borough. While this may sound like lots of new jargon and bureaucracy, it is important. The balance of power between the ICS and the local ICPs will be important: ICPs should be setting the local agenda with their residents while the ICS steers the overall direction of travel for the system.

On balance, the changes feel like the right thing to do – residents often complain that services don’t work together closely enough. But the success of this latest NHS reform will really depend on all of us. If we can ensure that the local systems work and play their part in driving down health inequalities across the whole area, there should  be huge benefits for North West London. If we lose local voice and influence in a sprawling, centralised bureaucracy, we will have failed.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee of Brent Council

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?

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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.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion

Chris Game

When you’re Leader of the Opposition, you welcome almost any headlines.  But “Make ‘fire-and-rehire’ tactics illegal”, following Sir Keir Starmer’s keynote address to last September’s TUC Conference, seemed risky even at the time.  Fire-and-rehire is the practice openly adopted by several companies – including British Airways and British Gas – of handing employees redundancy notices, then re-employing them on worse contracts. “Against British values”, pronounced Sir Keir, and should be outlawed.

As with most Starmer pronouncements, there was no orchestrated follow-up, which here was perhaps fortunate. For the local council most prominently pilloried for exactly the same practice was the overwhelmingly Labour controlled East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The Council termed it a “workforce investment” exercise; to the workers themselves it was #TowerRobbery.

Embarrassing, you might think, for almost any self-respecting council, but uniquely so for Tower Hamlets. For this month the borough will embark, howsoever Covid permits, on a summer-long centennial commemoration of the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion mounted by the obviously rather different class of Labour councillors of one of its predecessor authorities, Poplar Metropolitan Borough. We’ll focus here, therefore, on the history.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act transformed British politics at a stroke probably more than any other single law since the Great Reform Act of 1832.  Extending the vote to all men and most over-30 women tripled the electorate, revamped elections, and potentially recast the elected memberships of local councils – though here in Birmingham and the West Midlands, as it happens, the stroke took rather longer than in most of the rest of the country. With the important exceptions of the Black Country and the Potteries, the well-organised and well-funded Unionist organisations controlled by the Chamberlains and Stanley Baldwin at least diluted and delayed the advance of Labour, if not the decline of the Liberals.

Poplar was the complete reverse, the Labour Party there being led by the radical socialist, Labour pioneer, and the party’s future national Leader, George Lansbury. By 1919 he had been a longstanding elected Poor Law Guardian and Poplar councillor, a Labour MP before resigning to fight, and lose, a by-election on the specific issue of women’s suffrage – and, particularly useful for attracting publicity during the Rates Rebellion, editor throughout the First World War of the anti-war Daily Herald.

In the 1919 local elections, Labour’s assortment of railway, dock and postal workers, labourers and housewives ousted almost entirely Poplar’s pre-war class of Conservative and Independent local businessmen-councillors.

The party took 39 of the 42 Council seats, including six women, and 19 of the 24-member Board of Poor Law Guardians, the body elected by local owners and occupiers of land liable to pay the ‘poor rate’ that funded the harsh ‘workhouse’ regime providing minimal accommodation and employment for those financially unable to support themselves. Much less surprisingly, Lansbury was elected a very non-ceremonial Mayor.

The reforms – particularly vividly recounted by Janine Booth and local historian Mick Lemmerman – began almost immediately, aimed at alleviating unemployment, hunger and grinding poverty. The big hurdle, though, was always going to be that outdated, almost intendedly inhumane, 1834 Poor Law, requiring that borough councils fund their own local poor relief – those councils with greatest need having almost by definition the least funding to do so and residents least able to afford any rate increase.

Lansbury himself, both as a Guardian and as a member of the 1905-09 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, had long argued for complete replacement of the workhouse system by a combination of old age pensions, a minimum wage, and national and local public works projects. 112 years on, I doubt he’d be hugely impressed by our minimum wage, but certainly the workhouses have gone.

Back then, though, there was worse. In addition to collecting their own local rates, borough councils had to collect and hand over ‘precepts’ for the funding of four cross-London authorities: London County Council plus the Metropolitan Police, Asylums Board, and Water Board.  And when it came to the crunch – at the Council meeting on March 22nd 1921 – it was these precepts the Poplar Councillors collectively voted to refuse to pay, but to apply the revenues instead to the costs of local poor relief while campaigning for a fairer rate system.

Poplar Borough Council

Which is an excuse to include one of my favourite local government photos – of a (admittedly, not the) 1921 Poplar Council meeting, showing the Mayoral chain of office draped around not the neck of the anti-ceremonial Mayor Lansbury, but a chair.

Hugely supported locally, this illegal action inevitably led to proceedings against the Council. So on July 29th, 30 councillors, including the six women, processed from Bow – accompanied by brass band and a banner proclaiming “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison”.

Poplar protest

The banner was prescient. Persisting in their refusal to hand over the precepts, the 30 were found guilty of contempt of court and in September sentenced to imprisonment.  The men went to Brixton, the women, armed with flowers and surrounded by thousands of supporters, to Holloway – including the remarkable Nellie Cressall, pregnant then with her sixth child, and who was still serving on the Council in the 1960s.

The revolt received wide public and trade union support, neighbouring councils threatened similar action, and ‘Poplarism’ entered the political lexicon as a short-hand for both large-scale municipal poverty relief and local defiance of national government. Eventually, after six weeks’ imprisonment, the Court responded to public opinion and had the councillors released, while Parliament rushed through legislation roughly equalising tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.

True, it took until 1929 for Poor Law Unions to be wholly abolished and the poor relief burden lifted from local councils. But try finding anyone, particularly this summer, who sees the ‘Poplar Rates Rebellion’ as anything but a stonkingly historic local government victory.

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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.

The Leaseholder Cladding Scandal and When Ministers Direct

Chris Game

You probably caught at least something of the Commons ‘cladding’ debate last Monday (1st Feb), and almost certainly some of this week’s fallout.  Called by Labour on one of its designated ‘Opposition Days’, the debate sought “urgent” Government action to end the scandal of lease-holding flat owners, living in unsafe, unsaleable, uninsurable properties, being forced to pay unaffordable sums of money for the removal of flammable cladding.

And, if 43+ months after the Grenfell Tower tragedy qualifies as “urgent”, we finally got it this Wednesday, in the form of a statement from Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for the whole thing – Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Important as that statement obviously is, neither its content nor even its questionable squareability with the PM’s most recent pledge that “no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that are no fault of their own” are the central concerns of this blog, which by comparison – Reader Alert! – are arcane verging on nerdy. For the record, however, Jenrick’s three key proposals are for:

  • a further £3.5bn of government grant to pay for the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding systems on buildings over 18 metres tall;
  • for buildings below 18 metres, a long-term “financing solution” of a government loan to the owner, repaid by leaseholders, with a payment cap of £50 per month;
  • a new levy for developers, to become applicable when planning permissions are submitted for high-rise developments.

Back, though, to last Monday. Labour’s motion, introduced by Shadow Housing Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, called for the Government to establish a new, somewhat Starmer-sounding, cladding taskforce that would make buildings with dangerous materials safe and protect leaseholders from the costs. Initial respondent for the Government was, remarkably, the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Chris Pincher, not due formally to assume office as Minister of State for Housing for another 12 days. The so-called – and here so appropriately – wind-up was done by Eddie Hughes, Junior Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing.   

As for the not generally publicity-shy Jenrick, he apparently “stayed away entirely”. Which inevitably reinforced the impression, conveyed by his being openly accused of “incompetence” in this matter by his own backbench ‘colleague’, that neither he nor the Government as a whole were any more bothered than they had appeared previously about even being seen to regard this scandal as a major priority.

For the record, Monday’s motion was passed by 263 votes to nil. The Ministers seemed unable to convince anyone that the Government was addressing the issues with anything like the requisite urgency. But Conservative backbenchers, increasing numbers of whom had already been seeking, without noticeable Labour support, to amend the Fire Safety Bill to avoid remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, chose to abstain, rather than give HM Official Opposition unearned credit.  

At which point I must temporarily side-line cladding, while explaining how, almost by chance, I happened upon one of the latest updates in the Institute for Government (IfG)’s occasional series of ‘Explainers’ – on Ministerial Directions (MDs) – a topic about which previously, I confess, I’d bothered myself relatively little.  

Poor show perhaps, for someone actually endeavouring to teach students about British politics. My rationalisation would have been that, while broadly aware of what MDs were/are and their obvious importance, I sensed that their usage wasn’t that frequent, and that anyway, until “the rules” were changed and GOV.UK was launched in 2011/12, most such directions would indefinitely have remained state secrets.

Unwittingly, I was actually right about the numbers – as shown in one of the IfG’s several excellent graphics: an average of under two a year while I was teaching, compared to 31 in the past three years and 19 in 2020 alone. The explosion, and indeed MDs generally, seemed worth further inquiries.

min-explainers

First, then, what exactly are ‘Ministerial Directions’?  In this case, just what it says on the tin: formal directions from Ministers instructing their department to proceed with a spending proposal – and in so doing overriding the principled objection of the most senior civil servant: the Permanent Secretary (PS), who is also the ‘Accounting Officer’, accountable to Parliament for how the department spends its money.

And it’s not just a clash of wills, or opinions. There are specified criteria any spending proposal must meet: that it’s within both the department’s legal powers and agreed spending budget, meets “high standards of conduct”, constitutes value for money, and stands a feasible prospect of being implemented as specified within the intended timetable. If a PS has doubts about a proposal meeting any of these criteria, they must seek explicit direction from the Minister, who thereupon writes a ‘directing’ letter and takes accountability for the decision.  Interestingly, that’s often how it seems to work: less a Minister’s wanting to spend overriding the horrified protests of a cautious civil servant than the civil servant seeing or at least agreeing the need to spend but constitutionally requiring the Minister’s say-so.

British politics being conducted in the ‘civilised’/secretive way it generally is, even the traditionally rare occasions on which such clashes come to a head are rarely much publicised, but there are exceptions. Remember Joanna Lumley’s ‘Garden Bridge’ over the Thames – proposed as a largely privately-funded project, but taken up with characteristic enthusiasm by the then Mayor of London and given significant pre-construction funding by the Department for Transport?  At which point the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, came back wanting more – arguing to the ‘Accounting Officer’ (the PS)  and in his Ministerial Statement that there were more than mere transport benefits to be considered and that the Department’s pre-construction commitment should be increased by up to £15 million.  It duly was, and of course the Garden Bridge is today the “iconic tourist attraction right in the heart of our capital city” that the Mayor and Minister predicted. Sorry, is it not?

A more specifically local governmenty Ministerial Direction was that the MHCLG should not recover from councils £36 million that, through an error in civil servants’ methodology, they had been overpaid for participating in 100% business rate retention pilots (2017/18). Nice one, Sajid Javid!

What had particularly caught my interest, though, was that noticeable rise in MDs over the past 2-3 years and the positive explosion under the Johnson Premiership, certainly since the arrival of Covid.  In fact, the IfG’s graph reminded me almost immediately of the well-known view of one of the ugliest buildings in London – the Vauxhall Tower overlooking St George Wharf – and, as it happens, just two bridges down-river from the IfG.

tower

There have already been 14 Covid-related Ministerial Directions – worth possibly a blog in their own right – but I’d gone in looking for cladding business, and there it was, in May 2019 – two months pre-Johnson. James Brokenshire, Jenrick’s predecessor as Housing and Communities Secretary, had made clear both his and PM Theresa May’s view that leaseholders should not have to pay – even assisted by the kind of loan scheme announced this week.

It’s worth reading the full exchange of letters between Secretary of State Brokenshire and the Permanent Secretary, but the following extract from Brokenshire’s will convey at least the flavour:

“I  understand  that,  in  making  these  choices,  the  taxpayer  will  pick  up  the  vast  majority  of remedial costs.  However, I have considered that against the safety implications for residents and the need for pace.  I consider those two factors to be more important.”

The only thing, however, seemingly throughout this whole wretched business, to have happened at any pace was Brokenshire’s own departure, like that of Theresa May herself, to the backbenches. A pity – somehow I don’t feel he would have taken last Monday afternoon off, or that nearly 20 months later there would still have been no Government policy.

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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.

Backroom or backlit? Council meetings post-Covid

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin

This week two councillor colleagues of mine told me of meetings they’d attended, one an unusual face to face gathering, the other online. For one friend it was the first time she had been to the Town Hall in almost a year. She and her colleagues sat, each at their own table, in an echoing chamber and raised their voices in order to be heard. It was an informal meeting of councillors, officers and other public servants, called to debate sensitive issues in person so that information could be shared freely and confidentially. The issues were serious and compounded by lockdown and stretched resources, an unwelcome distraction at any time. However, this turned out to be a meeting filled with laughter, jokes and gentle teasing. There were interjections and interruptions which helped the meeting flow freely. Delight in seeing each other was tempered only by the acknowledgment of how long it had been since they had last done so.

My other friend told me of an online meeting where an argument had taken place and where one person had cried after making a very personal speech. She observed that what she called “the protection of the screen” meant others were not afraid to show their reaction to the emotions on display but equally the meeting had been stripped bare of physical comfort, an arm around a shoulder or a squeeze of the hand.

These two accounts got me thinking about what we gain and what we lose when we meet online. There’s an interesting seam of academic literature on what meetings are, their role in policy making, the artefacts they produce and of particular interest to local government practitioners, what they tell us about what councillors actually do all day (Brown, Reed & Yarrow: 2017; Freeman: 2008, 2019; Freeman & Maybin: 2011; Llewelyn: 2005). What no one has yet had the chance to explore is the terrain of the online meeting. My own research has used webcast meetings as a rich source of data. Not all UK authorities broadcast public meetings prior to the pandemic but there is now a growing nationwide archive of the formal business of local authorities open to research. What might we want to learn from a closer look? Are individual councillors more or less influenced in their decision making by what they hear from fellow politicians or officers? What of the informal behaviours in meetings – the notes passed, the interruptions, the heckling, the laughter and the eye rolls? In real life these act as lubricants to the flow of discourse and breathing space for thought and reflection. How are they replicated in an online world? If you’re busy on the WhatsApp finding out what your friends are thinking, how much attention are you giving to what is being said?

Arguably, it might not be worth the effort of exploration. The legislation that enables online meetings in English and Welsh local authorities expires in May. The roll out of the vaccine means a roadmap back to the council chamber – alongside the doorstep for local election campaigning – might just be in reach. No doubt those first few ‘real’ meetings will be different. We will have to relearn what it means to speak and listen in person, without the protection and comfort of our screens and homes. We may have gained bigger audiences. Residents, having exhausted Netflix, may be turning to council meetings for entertainment. Maybe not. Anecdotally, councils aren’t directing too much effort into collating viewing figures right now, but having turned the cameras on, it may be difficult to turn them off. We can only wait and see.

I suppose for me it’s always been what happens ‘back stage’ in politics that’s piqued my interest. Privileged access to such space has shown me there’s always so much more to meetings than first meets the eye. It might be happening online, but I’ll wager not to the extent or with the nuance of the past. Back lighting is more of an imperative than backroom dealing right now.

And so I’m reminded of another story a fellow councillor told me years ago about meetings and what goes on in them. Sadly he’s no longer around, so it’s safe to relate. He’d been sent to observe a council meeting in another authority to check on behaviour and conduct. Everything he actually saw taking place was no better or worse than in any other council, he said. The real problem was behind the scenes. The leaders of all three parties represented in that chamber actually carried out negotiations by leaving notes for each other on the top of the old Victorian cisterns in the gents toilets. They were all men. The chief executive, with whom they had disagreements was a short woman who was never going to find them there.

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.

References:
Brown, H., Reed, A. & Yarrow, T., (2017), “Introduction: towards an ethnography of meeting”, Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute, 23:S1, 10-26
Freeman, R., (2019), “The role of the councillor and the work of the meeting”, Local Government Studies,
46:4, 564-582
Freeman, R. & Maybin, J., (2011), “Documents, practices and policy”, Evidence & Policy, 7:2, 155-170
Llewellyn, N., (2005), “Audience Participation in Political Discourse: A Study of Public Meetings”, Sociology,
39:4, 697-716