For local government scrutiny to match Westminster, Westminster must fund, empower and trust councils to do it

19/11/2017, 11:19:34 PM

by Mike Amesbury

For years, councillors, and local government as an institution has been rightly fed up. Fed up of being  told by Whitehall mandarins, policy wonks, and sections of the media that central government knows best, and that local government can’t be trusted to spend money efficiently and effectively.

When local councils feature in the national media it is more likely to be a report of an unfortunate, or context-free story about the odd daft parking ticket or litter enforcement notice, than any detailed coverage of innovative service delivery or agenda setting leadership.

National government – including disappointingly Labour in government, all too often saw local authorities as a funnel for delivering national policy, rather than trusted bodies able and capable of making their own decisions on spending and priorities. Of course, in comparison with the cuts councils currently face, a return to that 1997-2010 period would be hugely welcome. The unprecedented level of localised funding was positive and necessary – it was the constraints and control attached that were less so.

I know this, because for many years I was a councillor in Manchester, and when it comes to the assumption “Westminster knows best”, the reality is usually anything but. Recent LGA research showed that 72% of people trusted their local council more than central government to make decisions about their area. Satisfaction remains high and consistent – despite years of cuts and contraction in services. No local politician of any colour will look at Universal Credit, and accept that Whitehall knows how to deliver services locally.

So as a new member of the Communities and Local Government Select committee I’m clear that the approach I’ll take is to be local government’s voice in Westminster, not the other way round. I’m sure that my committee colleagues will do similar, with many of them bringing significant experience and expertise of local government to the House of Commons.

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The Monday column: When will Momentum strike?

13/11/2017, 10:00:44 PM

There was a good reason why the Roman Senate forbade the army from entering the city. Armies have a single purpose: to dominate and control. That’s what armies do: They march forward and vanquish enemies. Or there’s not really much point in having one.

From the grand events of antiquity to the humdrum affairs of Labour’s internal politics.

Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard, was created out of the remarkable insurgency that propelled him to the Labour leadership back in 2015.

It made sense for the Corbnyintes to try and bottle that enthusiasm and organisation, but Momentum was, from the very beginning, created as a standing army outside of the party’s control.

A back-up plan. If Corbyn was usurped by his internal opponents, Momentum could rely on hundreds of thousands of members and graduate into a new left-wing political party.

But June’s general election result has made Corbyn unassailable. His critics have withered. There is no realistic threat to his position, which begs the question: What is Momentum now for? Does it find itself without a purpose, or is it preparing the cross the Rubicon and seize control of Labour’s internal workings?

There have been skirmishes over the past few months, with local branches and constituencies across the country falling under the hard left’s influence. Meanwhile, Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman, is currently running for a seat on the party’s National Executive Committee.

And while it’s likely that a swathe of moderate councillors will be replaced by Momentum supporters next year, robust local government regulations will prevent the hard left from being able to force through illegal budgets and the like.

But Momentum has bigger ambitions and the mandatory reselection of MPs remains the Holy Grail.

So far, Jeremy Corbyn has been incredibly cautious about triggering a full-on civil war with his MPs over this, but if Theresa May presses ahead with the parliamentary boundary changes for the next election, Labour MPs will, de facto, face mandatory reselection.

Indeed, if she wants to bequeath a once-in-a-generation advantage to her party on the way out of Number Ten, Theresa May will allow the Boundary Commission to proceed with its work of cutting the number of constituencies from 650 to 600.

A full-on offensive to replace moderates with true-believing Corbynites will be too great for Momentum to resist. The resulting schism with the party’s moderate wing will cripple the British centre-left for a generation.

Can Momentum resist the urge to dominate and control?

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Animal rights and conservation aren’t the same thing. Labour needs to understand that to win in rural areas

09/11/2017, 06:07:08 PM

by Liam Stokes

Labour’s ability to reach out to rural communities is about to be seriously tested, not in theoretical policy discussion but out in the real world.

I have often written that any journey to a future Labour majority has to pass through the country lanes of rural England and Wales. Too many of Labour’s target seats are designated to some degree as rural for there to be any alternative route. The cultural gulf that has opened up between our rural communities and the Labour Party simply must be bridged, and the only way to do that is with a serious policy offer.

Labour’s shadow Defra team were at pains to ensure the rural community who turned up to Conference that they were in “listening mode”, but unfortunately it isn’t as straightforward as simply pulling together a distinctive set of policies. Labour rural policy has become increasingly synonymous with animal rights, a cul-de-sac from which the party will need to extricate itself if it is to be given a fair hearing by rural voters. Labour has actually developed some really fine proposals for the countryside in the past, but the animal rights lobby is so noisy that these policies get drowned out by fixations on the badger cull or propping up the Hunting Act. These are issues that influence the votes of a minute number of people, and mustn’t be allowed to be the extent of the party’s rural offer.

A great test of Labour’s ability to dig itself out of its direct association with the animal rights movement has emerged in West Yorkshire. Ilkley Moor is the last remaining council-owned moor on which grouse shooting and all its associated management continues, and in early 2018 the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council will be voting on whether to renew the shooting lease that has been held by the Bingley Moor Partnership since 2008. The council has a Labour administration, and the decision as to whether or not to renew will be taken by the 49 members of the council’s Labour Group.

The fact at the heart of this debate is this: moorland only exists with management. Our beautiful, much-loved uplands are the result of centuries of human effort, working in concert with nature. Heather moorland cannot exist if left to its own devices, and we have both a national and international obligation to conserve it. So who should manage Ilkley Moor?

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The Monday column: British politics has been reduced to farce

06/11/2017, 10:00:14 PM

It used to be said that a week was a long time in politics.

Not this past seven days, they have gone in a blur.

Every day, fresh revelations about our priapic politicians – ranging from the sordid to the pathetic to the downright dangerous – have filled column inches and clogged the airwaves. In the process, British politics has been reduced to farce.

It started with a Tory MP sending his secretary to purchase dildos. It ends with rape allegations and a trickle of MPs being suspended or referring themselves to their party’s hastily beefed-up disciplinary committees.

Forty Tory MPs are said to be on a list of miscreants, with the whips office being reduced to a chaperone service, ‘man-marking’ sozzled sex pests.

A defence secretary, forced to resign after a string of moments of madness.

A government whip, Chris Pincher, is also gone after allegations he made a pass at a young man.

Theresa May’s closest Cabinet ally, the first Secretary, Damian Green, left fighting for his political life after allegations ‘extreme’ pornography was found on his computer (an allegation, to be fair, he flatly denies).

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has had to plead with the Iranians to disregard his words after a criminally loose-lipped Commons performance blithely cut across the case of a British citizen locked up in Iranian custody while Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, the most junior occupant at the Cabinet table, has been exposed as dissembling about meeting foreign leaders without her bosses’ knowledge.

Not to be outdone, Labour has its own list of six MPs who are thought to erred from the path virtue. Two MPs, Jared O’Mara and Kelvin Hopkins, are suspended. Others will follow.

As this farrago of drunken lust and stupidity continues to unfurl in all its ignominy, Brexit has dropped out of the headlines.

Some will be thankful for the relief; but we should not be so easily distracted. Critical issues about our country’s future are being side-lined.

Interest rates are creeping up, even though the economy remains in a precarious state.

While no-one is watching, the Government floats the suggestion it could cough up £53 billion in an EU divorce settlement.

Centrist politics remains demoralised and leaderless as ideologues from the left and right dominate.

The NHS is spluttering to a standstill, starved of investment.

Housing remains in short supply and unaffordable for millions.

Living standards and wage growth remains flat, despite a record number of people in work.

Yet our parliamentary system has found no time to discuss any of these burning injustices.

British politics has been brought into disrepute this week. Not just because of the salacious stupidity of our elected representatives and what they have done.

Rather it’s because of what they are not doing.

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Stopping Brexit is a race against time. Labour MPs are in pole position

01/11/2017, 10:27:42 PM

by Rob Marchant

Perhaps, just perhaps, historians might look back at this week and say, that is the week that the tide started to turn against populist politics and at least some parts of the world managed to save themselves from it.

Probably for some states, Turkey, Hungary, Russia and perhaps Poland, from where I write, it is too late. But some with longer-established democratic traditions still may have the will and the mechanisms to turn it around, in time to prevent lasting damage.

It has been the week of two signal events: the first indictments in Trump/Russia, which may yet lead to the early collapse of an ignominious presidency; and a poll showing that public opinion may finally have twigged that Brexit negotiations are headed down a blind alley with no good result for Britain.

The first is the tip of an immense iceberg which is as yet far too early to call. But the second we can project a little into the future. So, when a YouGov poll says 53% of voters think we were wrong to leave the EU and 47% right, it is worth reflecting on. First, it could be a mere blip, an outlier. Second, this does not mean the Remainers in that poll think that we can even try and leave, as YouGov themselves argue here.

But let’s suppose that 53% were to become 60%, or even 70%. At what point does public opinion become strong enough that politicians have to sit up and think about remedial action? Clearly that point exists, if you can push the percentage high enough. Public opinion can be a fickle thing: but when it starts to decide something unequivocally, it cannot be ignored.

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If MPs privately oppose Brexit, they should show some public leadership and make the case against it

31/10/2017, 11:03:14 PM

by Jonathan Todd

To begin with a confession, when I heard that Douglas Ross, the Conservative MP for Highlands and Islands, was running the line in a Champions League match in the Nou Camp, I thought, “wow, how impressive and exciting”. While the hinterland – to use Denis Healey’s term – of too many MPs seems offensively and dangerously shallow, this is elite, non-political activity.

The generally negative reaction to Ross, including the oh-so-funny brandishing of a red card by SNP MP John McNally in PMQs, has felt to me curmudgeonly and small-minded. It reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ autobiography:

“I am strongly against the current fashion for full-time MPs … Being a full-time backbench MP is not in my view a satisfactory occupation … Excessive attendance at the House of Commons, with the too many hours spent hanging around in tearoom or smoking room which this implies, either atrophies the brain or obsesses it with the minutiae of political gossip and intrigue.”

These words have become heresy in the not quite three decades since written. We’d rather atrophy Ross’ brain than test it alongside Lionel Messi.

Yet we need MPs with brains more than ever. We need them, too, to have the courage, reinforced by a confidence that, if necessary, they’d prosper in careers outside of politics, to use them.

Shackling MPs to the tearoom limits their horizons. It makes them more likely to feel that their financial well-being can only be maintained by securing re-election, heightening the probability that their only instinct will be to follow constituency opinion. If this is all MPs are, we might as well have a legislature composed of 650 local sentiment algorithms.

Political life is a vocation or nothing. There’s scant point to any of it without animating purpose. There’s no socially democratic aim served by Brexit. Thus, social democratic MPs ought not to accept Brexit, or to only secretly hope that public opinion turns against it; they should, instead, stand for their pro-EU convictions and seek to move opinion with them.

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The Monday column: It’s time to curb the excesses of our lecherous legislators

30/10/2017, 07:33:08 AM

Westminster is full of priapic politicians and its casual culture of sexual opportunism has demanded attention for decades.

Yesterday’s Mail on Sunday revelations about trade minister, Mark Garnier – referring to his secretary as “sugar tits” while instructing her to purchase sex toys for him – feels closer to one of those dreadful 1970s Robin Askwith sex comedies – but its behaviour that would get anyone in any other organisation the sack.

Everyone in politics is aware of the few bad apples that lurk in each party’s barrel and further revelations about our lecherous legislators will follow in coming days.

The wandering hands, suggestive comments and leering looks are part of the fabric of our dysfunctional system that sees MPs – voting aside – generally left to organise their own working lives.

Late nights and constant boozing hardly help enforce desirable codes of behaviour. Throw in the seedy glamour of politics – the intrigue and back-stabbing – and it’s a combustible mix, for some, who perceive they have a free pass to behave appallingly.

And while laws to protect workers from sexual harassment apply just as readily to Parliament, those abusing their position are abetted by a culture of deference.

Not helped by the fact that the victims of harassment and predation in our political system are usually ambitious people themselves.

At the risk of stating the obvious, discretion is expected in politics. There’s a culture of what goes on in Westminster stays in Westminster and everyone who works there signs-up for that.

MPs demand loyalty, which is why they generally recruit from within their tribe. This inhibits staff facing unreasonable behaviour from speaking out. They know that to do so is career suicide.

None of this makes harassment acceptable, but it helps explain why it happens and why the victims of it are so reluctant to speak out.

Lacing the cafeteria tea urn with bromide might help, but the bigger aim should be to regularise Parliament as a workplace.

Reducing late night sittings and the endless round of receptions and dinners would be a useful place to start.

Ensuring that staffing disputes and complaints are arbitrated by a proper, functioning HR system, as Theresa May seems to be suggesting, is a sensible reform. The risk of investigation should be enough to make all but the most errant MPs behave themselves.

And rather than collecting dirt on their colleagues for the purposes of political leverage, perhaps the Whips offices should be held accountable for the conduct of their MPs.

Making them more accountable is the way to improve the behaviour of those MPs letting the side down. No doubt there will be a correlation between the lechers and the indolent. The hard-working and industrious parliamentarians have little to fear.

No-one enters political life – at whatever level – expecting it to be easy. Politics is and always will be a contact sport.

But when that contact involves being pawed or propositioned – or worse – by sozzled MPs there is clearly a line that needs redrawing.

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Irish reunification will land in our next Prime Minister’s in-tray

26/10/2017, 10:34:57 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Given the not inconsiderable amount of flak that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both received for their views on Northern Ireland, it is perhaps not surprising that ne’er a pipsqueak has been uttered by either of them on the subject in recent times.

But the prospect of a Labour Government requires some hard thinking about how Labour will approach Northern Ireland. It is no longer enough to coast along issuing bromides about the Good Friday Agreement.

There will be no escaping Northern Ireland in the next parliament, particularly as its shifting demography means it’s now a racing certainty that its constitutional status will be brought into question.

An opinion poll this week asked 18-44 year olds whether they wanted to ‘leave’ and become part of a single Irish state or ‘remain’ in the UK.  Fifty-six per cent wanted to live in a united Ireland and just 34 per cent opted for the status quo. Irish reunification is a medium-term reality.

In response, Labour needs to do three things.

First, the party should do everything possible to help restore the devolved institutions. Government efforts at doing so, following the collapse of the executive back in January, have been faltering – to put it delicately. What has been a problem throughout 2017 is now metastasising into a full-blown crisis.

This follows revelations that Arlene Foster, in her previous role as enterprise minister back in 2012, botched the implemented of a renewable heating subsidy that is set to stack up a £500 million liability for the Northern Ireland Executive. A judge-led inquiry is currently investigating.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, the aptly-named James Brokenshire, lacks credibility and has struggled to set out a convincing way forward. He recently warned Northern Ireland was on a ‘glide path’ back to Direct Rule from Whitehall unless a breakthrough can be made. It’s an epithet that also sums up his dismal tenure in the role.

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Labour – the new stupid party

22/10/2017, 10:30:08 PM

The Monday Column

How many times can you write: ‘Labour is screwed’ before you give up and do something else? Whatever the limit is, there’s a good chance we’ve now reached it. You can tell because correspondents on Uncut and many other blogs and publications on the centre-left have given up saying it.

I mean, what’s the point? 

Labour’s direction of travel is now set for the next few years, certainly until after Brexit in 2019. In lieu of issuing Cassandra-like warnings about the lurch to the hard left, there is little else left to say or write. The unreality of contemporary Labour politics merits little serious analysis.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn makes lots of speeches, but the content is invariably a reheated version of the same stump speech that he’s been making for the last thirty years (‘It’s not right that…’) There is little by the way of policy or strategy to scrutinise and discuss, with Corbyn’s recent Labour conference speech plumbing new depths of banality, culminating with a shout-out birthday greeting for Diane Abbott.

There is no attempt at widening Labour’s support base or providing a realistic programme for government. There is little to say about how an advanced market economy copes with Brexit and cultivates enough decently-paid jobs in a future of growing automation. Or how limitless demand for public services can be effectively managed and financed and our welfare state reformed so it provides affordable care for children and the elderly alike.

The mantra is simply ‘spend, don’t offend.’ There is no problem increasing public spending or extending public ownership cannot resolve. State-owned trains will never be late. The Royal Mail must be renationalised as a priority, apparently, just so the taxpayer can take on its pension fund deficit. Middle-class students’ university tuition will be eagerly paid for by working class young workers, (who themselves will never get the chance to go near a university).  Capital controls will ensure that jittery speculators and fund managers can’t rain on the socialist parade. 

Of course, the offer of ‘free stuff’ will not withstand a casual brush with the realities of government. But no-one seems to care about the small details any more. Even the Conservative Research Department must have given up keeping track of Labour’s open-ended spending commitments. (more…)

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Young Labour is just the start. Momentum is coming for Labour’s soul

20/10/2017, 01:56:15 PM

by Rob Marchant

Last week, in a set of motions to conference, Labour railed against British “imperialism”, decided to come out of NATO, nationalise the City and advocated that Israel can happily be abolished.

Actually, no. That was Young Labour. Bless them: there were probably tens or hundreds of sensible motions there which got no coverage (and you could almost forgive the howling historical gaffes in the text of these: Britain was in the Vietnam War? Really?)

But, as often in politics, the outliers tell a story: it was a useful indicator of what is likely to happen within Labour itself over the next few years, if there is no successful challenge to the current leadership.

The logic is not complex: the direction of travel of conference motions is clearly moving ever further towards the nutty. And naturally, what is commonplace in Young Labour today is going to be commonplace in Labour itself tomorrow.

It is typical in Labour circles – as in many unions – to argue that no-one pays any attention to such motions, it’s all a storm in a teacup, and so on. In the case of unions, that is almost certainly the case – union conferences rarely get much press coverage nowadays, and there have always been nutty motions.

The difference is that, in the case of the Labour Party, people do pay attention. In fact, the party spent years painstakingly recovering its credibility after its disastrous early 1980s conferences descended into farce, through precisely that kind of behaviour. It was only in 1985 when Kinnock raged brilliantly against Militant in his “scuttling around in taxis” speech, that there came a turning point in the party’s long, hard road back to credibility and, ultimately, to government.

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