Sunday, February 25, 2007

Grown-up politics

Through the wringer at lunchtime on The Politics Show, interviewed by Richard Moss about the prospect of an elected mayor for Darlington.
My interview was preceded by a piece about Middlesbrough mayor Ray Mallon, and I watched his interview with his political agent. I've seen Richard's interviews often enough to know that he doesn't take any prisoners, but as he pinned Mallon on his record on crime, I was thinking "bloody hell" as I contemplated my turn.
Although there were a few interruptions and challenges, I tried to get across my key message that an elected Mayor dangerously concentrates power in one individual, at a time when local government is trying to act more pluralistically. The debate so far in Darlington, such as it's been, hasn't begun to properly consider this point, or indeed the fact that in at least 4 places in England where there are elected Mayors, residents are collecting signatures to return to the Cabinet and Scrutiny model!
In the three minutes allotted there wasn't time to talk about the loss of our 140-year-old ceremonial non-political Mayor if the proposal goes through, but this can be done at another time.
Elected Mayors are another gimmick of americanized politics shipped into the UK, and frankly their time has been and gone. After Monday, when the petition finally comes in, the debate proper can begin.


ian holme said...

watched the show with interest.

Whilst we both know my opinion of the labours groups term in office, it is important that the mayor debate looks beyond the recent past.

There are strong pros and cons on both sides of the argument, and i do hope that the debate can be held in an open and positive manner, so that those casting their vote can make a truly informed decision.
I do believe that the cabinet systems key weakness is one of public accountability, with key decisions being made beinf closed doors.
As you know, i am a frequent visitor to the council meetings, and to be honest the extent of "debate" is laughable.

If you genuinly wish to see a more "pluralistic" approach you should be examing ways of dealing with this and ensuring that the concerns of the electorate are heard loud and clear in the chamber.

Mike Barker said...

Nick: if you're going to head off this directly-elected mayor campaign, you'll need to be able to demonstrate that the current system, or some variant of it, allows for a more open democracy. As Ian says, full Council is a joke. There is no opportunity for debate; no opportunity for developing a line of argument through questioning. The mayor seems to see her job as protecting the Labour Cabinet members.
When I discussed this with Stella Robson, an entirely decent lady, she was very supportive of the current system because it allows for strong government without the inconvenience of effective opposition. Well, it certainly achieves that, though of course I disagree with her over whether that's necessarily a good thing!
Saying, as you do, that the current system is pluralistic because you talk to your partners, such as the Community Partnerships, is simply not good enough. Has there been any thought in Darlington to establishing a system of Area or Ward Committees, such as they have in many local Councils, with devolved powers and budgets?
While your argument that a directly-elected mayor places too much power in one person's hands is valid, it falls down in this situation because people believe that is already the case in Darlington, so why not go for a leader who is directly elected and therefore directly accountable.

ian holme said...

Nick, there is one other related point that has been niggling for some time.
I would be most interested to see a breakdown of the occupations of the current crop of councillors. It seems to met that they almost all come from one of the following;
Public Sector employees.
Self employed
Retired or "homemakers"

very few i think come from the private sector.
this must a have a great deal to do with much council business taking place during offices hours, making it virtually impossible for anyone from the private sector to be a able to fulfil his or her role fully as a councillor.

Given the apparent inability of various parties to recruit sufficient candidates, perhaps this is something worth looking at.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments. Replying fully may take more than one comment, so please bear with me;

(by the way, the following is written "in a personal capacity" the phrase which has given me a feeling of loads of freedom lately!)

(1) Firstly, I would have to gently dsiagree with Stella if she was implying to Mike that somehow the current set-up at Council is designed to keep the Opposition quiet. I don't know how long you've been attending Council, Ian, but for for many years both the Tories and the LibDems sat there supinely whilst business went through. That both parties are much more vigorous in the lead-up to the local elections is unreservedly good for democracy. I've always thought I could have loads of fun as an opposition member (and who knows I may get a chance to prove it soon), and I think even with the current rules, it's possible to make very effective interventions - Barrie Armstrong is a case in point.

The reason I think that Council doesn't work well is because it's a case of an old structure with a new system grafted onto it. Council used to operate with each Committee Chair introducing the minutes from the last meeting, and then the Opposition getting the chance to move amendments or make speeches on particular minutes. Discussion then too had to be related to what was on the agenda. Replacing the Cabinet reporting system as a straight swap does create some problems.

Specifically, as Mike notes, there is no no ability to follow through lines of questioning. As I've indicated, that wasn't really a feature before, but nevertheless, the ability to move amendments broke things up somewhat. I get frustrated that I am asked perhaps 15 - 20 questions by at least 5 councillors all at once, leaving me scribbling furiously and inevitably forgetting to reply to some points, or replying inadequately. So personally, I'd be all in favour of questions being asked and answered individually, which would allow for follow-up points. Council would take a lot longer, but democracy would be better served.

(2) Ian accuses the Council of taking decisions behind closed doors. This isn't strictly true - indeed it was a charge which could have been levelled far more justly at the old Committee system. Now Scrutiny meetings are forbidden to have a whip imposed. Cabinet meets in open session, but there is a problem in that there is no questioning of reports by the opposition there. Of course, if opposition members are unhappy with any report, they can have it called in to the relevant Scrutiny Committee, and it's hardly Labour's fault that the Tories or the LibDems hardly ever make use of this facility. Nevertheless, democracy needs to be seen to be done, and more of a dynamic needs to take place at Cabinet. For myself, I'm open-minded about how that could happen, and no doubt others will contribute to the debate.

(3) Area committees have been considered in the past, but given the very tight nature of the geography in Darlington, weren't thought to be a way forward. Things have changed somewhat with the establishment, and increasing maturity of Community Partnerships. What I'm certainly not in favour of is the tkenism of chucking a few grand at each ward member and letting them decide how to spend it locally, as one nearby authority does, or used to do. That's just tokenism, and hardly empowers local people.

(4) On Ian's final point, I don't have the breakdown to hand, but it's readily available as we have to declare what jobs we do each year as part of the Standards requirements.

Councillors can claim money for caring responsibilities (children or adults) as part of equal ops, but this only applies to formal meetings and not the myriad of informal meetings that we have during the day.

There has been a shift towards some evening meetings - Council has always done so, and now so does Cabinet and all of the Forums. Scrutiny and Planning Applications meetings, together with all informal meetings are during the day, and undoubtedly this creates problems for some potential candidates.

This is a hoarey old problem, because whilst recognising the needs of councillors and those who would wish to come to meetings (planning particularly comes to mind) we have to be fair to staff too. A Planning Applications meeting which began at 5.30pm would finish at around 9pm at the earliest. I entirely take the point you are making Ian, and maybe it's time to look at this again, but there aren't any easy solutions.

ian holme said...

Given the lib-dems manifesto released today, i have been giving your point 3 more thought.

You refer to the "maturity" of the community partnerships, yet these hardly represent every ward (11 i believe? or 12 now including Hurworth)
Indeed, whilst hurworth has been broadly welcomed by other p/ships, the response from dbc has been rather less than enthusiastic.(indeed quite obstructive on some matters)
Yet again this smacks of dbc only being interested in its own heartland wards.

Only if partnerships were establised for and on behalf of every ward, could they be seen as part of a solution to local issues.