Monday, September 24, 2007

A reply to Alan Macnab

Alan, who is a Haughton West resident and a LibDem candidate at last May's local elections, posed a series of questions to me in a previous thread (as well as on the Town Liar) regarding the aftermath of a possible "No" vote on Thursday. To do Alan's points justice, I'm creating this separate thread.

Two things before I start; the No campaign doesn't have a homogenous view on the future of Darlington politics - it simply brings together people of all parties and none who think that an elected Mayor would be a disaster for the Borough. Equally, whilst I am a member of the Labour Group, these are my own opinions, and shouldn't be taken as expressions of Party policy.

During the three days which remain before the referendum, are you prepared to:

(a) bring in more of the opposition parties and the people into the government of the Borough?

Ans: No. Local government in the Leader and Cabinet model deliberately mirrors Westminster's "first past the post" system. I'm not aware of any controlling group which voluntarily shares power after an outright election victory. So, the LibDems have control of Durham City and Hull City Councils, for example, but certainly don't parcel out Executive seats there on the basis of the proportion of seats won.

And neither should they - the system of election militates against this. If we had PR in local government, as is the case in Scotland, then the situation would be completly different. Then most Councils, including Darlington, would be hung, and parties would have to do deals. To see how impractical this is now, you only have to follow through the logic - a majority Tory Council appoints a Labour member as Cabinet Member for Transport, say. The Tory manifesto says that they will cut car parking charges and promote car travel. What does the Labour Cabinet member do? - if he follows through Labour's own priorities, then he can be sacked instantly by the majority Tory Group on the Council. If he follows Tory policy, then he will be perceived as a renegade to the Party position on which he stood for election. It's what I call "the tyranny of the numbers." There is an inescapable logic to one party rule under the Westminster model.

Would things be any different under an elected Mayor? I don't think so. Mayors have a bit more freedom than Group Leaders to appoint members of other parties to their Cabinets, but ultimately, the vast majority of elected Mayors are party political animals. The best analogy is with Gordon Brown's new government - he has appointed Baroness Williams and Lord Lester as advisors. Does that mean that the government is truly a partnership between the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties?

(b) allow opposition parties to chair the Scrutiny Committees;

Ans: Not sure. This is a more interesting proposition. I'm not sure how far controlling Groups voluntarily give the opposition carte blanche to run scrutiny committees - it's my impression that most (of all political hues) do not. Of course, the controlling group can take all the scrutiny chairs and vice chairs if it wishes. Scrutiny should work on a non-political basis, of course, so in a sense it is irrelevant who chairs the meetings.

I don't know enough about how Chairs of Select Committees in Westminster are appointed, but there may be some interesting lessons here. Certainly as far as I know, there are members of all three parties who chair Select Committees. Are they appointed on the basis of the proportion of seats won?

At the moment, Labour voluntarily gives up one chair and one vice-chair to the opposition. This is an area where the Scrutiny review of the democratic system over the next few months may be able to provide a lead.

(c) devolve power and funding to properly elected community foras which represent the people and are independent of political control or influence.

Ans. This is another massive issue. At the moment, there are Community Partnerships in some parts of the towns, and in others, there may be residents' associations. In the rural areas, of course, there are the parish councils, but there are swathes of the town with no community structures at all. Using the areas created by the new StreetScene project, more consultation skould take place with local people on key issues. The first priority I think has to be that a level playing field is created and all residents have a forum where they can raise issues.

I have to say, however, that trying to create residents' associations which are "independent of political control or influence" sounds like a pipe dream. For example, I know that in the LibDems' book of campaigning tricks, creating Residents' Associations with party followers/sympathisers is a key precursor to taking a ward. Didn't the LibDems try to do something like this in Harrowgate Hill before the last election, Alan, where you were a candidate? Political parties will always try and maximise support locally, and where Resident Associations exist, they will do that openly or covertly.

(d) hold state of the Borough debates where members of the public can receive warts and all reports on what the council are doing, what has gone right, what has gone wrong and allow people to question the political figures and chief officers on any manner of subjects without prior conditions.

Ans. It sounds like the "State of the Borough debate" idea is getting a bit out-of-hand. Again, I think that this is an interesting idea, but why should residents have to wait a year before senior officers and Cabinet Members can be questioned? At the moment, residents can ask questions at Full Council meetings, but have to give a lot of notice. Getting this straightened out, with more publicity so residents know their rights might be best.

(e) allow the opposition parties and community groups to contribute to the Town Crier.

Ans. It's always been my understanding that there are fairly strict rules preventing Council publications being used for political purposes. That's why you don't see non-Executive Labour Group members in the Crier, any more than you see members of the opposition. Cabinet members are featured, becuase the Crier exists to explain and promote the policy of the Council. I've always thought it would be a remarkable (if rather confusing) Town Crier which had pages devoted to slagging off the Council.

Promoting the work of community groups might be different, however. Again it's an interesting idea which will need to be explored legally as well as practically.

I don't know whether my amswers make it any more or less likely that you'll vote No, Alan - bear in mind, however, that whilst the Yes campaigners have promised the earth if an elected Mayor is created, I've tried to give an honest appraisal of the ideas you've proferred.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

Nick

Thank you for your reply which is very helpful.

I have finally made up my mind on the issue. Thank you for that.

Yes I was a candidate in Harrowgate Hill.

We encouraged the development of the Residents Association to give a collective voice to the people of that ward. As I said at the meeting which was called to discuss the idea there was a danger that things were being done to Harrowgate Hill rather than with Harrowgate Hill. As soon as the Association was formed all political parties backed out and the residents run it and hold democratic elections for officers. The Association is free of political influence which is right. The Association invites the ward councillors be be present to find out what they are up to and to question them and the schools are represented on the Association which is wonderful.

I will post later about the Town Liar. My tea is nearly cooked.

Alan

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.....

Aaah it the dreaded curse. I meant to type Town Crier not the august website. Sorry Nick.

The Town Crier should not be used for slagging off the council. It would be good to see what councillors (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the Independant) are doing. Perhaps then people will see how hard you really do work. Also the valuable work which voluntary bodies carry out could be publicised. Better still how about a residents suggestions page to enable people to bring forward their ideas and suggestions. How about incorporating that on the website?

As to my voting intentions. Yes it's no.

Paul Leake said...

Nick wrote:

(a) bring in more of the opposition parties and the people into the government of the Borough?

In the current system public accountability comes from having a strong opposition and until councillors are more willing to hold party colleagues to account (constructively of course) through scrutiny etc the Lib Dems or Tories could probably do far more for Darlington by being a strong opposition than gagged by having a few portfolios.

(b) allow opposition parties to chair the Scrutiny Committees;

Ans: Not sure. This is a more interesting proposition. I'm not sure how far controlling Groups voluntarily give the opposition carte blanche to run scrutiny committees - it's my impression that most (of all political hues) do not. Of course, the controlling group can take all the scrutiny chairs and vice chairs if it wishes.

Scrutiny should work on a non-political basis, of course, so in a sense it is irrelevant who chairs the meetings.

Being a scrutiny chair is meant to be about more than just chairing the meetings (as the allowances reflect) - it is about leading a non-partisan committee, and its dealings with officers and the public and to some degree providing direction. The majority party appointing more than a fair share of chairs creates the perception that scrutiny is in the pocket of the leadership and undermines the whole process, and anyway, good leadership of scrutiny may be found as much on the opposition side as among the majority party (depleted by potentially having lost many of its best and brightest to the Cabinet).

I believe HoC select committee chairs are appointed in proportion to membership of the house.

(c) devolve power and funding to properly elected community foras which represent the people and are independent of political control or influence.

Surely any democratically elected forum is by definition political? Now I think devolving power is a great idea, far better than the various appointed partnerships doling out vast sums, but it is properly political.

>I have to say, however, that trying to create residents' associations which are "independent of political control or influence" sounds like a pipe dream. For example, I know that in the LibDems' book of campaigning tricks, creating Residents' Associations with party followers/sympathisers is a key precursor to taking a ward.

I'd love to know which book of campaigning tricks Nick - I've still got most of the Lib Dem campaign books from my 10 years as an active member until 2005 (and from when I worked for the Campaigns Department) and while there was definite encouragement to get involved in apolitical community work (and recruiting sympathetic community activists as potential candidates) I can't remember anything about setting up front groups.

>Ans. It sounds like the "State of the Borough debate" idea is getting a bit out-of-hand. Again, I think that this is an interesting idea, but why should residents have to wait a year before senior officers and Cabinet Members can be questioned? At the moment, residents can ask questions at Full Council meetings, but have to give a lot of notice. Getting this straightened out, with more publicity so residents know their rights might be best.

One of the advantages of a proper debate is that the questioner and other members of the audience have a comeback on any statement made - the opportunity for a 'big conversation' if you like. Managing such debates is incredibly difficult if not to get taken over by a small minority or else fail to get to grips with key issues, but it would be nice to see more councils try.

miketually said...

I wonder if community groups could set up debates on particular issues?

The Echo debate was excellent, and I went to a Question Time-style event organised by St Andrew's church a couple of years ago, with Alan Milburn, Mike Amos, Dame Della and a Bishop on the panel, which was also excellent.

In the run up to the last general election, the Sixth Form got all the candidates in to be quizzed by interested students. Alan Milburn and the Conservative candidate got quite heated.

If we run another cycling symposium next year, I'd like to make it more of debate-style event, rather than a series of presentations like this year.

Anonymous said...

Not long to go now until YES we have an elected mayor, can't wait ! The whole 102,000 borough with one representative. then we can ditch the importance of the boroughs two Labour MP's Wilson & Milburn, as they will answer to him or her. Roll on Thursdays YES result!

Paul Leake said...

Show me anywhere the MPs answer to a Mayor. MPs will always point out that the turnout for Parliamentary elections is far higher than for any local government one - and anyway, Mayors are elected to lead the council, MPs are elected to by members of Parliament, which are very different things.