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

Chris Game

Negotiate? Look what happened last time!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Burnham:          “You bet I did.”

Johnson:            “I demand to know why.”

Burnham:          “You want answers?”

Johnson:            “I want the truth!”

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

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

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

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

 

When Johnson was a Mayor himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Simon Clarke – first his speech goes, then him

Chris Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

When Alice Paul came to Birmingham University

Chris Game

On August 18th, much of America celebrated the centenary of women finally gaining the vote, when Tennessee became the decisive 36th state to ratify the US Constitution’s 19th Amendment.

With some property-owning women in the Northern colonies having been voting before the United States was created – then having that right removed by the new all-male state legislatures – it took a long, sometimes bitter and unedifying, battle, but one absolutely worth commemorating.

Some perspective: that eventual 19th Amendment had been first introduced to Congress in 1878, seven years before one of the most militant and mostly admirable leaders of the final struggle was even born. I refer to Alice Paul, around whom PBS America’s excellent recent TV documentary, ‘The Vote’, was structured.

Paul was joint founder in 1916 of the National Woman’s Party – with her friend and equally radical contemporary, Lucy Burns – and its leader for decades. She/they instigated countless laws furthering women’s equality, secured equal rights guarantees in both the UN Charter and 1964 Civil Rights Act, and drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which could theoretically have been the US Constitution’s 20th.

It doesn’t sound outlandish for a supposed democracy: equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the US or any state on account of sex.  Yet, introduced in 1923, it took 49 years for Congress to approve it, then a further 49 for Virginia to become, in January this year, the required 38th state to ratify it.

Now, in football parlance, it seems likely to be ruled ‘aaet’ – after ‘after extra time’ – a sad, if in no way diminishing, postscript to Alice Paul’s long and exceptional campaigning career.  Back quickly, then, to that career’s start, for her suffragette epiphany, her radical realisation, owed everything to her brief stay in her early twenties in Birmingham.  No, not the Alabama one. Our Birmingham.

Alice – no, I’m not at all sure she’d excuse the familiarity – came from New Jersey, near the Quaker state of Philadelphia. Bright eldest daughter of a successful businessman/gentleman farmer and college-educated mother, she was raised as a Hicksite Quaker – same Orthodox Quaker emphasis on simplicity, perseverance and social improvement, less on the Bible, much more on gender equality.

Despite, or possibly because of, a first degree in biology, she was increasingly attracted to applied social work. This prompted a Master’s thesis entitled ‘Towards Equality’, followed in 1907 by a one-year fellowship at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.

Recently founded by George Cadbury as – still, I believe – Europe’s only Quaker study and training centre, Woodbrooke also had links almost from the outset with the University of Birmingham, and Alice would certainly at least have attended lectures there.

But here’s the tricky bit.  A summation of the numerous available accounts would be that the totally transformative event in Alice’s early life was attending a Women’s Suffrage meeting in Birmingham. There she heard the ‘charismatic’ Christabel Pankhurst – also still in her twenties – lucidly putting the case for militant action for women’s suffrage, and dealing simultaneously with a predominantly male, hostile, abusive audience. Following which – sometime, somewhere – Alice met Christabel personally and was, apparently, “converted, heart and soul” to the militant Suffragette cause.

But where exactly?  And, assuming it did happen, could that key personal meeting and Alice’s Pauline/Damascene conversion have taken place in the University of Birmingham, a retrospective highlight of its early Edgbaston years?

Most accounts, unsurprisingly, are vague, obviously embellished, or demonstrably inaccurate. One seemingly indisputable fact, though, is that Christabel Pankhurst and her mother, Emmeline, did speak and were heckled at a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) meeting at Birmingham Town Hall on November 20th, 1907.

That had to be it, surely.  Besides, that is the occasion extensively described in former Boston Globe journalist Tina Cassidy’s recent full, if florid, Alice Paul biography – Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?  – from the opening pages of which I apologise in advance for quoting at appallingly self-indulgent length, partly because it’s loosely evidential, but mainly because it’s such fun.

November 20, 1907 – Birmingham, England.  Alice Paul finished dinner with classmates at Woodbrooke [and] excused herself …  Gathering up her long, heavy skirt, she mounted a rented bike and began the four-mile pedal … through the fog to Town Hall in Birmingham.

Hundreds of people were inside.  Many were male students from the University of Birmingham, where Paul was taking classes. She was the first and only woman enrolled in the University’s Department of Commerce. She was fearless among them; unabashed, she strove for what she wanted.

Paul had come to listen to a mother-daughter team talk about their Votes for Women campaign. The men, however, had a different agenda …  Like most of their peers, they believed women belonged at home … and that these Pankhurst women needed to be silenced … they began to shake rattles, ring bells, and blow whistles and toy trumpets.

Unfazed by the chaos, Christabel Pankhurst stepped on to the stage with striking poise. She seemed effortlessly confident … the men, however, were not softened by her affect.  They roared for several minutes, waving their hats, sticks and handkerchiefs provocatively as she patiently endured.

“We have come to explain our tactics,” Christabel asserted, trying to pierce the pandemonium.  The crowd hushed briefly before someone hurled a dead mouse into the air, causing the hall to erupt into hysteria as the rodent was squeamishly caught and tossed like a hot potato.

Inspired and disturbed, Paul was riveted … until her senses were suddenly overwhelmed by the offensive odour of rotten eggs. Someone had released a hydrogen-sulfide (sic) stink bomb, creating an atmosphere so foul that the room emptied within seconds … Paul climbed back on her bicycle and returned to Woodbrooke.  She felt the electricity in her body. It was unlike anything she had felt before.”

Clearly no one-to-one meeting there.  But anyway, why would Christabel be chatting to, say, a university student seminar when venues like the Town Hall were available to her?

The answer, I tentatively suggest, is to be found in another quite recent American account – this time from Clark Edwards, a former graduate student at an Indiana liberal arts college, who, searching for a possible thesis topic, discovered his paternal grandmother had been appointed legal guardian of Alice Paul’s papers.  Nice one!

Among other ‘goodies’, Edwards reveals that Sir Oliver Lodge, distinguished physicist and Birmingham University’s first Chancellor, concerned by his students’ role in Christabel’s earlier hostile reception, invited her back – this time to the University – “to give a second speech, apologised and required all students to attend and listen.”

It’s not exactly unassailable evidence, but it satisfies me personally that the two young women did meet meaningfully at ‘my’ University, and that the encounter inspired or re-inspired Alice’s conversion to the Suffragettes’ militant campaign methods.

Delaying her planned return to the US, she joined the Pankhursts and became one of the most dedicated militants. She marched, protested, physically attacked leading politicians, smashed Parliamentary windows, got arrested (seven times), imprisoned (three times), sentenced to ‘hard labour’, went on hunger-strike, was forcibly fed through her nostrils (55 times) – all before even starting on amending the US Constitution. Exceptional woman!

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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.

Prime Minister, remember when you weren’t hell-bent on infantilising local government?

Chris Game

 

I should just have returned from Limpopo, northernmost South African province and home to a substantial chunk of the famous Kruger National Park.  I, however, would have been there not for the wildlife, or even the wild life, but for the eminently respectable annual conference of IASIA, the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Administration, of which I’ve been a participative, though non-officeholding, member for the past quarter-century.

And now, after opening two sentences with a first-person singular pronoun, I should issue a READER ALERT!  There is, I promise, a serious point underpinning this blog. The first part, though, will contain more of those F-PS pronouns than even my average blog – sorry, but you have been warned.

Coincidentally, my very first IASIA conference, in 1996, was also in South Africa – in Durban, in the newly created province of KwaZulu-Natal, shortly after its first, violence-delayed, post-apartheid municipal elections had finally taken place.  The conference and the whole visit constituted a huge learning experience – and one acquired almost fortuitously.

For, despite INLOGOV being almost a model of the kind of institution IASIA/IIAS seeks to embrace – “involving both public service and academe”, whose interests and activities “target the education and training of public administrators and managers” – it always seemed colleagues in the then Development Administration Group, now the International Development Department, were the more active participants.

Anyway, it certainly gave me insights, opportunities and contacts I would never otherwise have had. That first Durban conference, for example, led fairly directly, if years later, to my involvement in a research project for the South African Municipal Demarcation Board on the relationship between size of municipality and efficiency of service delivery in the ‘new’ South Africa.

More recently, an exceptionally successful and in its way historic Ramallah conference in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy led to a paper (and subsequent blog) on how the new generation of elected Palestinian women mayors might have responded rather more impressively than Kensington & Chelsea’s politicians had managed.

Appreciation expressed, indulgent paragraphs over – thanks for your patience.  One thing I’m not really sorry to have missed with the Limpopo cancellation would have been the almost limitless curiosity of delegates – most following UK politics from several thousand miles’ distance – about the antics of the man who, for many, is our still relatively new Prime Minister. It would have been wearing, but I’d have borne it valiantly, not least because those with decent memories might well recall when I too had had positive things to say about the two-term Mayor of London – an office generally presumed abroad to be more powerful and prestigious than it is here.

Johnson never made it easy. Many delegates, whether or not they knew anything of his chaotic public and personal life, could certainly recall the man celebrating Britain’s first London 2012 Olympic gold medal by limply waving a Union Flag while stuck embarrassingly on a zip-wire.

It could sometimes be a tough gig, therefore, trying to persuade a predominantly overseas academic audience that, as London Mayor, the man had a record of some genuine achievement, if not on the scale of his hugely more experienced predecessor, Ken Livingstone.  But I tried, always starting with the headline statistics of his very election: twice, with over a million votes, to a post no other Conservative politician has come near to winning.

Evaluating his policy accomplishments was tougher, but, thanks to eventually effective delegation, there were, alongside the self-serving vanity projects, several tick-worthy boxes.  London’s homicide rate did fall dramatically between 2008 and 2016, by even more than it did nationally.  More so-called ‘affordable’ homes were built than during Livingstone’s two terms – though, in London especially, that A word is always debatable.

London Underground usage increased significantly, though ticket office closures continued and, by the time his planned night service finally arrived, he had gone. And it was bye-bye to fare-dodger-friendly ‘bendy buses’, hello again to environmentally friendly, double-decker Routemasters, albeit it at huge cost and some passenger discomfort.

Then there were the ‘Boris Bikes’ – nowadays the posher-sounding Santander Cycles – which, while not operating at the promised zero taxpayer cost, now constitute, I believe, Europe’s largest cycle hire scheme.

And, of course, like Paris for Bergman and Bogart in ‘Casablanca’, Boris will always have those undeniably memorable 2012 Olympics – notwithstanding that the idea and groundwork were Livingstone’s, the cost wildly over budget, and the legacy still debatable.

Over the years, then, I’ve felt able to talk – reasonably dispassionately, I hope – with international delegates about these things. But the topic I’ve always most emphasised, particularly in conference papers, has been finance: using London as a kind of headline illustration of how devolved government in the UK generally is centrally over-controlled and under-funded, compared to many of their countries’ systems.

In this I was much helped, unwittingly, by the man himself, who, as Mayor, professed similar concerns. For in 2012/13 he established a London Finance Commission, chaired by LSE Professor and finance expert, Tony Travers, which swiftly produced a neatly entitled report – Raising the Capital – with some seriously radical content.

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

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

Taxation powers were merely one important part of the required reform.  But the Commission recommended (p.11) that “the full suite of property taxes” – council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, capital gains property development tax – be devolved to London government (GLC and/or boroughs), which should have responsibility for setting tax rates, revaluation, banding and discounts.

There was plenty more in the same vein – freedom to impose modest tourism and environmental taxes, planning fees and charges, and so on. My concern here, though, is less the Commission than the CommissionER.

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

So, come the 2013 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, there he was, leading a cross-party campaign with the London Councils and Core Cities Groups, arguing that England was much too centralised and calling for a comparable suite of fiscal reforms for England’s largest cities. An “historic and significant move …a partial but practical answer to the conundrum of English devolution … good not just for the cities involved, but for the country at large” … etc. etc.

Of course, nothing much changed substantively. London could still be tagged a “fiscal infant”, as could our whole local government system.

What changed was the man and his career: his personal political ambitions, the gift of Brexit, and the Johnson/Cummings project of running apparently the most unaccountable, centralist government of our age, in which the biggest city councils are mere marginisable infants.  A conference paper title for Limpopo 2021 perhaps?

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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.

Situational irony, coronavirus and the French local elections

Chris Game

One of Birmingham’s most enterprising theatres is one of its smallest, the Old Joint Stock – a studio theatre above a pub that was once the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank – which found itself an early and particularly unfortunate Covid-19 victim. For the Government’s March 16th announcement of the effective closure of all theatres came literally on the eve of the OJS’s five-day run of The White Plague, the scheduled second leg of a European tour, following a successful launch at Greenwich Theatre the previous week.

The title derives from an IRA-era sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, whose vengeful Irish molecular biologist creates a particularly discriminating (in both senses) plague, in that, while men are the carriers, it kills only women. The feature of this Ferodo Bridges theatre production, though, is that audience members are given masks or goggles that ‘white out’ their vision, thereby supposedly immersing them in the world of the blinded victims.

I was sorry to miss such a topical example of immersive theatre, but found some consolation in its ill-timed cancellation providing a rather classier example of situational irony than the standard fire station burning down, or the Facebook complaint about how useless Facebook is.

Which was neat, as the same week offered a further, and more democratically pertinent, Covid-19 example of situational irony in France’s municipal elections – partly in the results, but mainly in their happening at all.

President Macron faced a dilemma. French municipal and mayoral elections happen only every six years. This year’s, therefore, would be the first since he became President in 2017, thanks rather amazingly to his newly created LREM party, La République En Marche!, winning a substantial majority in the National Assembly elections.

This, therefore, should have been Macron’s big chance to establish a grassroots power base. In Paris City Hall, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, notwithstanding a radical manifesto – including a referendum on Airbnb, plans for a “100 percent bicycle” city centre, and a municipal police force comprising 50% women – looked vulnerable, and there were early visions of scores of LREM mayors and thousands of councillors across the country.

That’s right, thousands – this is France, with over 900,000 candidates contesting seats in over 35,000 villages, towns and cities, though excluding this time, rather sadly, the 757 British citizens currently serving as municipal councillors – which, incidentally, is nearly 300 more than in all seven West Midlands metropolitan boroughs combined.

Macron himself, however, was at less than peak popularity, following months of protests and strikes – by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement against rising fuel taxes, then by rail and health care workers, teachers and others against under-funding and pension reforms. Added to which, LREM’s Paris mayoral hopeful had had to abandon his candidacy in a sex video scandal – on Valentine’s Day!

And now France was showing the second highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Europe. Yet, having himself just shut down restaurants, museums, big sporting events, most stores, and the whole education system, Macron announced that the coming Sunday’s first round of the two-round municipal elections would go ahead – with strict sanitary conditions imposed, naturally.

The situational irony: the one man who could have saved his very personal party from a probable serious electoral thrashing, by doing the apparently responsible, expected thing and without any loss of face, chose not to.

Having merely a global citizen’s concern with French public health, I was actually quite pleased. Partly because French local elections are always fun to write about, but especially following the outcome of our own head of government’s Flip-Flop Friday.

In the morning of, yes, unlucky Friday 13th, Number 10 insisted – “driven by the experts”, of course – that May 7th’s local, mayoral, and Police & Crime Commissioner elections would go ahead, in defiance of the Electoral Commission’s postponement recommendation and Electoral Administrators’ warning of possibly insufficient polling station staff.

But then, literally within hours, all elections were off – and not, as proposed by the Electoral Commission, until the autumn, but for a year.

What makes French local elections fun? Well, not least – and making Macron’s go-ahead seem even more extraordinary than Johnson’s dithering – because there are just so many of them and they really are so genuinely local.

England’s local government currently comprises 341 principal councils, of which just Rutland, fractionally, has a population of under 40,000. By contrast, over 98% of France’s 35,000+ communes have under 20,000, and over half under 500.

Voting – in larger communes at least – is by proportional representation, potentially over two rounds, and mainly through party lists, which Parity Laws decree must comprise as many women as men, listed alternately. Mayors are indirectly elected: voters electing the council, the council then electing the mayor.

Most impressive attribute of French local elections, though, is that voters like them, and like voting in them, much more than in National Assembly elections. Evidence Exhibit 1: in reporting turnout in even local elections, the French way is to cite not the turnout percentage but ‘Abstentions’ – and then to worry when in 2014 the 36.45% abstentions (they’re also very precise) constituted “a record high” .

Exhibit 2: my favourite English language election preview, bemoaning how coronavirus was “eclipsing the elections in national conversation”, because “87% of the French people are discussing the coronavirus, while ONLY 52% are discussing the upcoming elections” (my emphasis). The last time over half an English electorate were caught discussing upcoming local elections being …?

Nevertheless, there clearly was concern that, even with voters queuing three feet apart, their own pens poised to sign the register, and voting machines wiped with hydro-alcoholic gel, polling stations were almost custom-made germ-spreading venues, particularly for older people.

Still, however, they recorded an estimated abstention rate of “up to 56%”, and a turnout therefore of around 45% – immediately seized on by the media as an “historic low”. In context, though, the last time turnout in our metropolitan district elections, for example, touched 45% in a non-General Election year was 1990 – poll tax year.  The recent average is 33%.

Macron’s decision was surprising, avoidable, predictably politically costly, and – given the second round’s almost immediate cancellation – probably wrong. It was not, though, without its integrity.

 

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 LGC100: what it does and doesn’t measure

Chris Game

I used, years ago, to have a whole Pol Sci 1 lecture about power and influence, their similarities and differences. By one of life’s synchronicities, I’ve been reminded of it twice in the past week. Don’t go – I’m not about to disinter it, although I will share the six-word summary that I could, if really pushed, get it down to: Power’s a tool, Influence a skill.

Actually, I will elaborate a bit, at least to the 16-word précis: I is a form of P, but P can be exercised through means other than I. Power, in other words, trumps influence, as was demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s feverish purchasing of high-price London homes following George Osborne’s introduction of stamp duty bands.

To adapt my lecture illustration: estate agents spent possibly months trying to influence wavering purchasers’ views of the great bargain their £2 million Myleene Klass garage/apartment would represent; then along comes George and suddenly the hesitants are desperate to exchange contracts by midnight and save themselves (I think) £55,000. The Chancellor had the power to change the whole deal – as could the garage owners, had they decided to drop their price. The estate agent – yes, I can feel your pity – has, at most, influence.

Power is supposedly sexy – period, and certainly sexier than influence, which is why magazines with circulation-boosting ‘Top 100’ lists will generally try for ‘Most Powerful’, even if they have to resort to sophistry. Forbes, the US business magazine, does both the World’s Most Powerful People: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel; and Most Powerful Women: Merkel, Janet Yellen (Chair, Federal Reserve), Melinda Gates, Dilma Rousseff (President, Brazil).

I’ve no argument with any of these. The Putin vs. Obama thing’s interesting, but, if you annexe Crimea and do a $70 billion gas pipeline deal with China – well, for me that’s right up there with banded stamp duty. But then at 17 in the Women’s list there’s Beyoncé Knowles, personification of the power vs. influence problem.

Sure, have her No.1 in Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List. I’d even grudgingly accept her heading Time magazine’s 100 Most Influentials, or, to be accurate, being their Top Titan – Time fudging its listing by grouping its 100 into Titans, Pioneers, Artists, Leaders and Icons, presumably to avoid, say, Miley Cyrus embarrassingly outranking Pope Francis.

But, whatever Titans are/do, Beyoncé sings, and, even if she does release her songs exclusively on iTunes, that’s essentially popularity, not power. It’s the same with cats. The cat food Friskies’ Most Influential Cat on the Internet – ‘Grumpy Cat’ (aka Tardar Sauce, and apparently it’s feline dwarfism, not perpetual pet petulance) – has 250,000 followers, which is also popularity and could even be influence, but it ain’t power.

Which brings us to the LGC100, the Local Government Chronicle’s periodic listing and ranking of the most influential people in local government – and in which we at INLOGOV have the pleasant responsibility to declare an interest, in all senses.

The LGC100 obviously differs from the Friskies 50 index, but there are similarities. First big difference is the complete absence of cats from even the long list. Second, selection is by a nine-judge panel, with “vast experience across the sector” – apart, apparently, from that of being elected members. Third, it’s forward-looking: those most likely to exert influence over the sector in the next 12 months.

Yes, the big similarity with the Friskies 50 is that it’s very definitely about influence, in the sense that I’ve been trying to suggest, rather than power. Out of hopefully excusable exuberance, INLOGOV’s official announcement stated that our Director, Catherine Staite, had been ranked the 45th “most powerful” person in the world of local government, which wasn’t the actual citation and, given that world’s diverse and highly political character, risked being potentially misleading – prompting this intendedly explanatory blog.

As I see it, LGC could have taken the sophists’ soft option, have pretended theirs is a Power Index, but, like Time, with separate groupings for mayors and council leaders, chief execs, national politicians, civil servants and officials, consultants, commentators, etc. Which would have risked being little more interesting than the proverbial wet weekend in Wigan – which, I’d better emphasise, isn’t boring at all, and moreover has a still comparatively rare female CE in Donna Hall (No 55).

Instead, they’ve taken the braver and inevitably more provocative path of having a single sector-wide set of reputational rankings, and it behoves us to recognise that those rankings are assessments of likely future influence, and not of current or recent power.

If they were current power rankings, then, whatever we might think of him, Eric Pickles’ dramatic slide from 1 in 2011 to 15 would take some explaining – although it does remain noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, all previous listings have been headed by the senior local government minister: John Healey in 2007 and 2008, and Pickles in 2011. This time, the only minister in the top 10 is Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at 7 [The PM and Chancellor are excluded from consideration, as is the Leader of the Opposition].

Second, Alexander’s relatively high position suggests Pickles’ fall can’t be attributed entirely to next May’s election, as he’s also adrift of Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (11), and Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (13), who may also have lost their ministerial red boxes before the year’s half through. A comparable consideration – imminent retirement – surely does, however, largely explain DCLG Permanent Secretary Sir Bob Kerslake’s apparently lowly 85. Incidentally, the actual local government minister, Kris Hopkins, may or may not be grateful that LGC have extended their list from 50 to 100, as his perceived future influence has him down at 93 – just below Watford elected mayor, Dorothy Thornhill (92), and just ahead of Nan Sloane, Director of The Centre for Women and Democracy (95).

I’ve now mentioned four ranked women and six men, and it would be good if that 40% female representation or the 40% in the top 10 were reflections of the list overall. They aren’t. There are 11 women in the top 50 and 21 in the full 100, which proportionately is lower than in either 2011 or 2008 – and, yes, I do know Doncaster’s CE, Jo Miller (27), and Centre for Cities’ Alex Jones (83) are women, while Localis’ Alex Thomson (54) is definitely male.

If those figures are disappointing, those for ethnic diversity are worse. An important new survey was published in September into the diversity of staff working in the top 5,000 leadership roles within the public and voluntary sectors. Conducted by a team headed by Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000 survey found that ethnic diversity in local authority leadership is so low that it “almost defies analysis” – and that was before Lambeth CE Derrick Anderson announced his impending departure. Though obviously not itself a statistical exercise, the LGC100 reinforces that sad conclusion.

Important as that conclusion is, though, it would be wrong for this particular blog to end on anything but a more upbeat note. First, there’s the overall picture, with local government people not only heading the list – the Manchester City Council duo of Leader, Sir Richard Leese, and CE Sir Howard Bernstein – but comfortably outnumbering, as they jolly well should, national politicians and officials by 46 to 33. And, if you forget the messy election business and count members of the Upper House as politicians – Lords Adonis (26) and Shipley (69) – then they just pip officials by 40 to 39. No amount of fiddling, though, will prevent the biggest single group in the top 20 being, by a distance, national politicians.

Finally and closer to home, INLOGOV Director Catherine Staite’s 45th position is, by any standards, a proud achievement – for her and collectively for those academic and other Institute colleagues with whom she works (I can say that, being nowadays extremely semi-detached and, at least in that sense, no longer among that number). It doesn’t mean LGC panellists have judged her more powerful or important than, say, Birmingham City Council Leader, Sir Albert Bore (50), or London Mayor, Boris Johnson (57), or even former INLOGOV Director, Sir Michael Lyons (70), author of the recent Labour-commissioned Lyons Housing Review of the underlying causes of the housing crisis.

It does, on the other hand, seem to suggest that those panellists see INLOGOV as already, and perhaps increasingly, prominent in the local government world, and – particularly through collaborative work with other public sector and international organisations – like the recent 2020 Vision report with Grant Thornton, Exploring finance and policy futures for English local government – – an increasingly influential player.

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