In which I share some thoughts about localism

The current government are very keen to talk about localism. It’s second only to the, much talked about but rarely explained, Big Society, on their list of favoured nebulous concepts that sound like they might possible be a good idea, but only in a way sufficiently vague not to offend anybody.

Localism is more than just an idea though. It’s a whole Act of Parliament. The Localism Act, passed in November 2011, covers areas such as planning, local council structures and housing provision. The claim is that the Act, and other pieces of coalition policy, make decision making more localised and, therefore, more directly accountable to local voters. It’s dubious whether the Act actually does that at all. For example, the Act allows central government to cap levels of council tax rise, and define who should be considered high priority in housing allocation.

The other poster-policy for localism has been the introduction of elected police commissioners. Commissioners were elected in November 2012 with stunningly low turnout and high levels of spoilt papers. The idea is that an elected police commissioner is more accountable than a committee-based police authority, and, therefore, power is handed-back to the wider electorate.

Let’s unpick that a bit. A major premise here is that elected individuals are intrinsically more accountable. In one sense that’s clearly true. After a specified period of time the people who chose them get to consider their successes and failures and decide whether to let them carry on. However, it’s only true in a very limited sense. Officials elected for a fixed term are incredibly difficult to get rid of before the end of that term. If an elected police commissioner is just a bit irritatingly incompetent there’s no neat way of sacking them until election time comes around. (Worryingly, the same is true of Prime Ministers.) That means that an elected police commissioner in the first couple of years isn’t really accountable at all, knowing that all but the most major cock-ups of the first half of the term will be forgotten by election time. Similarly, a police commissioner with no intention of standing for re-election isn’t accountable to anyone at all, knowing that they will never actually have to explain their decisions or defend their record.

There’s another problem with the localism agenda and it’s highlighted by playing a very simple game when you watch the news. Every time you hear a national politician talking about “increasing local accountability,” simply replace the phrase with the words “decreasing our accountability,” because that’s what it means. Frustrated by the slow response of the police? That would be a local issue. Cold, wet, and hungry because of the lack of affordable housing? That would be a local issue.  But they’re not local issues, because central government retains its control of the purse strings. They want local police forces and local councils to appear accountable for local decisions, but they also want to maintain a capped level of council tax and reduce national police funding. That means that local councils and police commissioners are expected to be accountable for reduced outputs, but aren’t allowed to control the financial inputs.

More recently, the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, has gone further, demanding that local councils re-instate weekly bin collections, and threatening cuts in funding for those who don’t comply. You can understand Pickles’ concern over the bin-emptying turmoil sweeping the country. I don’t see anyway that a rational individual could look across the national political landscape and conclude that anything other than how often people’s wheely bins get emptied was the most pressing issue facing the nation.

What we have here is central government setting local decision makers up to take the blame for the way that national policies play out in local communities. Local councils and police commissioners aren’t able to set their own budgets and, increasingly, see their spending priorities dictated from Westminster too. They then take the flak for reductions in local services, because, the coalition tell us, these are local issues. All the while, the coalition talk about localism, directing voter’s attention, and anger, towards their local politicians, rather than national government, which is naughty of them really. Bad politicians. Bad.

So that’s my little rantette for this week. Come back next week, when there’s a reasonable chance I’ll be talking about 1% rises in welfare benefits and 30% rises in MPs’ pay, unless something more interesting distracts me in the meantime of course. Toodle-pip.

In which I think about American elections, British politicians and Others

So Barack Obama is still President of America, and many column inches have been expended on musing about why. Received wisdom has 2012 down as an election that the President should have lost, based on one of the most fundamental of all political truisms: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Incumbent Presidents in the US, or governments in the UK, don’t win when the economy is in meltdown, but Obama did, suggesting that we should probably be checking whether anyone’s still got the receipt for the wisdom we’ve received, and seeing if we can exchange it for something more useful. Like a hand blender or bobble hat.

What seems to have changed the electoral mathematics for Obama is good old-fashioned demographics. As many Republicans in the US already know, the party had slipped into the trap of only appealing to people just like them, and had failed to realise that that wasn’t going to be enough. Republican senator Lindsey Graham boiled the realisation down to a handy soundbite earlier this year when he noted that, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Unfortunately the need to focus on widening the base was somewhat undermined by incidents such as a black journalist having nuts thrown at her by Republican conference delegates, and the tendency of various Republican candidates to come over a tad unattractively wrathful on issues like rape and abortion. Probably not the way forward if you’re trying to broaden your electoral appeal beyond those angry white guys.

“But why does this matter? This is all about America, and you are a British based blogificator,” I hear you cry. At least I assume it was you. It’s also perfectly possible that the voices have come back. Well, it does matter, and there is a point. If you could just bear with for a few paragraphs more, I will totally get to it. It involves looking at the wider narrative about those demographics. So, it appears that Obama won because he held onto votes from African Americans, Latino Americans, younger voters and a significant proportion of women. In some quarters this has caused proper flarey-nostrilled consternation. Bill O’Reilly, who is reliably nutty on Fox News, came close to spelling it out in this clip, with its implication that self-interest is a somehow a non-white, non-masculine, non-American trait, which the non-white (and as Donald Trump would have it) non-American President played into.

Now you can form your own opinions on the intrinsic rightness, wrongness, reasonableness or racism of O’Reilly’s comments. What he’s doing is, in many ways, no different to what politicians and their supporters do in any election campaign at any time the world over. What he’s doing is what historians, anthropologists and sociologists would call “Othering.” That’s the process by which you define one set of values, and people, as Right, Good, and American (or British, or French etc), and one set of values as immoral, debauched, and un-American (or just not British). That second set of values are the ones held by the opposing side, by those people over there, who are different, other, not like us.

The key for a politician is to make sure that the big scary Other that you construct doesn’t end up being bigger or more attractive than set of “people like us.” That seems to have been where the Republicans fell down in this presidential race. By sticking to the hard right on issues like immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage, they shifted a whole lot of people who might have embraced a “hard-work, family-centred, low tax, small government” narrative, into the group of Others (or Obama voters as they are now known).

Othering phrases that do seem to work in politics are those which are inclusive enough for lots of people to think you mean them. “Hard-working families” was the buzz phrase in UK politics for close to a generation, and is still in use today. Politicians stick with it because they know that very few people will self-identify as lazy or idle, even if their work ethic rarely extends beyond bashing out a blogpost two days later than intended. In the long-term the phrase, potentially, falls down on the demographics again – as a nation we now have more single people and more couples living without children, so the emphasis on families becomes potentially alienating.

Ed Milliband’s more recently coined “squeezed middle” is another great example of an, apparently inclusive, othering phrase, because not only do a lot of people think they’re part of the “middle”, they also have a really strong notions of who isn’t part of the “middle.” Different people’s ideas of what the “middle” is will be wildly different. That doesn’t matter, so long as enough people think that the “middle” is them, and think that they are different from, and more deserving than, those Others, whether the Others are swanking around with undeserved millions or lounging around on undeserved benefits. If you achieve that, then the phrase is doing its political job.

And political rhetoric does matter, because effective rhetoric defines the terms of political debate. Phrases like “hard-working families” get used again and again with little examination. Those phrases allow politicians to obfuscate and talk about policy in generalisations rather than specifics. They also create a political narrative of division. By focusing on a notion like “hard-working families” politicians solidify a language where benefits claimants, for example, can be painted as undeserving because they are seen as not hard-working, and therefore not like us. The implication is that “hard-working families” are right and good, and people outside of that are Other, different, to be punished, to be feared. Getting sucked into the notion that people who aren’t like us are less deserving in some way seems like a dangerous path. So I think it matters that we notice when politicians, commentators and political journalists talk in othering terms, because then we can employ the oft-underrated skill of thinking about what they’ve said, rather than simply absorbing the underlying ideas.

That is all. Off you go now and have cake, or some celery, or just sit quietly. It’s very much up to you.

In which I consider how David Cameron is really surprisingly bad at politics

Last week saw a cabinet reshuffle at Westminster. Cue lots of twitter jokes about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, and lots of Newsnight footage of MPs in varying states on promotion and getting-sackedness. It was a truly amazingly terrible reshuffle, pretty much whatever point of view you look at it from. There are essentially four reasons for reshuffling a cabinet: 1) To make your government look more public-friendly and re-electable; 2) To shore up your leadership with the party faithful 3) You have no choice, because someone high profile quits or; 4) Because you want to announce something truly horrendous on the same day and it’s a handy way of distracting the media.

This reshuffle was in the middle of a paralympics, so I don’t think it was 4). We’ve had a summer absolutely tailormade for burying bad news, so why not save your reshuffle until you really need it? It’s not 3) either. Everyone who’s gone or been demoted appears to have gone unwillingly. So let’s assess the esteemed Mr Cameron’s success on points 1) and 2).

1) To make you government look more public-friendly and re-electable.

Let’s put aside the fact that we didn’t actually entirely elect this government. It’s looking increasingly likely that the next general election will be a good old fashioned two-horse race, the Lib Dems having thrown away the longer electoral war for the short-term “victory” in the Battle of the Coalition Agreement. Given that, if Cameron was looking for a reshuffle that would improve public perception of his government, how’s he done?

Let’s start with the positives. Andrew Lansley, formerly Secretary of State for Health was kicked into the political semi-retirement role of Leader of the House. That’s going to be popular in most circles. The year’s Health & Social Care Bill (on which I had views here) was astronomically unpopular, and the decision to present poorly people with bedside video of his big old head was, entirely inexplicably and unpredictably, met with some derision.

Other positives? No. None at all really. Let’s look at a fairly significant group in the electorate with whom the Conservatives are vulnerable, a full 50% of the population: the Lady-women. Now, astoundingly, despite being ruled by our wombs and prone to fits of fainting and hysteria, women in the UK are permitted to do voting. Historically, going back to the immediate post-war period, women were seen as much more likely to vote Conservative than men. That big gender disparity has largely broken down (as demonstrated in this analysis of the 2005 election polling and result), but Cameron still can’t afford to annoy half the electorate. His “Calm down, dear” comment during PMQs coupled with MPs’ schoolboy responses to comments about Nadine Dorries MP’s “frustration” have rather combined to create an impression of a boys’ club government, slightly confused that not all women around them are solely focused on perfecting their victoria sponge and selecting soft furnishings for the nursery. This was an opportunity to shuffle some women into the cabinet, but actually the number of women has gone down from 5 to 4 and a half (Baroness Warsi is still allowed to attend cabinet but can’t vote – one can only assume her role is to bring the biscuits and sit quietly).

But what about wider electoral issues for men and women? The political orthodoxy in the UK says that you win General Elections by occupying the centre ground. Even the most vilified of right-wing leaders, Margaret Thatcher, was able to present herself, accurately or not, as more middle-ground that the very left-wing Labour Party of the time. Tony Blair brought Labour back into government by steering the party sharply to the right and occupying the centre position left vacant by the Tory’s descent into infighting and obsessive preoccupation with the EU. This reshuffle can only be seen as a shift to the right. The cabinet (and indeed the Tory party’s) highest profile moderate, Ken Clarke, has been dumped from the Minister for Justice post and made Minister Without Portfolio, a position which doesn’t really mean anything very much at all. The architects of many of the most electorally difficult policies (Gove at Education and, of course, Osbourne at the Treasury) have stayed in post.

So, this isn’t a reshuffle to shore up Cameron’s position with the wider electorate. Maybe his focus is on…

 

2) To shore up your leadership with the party faithful

Moving to the right will be popular here. There’s real resentment amongst Tory rank and file at having to pay lip service to funny new fangled Liberal Democrat ideas, so the perception that Cameron is recommitting himself to core Tory values is likely to go down well.

But for these purposes you’ve got to question whether Cameron has gone far enough. More than anything else, this reshuffle looks kind of lame. He’s managed to only half-sack Lansley, Clarke and Warsi, which makes him look like a deeply indecisive and unconfident leader. Does he want them in the cabinet or not? In addition, he tried to get Ian Duncan Smith out of the Department of Work and Pensions, but Duncan Smith was able to leverage his popularity with the party to politely (or not) refuse. There’s no other context in which a boss can try to dismiss you and you get to just go, “Er, no thanks mate, if it’s all the same to you.” The papers, this week, are full of pre-party Conference gossip about stalking horse candidates and a possible return to the Commons for Boris Johnson, something of a perennial thorn in Cameron’s side. This is a time when Cameron needs to look strong as a leader – on the evidence of this reshuffle he just looks a bit meh.

 

There’s other things to be concerned about in this reshuffle too. Realistically, it doesn’t look like there are going to be any major policy changes on the Big News economic stuff. There might be policy shifts in other areas – Transport is the obvious one here, where the vexed issue of London’s airport capacity has shot right to the top of the agenda. But, essentially, the cabinet doesn’t make policy anymore anyway. Including those people, like Ken Clarke and Baroness Warsi, who don’t really know why they’re there, the new cabinet meetings will have 32 attendees. Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting with more than about 8 people will know that a group of 32 ain’t going to be a well-oiled decision making machine. And this reshuffle underlines the practice of policy being made by a inner circle of PM, Chancellor, their special advisers and possibly a handful of powerful ministers – Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith look like the men who’ve come out of this with influence in tact. Accepting that ministers don’t make policy, means that it’s fine to have ministers who know little or nothing about their area of responsibility. The position of Justice Secretary is a case in point. The post was created in 2005 when Tony Blair got rid of the post of Lord Chancellor. Previously the Lord Chancellor had to be drawn from the legal professions. The new post, as with any other cabinet position, was entirely in the gift of the PM. Up until now, all the occupants have been former barristers. Chris Grayling has no legal background or training, but he’s the minister responsible for Britain’s justice system. Knowing about stuff no longer matters, because it’s no longer the role of ministers to make decisions. It’s the role of ministers to appear on Question Time and try not to accidentally say anything controversial or interesting. It all makes me a bit sad really.

Oh and, Jeremy Hunt is the new Health Secretary. Jeremy Hunt supports homeopathy, apparently opposed the NHS tribute in the Olympics opening ceremony, supported the takeover of hospitals in his own constituency by Virgin Care and co-wrote a 2005  pamphlet which recommended healthcare system based on insurance and individuals choosing their own healthcare provider. In 2010, David Cameron claimed that the Tories were “the party of the NHS.” In 1997 Tony Blair promised us that things  could only get better. Reader, they lied.

In which I offer advice on how to be a government

Well it’s all been a bit quiet over here in blog world for the last few weeks. This has been for the simple reason that I have been super busy. Some weeks I have had to go to work on more than one day. You can only imagine the level of stress and exhaustion this causes to a silghtly flakey freelancer like myself.

However, it has come to my attention that, in my absence, the whole government has got itself into a terrible mess, which would appear to be pretty much entirely of its own creating. Thankfully I’m back and ready and willing to offer some simple tips on how to give at least the appearance of competence whilst in government. Obviously I’m entirely qualified to do this, based on my years of experience as Queen of Narnia. Running a medium sized country is a totally transferable skill. (Please note: some of the experience relayed in that paragraph may only have occured inside my mind).

1. Don’t draw attention to stupid stuff that no-one cares about

So imagine you ran a country where, for reasons forgotten long ago in the time of dragons and crusading and the like, VAT is paid on some items of takeaway food but not others. Imagine as well that, in the rules governing takeaway VAT, there was a whole lot of guff about ambient temperatures, and what constitutes freshly baked and whether food is to be eaten straight away or at a later point. Clearly these rules are not the best thought out regulation ever designed, but, unless you draw attention to it, no-one cares. No-one is marching on Downing Street demanding reform of the unfair fried chicken VAT rules. No-one is camped on the moors building stockpiles of VAT-free pasties to feed their anarchist army during the long years of civil war ahead.  By drawing attention to this issue you would simply pull yourself into the great big pool of stupid, and that is not the right image for a competent government to project.

2. Never express a (spin doctor pre-approved) “personal” preference on anything that isn’t a direct issue of policy.

Don’t comment on what your favourite biscuit is. Never disclose the contents of your iPod. And definitely, never relay in any sort of detail the precise circumstances of the last pasty you consumed. Primarily this rule is in place because, as an electorate, we simply don’t believe you anyway. Announcing that you’re partial to a jammy dodger doesn’t make voters think, “Well my nan likes jammy dodgers and she’s delightful. Clearly this bloke must be an ok sort.” It makes us think either, “Well, that’s stupid. Jammy dodgers aren’t chocolatey,” or “Hmmm… I wonder how many focus groups it took to identify that the jammy dodger was the biscuit that projected just the right level of empathy with the little people.”

And definitely don’t make up pasties that you “bought”. Because you didn’t. If you’re the Head of Government for a medium-sized nation, you don’t go on trains and get stuck at Leeds Station and realise you’ve missed lunch and end up buying an overpriced pasty because there’s nothing else available that you can confidently identify as food. You travel with an entourage – with security people, political advisers, civil servants, and other minions. In the circumstance of needing sudden sustenance on a journey one of those minion’s minions would be dispatched to cater to the party’s culinary whims. So when you’re asked when you last had a pasty, just point out that that’s an inane question and move on. There are 1001 things that you don’t regularly experience personally that it’s still entirely acceptable for a Prime Minister to have policies about.

3. Remember it’s “Don’t Panic” not “Panic”

In any sort of crisis, shortage or other small impediment to the continuance of the nation’s daily routine, the only real role of government ministers is to appear on television looking reassuring and telling people not to panic. The NOT TO bit is quite important there, and it’s particularly important to remember that panic isn’t really measured on a continuum. One is either panicking or not – it’s intrinsically tricky to occupy a state of moderate panic.

So, if a hypothetical government responded to a planned strike by fuel tanker drivers, by advising the populace to “top-up” their fuel tanks, that would be fairly silly. If everyone tries to top-up on the same day, there’ll be no fuel left. Weirdly, that government would have managed to cause exactly the same effect as, for example, the fuel tanker drivers going on strike, without the tanker drivers having to actually go on strike. You would, in that situation, have become the first government ever to undertake a trade union’s strike action for them. Thinking about it, as a dyed in the wool leftie, I should probably be applauding the effort.

4. If all else fails take a break

Fortunately for the current UK government parliament is about to break up for Easter (I know – parliament breaks up for Easter and Christmas and for a really really long time in summer – it’s just like public school). This does mean that the media are temporarily distracted from your stupid policies. All you, as a politician, have to do now is get through the holiday period without any embarrassing holiday fashion photos cropping up in the Sun. I’m sure they won’t though. I mean you’d have to have really annoyed a major media tycoon for them to bother chasing after those sorts of pictures. Ah….