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.

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.

Our elections should be about voter inclusion, not exclusion

Chris Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Source: Electoral Reform Society

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.

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.