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.

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.

Handforth and the acoustics of local democracy

Kevin Harris

“Underlying the democratic ideal of government by consent of the governed is… the consent of the governed to behave themselves” (Jacobs, 2004, p. 211)

What might Jane Jacobs have had to say about recent challenges to democracy – like the prorogation of the UK parliament, the assault on the US capitol, Myanmar, and the fraught tragi-comedy of Handforth Parish Council’s infamous committee meeting? The expectation that the governed should behave themselves surely extends to those elected to govern. But our representatives sometimes disregard this, dismissing codes of conduct and protocols, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has found. In my limited experience as a community council clerk I witnessed some of the consequences, having had to ensure on one occasion that police were on hand for a full council meeting, following a reported threat of disruption. It’s not so fanciful to see a connection between the villages of Washington DC and Handforth, Cheshire. Nonetheless, there may be a positive indirect consequence for local democracy, which I shall come to.

I do not propose to re-measure the hole that Handforth councillors dug themselves into. The episode was referred to by the Society of Local Council Clerks as “superficially amusing” while it exemplifies syndromic bullying behaviours. At the same time, if the celebrated Jackie Weaver has entertained many, there seems little doubt that she was out of order. The puzzle that remains unsolved (for me, at least) was posed parenthetically by David Allen Green in a heavily-commented post: “who can exclude a disruptive chair if the chair is disruptive?” I refer my right honourable friend to the quotation I gave earlier.

For those of us who have been keen to see a higher profile for parish and community councils, the Handforth incident is Fate’s Reminder to be careful what you wish for. And for all the comment generated – much of it showcasing a forensic fascination with regulatory niceties – what has struck me is how little of it acknowledges how local people have been forsaken by the institution designed to represent them.

There are two elephants in the zoom. One is the alpha male whose sense of power tramples his sense of responsibility (‘trump’ might be a better verb to use, but for the entangling of metaphors). The SLCC calls for “a dramatic strengthening of the standards regime”. Hmm, how dramatic would you like?

The other is democracy’s reliance on an impenetrable bureaucratic skin. It’s hard to see how the regulatory framework can be reduced, and Handforth may have given cause to extend it. But its effects can be countered, and there are all sorts of devices for that. As a clerk I wanted councillors to host, in turn, one each month, an informal reception (refreshments of course) immediately before each council meeting, inviting all residents from their zone (ward). And keep doing it. A few people we didn’t know, would have come. In time, the democratic return on investment would surely be visible in terms of the numbers who stayed on for at least part of the meeting, those who raised issues, and those who voted at the next election.

I failed to persuade my management group of any virtues in this idea, but had I stayed longer in post I think I could have got this and similar notions established. Democracy needs diligent ongoing maintenance, not frantic last-minute repairs.

To me, a key point about town and parish councils – now sometimes called ‘ultra-local councils’ – is that among their powers is a rather special informal convening power. They are able quickly, and usually a-politically, to bring together agencies (including principal authorities, police, health, schools etc), local businesses, community groups and residents to focus on specific local issues and get them sorted. This is oddly under-appreciated, not least by principal authorities. And it points to the need, when talking about democratic revitalisation, to ensure reference to the community sector, which can function as a democracy sandpit, default care provider, lightning-conductor for issues, and social responsibility conscience for councils.

Well, we now have a parish council in England that has become a huge embarrassment to its residents. The technology made a difference: Jackie Weaver’s performance would have been impossible in a face-to-face meeting. Meanwhile, councils in all tiers apparently have reported increased participation through online meetings. Bryony Rudkin offered insightful councillor’s reflections on the comparison with face-to-face meetings, on this channel recently. Now the government is under pressure to remove, permanently, the legal requirement for councils to meet in person.

I observe that public debate over the past year, in and out of lockdown, has acknowledged the reality that many families do not have anything like adequate technology to participate in a virtual society: so at least that argument doesn’t have to be made, does it? How then are hybrid meetings going to function against the risk of exclusion (the affluent signing in from home, with their intimidating bookshelf-backdrops; the rest huddling round a phone on threadbare broadband)? Do we expect those who would not have been likely to attend a formal council meeting before, and who cannot participate online, suddenly to be so excited at the prospect of a Weaveresque fracas that they’ll be queuing at the door?

There will have to be guidance for hybrid meetings, for all tiers. I’d like to see strong recommendation that councils fund community centres to host large-screen streaming. Community development workers will want to set these up anyway – refreshments, creche, homework corner, publicity; and someone on hand to give a little introduction and explain procedural necessities, to ‘sub-chair’ participation from the ‘annexe’, and provide feedback to officers. Councillors and officers should be encouraged to participate from these locations.

Forget the Handforth cacophony, maybe this is a chance to improve the acoustics of local democracy.

Kevin Harris is a PhD student at INLOGOV, researching into democratic voice and community action in local councils. He was previously a community development consultant and Chief Officer at Queen’s Park Community Council in London (2017-2019).

Photo source: https://www.swingdebates.com/news/handforth-parish-council/

References

Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2019. Local government ethical standards:  a review. Committee on Standards in Public Life, London.

Jacobs, J., 2004. Dark age ahead. Random House, New York.

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.

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.

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

Elections in a pandemic

Jason Lowther

Well over a thousand British citizens are currently losing their lives each day to Coronavirus in the UK, tens of thousands more are still dealing with ‘long Covid’ aftermaths.  As new variants of the virus appear more infectious, and the vaccination campaign gets into high gear, is the Government’s insistence that 65 million citizens should be voting in elections in 14 weeks’ time a valiant defence of our democratic freedoms – or a foolish waste of time and money that will likely be pulled at the last minute? 

Thursday 6th May 2021 is scheduled for a mass of elections across the UK – including all 24 county councils, six unitaries, three Combined Authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners, and all seats in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.  Every citizen in England, Scotland and Wales would be involved in one or more of these elections. Some of these elections have already been delayed for a year, depriving citizens of the chance to choose their elected representatives.

But are safe and fair elections feasible at this stage in the pandemic? 

Other countries have been running elections through 2020.  An interesting example is Bavaria, the largest and second most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states (Länder).  As the Covid pandemic hit the region hard in late March 2020, the second (run-off) stage of their election was completed 100% by post.  Ballot papers were automatically sent to all electors in the relevant districts.  Voters did not need to take any action, instead they received their postal vote at home automatically and could submit their votes by post up to 6pm the evening before election day.  An evaluation by Rebecca Wagner, a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute (PRIF) in Frankfurt, found that turnouts were not adversely affected and concluded ‘a competitive electoral environment was evident with no particular electoral advantage for the incumbent parties’. 

Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics at Newcastle University, have looked at the evidence from more than 100 local and national elections held in other countries during 2020.  Their findings again highlight the importance of enabling postal voting in aiding turnout and reducing risks to staff and the public.  To do this in the UK, they say urgent action would be needed to spread the voting over several days, provide councils with extra funding for the task, and make policy decisions more transparent and inclusive.

100% postal ballots may not be feasible by May.  Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said at the start of January 2021 that all-postal ballots were not a practical solution for the May elections, and could increase the risk of fraud.  We could also ask where the additional money will come from, given councils are in severe financial distress already?  The Covid Expenditure Pressures Grant is already stretched extremely thinly.

Looking at the UK, the Electoral Commission has reported findings based on its assessment of six more traditional council by-elections held during Covid restrictions last year.  They found that it was possible to have elections under the restrictions then in place (before more infectious Covid strains developed), but that additional time and money is needed to do this safely.  Venues, for voting and for counts, are crucial – for example, will the usual schools and church halls be available? 

Council staff and members are worried that running elections at this stage in the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be very difficult.  In late January, a Local Government Information Unit poll of council Chief Executives (who act as returning officers), heads of Democratic Services and Council leaders showed that 66% were “very concerned” about holding the elections in May.  Even higher percentages were worried about recruiting and training election workers, disenfranchising voters with Covid concerns, the costs of running Covid-safe arrangements, and candidates being unable to campaign effectively. Chloe Smith MP, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, has recently written to political parties confirming that the traditional door-to-door leafleting and canvassing is not acceptable under Covid restrictions. 

Neil Johnston’s excellent House of Commons Library research briefing  on the impact of coronavirus on the 2021 elections notes that the devolved administrations are one step ahead of Westminster.  The Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill in December 2020, giving emergency powers to be used as a last resort. They would allow for all-postal voting, voting over more than one day and to delay the elections for six months.  Similar powers are included in emergency laws introduced in Wales this week.

Listening to council chief executives over the last couple of weeks, there’s a real concern at spending money and moving staff unnecessarily when there is so much pressure on councils already.  And almost incredulity that the Government seems unwilling to seriously consider delaying until October. 

Looking at experiences here and internationally, the Westminster government too might be wise to start contemplating a Plan B.  As always, local government will rise to the challenge if the decision is to go ahead in May. But let’s consider that by late summer, all nine groups at highest risk from Coronavirus are due to have been fully vaccinated – we could by around October be in a much more stable position for these important elections to take place safely and fairly, and without detracting from the vital roles councils have in tackling the pandemic right now. 

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV).

The UK’s Covid-19 early response

Paul Joyce

There are many lessons to be drawn from the UK government experience of responding to COVID-19 in 2020 (see Joyce 2021). But some of the most important concern the problems created by a weak surveillance system and a passive response at the start of the year and by the centralised and command-and-control approach to decision making that denied the national government the full benefits of cooperation in a multi-level system of governance.

Weak Surveillance and Passive Response Early On

The UK Government was expecting a flu pandemic: in 2019 a National Security Risk Assessment document went to the UK Cabinet that stated that a flu pandemic was the top civil risk. Its experts seemed to be suggesting that the threat posed by COVID-19 might be thought about as a threat somewhat akin to a flu pandemic: in February 2020, with the COVID-19 virus spreading outside China, a committee that formed part of the UK Government’s structure of expert advice, produced a paper in which it judged that the reasonable worst case for pandemic influenza “would be an appropriate scenario at that point” (SPI-M-O 2020). This expert judgment was based on the evidence available at the time, but the evidence was limited: the UK Government was slow to increase its testing and tracing capability and even in April, after the lockdown had begun, its testing capacity was still quite modest (see Chart).

Chart: Extent of testing for Covid-19

Chart Note: The data was obtained from Our World in Data. Available at: http://www.OurWorldInData.org [3 June 2020]. There are important national differences in the production of the data (e.g., whether tests from all labs are counted, the inclusion of pending tests).

The UK government did eventually expand its capacity to carry out testing but in the early months, when its response emphasis was on surveillance, it was handicapped by a lack of data.

Generally speaking, the initial UK Government response was quite passive by comparison with many other countries, which had often responded quickly with measures to address the threat of the virus entering the country. The UK was different. By the end of May 2020, the UK government still had no measures in place to deal with the threat posed by international travel.

We might call the initial strategy of the UK Government a “spectator” strategy, because it mainly relied on treatment rather than prevention, counting on the NHS hospitals to treat those who became seriously ill; aggressive containment was definitely not part of the initial thinking. The advice coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) in early March 2020 was quite at odds with the UK’s spectator strategy. The WHO’s Director General strongly advocated an aggressive containment response: “So activate your emergency plans through that whole government approach, […] If countries act aggressively to find, isolate, and treat cases, and to trace every contact, they can change the trajectory of this epidemic. If we take the approach that there is nothing we can do, that will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s in our hands.”

Centralised and command-and-control decision making

One question that came up repeatedly concerned whether exactly the same measures should be applied to all four countries of the UK in identical ways and at the same time. It appears that on the whole there was a high degree of commonality in the design and application of measures – but with some differences in detail and timing. The Prime Minister’s briefings to the public on his aspirations and proposals for future measures had sometimes seemed to refer to the whole of the UK when, in fact, his remarks were just applicable to England. The Scottish First Minister, speaking at a televised daily briefing to the people of Scotland, said: “I will, as I have done before, ask the Prime Minister when he’s talking about lockdown and lifting restrictions to make clear that he is talking about England alone”.

In the early months of 2020 London was the place where infections and deaths rapidly increased and the hospitals were put under immense pressure by the pandemic. This is not surprising given London’s importance as a centre of commerce and tourism in the UK. The mayor of London was responsible for public transport in London, amongst other things, and clearly might have been expected to want to engage with the national decision-making process about responding to Covid-19. There was a newspaper report about the 2 March 2020 COBR meeting and the non-inclusion of the mayor of London in that meeting. The report said he had not been invited and quoted someone speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister: “The prime minister’s spokesman said Mr Khan was not invited because the meeting was meant to deliver a “a national response”, while London – and other areas – were involved through local level resilience forums.”

The UK Government decisions about how to end the first lockdown were also a focus of some friction in the UK’s governance system. In particular, some prominent council leaders in local government in the North of England were unhappy about the proposals to reopen schools on 1 June 2020. The concern for them was that they judged that the pandemic had not been adequately contained and controlled and the Prime Minister was bringing forward proposals that were too risky. For one local government leader, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the source of the problem about too much risk in how the lockdown was to be ended was the advice being given to the Prime Minister by his special adviser, Dominic Cummings. He said: “Far from a planned, safety-led approach, this looked like another exercise in Cummings chaos theory.”

The problem in multi-level governance was not just one of friction. Sinclair and Read, writing in April 2020, pointed to the failure of the UK Government to take advantage of capacity existing at local government level:

“The government has been accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus. … PHE’s [Public Health England] contact tracing response team was boosted to just under 300 staff, deemed adequate for the containment phase of handling the Covid-19 virus up to mid-March… tracing was scaled back when the UK moved to the delay phase of tackling coronavirus in mid-March… in Germany, thousands of contact tracers are still working – with more being recruited.”

The big challenge facing the UK Government is to evaluate its experiences of COVID-19 in 2020 and to learn lessons about how future pandemics may be prepared for and handled better than this time. 

Paul Joyce is an Associate at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. He is also a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently writing a book on the execution of strategy in the public sector. 

His recent books include Strategic Management for Public Governance in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, with Anne Drumaux); Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2017, 2nd edition); and Strategic Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2015). 

In 2019 he became the Publications Director of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, IIAS, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.)