What? You want to be a senior councillor AND a mother?

Chris Game

Brigid Jones, currently to be seen on YouTube promoting Birmingham City Council’s customer access strategy, and incidentally the city’s bus lanes, is a UoB alumna – though sadly having preferred to study Physics, rather than gain an invaluable early insight into the workings of local government through INLOGOV’s undergrad Public Policy degree.

Happily, she somehow overcame this early career hiccup, was elected as a Labour councillor to Birmingham City Council in 2011, impressively quickly became the Cabinet Member for children, families and schools, and since 2017 has been the Council’s Deputy Leader.

B Jones

It was in that Cabinet role, though – five years ago almost exactly – that Cllr Jones first attracted significant national as well as local attention, by noting that, despite being the “very proud corporate parent” of the nearly 2,000 children then in the Council’s care, accountable for a £1.2 million budget and thousands of staff, if she herself wished to start a family, she – as a councillor with a taxed £25,000 cabinet allowance – had been told she would “most likely have to step down from my council position”.

Because, although the Council’s (male) Chief Executive was reportedly “working on a policy”, it was yet to be considered by the Cabinet, or probably anyone else. The apparent rationalisation – “we haven’t had a pregnant Cabinet member in Birmingham for a very long time” – revealed as much about the recruitment and societal representativeness of councillors as about their financial remuneration.

The CE sounded suitably embarrassed, for, however few UK councils would have been in significantly more considered and supportive positions, for the biggest of them all, that was surely no refuge.  Still, barely 20 months later, the Council produced a policy – not merely, to coin a phrase, ‘oven-ready’, but fully baked.

The Birmingham Post/Mail could report that Birmingham councillors – all councillors, note, not just Cabinet members – “will for the first time be entitled to maternity and paternity pay”. Councillors would continue to receive their basic allowance for at least six months of maternity leave, and senior councillors with additional responsibilities would get 90% of their Special Responsibility Allowance for the first six months and at least a basic allowance up to week 39. Better terms, apparently, than for staff – prompting, understandably, calls for council workers’ maternity terms to be improved too.

Thanks substantially no doubt to Cllr Jones’ work ‘behind the scenes’, Birmingham’s present Members’ Allowances Scheme and particular the Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Pay sections, could, in my albeit limited experience, serve as at least a baseline model for UK councils generally.

A few examples: Members on maternity leave continue to receive full allowances for six months, possibly extendable; adoptive parents ‘newly matched’ with a child by an adoption agency ditto; shared parental leave negotiable for one or two parents, including same sex.

There’s nothing in the Scheme that’s obviously either exceptional or exceptionable – just reasonable modern-day practice for a public organisation conscious of the difficulty it demonstrably has attracting a representative quota of younger and particularly female members.

On the other hand, you may recall the row back in February when the Government rushed through Parliament a law-change allowing Cabinet ministers – specifically the then eight-months pregnant Attorney General, Suella Braverman – to have six months’ maternity leave on full pay plus salary costs for a temporary replacement.

Back at work recently, Braverman was understandably grateful for the uniquely tailored special treatment – unavailable to ‘ordinary’ backbenchers such as Labour MP Stella Creasy, who four months later, like others before her, had had her request for full locum cover for her second child rejected, on the almost too-good-to-be-true grounds that it was “misconceived” – the request, apparently, not the actual child. Either way, she was, as they say, contemplating legal action.

If our national Parliament acts in this rushed, last-minute, blatantly discriminatory fashion, it would perhaps be surprising if local government’s record were strikingly better – and the evidence shows it isn’t.

The good news: statistically overall there appears little explicit Parliament-style discrimination between senior cabinet-level councillors and ‘ordinary’ councillors. Bad news: three-quarters of councils seem to have no councillor maternity/paternity policies at all.  Broadly encouraging news: just two years ago, that three-quarters was 93%.

The statistics come from an admirably comprehensive study based on responses from over 90% of English councils to Freedom of Information requests from the Fawcett Society, the campaigning charity for gender equality and women’s rights.

There seemed no obvious reason why West Midlands councils should be statistically exceptional, and they aren’t. Just two – Birmingham and Wolverhampton – have formal policies in place for maternity, paternity, adoption and kinship care for all councillors. Coventry claimed ‘informal’ policies, Walsall didn’t respond, leaving Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull with apparently no policy at all.

Nationally, roughly a quarter of English councils reported having maternity or paternity policies in place for their ‘ordinary’ and/or senior councillors, perhaps the most positive feature of which figures being that just two years ago they were 7% and 8% respectively.

Some way to go, evidently. And the same – relatedly, the Fawcett Society would suggest – goes for women’s representation on councils generally. Across England as a whole, it found just 35% of all councillors are women – less than a 1% increase since the 2019 elections.

Which means, “at that rate of change, we won’t see gender parity in local councils until 2077 – over 50 years away”.  Hence, it would argue, the importance of maternity and paternity policies, in addition obviously to their intrinsic merits.

However, such projections depend on your baseline.  And, as a seriously boring, nerdy person, I happen to know that exactly 50 years ago, in 1971, the proportion of English women councillors was just 12% [J.Z. Giele & A.C. Smock (eds.), Women: Roles and Status in Eight Countries (1977), p.17].  From which starting point today’s 35% reaches 50% by – wow! – 2055.

Either way, it’s effectively a working lifetime’s wait – and more possibly for some, like the North Yorkshire district with just 3 women councillors out of 30 and an Anglo-Saxon name whose modern-day meaning is ‘lack of courage’: Craven.  The Fawcett study found 10 councils in all with under 20% of women members, the others in ascending order being West Berkshire, Swale, Ashfield, Hambleton, Cherwell, Castle Point, Huntingdonshire, Essex County, and Wycombe.

To finish, though, on at least a relatively high note, these 10 are outnumbered by the 14 councils with over 50% women members, a selection striking too for its obvious diversity. This time in descending order: Brighton & Hove (56%), Cambridge, Islington, Nottingham, East Cambridgeshire, Havant, Manchester, Norwich, South Oxfordshire, Gateshead, Kingston upon Thames, South Kesteven, South Tyneside, and Liverpool.

Which, returning home as it were, begs the question: if councils as diverse as these can achieve 50%+, why is it Birmingham can manage barely one in three? Cllr Jones, your work is far from done!

An earlier version of this blog was published in the Birmingham Post on 23rd September

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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.

NOC NOC! Is anybody there – or are you all botching each other?

Chris Game

NOC – that’s what this blog’s about.  It’s prompted, like many I assume, by the topic being one the author has a ‘thing’ about – only here it’s two things. There, authorial duty done: you’ve now been warned.

The first ‘thing’, I’m guessing, originated with an enthusiastic primary school English teacher, keen for as many of us as possible to pass the 11+ or ‘grading test’ that would get us into grammar school. Anyway, it was when I probably learnt the crucial distinction between common abbreviations and what most of us interpreted even then as posher/middle class acronyms and initialisms.

Abbreviations – for the benefit, obviously, of non-native English speakers/readers – are simply shortened forms of words: approx, dept, tbs (tablespoon), etc.  Acronyms are the posh, clever ones – comprising the first letters of several words but pronounced as if they are words themselves.

Most famous in these parts is obviously INLOGOV – but not, sadly, the most structurally perfect, which must be CREES.  Outside academia my favourite, because I’d bet even some police users don’t know it, is TASER – Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

So, to initialisms, which comprise the first letters of several words, but can’t be (or are bewildering if) pronounced as words themselves – and which are regularly and incorrectly called acronyms.

Like NOC, which – whether referring to a National Olympics Committee, a prescription treatment for scurvy, or, as here, an elected body under ‘No Overall Control’ – is always pronounced, and in the case of the scurvy tablets spelt, ENOCEE.   

The elected bodies are usually councils, but strictly speaking Scotland was under NOC until recently, when the Scottish Greens’ co-leaders became ministers in the Holyrood Government, creating a power-sharing SNP-Green coalition.

It’s true that NOC sounds less alarming than OOC (Out Of Control) would be, but it’s entirely unclear what it does signify.  It’s certainly unhelpful – but worse, I’d suggest, in being a positive deterrent to trying to learn more – in metamorphosing indeed into No One Cares.

As a recent description of Kabul, as Taliban militants seized rapid control from Afghanistan’s civilian government, NOC would for maybe two days max have been fair and accurate. But not thereafter.

Nor when used for months on end apparently to describe the political management and day-to-day running of constitutionally elected UK local government councils. That, I suggest, is both disappointingly unhelpful and misleading.

Immediately following an inconclusive local election, with no single party securing an overall majority of councillors, some uncertainty – even within the council – may be unavoidable. There may well follow perhaps a fortnight’s discussions within and between the various party groups and maybe Independents before the Annual Meeting, at which ‘Who Runs the Council?’ has to be officially determined.

Whereupon there should be public clarity. If previously there hadn’t been, through no single party having an overall majority of councillors, the Council should, surely, officially announce and publicly explain the new situation – the leadership, any agreement/working arrangement between parties, Cabinet composition, and so on – ideally in the local media and certainly prominently (within a couple of clicks) on its own website.

That way it would matter less that the BBC, for instance, can’t be troubled to update its ‘Elections 2021’ statistics or even to footnote news of the actual resolutions of the 29 blackish ‘No Overall Control’ splotches and dots on its English councils map

NOC map

Still, however – and despite my having mentioned it on numerous occasions, not least in these columns – some councils don’t.  And what really p****s – sorry, incenses me is that the process and outcome of these post-NOC negotiations are not just factually informative, but frequently rather more fascinating than the elections that brought them about.

Bear with me, please, while I try to illustrate with the ‘aid’ of said map – or at least reference to it. You will observe three large blackish splotches, which you might imagine would be the three – all geographically large – county councils that have been NOC since at least the May elections: Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Cumbria.

Until you note that the top splotch is on the wrong side: not Cumbria, but Durham, which you may also know ceased being a county when in 2009 it became a unitary.  It did, however, produce surely the most historic result of this year’s ‘large’ authority elections, with Labour losing overall control of the council for the first time in over a century, and being replaced by a barely hyperbolic ‘rainbow’ coalition of the Lib Dems, Conservatives, Independents, and the North East Party – led moreover by the Council’s first-ever female leader, Lib Dem Amanda Hopgood.

So, to the two central England splotches – Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire County Councils – plus what would have been a third, had Cumbria’s election, like those of Somerset and North Yorkshire CCs not been postponed pending the outcome of already submitted unitary proposals.

In both cases the Conservatives had most councillors following the May elections, but no overall council majority. And in both cases the outcome of post-election negotiations was that the other party leaders and groups felt they had more in common with, or simply preferred working with, each other than with the historically dominant Conservatives.

And something essentially similar would doubtless have happened in Cumbria too, with the council having had a single party in majority control for just four of the past 36 years. So, when someone comes NOC NOCing on the Cumbria House door in Carlisle’s delightfully named Botchergate, they will be met not by rioting, out-of-control councillors, botching each other, but a seemly Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. 

Likewise in Oxbridge, where they will encounter what tend to qualify nowadays as ‘rainbow coalitions’: comprising in Oxfordshire the Lib Dems (yellow), Labour (red) and Greens, and in Cambridgeshire Lib Dems, Labour and Independents. Doing indeed what voters reportedly tell pollsters they want party politicians to do: work together rather than just shout across the council chamber at one another.

Personally, in case you were wondering, I have ambivalent views about ‘rainbow coalitions’ – the terminology, I should stress, not their existence, which is almost invariably fascinating to observe. I used to reckon that, with rainbows having seven colours, a ‘rainbow coalition’ ought to comprise at least a majority – i.e. four parties or political groups.

The obvious problem, though, is that it restricts the field and would deprive many local newspaper editors of potentially appealing headlines.  By my reckoning – and with possibly excessive reliance on Open Council Data UK – England currently has just seven of these ‘proper’ rainbow coalitions: Durham, Folkestone & Hythe, Lewes, North Somerset, Swale, Waverley, and our own local Wyre Forest. 

Add in three-group coalitions, though, and you almost triple the number, while still lagging well behind the 32 single-party minority administrations and the 28 two-party arrangements. 

It also enables me to fulfil a tiny part of a kind of promise to INLOGOV Head of Department and blog editor, Jason Lowther – to whom I mentioned a round-up of May’s local election results, in the tabulated form I’ve sometimes managed previously, including my patented symbols for ‘rainbow coalitions’. 

For several reasons, including the sheer number of NOCs nowadays, I stalled after the ‘biggies’, but, thanks to the previously described Oxbridge tendency, there are at least a couple of rainbows.

NOC table

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A more West Midlands-focussed version of this blog was published in the Birmingham Post on 9th September.

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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 author of the Local Government chapter in the just published 10th edition of Politics UK (Routledge), about the only surviving sizeable (just the 780pp.) textbook of its kind.

The Lambeth tragedy and electoral reform

Chris Game

The recent Independent Inquiry report, chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, into the serial sexual abuse of children in the residential care (or neglect) of Lambeth Council from the 1960s to 1990s makes dire, sickening reading. It is lessened not one jot by being semi-historic, particularly for someone like myself who had at least intermittent dealings with the councillors and officers of Lambeth and other London councils during the 1980s, the most politically malevolent of those decades.

Pause for some indulgent, but explanatory, personal history – only three paras, promise!  I remember that key mid-80s period vividly. My early INLOGOV years, in the early 80s, felt like a kind of extended apprenticeship. I’d been appointed to launch the Department’s undergraduate PMA (Public Policymaking & Administration) degree, of which several senior colleagues were undisguisedly suspicious. I had no personal local government background, and was barely allowed near INLOGOV’s ‘shop window’: its prestigious, 6-week Wast Hills residential AMDP (Advanced Management Development Programme) for senior lg officers – because, well, what could I possibly tell them that they didn’t already know and weren’t already doing?

But then came ‘Widdy’ – the Committee of Inquiry into the Conduct of Local Authority Business, chaired by David Widdicombe QC – the Thatcher Government’s thinly disguised vehicle that would reveal the scurrilous goings-on (and, yes, ‘abuses’ – though even she didn’t mean sexual ones) in particularly left-wing Labour councils, enabling legislation that would restrain and generally weaken them. For several reasons it didn’t work out like that. Future Professor Steve Leach and myself from INLOGOV and two other colleagues spent the summer of 1985 visiting over 100 GB councils, interrogating senior members and officers, and eventually producing a 340-page report – far longer and more detailed, nuanced and qualified than the ‘hatchet job’ it was widely assumed the PM and Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley had been hoping for.

For me, though it cost me a cricket season, it was fantastic.  At last I knew stuff about the inner political workings of local government that both councillors and officers were actually asking to hear about.  I could jointly run seminars and training programmes for officers and members – including week-long residential programmes for officers from groups of London boroughs – AND even get invited to address AMDP, without senior colleagues sitting in at the back checking me out.

We would discuss the internal, organisational politics of our local government system: the workings of and relations between party groups; one-party committees and sub-committees; the differences between Independent-dominated and ‘politicised’ councils; and, of course, member-officer relations and respective spheres of responsibility, including to electors and service users.

However … it was also during the 1980s that the Jay Inquiry found a root cause of the “widespread” sexual and other abuse of children in ‘care’ to have been the “politicised behaviour and turmoil” (p.vii) that dominated and warped Lambeth’s Labour-controlled council, for which “a succession of elected members and senior professionals ought to have been held accountable” (p.v), and weren’t.

Children were functionally weaponised in a “toxic power game” (p.vii) between Labour councillors and the Thatcher Conservative Government – a project that took precedence over providing quality, or simply adequate and undamaging, services and in 1985/6 over even setting a council tax rate (for which, for the record, 26 Labour councillors were surcharged and disqualified from office).

It’s rather late now to return my training programme fees, and I can’t meaningfully comment on the fundamental changes and redress measures since implemented.  I raise the Lambeth case solely because it loosely links to recent election-related news items I do know something about.

The first is that on 6th May, while I was previewing the various ‘First-Past-The-Post’ or ‘winner-takes-all’ council elections across the West Midlands, voters elsewhere in GB were voting in their sixth sets of Proportional Representation (PR) elections for their respective devolved institutions: the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and London Assembly. There at least, what was once considered radical and even ‘Un-British’ is now the widely supported norm, with versions of PR also used in Scottish local elections and soon, if councils choose, in Wales too.

They are preferred to ‘Winner-takes-all’ because of results like those, for example, in this May’s Warwickshire and Worcestershire County Council elections. The respective Conservative parties took 74% and 79% of their councils’ seats – and four years of statistically comfortable overall policy control – on well under half the respective votes cast.

Just as that 1983 Thatcher Conservative Government won its 144-seat Commons majority with 42% of votes. These unearned bonuses are not just decisive, but gross, distorting, and potentially dangerous. Under even a loosely PR system, that 42% would have given the Conservatives under 300 seats instead of 397, Labour perhaps 180, and the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance’s 25% vote share a potentially Government-determining 160-plus, instead of just 23.  And that whole fractious decade would have been very different.

Fantasy, of course. But – and finally, the key prompt for this blog – I do distinctly recall discussing, with Lambeth’s 40 Labour and 23 non-Labour councillors, how, had their 1982 local elections been run under any PR system, the chances were that, just as Thatcher probably wouldn’t have been in Downing Street, Labour almost certainly wouldn’t have won control of their 64-seat council.

For the Conservatives had won comfortably most votes, their 39% giving them perhaps 25 seats. Labour’s 33% could have meant not 40, but 22, leaving – as nationally – the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance councillors holding the balance of power with maybe 17.  And the tragic events recorded in the Jay report would never have happened. The message is obvious: yes, election results shape history, but those results and outcomes are shaped by electoral systems.

There are many variants of PR electoral systems, but all aim to produce parliamentary or council memberships proportionately reflecting actual votes cast. And, conveniently, all three bodies mentioned – the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and London Assembly – use versions of the Additional Member System (AMS).

Voters have two ballot papers. One lists candidates standing for single-member constituencies, the candidate with most Xs winning the seat. The second, usually regional, ballot paper lists the contesting parties and their respective candidates, and the voter’s X goes to their preferred party list. Now the key bit: these list seats are allocated specifically to ensure the overall seat shares in the Parliament/Assembly/Council match as closely as possible the shares of party votes received.

And back in May?  Space here, I’m afraid, only for Scotland, where the nowadays dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) won 62 of the Parliament’s 73 constituency seats – but with under 48% of the constituency vote. The nearly 22% vote shares of the Conservatives and Labour won them just 5 and 2 constituency seats respectively.

These disparities, however, were ironed out in the second, regional votes. The SNP’s 40% vote gained it only two additional seats, giving a total of 64 – just short of an overall majority in the 129-member Parliament, and reflecting its failure to win majorities in either vote.

By contrast, the Conservatives’ 24% regional vote earned them 26 additional seats to total 31.  Labour’s 18% brought them up to 22, and the Greens, without any constituency seats, won 8% of the regional vote, gaining them 8 seats. Which is why, once they understand it, voters tend on balance to like it – because it includes, rather than excludes.

Which, sadly, is the precisely opposite aim of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s planned electoral reforms – from compulsory photo ID to abolishing preferential electoral systems for Mayors, Police Commissioners and the London Assembly. But then inclusivity really isn’t her bag, is it – and, though a Londoner herself, she’s too young to remember 1980s Lambeth.

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A shorter version of this blog – minus the personal INLOGOV bits – was published in the Birmingham Post on 19th August under the title ‘Electoral reform could have prevented tragedy’ (https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20210819/281956020861052)

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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.

Petticoat Council – cheesy name, historic achievement

Chris Game

Nottingham Castle reopened to visitors recently, after a Covid-protracted three-year closure for what was anyway going to be a pretty extensive renovation. Even unrenovated, the castle has always been a good visit, not least for its exhibitions, which now include an enticingly named Rebellion Gallery, whose current Nottingham-focused displays, curated by University of Nottingham historian Dr Richard Gaunt, comprise the Civil War, the Luddite movement, and parliamentary reform with particular emphasis on women’s suffrage.

For reasons that will become clear, it was the last of these that particularly resonated with me – and one (poorly phone-photographed) bar chart in particular.

While its primary aim is presumably to emphasise the length of the continually frustrated campaign for women’s suffrage, it also showed how, near the start of that campaign, some women – those that “met the property ownership requirements” – actually lost their right to vote during the 1830s.

The otherwise franchise-extending 1832 Reform Act specified ‘male persons’ only, depriving at least small numbers of property-owning women of their parliamentary vote until 1918. And the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act excluded them from local elections – until 1869/70, when unmarried women ratepayers were granted the right to vote in first municipal council and then the new school board elections.

Between those dates, though, and with no confounding documentary evidence, it was widely believed, and taught, even in Patricia Hollis’ ‘bible’ – Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Appendix B) – that women lost their voting rights completely, just like the 0%, 0%, 0% on the Nottingham bar chart.

Taught by me too, until a few years ago when I caught by chance a BBC Sounds broadcast describing the discovery of documentary evidence of at least some West Midlands women casting votes in local elections decades before those history books told us the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act legalised it.

The BBC programme described the recent discovery in Lichfield Record Office of an 1843 Poll Book. Compiled apparently for local Conservative Party campaigning purposes, it detailed all voters in that year’s St Chad’s Parish election of an Assistant Overseer of the Poor – the bloke (naturally) with responsibility for outdoor (cash) or indoor (workhouse) poor relief.

And of the 371 voters in that 1843 election …. 30 were women, including one, an evidently very well-heeled Grace Brown, with no fewer than four votes. It was a genuine, history-rewriting discovery – though not in fact the main point of this blog.

For that we must turn to the programme’s presenter: Sarah Richardson, nowadays Professor of History at Warwick University, and author of the then recently published The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain.

Totally relevant, obviously, but Richardson’s even more pertinent role here must surely be one unmentioned in her University profile: longstanding Governor and currently Chair of Governors at Bishop’s Itchington Primary School.

Bishop’s Itchington is a South Warwickshire village/parish south-east of Royal Leamington Spa and about 18 miles from Coventry, which, as we’ll see, is more immediately relevant. It has a lengthy history too, its name combining references to the passing River Itchen and the Bishop of the afore-mentioned Lichfield Cathedral.

In many European countries, and unquestionably in France with its 35,000 communes, even its reduced present-day population of around 2,000 would make Bishop’s Itchington what we would call a principal local authority in its own right, with an elected mayor, a full range of local powers and responsibilities, and significant control of its own funding.

But in a middle England parish council, without even these basics, where, you might reasonably ask, is there the potential even for much passing interest, never mind drama?  To which the answer is: in its elected councillors, and, more precisely, those elected in 1949 to form what became the first female majority council in the UK.

It’s a hefty claim, but, in respect of a village/parish whose primary school Chair of Governors just happens to be a national authority on such matters, pretty authoritative.

Profesor Richardson herself summarises – this time on YouTube.  Edith Chapple-Hyam, Chair of the village Women’s Institute, was fed up with the all-male parish council’s lack of action on issues such as accessible electricity and running water, social housing, policing and speed restrictions, the sewage works, and public spaces, particularly for children.

In short, she and her WI members saw areas like Coventry being built up after the War and wanted a piece of the action.  So, when an election was announced, she and five WI committee members submitted their nominations.

Most of the sitting councillors assumed that, as no doubt regularly happened, the election would go uncontested and they would be re-elected by default.  Only one, therefore, bothered to submit his papers before nominations closed.

He was duly elected, but alongside all six women, who effectively – in both senses – took over.  And now, just the 72 years on, the Bishop’s Itchington story has been both informatively and highly entertainingly dramatised as a ‘folk musical’ and one of Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 events.

Entitled ‘Petticoat Council’, I saw it myself recently, and the mix of storytelling, song, dance and puppetry melded together by playwright Frankie Meredith – herself the great-niece of Ivy Payne, one of the six victorious councillors – is a delight, unquestionably worth catching if you ever get the chance.

My sole initial reservation had been the slightly cheesy title, for which I was prepared to blame the Americans, who had instantly labelled a very similar women’s power grab in Umatilla, Oregon back in 1916 a ‘Petticoat Revolution’.

But I was wrong. It apparently came from a local newspaper, reporting in 1952 how the men on the council were plotting to “overthrow petticoat rule”, as “the women have been getting too bossy”. Material for a sequel perhaps?

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A version of this blog, with an accompanying photograph – of the councillors, not me – was published in the Birmingham Post on 15th July under the title The ‘Petticoat Council’ and a slice of Midland History

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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.

Royal Consent – If only I’d known 40 years ago

Chris Game

Queen

Photo credit: West Midlands Police – Royal Diamond Jubilee Visit

The Queen, I learned recently from my Murdoch Sunday newspaper, is “keen to hit her stride again” and indeed is already “ramping up for a very busy summer”.  Unsettling image, a ramping-up 95-year-old.  More personally, though, justification for not feeling too bad about airing a long-term grievance – for, as I’ll explain, I reckon she owes me.

This royal debt dates back to my pre-INLOGOV days, when, as mentioned in a name-dropping blog only quite recently, part of my 1970s was spent endeavouring to interest visiting American students from California’s Stanford University in the similarities and contrasts between their presidential government system and our constitutional monarchy.

Seminar exchanges would go something like this. You Brits call yourselves a constitutional monarchy, so you must have a constitution?  Yep – a set of the most important rules regulating relations between the different parts of the government and the British people.

But not written down?  Of course they’re written down, but in various forms: parliamentary statutes, judge-made laws, works by constitutional ‘authorities’, and what have become accepted conventions.

They’re just not ‘codified’, or fossilised, in an almost unamendable 1787 capital-C Constitutional document like yours – which, incidentally, says almost nothing useful about the US electoral system, political parties, or modern-day powers of its Supreme Court.

Britain’s uncodified, small-c constitution has enabled us, I’d suggest, to assimilate potentially huge changes without agonising for decades about whether and how to amend a capital-C Constitution.

Proof? The 19th Century metamorphosis during Queen Victoria’s reign from a real, if limited, executive monarchy to a virtually ceremonial one or effectively a republic: a state run by the people’s elected parliamentary representatives, but without a directly elected head of state.

[Literally parenthetically, I might add here that I genuinely can’t now recall how much of this stuff I actually believed and how much was pedagogical convenience. I don’t feel I’ve ever wholly supported the UK having an all-encompassing, written capital-C Constitution, as advocated recently for instance by the Lib Dems in their 2019 Manifesto (p.79), and for the Constitution Unit by QMU’s Prof. Douglas-Scott – not least because I’ve found it hard seriously to imagine it actually happening.

[I was, though, and think still am, in favour of something resembling what – in evidence to the (subsequently Conservative-abolished) Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform – Profs George Jones and John Stewart termed a more limited “constitutional settlement governing relationships between central and local government”, giving the latter constitutional recognition as an elected institution].

Back, anyway, to the role, and powers, of that ‘virtually ceremonial’ constitutional monarchy, with which, like most Americans, Stanford students had an almost insatiable fascination.

They knew before arriving that their Berkshire Thameside campus, Cliveden House, had been the country home of the 18th Century Prince of Wales, and staged the first performance of the even then embarrassingly patriotic anthem, ‘Rule, Britannia!’.

They quickly learnt about the Queen owning all the river’s ‘unmarked mute’ swans, having her own Swan Warden, driving without a licence and number plate, and – from glossy US magazines in those pre-Google days – dozens more “incredible powers you didn’t know she has”.

So much truer than I realised!  My role then, however, involved emphasising how most of these incredible powers – even, I guessed, recruiting Swan Wardens – were symbolic, and in practice exercised by others.

Some were easy. Supreme Governor of the Church of England: Henry VIII was certainly hands-on, but nowadays it’s a combo of the PM and Church leaders. Head of the Armed Services: Ministers and the Defence Ministry do policy, armed forces most of the fighting.

Opening and closing Parliamentary sessions, the Queen’s Speech, the Government’s legislative programme, creating members of the Lords – again, all determined by Ministers. Appointing the PM – yes, but following election by their party.

My biggest explanatory problem was Royal Assent and Consent.  Royal Assent is straightforward: the Sovereign’s purely formal agreement that a Bill, passed by both Houses of Parliament, be enacted as law.  Last refused, as all textbooks dutifully record, in 1708.

But check those same textbooks for Royal, or even Queen’s, CONsent, and you’ll be lucky to find much more than the 5-line paragraph graciously offered under ‘The Queen and Parliament’ on the www.royal.uk website: “It is a long-established convention that The Queen is asked by Parliament to provide consent (which is different to assent) for the debating of bills which would affect the prerogative or interests of the Crown”.

Long established maybe, but minimally publicised, discussed and understood. And there’s more. Should the Royals (Charles has a Prince’s Consent too) even suspect that something in any draft Bill might adversely affect their extensive prerogative rights or ‘personal interests’, they can potentially stop it even getting debated, never mind becoming law, and usually without leaving even a written record.

That’s why I reckon they owe me personally – as well as, obviously, all UK citizens (sorry, I forgot: ‘subjects’). Because, while I was wittering to Stanford students about Swan Wardens, none of this seriously important stuff was public knowledge, in the sense of being debated, questioned, researched, quantified, or featuring in even ‘British Constitution’ textbooks.

Instead, there was/is effectively – in both senses – an Establishment connivance, between the leaderships of successive, supposedly democratically accountable Governments and the Royals, to keep all significant details of Royal Consent from us mere voters, taxpayers and university lecturers.

Only quite recently has even its scale become public knowledge, thanks particularly to The Guardian newspaper’s research moles. While I might have guessed at there being maybe two or three Royal Consents a year, it’s actually some ten times that.

The Guardian excavators have compiled a wondrous database of 1,062 parliamentary Bills (and rising) subjected since 1952 to the Queen’s or Prince’s Consent – or ‘royal vetting’, as they put it – from that year’s Clifton Suspension Bridge Bill (no idea why) to the 2020 EU Future Relationship Bill (I’d guess Sandringham and Windsor farming subsidies). All of which the Royals had first go at influencing in their own interests.

One serious purpose of this blog is to draw even some minimal additional attention to this fantastic research base and potential teaching aid – albeit decades too late for me personally.  In 1975, though, I know exactly what I’d have done: given groups of five students a year’s worth, say 25, and asked them to research what in each case they reckoned the Royal Consent hoped to gain.

[The original version of this blog was written for the Birmingham Post, July 1st, 2021, under the title ‘Secrets of Royal Consent that you’ll never hear of’]

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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.

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.

 

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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.