Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Real Benefits Scam

One rule for them…….


Last week the Prime Minister gave an interview in which he announced that his government would tackle fraud and error in the welfare system.

Welfare and tax credit fraud and error cost the taxpayer £5.2 billion a year. That’s the cost of more than 200 secondary schools or over 150,000 nurses. It’s absolutely outrageous and we can not stand for it.”

Recent figures published (pdf) by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that overpayment to the claimant due to error and fraud amounted to £3.1 billion (or 2.1% of expenditure). Of this £3.1 billion the reasons for overpayment were; claimant/official error £2.1bn and Fraud £1.0bn. Fraudulent claims by “benefit cheats” accounted for just 0.7% of the total benefit bill.

Meanwhile, the same document also tells us that underpayment of benefits accounts for £1.3bn (0.9%).

In other words the amount overpaid to claimants is £3.1 billion but underpayment to claimants many of whom are in desperate need is £1.3 billion which means that if the system was run at its maximum efficiency it might save £1.8 billion per annum.

The Prime Minister also referred to Tax Credits. Figures provided (pdf) by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Custom (HMRC) shows that the amounts overpaid to claimants is £2.1 billion (of which some £460 million was due to fraud). Meanwhile there were errors of some £260m where claimants were underpaid. So again, the actual net gains are £1.8 billion

The Prime Minister’s £5.2 billion - £3.1bn overpaid in welfare benefit, and £2.1 billion in tax credits - apparently only refers to overpayments made to claimants, it is the gross figure not the nett.

Left out is any reference to the £1.6 billion where the government underpaid eligible claimants – unless, of course, the government is only planning to crackdown on errors in its favour and ignore errors that leave vulnerable claimants underpaid?

The actual gain from a more efficient operation of the welfare and tax credit system would be £3.6 billion per annum not £5.2 billion. But £3.6 billion is still a lot of money, to use the Prime Minister's own analogy that is 138 secondary schools or 104,000 nurses and given the size of the deficit he can't afford to overlook any opportunities to reduce that deficit which is, of course, the gap between government receipts and government expenditure.

Of course, the mantra is that in order to make something more efficient you have to give it to the private sector - so the government is planning to recruit private credit references agencies to combat benefit fraud.

This concerns the Information Commissioner who has written (pdf) to the Welfare Reform Minister to request a meeting seeking further clarification from the Department of Work and Pensions in relation to the government’s proposal to use information provided by credit reference agencies to combat benefit fraud.

In his letter the Information Commissioner says “I hope the Government is going to hold to the good practice of considering the data protection implications of policies at the earliest stage

The reference to the Information Commissioner allows me to mention the fact that back in early 2008, the Information Commissioner forced HMRC to admit the size of the “tax gap” caused by the practice of tax avoidance and evasion by wealthy individuals and large corporations.

This followed publication of figures (pdf) that estimated that tax avoidance was costing the country some £25 billion per annum (£12 billion from large corporations, and £13 billion by individuals).

Eventually, HMRC released an estimate (pdf) that the tax gap due to avoidance, general non-compliance, and non-payment was probably £22 billion per annum but could be as high as £40 billion per annum.

Since then a further revision (pdf) published in March by HMRC estimates that the tax gap across all HMRC administered taxes is £40 billion including £15 billion from indirect taxes, £9 billion from corporation tax and £16 billion from other direct taxes.

This adds up to 8% of the total tax liability (compared to the 2.1% of benefit payments lost to error and fraud). The other two countries that have published figures for tax gaps (Sweden and the USA) calculated tax gaps of 10% and 14% respectively, the latter percentage if applied to the UK would take the tax gap figure up to £70 billion.

Fraud is, of course wrong. But, as has been explained above the loss to the public purse caused by fraud in the benefit system is £1 billion, a third of the gross loss caused by error and fraud. Meanwhile, some £40 billion is being lost to the public purse each and every year by deliberate avoidance, non-compliance and non-payment of taxes.

Or as the Prime Minister might have put it, that's equivalent to over 1500 secondary schools or over a million nurses.
So why is the Prime Minister not implementing a tax crackdown on the rich and powerful to complement the benefit crackdown on the poor and vulnerable. Is it because it is easier to pick on the poor and vulnerable but takes more courage to take on the rich and powerful?

The reality is that we are facing tremendous cuts to public services not simply because we spend too much on public services but also because the government is inefficient at tax collection.

Reducing non-compliance and non-payment of taxes and closing loopholes that promote tax avoidance is likely to be more productive than working through the 140,000 cases where a claimant mistakenly received an average of £35 more than they should have.

Perhaps one example of the disparities between clamping down on benefit errors and fraud whilst ignoring tax errors and avoidance will suffice. The DWP published its Structural Reform Plan only last month and set the following target for itself for the end of the year:

6.4 Further reduce fraud and error in the benefits system to a maximum of 1.8% of expenditure

As pointed out earlier, the current level of welfare benefit error is 2.1% in overpayments, so a reduction to 1.8% would see £440 million recovered - except that by March 2011 it is estimated by the treasury in George Osborne's emergency budget that the level of welfare benefit payments will have increased by 2011 so that in fact a reduction to 1.8% lost due to error and fraud will see £3.05 billion lost compared to the current £3.1 billion - so a saving of £50 million then . Not quite the £5 billion headline figure quoted by the Prime Minister.

In contrast, back in 2005, a retailing business bought by “probably the greatest retailer of his generation” paid out probably the largest dividend in British business history – not to him but to his wife. The wife was a resident of Monaco so by assigning the assets to her it avoided any payment of tax to the British Exchequer.

As a result it was estimated that this single payment avoided some £300m in taxes. In other words this one transaction was worth six times the savings in public spending that the DWP expects to get from the Prime Minister’s crackdown on benefits.

The name of this “greatest retailer of his generation”? Sir Philip Green, recently appointed to advise the government on how to reduce public spending including the payments of benefits to people for whom £300 million is the stuff that lottery dreams are made of.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Blaming the referee shows how weak the Ashton Gate plan was


Supporters of a supermarket at Ashton Gate now appear to have decided the fault lies with the referee rather than accept their entire game plan is fundamentally flawed.

Bristol 24-7 article here

Monday, 19 July 2010

Lost and Found

The following crumpled up piece of paper was found outside the Council House by a foreign gentleman.  If anybody knows who it belongs to please contact Friar Mephistopheles, c/o Borgia 5, Ottavo Cerchio, Inferno di Dante.  For directions just ask a politician, they will know the way.  A small "donation" may be charged for its return.


Saturday, 10 July 2010

Dear My Friend Mr Bristol City Council

OPPORTUNITY TOO GREAT NOT MISS!



PLEASE IMMEDIATELY RESPOND



Dear My Friend Mr Bristol City Council,


I have great opportunity for you but must act soonest as all people will want be involved.

We have great INTERNATIONAL TOP BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY to assist you help in getting rid of unwanted land. We represent big business wanting to build housing on land and able to offer great excellent opportunity. This one time offer only so no delay please.

Please send us immediately £45,000 each year for gym membership for next 30 years. In return you get back £144,000 each year gym membership for 30 years – sorry no refunds. We build houses on your unwanted land to sell (but no council house please) and promise to bring World Cup (free tickets for you and Mrs Bristol City Council with VVIP special seat soon by VVIP Mr Blatter) and we very happy. You very happy. Everybody very happy.

INVEST NOW BEFORE TOO LATE.

FIFA Guaranteed. But must say Yes by 21st July or opportunity lost. We have many other interested party.

Send deeds to land very quickly as time is urgent. We speak to Mr Cook he say you very keen, also say you would like Arena. We promise Arena too but no guarantee. But museum more hard. Please send money now.

Your obedient servant,


Mr U B’nhaad
World Utopian Bank of Football (formerly Lagos Savings and Loan)
Guernsey

This no scam, this real offer. Hurry Now.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Who will be the big 3 to decide Bristol's future?


By this time next year, we could find that there will be three key individuals who will have considerable power over our city’s future development...

Bristol 24-7 article here

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Who will be Bristol's champion in Whitehall?


In a speech delivered in Hull on Friday, David Cameron said that

"I will be assigning Ministers and senior MPs to some of our biggest cities, with responsibility to work with local communities to help drive forward economic development by making sure blockages in Whitehall are dealt with."

Bristol is, of course, one of those biggest cities, so are we destined to get our own "champion" in the corridors of power at Whitehall?

If so, who?

Well, it would almost certainly need to be a "local" MP, and it is unlikely, for obvious reasons, to be either of our two Labour MPs in Bristol. So no championing role for Dawn Primarolo or Kerry McCarthy.

In addition the use of the words "Ministers and senior MPs" will appear to rule out "newbies" like Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West), Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) or, a little bit further afield; Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset).

So who does that leave?  Well, if we look at the West of England Partnership area, we get the following list;

Liam Fox (Conservative, North Somerset)
Steve Webb (Lib Dem, Thornbury and Yate)
Don Foster (Lib Dem, Bath)
John Penrose (Conservative, Weston-s-Mare)
Stephen Williams (Lib Dem, Bristol West)

Of the above John Penrose is Minister for Tourism and Heritage at the DCMS, Liam Fox is the Secretary of State for Defence, and Steve Webb is the Minister for Pensions at the DWP.  Stephen Williams and Don Foster currently have no ministerial responsibilities.

The water-cooler talk is that if the UK's major cities do get a champion, that the Lib Dems will insist that Bristol is represented by one of their own on the basis that it is already run locally by a Lib Dem-led council - in which case Stephen Williams may be the favourite.

On the other hand, an alternative viewpoint is that it is the Bristol "city-region" that will be represented, in which case three of the four councils are currently run by the Conservatives - and in this scenario, Liam Fox is said to be the favourite.

So Stephen Williams or Liam Fox?  Who would you prefer as Bristol's champion to unblock the bureaucracy at Whitehall?


Note: The boxing match picture at the top of this blogpost was taken from a Flickr article about Albert "Boy" Bessell, a pre-war Bristol boxer who was brought up in the same street as my nan.  If you want to find out more about him, click here

Friday, 28 May 2010

Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies

Eric Pickles - Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to provide guidance to Chief Planning Officers regarding the Regional Spatial Strategies.  Planning Authorities are no longer required to make decisions on housing supply within the framework of regional numbers and plans.



Wednesday, 26 May 2010

‘Make Your Mark’ mosaic to be unveiled in Bristol by Mark Watson on Tuesday 1st June


At 1.30pm on Tuesday 1st June a giant West Country artwork, created by hundreds of people from across the region will be unveiled by Bristol comedian Mark Watson, who launched ActionAid’s Make Your Mark campaign to find 1,000 people in the area to make their mark on poverty by sponsoring 1,000 children in Africa and around the world. The unveiling is part of a 2 day event to celebrate International Children’s Day.

The artwork will be made up of around 800 self portraits by people across the West Country. Together they will make up the face of 5 year old Enid from Uganda, who like 72 million children around the world, cannot go to school because of poverty.

From 11am-5pm on Tuesday 1st & Wednesday 2nd June, Bristol’s College Green will come alive to the African beat as children and families are invited along by ActionAid, for a taste of life in different countries and cultures.

Highlights across the two days include live music from afro jazz band Hélélé, with percussion and singing workshops from lead singer Alphonse Daudet, story-telling and African dancing with members of Nomakanjani from Zambia, drumming workshops with Bristol’s Omer Makessa, former lead singer with Mankala, Moussa Kouate on a traditional 21 string kora harp, street dance by Easton’s internationally-acclaimed young dance troupe Hype, face painting, world food stalls, an ultra-violet, interactive den where children can discover the sounds & sights of the jungle and create glow-in-the-dark arts & crafts and a family art competition with fantastic prizes for the most creative images of Africa.

Find out more about the event at www.actionaid.org.uk/makeyourmark

Bristol Friends of the Earth objection to access road for BCFC Stadium

Submission of Bristol Friends of the Earth to North Somerset P and R D Committee Wed 26th May on the planning application for the new BCFC Football Stadium

Bristol FOE strongly urge you to reject the recommendation of your officers and refuse planning permission for the access road. The Travel Plan presented by the Club as the basis for a Transport strategy for the new stadium is a piece of fiction with figures deliberately manipulated to under-represent the number of extra cars arising from the new development and so paint a unrealistically rosy picture of the traffic and parking impacts on local streets and the local highway network .

Your officers have given you poor advice in relation to the Travel Plan and in the statement that ‘to turn down the application would be disproportionate’. The traffic problems which will inevitably follow from the grant of planning permission on the basis of this flawed Plan will not stay on the Bristol side of the border and both Councils will be involved in conflict with fans and local residents, additional expense and staff time when it turns out to be unworkable. The current stadium has three entrances all in Bristol, the new one will be squarely in North Somerset.

You should turn down this planning application on the basis that the combined Traffic Assessment/Travel Plan is so fundamentally flawed that it is unreliable. Even if you support a stadium, you should ask the Club to go away and only come back with a new Plan which starts with a realistic baseline for the current number of cars so effective monitoring and enforcement can take place, contains concrete measures for travel behaviour change by its fans, evidence of current and future parking areas and costings of bus and parking arrangements. All are lacking from the current Plan. And your officers need to ensure that there are prenegotiated safeguards in the Plan which Councils can enforce in the event of failure on the part of fans and the Club to meet the Plan’s agreed conditions.

Vanishing cars

The function of a Traffic Assessment/Travel Plan is for the applicant to come up with a strategy to deal with the extra cars arising from a new development and for Council officers to assess its reliability and effectiveness to protect the highway network and adjoining residents and agree its implementation and enforcement. The role of the officers is not simply to rubberstamp. Nothing in the Club’s documents or public statements has shown a real willingness to tackle the crunch issue of how they get their fans out of their cars so that local communities are not swamped by an even bigger parking free for all than exists at the moment. Instead the main aim of the Club’s combined Travel Plan/Traffic Assessment has been to’ lose’ cars. Two independent transport consultants working with local residents have advised us how the ‘vanishing cars’ effect has been achieved by the Club’s transport consultants.

1. Organise a 2008 fans’ survey. The results show 57% are car drivers and 18% passengers. Discover that these figures give an increase in cars of a whopping 4971 extra, so ignore it and use lower figures (32% car drivers and 51% passengers plus a high passenger per car figure in 2) to show a future increase in cars of only 2769. A loss of 2022 cars.

2. Use a high figure for 1.6 passengers in each car which is also not supported by answers in the fans survey.

3. Put forward a planning application for a 30,000 seater stadium but a Travel Plan for only 23,800. Result 1,600 less cars even using the Club’s flawed method.

4. Use the 23,800 figure and 1 and 2. to conclude that the total of extra cars will be only 2,800.

5. Produce a Travel Plan which you claim reduces the extra cars by about half (1383). Do not provide any detailed figures, breakdowns or costings of how you achieve this. Fail to set any targets for increasing cycling, walking and public transport use to the new Stadium. Our calculations show that the 20 extra buses and 140 bike parking spaces in the Travel Plan (using their figure of 2.6 people in each car) can only reduce cars by 670 even if all extra 20 buses were full 80 seaters and all bike parking spaces used. What measures in the Travel Plan achieved the disappearance of the other 713 cars?

6. Stick to your claim that the Travel Plan reduces cars by 1383, this leaves just 1411 cars to use in your modelling of the impact on the road network. Use a model that deals shows only the Stadium traffic not the combined Sainsburys and the Stadium impact.

7. When the Traffic Assessment shows that even with only 1411 cars you will still have congestion and queueing at the entrance to the new Stadium, use the fallback that it is only once a fortnight for part of the year and special traffic measures will be put in place on those days.

The conclusion of our two transport professionals is that more realistic trip generation figures would render the junctions and links surrounding the proposed stadium inoperable.

BCFC’s inability to find adequate parking

It is extremely unlikely that the club will find the required extra off street parking even at the artificially low figure of 1411. The Club’s current parking policy is a ‘find your own parking space’ free for all for non season ticket holders (home and away) and a similar free for all for season ticket holders once the parking spaces arranged by the Club at sites such as Wickes and Clanage Road are full. There is certainly no information on their website to direct fans who are not in the know to prearranged sites. For example, at Wickes season ticket holders get first preference as the Club’s steward limits the cars depending on how many shoppers are using Dreams and Wickes .We were told by a fan if you don’t wear the team colours and act as if you are planning to buy a bed or some DIY equipment, you can get past the steward. If this fails, see if you can get into the Sainsburys car park as they have no attendant.

Our understanding is that the Club has 1,500 off street parking spaces arranged with local businesses and a further 451 spaces at Ashton Gate, about off street approx. 2,000 spaces in total. Within the last couple of months the Club has lost the use of the sizeable Park and Fly site at South Liberty Lane which is now to be used for rail. The 200 space Imperial Tobacco site is also up for sale or rent.

Following the recent yellow lining of Brunel Way so that fans could no longer park there, anger was directed towards the City Council. These recent events highlights the insecure nature of the Club’s current parking arrangements and does not bode well for the future. Parking space can be withdrawn at the will of the owners if arrangements don’t work out or a change of use, activity or ownership occurs.

We asked the Club to explain how they would meet the requirement for 1411 new parking spaces.

They said that the new Stadium will have 1230 new car spaces if you include 250 car spaces and 130 car spaces for 24 coaches in the Park and Ride site in the total. However,at the same time they would lose 451 parking spaces in the current Stadium and 150 cars would be displaced from Ashton vale and 90 from Long Ashton by the Residents Parking Zones. So the move to the new Stadium results in a displacement of 691 spaces where fans park now so the net increase will be only 549 spaces.

We asked for evidence of additional new parking sites and were told that an ‘extension ‘at Clanage Road has been negotiated . It is not clear if this is a extension in time or space. I investigated the further 3 sites given to me by the Club – UWE at Bower Ashton has 100 spaces and the other two were working industrial units with a total of about 30 spaces. The Club is still negotiating with all of them. The Club also mentioned additional parking spaces at the other two Park and Ride sites. Reserving Park and Ride parking spaces for football fans at a peak shopping time is we believe an issue that merits full public discussion in the context of the both North Somerset and Bristol’s future transport policy before it is agreed between the Council officers and the Club. In view of the annual subsidy of Park and Ride sites from Council funds, it is vital that any parking of football coaches and fans cars pays its way and do not hinder the current operation of sites or impact economically on tourism or shopping in the Centre of Bristol.

Flaws in the Travel Plan include manipulated results, lack of detailed costings of measures particularly Park and Ride site parking , lack of targets for increasing cycling, walking and public transport use to the new Stadium, unreliable traffic modelling and complete lack of safeguards to protect local residents and the road network when higher traffic results. Combined with the lack of real evidence that the Club can maintain its existing parking level let alone find an inadequate 1411 spaces on top, means you have more than ample grounds for rejecting the planning application. Thank you

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Not So Great Reform Act 2010



I listened to Nick Clegg’s first speech as Deputy Prime Minister and found myself agreeing with much of what he said. In fact his key points - repealing of intrusive and unnecessary legislation, reforming politics to be more open and transparent, redistribution of power away from the centre – are all things that I wholeheartedly support, who wouldn't? - after all they are the stuff of Motherhood and Apple Pie.

Getting rid of ID cards, protecting the right to peaceful protest, controls on the £2 billion lobbying industry, recall of MPs, an elected second chamber, reform of party funding, revision of libel laws, and so on are also all things that can be found in my shopping list of “things I would do if I ruled the country”.

So why am I finding it so hard to get excited about this new coalition government?

The problem came when the Deputy Prime Minister referred to these proposed changes as the “biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832” which he describes as a time when “huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests” before some politicians “stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few”.

The problem is that the Great Reform Act of 1832 was not great – instead it' greatness is a myth, a scam, a swindle.

After it was passed “huge swathes of the populationstillremained helpless against vested interests” and, in fact, the Whig-led coalition government (later to become the Liberal Party) went on to introduce one of the most regressive pieces of legislation that any British government had ever introduced against those“huge swathes of the population”.  This was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 - which declared that “no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the authorities except in a workhouse”, and that “conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help”. What is the point of reform if it abandons the most vulnerable?

That any coalition led by the Whigs would not totally embrace reform might be obvious to those familiar with the writings of an earlier Whig, the MP for Bristol, Edmund Burke who stated in 1780 that “popular election is a mighty evil” before later going on to say that if the franchise was extended “learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude

And so, rather than extending the franchise to the many, the Act merely added some of the better-off to the ranks of the privileged, giving them a stake in maintaining the status quo. Before the Act, some 440,000 adult males had the vote in England, Wales and Scotland; afterwards the electorate had risen to just 720,000 men out of a total adult population of 13 million. In Bristol, where riots usually seen as in support of reform had broken out in 1831, the effect of this “emancipation” was to see its two pro-reform MPs replaced by two anti-reform MPs who campaigned hard against any further extension of the vote. If this is a progressive Liberal Democrat's idea of great democratic reform, we are in for a long hard slog to become a truly democratic modern society.

In fact, a long hard slog was what faced real reformers in 1832. It was to be another 35 years before any further widening of the franchise was pushed through parliament with the Liberal politician Lord John “Finality Jack” Russell being in the forefront of preventing any further reform – insisting that the 1832 Act was final and further reform unnecessary. It was not until 1928 that all adults, regardless of wealth, class or gender were given the vote, nearly 96 years after this Great Reform Act.

Nick Clegg’s reference to the events of 1832 should serve to warn us that we are in danger of being presented with another Great Reform swindle – one in which some of us are once again offered a greater stake in the status quo whilst others are effectively disenfranchised and/or find themselves facing great hardship as new legislation is bought in that will hit the poorest amongst our society disproportionately.

The new government’s proposal to raise tax allowances, for example, will do little to benefit the poorest 3 million households whilst the anticipated plan to increase VAT will hit those same households harder because a higher proportion of their tax is in the form of indirect taxes like VAT. Meanwhile the commitment to reducing the deficit by a ratio of spending cuts to taxation of 4 to 1 will mean that ring-fencing the NHS budget simply means larger cuts in areas such as social housing and public transport which again will hit poorer households hardest.

The fact is that there remains a body of political opinion on the right who believe that the working class housing estates of our towns and cities are still full of “swinish multitudes” for whom being on benefits is somehow a lifestyle choice – these are the same people who still believe that many young girls have only one ambition in life; to get themselves pregnant so that they can claim child benefit. For this body of opinion, a welfare system in which “no able-bodied person out of work was to receive money or other help from the authorities” and where conditions “were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help” seems perfectly acceptable. But the rest of Britain has moved on since the 1830s and so instead we get “The Big Society”, where those who can afford it are encouraged to help themselves, whilst those who are most in need will find it increasingly hard to find any support at all as the state turns it back on them.

Another politician with Bristol links, Henry “Orator” Hunt speaking in 1831 asked a large crowd why they were so keen to support the Great Reform bill which, he said, would give the so-called middle classes “a share in the representation, in order that they might join the higher classes to keep seven millions of the lower classes down”. Paul Foot in his book “The Vote” describes the response when Hunt asked;

Do they propose to lessen our taxes?” (“NO!” came the roared reply.)

Do they propose to keep their hands out of our pockets?” (“NO!”)

To give us cheaper bread, cheaper meat, cheaper clothing, to work us fewer hours, or give us better wages?”

To the deafening crescendo “NO, NO, NO!” Hunt asked: “Then how the devil are you interested, pray?”

Sorry Nick, although I like what you’re offering if it is at the expense of the poor and vulnerable of our country, I’m not interested. I repeat...what is the point of reform if it abandons the most vulnerable?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Yo Clegg! Can the Lib Dem leader avoid being seen as Cameron's poodle?

One of the most damaging episodes in the decline and fall of Tony Blair as Prime Minster involved an example of those microphone mishaps that appear to be par for the course for recent Labour Prime Ministers.

At the G8 Conference held in St Petersburg on 17 July 2006, US President Bush was overheard greeting the PM with "Yo Blair!". For many political commentators, the style of the greeting was seen as confirmation of the subservient role that Blair (and Britain) had played in its "special relationship" with Bush and the United States. To them it reinforced the image of the British Prime Minster being at the US President's beck and call; that he was, in effect, Mr Bush's poodle.

As his successor Gordon Brown's recent mishap perhaps shows, often what matters is whether the image resonates with the general public. The Sun's 1992 polling day picture of Neil Kinnock inside a light bulb with the caption "will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights" may not have been "wot won it" but it certainly wounded Labour whilst the cruel cartoons of John Major with his underpants worn over his suit did much to damage his public image, as he himself has admitted. Never has image and perception been so important in British politics as it is today.

Nick Clegg is now in the position of being the junior partner in a coalition government in which all the major strategic positions (Prime Minister, The Treasury, The Foreign Office, Home Secretary) are taken by the Conservatives. In order to obtain the positions of Deputy PM for himself, Business Minister for Vince Cable, Energy and Climate Change for Chris Huhne and 2 other cabinet positions, Clegg and the Lib Dems have had to make some major concessions, including; agreement to an additional £6 billion of additional cuts this financial year, abstention on the vote for introducing new nuclear power stations, agreeing to a cap on immigration, a referendum on AV rather than STV (the Lib Dem preference), agreeing not to oppose the "marriage tax", no mansion tax, and no opposition to the replacement of Trident.

Although the Conservatives have made some concessions including on capital gains tax and earnings linked state pensions, and have accepted a longer term aspiration to raise the tax allowance band to £10,000, on the whole the coalition has been mostly one of Lib Dem give and Tory take. Nevertheless, the coalition agreement was given overwhelming backing at the recent one-day Lib Dem conference with only a few dissenting voices. Having watched Cameron and Clegg take their vows, most of the Lib Dem party is still enjoying the honeymoon.

There are, however, three real tests of the Liberal Democrat support for the coalition just around the corner.

The first of these is George Osborne's announcement of how the £6 billion immediate reduction of the deficit will be implemented, probably on Monday 24th. In their respective manifestos, the Tories said they would cut £4 of spending for every £1 raised in tax, compared to the Lib Dems who wanted £2.50 of cuts for every £1 of tax. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, although both parties had identified some £11-12bn of public spending cuts they still had much higher levels of unspecified spending cuts still to identify.

In the case of the Lib Dems this amounted to another £35 billion but the Tories greater emphasis on cuts versus tax raising meant that they were looking for half as much as this again, with over £52 billion of public spending cuts needed to be found, or another £18 billion compared to the Lib Dems - so there will be close examination of the measures announced and the clues they might give to later targets for spending cuts.

Second test will be the delayed Thirsk and Malton election on May 27th . A relatively safe Conservative seat, this will be the first real chance to see what Liberal Democratic voters really think of the coalition government.

A major drop in the Lib Dem vote may well cause second thoughts in many Lib Dem ranks, especially if there is a major swing to Labour. The Greens have seen party membership jump by 10% with many of those new members being discontented Lib-Dems, whilst Labour say that they have had 13,000 new members since polling day, also including many Lib Dems. Losing members is bad enough but nothing worries politicians more than the prospect of losing votes, and the Lib Dems are no exception to this rule - a bad day in Thirsk could spell trouble for Nick Clegg.

The third test will be on June 22nd when George Osborne announces his emergency budget. Many Lib Dems are holding up the Tory commitment to increasing income tax allowances to £10,000 (from £6,475 for working age individuals) as a prime example of the concessions they have wrung from their coalition partners. Although there will not be an immediate rise to this level, many Lib Dems are expecting at least an increase of a £1,000 (which will cost some £5 billion per annum or most of the £6 billion immediate deficit reduction).

However, some commentators have speculated that the rise may only be a few hundred to around £7,000. Anything less than an increase to £7,475 for working age individuals may spark more dissent amongst the Lib Dem faithful especially if the budget aims to deliver the extra £18 billion of as yet unspecified Tory cuts referred to above. If even more additional Tory cuts are given priority over Lib Dem tax breaks, some may start to raise doubts about the level of "poodling" being done for the Conservatives.

For many Lib Dem supporters, the alliance between Clegg and Cameron may start to bring back memories of an earlier one - that between the two Davids; Steele and Owen. It may also be difficult for them to avoid remembering the images from the TV programme Spitting Image which portrayed the Liberal leader David Steele as being abject, worshiping and completely compliant to his alliance partner - in effect, Spitting Image portrayed Steele as Owen's poodle.

If Clegg fails to adequately demonstrate that the Conservatives are also making key concessions in the coalition government he may find that his fellow Liberal Democrats will start to associate his relationship with Cameron with that of the Spitting Image portrayal of the two Davids. The real disaster for the Liberal Democrats however may well be if the rest of the country start to associate Clegg with the image of Blair as Bush’s poodle.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

‘Make Your Mark’ – Submit Your Self-Portrait











Join thousands of others throughout the West Country who are helping to fight child poverty



ActionAid are urging people in the South West to send in self portraits for a major public artwork before it’s too late. The deadline to ‘Make Your Mark’, and send a self portrait on a specially created template is Monday 17th May.

Unveiled on Bristol’s College Green on 1st June, a sea of West Country faces will make up this giant mosaic of the face of 5-year-old Enid from Uganda.

Enid hopes to make her mark on her village by becoming a teacher. But first she needs to go to school. Making Your Mark and submitting a self portrait will help to raise awareness of the 72 million children around the world, like Enid, who do not attend school because of poverty.

West Country celebrities have already made their mark by submitting self portraits, including Bristolian comedy writer and actor Stephen Merchant; comedian Mark Watson and none-other-than Darth Vader himself (Bristol actor David Prowse).

Leading anti-poverty charity ActionAid is holding the event to help find a thousand new child sponsors in Bristol and the West Country, so they can support children like Enid and their communities. ActionAid works with communities to create an environment in which children can thrive. Regular donations from sponsors help communities turn that support into whatever’s needed most – whether it’s a new school building, trained teachers, healthcare services, clean water supplies or help to build sustainable livelihoods.

Mark Watson:
“As a comedian I spend my life talking about myself, so I thought drawing myself would make a nice change.”

Bristol writer and actor, Stephen Merchant:
“I sponsor a child in India. My donation each month helps to support her and her entire community - it’s such a rewarding relationship.”

Liz Waldy, Head of Supporter Marketing at ActionAid:
“Sponsoring a child is a unique way of getting help direct to the people who need it most. ActionAid works with the world’s poorest people, helping them access many of the things we take for granted like education, healthcare and clean water.”

More info & self portrait templates available here

Follow ActionAid on Twitter: @actionaiduk / Like ActionAid on Facebook / Watch the videos on YouTube
 
 
 

Friday, 14 May 2010

A More Honest Leaflet for Bristol West?


Above is a possibly more honest version of the standard "X can't win here" leaflet so beloved of the Liberal Democrat Party. In case you missed the subtle change;



If you read Stephen's "three things to remember", he says:

"Only Stephen Williams or Gordon Brown's Labour candidate can win here.  The Conservatives are third and have no councillors in Bristol West."

Obviously Stephen and the rest of the Lib Dems felt so sorry for the Conservatives and their lack of representation in Bristol West that they decided that they would represent the Conservative point of view themselves - even if it was at the expense of Liberal Democrat policy commitments.

So Stephen and his fellow Lib Dem MPs will absent themselves on any vote to introduce new nuclear power stations, along with his yellow colleagues.  Effectively this removes the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs from the vote leaving the Conservatives with a majority over the remaining parliament - so when it comes to making decisions about new nuclear power stations the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs have effectively decided to give the Tories the majority government they didn't earn at the ballot box from the electorate of 45 million.

I am sure all those local Liberal Democrat politicians and activists who turned up for the recent anti-nuclear demonstration in Bristol will find some way to justify that position, after all this is the age of pragmatic politics, so the important thing is that the Lib Dems can still say that they didn't vote for that new power station at Hinckley Point/Oldbury on Severn in their election leaflets. Meanwhile Chris Huhne, the newly installed energy and climate change minister will hope that nobody remembers that he told the Associate Parliamentary Renewable And Sustainable Energy Group;

Our message is clear, No to nuclear, as it is not a short cut, but a dead end

Likewise, I am sure the local Liberal Democrats will say that the cuts to public services between now and the next local elections are not their fault either despite them supporting the agreement to go along with Tory plans to slash another £6 billion from the deficit in 2010/11, largely by increased cuts to public services. This is despite Nick Clegg making it clear at the Lib Dems conference in March that he would not support plans, backed by the Conservatives, for early cuts to public spending; 

"I think, we think, that merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism"

But that was before polling day and the offer of John Prescott's old job. Likewise, it was before polling day that Nick was telling us that a cap on immigration would not stem the number of immigrants as 80% of immigration was from the EU which had freedom of movement.  But now he is Deputy Prime Minister of a government that will introduce a cap on non-EU immigration.  As for the EU, well the Liberal Democrats have now agreed to toe the Conservative Euro-sceptic line by agreeing to a referendum on any further adoption of leglisation that involves further powers going to Europe (how that is defined is apparently unclear).

Returning to Stephen Williams, surely it would be churlish to remind him that he said that "the government's recent promise that it will hold a referendum on the alternative vote system some time in the next parliament is simply not good enough", now that the new Liberal-Conservative government says it will hold a referendum on the alternative vote system some time in the next parliament.

Stephen was also complaining that Labour had previously reneged on their 1997 promise to introduce proportional representation because, as Stephen also points out, the Alternative Vote system offered by Labour is not proportional representation.  He is absolutely right of course, it is disgraceful the way in which political parties renege on promises made during the election campaign - it is indeed"simply not good enough"

The question is - will we, the electorate, ever learn?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Make Bristol Even Better.....

Bristol Green Party Election Broadcast.

(Warning to fellow politicos: This broadcast contains policy statements rather than negative campaigning!)

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Every cook can govern.....Bristol Radical History Group

PLEASE NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE

The Bristol Radical History Group


Election Special 2010

‘Every Cook Can Govern’

From Athens To Westminster?

Date: Wednesday 21th April 2010

Venue: The Stag & Hounds, 74 Old Market Street, BS2 0EJ, next to the Evening Post Building.

Time: 7:30pm

Price: Donation

Speakers: Dan Bennett, Tony Dyer, Dave Cullum

*Please Note That The Venue For This Event Has Changed - It Is Now At The Stag & Hounds*

Proponents of parliamentary democracy often hark back semi-legendary ‘golden ages’ as a foundation of universal enfranchisement. Do these myths have any basis in reality and what relevance do they have today? Dan Bennett and Tony Dyer follow a historical path from ancient Athens via Anglo-Saxon participatory democracy through to the French Revolution. Dave Cullum poses the question, is representative democracy necessary for modern capitalism to exist?

Every Cook Can Govern

Daniel Bennett's talk will encompass historical debates about democracy following the English and French revolutions and how aspirations about representative democracy lost sight of the Athenian ideal of real and participatory democracy. He will end with a discussion of the possibility of election by lottery, the equivalent of rule by jury.

Anglo-Saxon Democracy

Tony Dyer's talk will look at how Anglo-Saxon democracy developed out of a natural democratic system that empowered all members of a community to participate in the decision-making process - it will then look at the outside pressures that saw this participation undermined and neutered in the name of 'civilised' democracy, resulting in the electoral system today whereby power has passed from the many to a few.



An expert barrister in health and safety law, Dan Bennett is also the author of A Brief History of Corporations (reprinted by Bristol Radical History Group) a widely sold pamphlet in Britain and the US. Dan has also used his expertise at the bar to handle the town green planning applications for the several areas in Bristol threatened by development.

Bristol born Tony Dyer is an active green campaigner and frequent blogger (as Aurea Mediocritas) on local political and environmental matters.

Dave Cullum was once the Captain of the record breaking Easton Cowboys Cricket Club 2nd XI, is still a connoisseur of fine ciders and authored of Society and Economy in West Cornwall c1588-1750 (Exeter University, PhD thesis, 1994).

Monday, 29 March 2010

Do We Know What We Are Voting For?

Do people vote for policies or do they vote for personalities? 

To put it another way, will we vote in the General Election for the party that best reflects our own views on how the country should be governed?  Or will we vote for the party leader that is on the TV a lot and appears to be slightly better (or less mediocre) than the others?

Dr Richard Lawson has pointed me in the direction of The Political Compass which has analysed the different political parties based on their policies and then assessed them against a 2-dimensional chart.  Their view is that "the old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape".  Essentially the old left-right line is OK if you consider it as referring only to the level of control of the economy with "left" meaning a more controlled economy why the "right" would leave more to the "free market".  However, the social dimension is also important in modern politics with attitudes ranging from extremely authoritarian to extremely libertarian.  Different parties have different combinations of social and economic policies, so two parties may have similar economic policies but have very different policies in terms of their approach to society.

When applied their analysis to British political parties, they found the following result;
Which would tend to imply that, as far as both society and the economy goes, the Conservatives and Labour are almost like two peas in a pod, with the Lib Dems also having economic policies of a similar type but with a more Libertarian approach to society, although not as Libertarian as the Greens who are also the most left-wing party.

The website gives you the opportunity to take an anonymous test to give you an idea of where your own political viewpoints place you on this socio-economic chart.  My result is as follows;



Which apparently means I have similar socio-economic views to Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.  Who would have known?  And I wonder which party has policies that best reflects my views?

There is another website worth looking at called Vote For Policies, which Charlie Bolton has mentioned. The site allows you to choose from a range of policies covering several different areas and then choose which policy options you think are best.  The trick is that it doesn't tell you which party each policy is from, so you are making an objective choice.

When I looked at the site about 10,000 people had taken the test, and the breakdown of selected policies by party was;


What was most interesting was the Green Party policies were top in each of the nine categories of Crime, Economy, Democracy, Education, Health/NHS, Environment, Immigration, Europe and Welfare, in each case the Green Party policy being selected by between 25% and 37% of the survey takers.


As far as the three main parties were concerned; the Lib Dems were second on Democracy, the Economy and the Environment.  The Conservatives were second on Education, Health/NHS and Immigration whilst Labour were second on Europe and Welfare.

Of course, it might well be that the site has mainly been visited by Green Party voters, but, having said that a quick search reveals the site mentioned on a number of different sites none of which appear to be particularly for Green Party voters, as well as in a couple of newspapers.

Will this transfer into votes?  Of course not.....having read the comments on a couple of forums where people have discussed how they  found that they had selected mainly Green votes they still say they will be voting Labour, Conservative or, sometimes Lib Dem on the basis that they will be voting for a candidate they feel is more likely to win in the First Past The Post System that doubles for democracy in this country, even when that candidate's party will be implementing policies that they have just failed to select as the best policies.

It appears that the way the democratic process operates in this country, means that we have to make do with second-best when choosing our politicians.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Let the people really decide how to change Bristol


If Neighbourhood Partnerships are to have any chance of success they must expand their membership beyond the “usual suspects” of local democratic participation...new Bristol 24-7 here.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Would You Like To Rent My Roof?

A small (un)civil war has broken out between some real heavyweights in the environmental world.

It all started when the UK government announced it's Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariffs (also called the Clean Energy Cashback) which will mean that home owners who install solar electric systems on their houses will be able to sell the electricity generated at a premium price.  More details here

This prompted an article from George Monbiot in the Guardian about it being a solar panel rip-off that will merely see public funds that could be used to reduce fuel poverty instead siphoned off to the better-off.

This, in turn, prompted a response from Jeremy Leggett, and now Jonathon Porritt has also weighed in.

It is easy to see where Monbiot is coming from, solar electricity panels are not cheap and you need to have a reasonable amount of disposable income to be able to install them.  Without the initial feed money you are a non-starter.  On the other hand, any incentive that encourages the use of renewables (unless it involves turning vast amounts of rainforest into jatropha plantations) should be encouraged.

At a conference in Bristol on Thursday (18th March), another environmental heavyweight, Alastair Sawday, suggested a possible solution; renting out your roofspace to an entrepreneural solar energy company that will install the solar panels for you.

The idea is simple; the solar energy company could contract with individual houseowners to install solar panels, with the company providing the capital investment in return for a share in the revenues earned from the renewable electricity sold back to the grid at a premium.

The beauty of this, of course, is that, as has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the poorer a neighbourhood the lower the levels of electricity usage tend to be.  Solar panels, on the other hand, generate the same level of electricity regardless of how poor the owners of the roof they are installed upon happen to be - sunlight is happy to be distributed across all classes of roof without a trace of snobbery.  Common-sense would therefore imply that installation of solar panels by our solar electricity company will be most profitable if they are installed in areas where the electricity usage is already relatively low (i.e poorer areas) because this will mean a greater proportion of renewable electricity being available for selling back to the grid and thus a greater return on their capital investment.

In fact, it may even turn out to be profitable for the solar electricity company to retrofit other energy efficiency measures, such as cavity-wall insulation, additonal loft insulation and so on to maximise the amount of renewable energy being sold back to the grid.  The home-owners of course, will see a reduction in their household electricity bills.  There may well need to be some form of mutually agreed mechanism to counter the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, but otherwise, for once, the poor will be the customer of choice rather than the wealthy.

Now, who would like to rent my roof-space?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

"Wrong to impose nuclear on future generations but clean, sustainable energy is deliverable"


A new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is not needed and would leave an unacceptable legacy of radioactive waste to future generations, the leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt told a packed meeting of the Stop Hinkley campaign in Taunton last night (Tuesday 16 March).


It would be totally wrong to impose on future generations a problem for which we have no solution,” he said. “We don’t know how to deal with nuclear waste. There is no clear strategy. We are just hoping that the next generation can sort it out.”

This included the spent nuclear fuel which would be stored at a new Hinkley nuclear power station for as long as 160 years.

Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and head of the government advisory body, the Sustainable Development Commission, said he had both practical and ethical objections to a new construction programme of nuclear plants, of which Hinkley “C” would be the first.

I have huge concerns about the cost of nuclear power,” he said. “Don’t believe a single word that comes out of the industry. This is an industry that has obscured, concealed, lied and deviated from the truth from the 1950s onwards.” He gave the example of the £76 billion it now emerged it would cost to decommission existing nuclear facilities, let alone any new ones. This money would have to come directly from the taxpayer.

The economics of nuclear power were so unreliable, he added, that it was possible that Hinkley C would never be built because investors would have nothing to do with it.

He was also sceptical that new nuclear reactors like the ones proposed at Hinkley would help in the battle against climate change. “Even if we replaced all our existing fleet of reactors, as the government wants, we would still only cut about 4% of our 1990 level of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “The idea that we can wheel in nuclear power to deal with our low carbon imperative is a flawed argument.”

No new nuclear plant was likely to be up and running before the middle of the next decade, he added, which would be too little too late.

Instead, Porritt painted a picture in which Britain ’s future energy needs would be met by access to endless and clean sustainable energy. “I am absolutely persuaded that this is deliverable,” he said.

His prescription included four elements – a major campaign on energy efficiency, massive investment in renewable power, more use of combined heat and power generation and, in a transition period, the development of cleaner fossil fuels.

On energy efficiency he said that the UK could reduce energy consumption by 30 to 40% over the next two decades by measures like improving the efficiency of the existing housing stock. “The government just hasn’t done enough,” he said. “The fact that you don’t hear politicians talking about this is a nightmare.”

On renewable power he said that we were “the most blessed country in Europe ”, with tides, wind and waves waiting to be exploited round our coasts. “This is no longer a niche industry,” he added. “Renewable power has become a major international industry and now commands billions of pounds of investment around the world.”

Porritt said he was in favour of a power-generating barrage across the Severn Estuary, in spite of its potential environmental and social costs. This would meet up to 10% of the country’s electricity needs.

Porritt concluded that although “climate change is serious, we have an alternative to nuclear power. I find this hugely exciting. But there’s a battle for the hearts and minds of green activists. That’s why your Stop Hinkley campaign is so important, and it needs to get bigger.”

About 150 people attended the Stop Hinkley meeting in the Temple Methodist Hall, Taunton . They were encouraged to sign a petition against the new Hinkley “C” power station. This will be presented to the government when a planning application is submitted by Electricite de France, probably in August.

Jim Duffy, Coordinator of Stop Hinkley said: "People said they found Jonathon's upbeat talk inspirational - the way he handled the heavy subject matter was in an easy entertaining manner. Some waverers said they were convinced by his arguments. I think decision-makers should pay attention to the brighter outcome for present and future generations that this very respected environmentalist has mapped out."

Further information: http://www.stophinkley.org/

Related information;
Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Global Warming?

The Rebranding of Nuclear Power

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Struggle for Democracy; How we won it and how we lost it.


5th - 25th April 2010
In the run up to the 2010 election this is your essential guide to how we got the vote, where representational democracy has gone wrong and possible alternatives to party democracy.

Recent British histories arrogantly claimed that the ‘we’ brought democracy to the Empire and ultimately the world in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Despite centuries of struggle to wrestle power from an elite few, the vote in Britain is still seen as a gift from the rulers to the people to help bring ‘us’ into the modern age. These days, the establishment of western style ‘democracy’ is used by Britain as a context for invasion, war and occupation.

In April this year through the media of public lectures, debates, history walks and other events, Bristol Radical History Group will be critically examining the British history of democracy and enfranchisement. Tracing a path from the English and French Revolutions via the Spencerites, the Chartists and the Suffragettes to New Labour we will be trying to answer the following questions:

How was the vote for everybody achieved?

Who wanted democracy and who didn’t? What was the composition of the movements that fought for the vote for all? What did these movements actually want?

What were the alternatives?

What did we end up with?

Is democracy historically necessary for capitalism to exist?

Does ‘democracy’, as we know it, have a future?

Join us in uncovering the hidden history of democracy and enfranchisement in Britain. A perfect antidote to the misery of "election fever".

Full details of all the events are here but, on a purely selfish note I would like to emphasise the following event in particular;

‘Every Cook Can Govern’
From Athens To Westminster?

Date: Wednesday 21th April 2010
Venue: GWRSA, Temple Meads station, BS1 6QQ.
Time: 7:30pm
Price: Donation
Speakers: Dan Bennett, Tony Dyer, Dave Cullum

Proponents of parliamentary democracy often hark back to semi-legendary ‘golden ages’ as a foundation of universal enfranchisement. Do these myths have any basis in reality and what relevance do they have today? Dan Bennett and Tony Dyer follow a historical path from ancient Athens via Anglo-Saxon participatory democracy through to the French Revolution. Dave Cullum poses the question, is representative democracy necessary for modern capitalism to exist?

Save Bristol's Libraries


The Bristol Branch of the IWW trade union is calling for strong and decisive action from other unions to stop brutal cuts wrecking Bristol's library service as the IWW today launch their own campaign against the cuts.

Bristol's library service, run by Bristol City Council, is looking to cut £225,000 from the libraries budget this year, largely by axing nine staff across the service. This is despite the libraries budget being underspent by £181,000 last year.

Most of these cuts will be made at the city's flagship Central Library where staff say users may have to wait two hours or more to obtain books and information from a slimmed down and understaffed reference library.

The council is also proposing to spend over £0.5m providing 'self-service' facilities at libraries and will then only provide one supervisor for every two branch libraries in the city.

IWW spokesman Frank Hutchison says,"Bristol City Council have promised there would be no cuts to frontline services. They lied.

"Libraries are among our most important and much-loved public services but here in Bristol the service is being systematically destroyed to save money.

"Meanwhile, despite the huge public outcry and concern, the traditional trade unions are sitting on their hands and failing to act."

"If they won't, we will. These unions are not only letting down their members but the wider community too."

"We will therefore be holding a public meeting in the near future to bring together library staff, concerned service users, other workers worried about the threat of cuts to public services in the city and the wider public."

The IWW says it will be fully committed to any campaign that's launched as a result of this meeting and will look to resource and fund that campaign as best it can.

"Doing nothing - or worse, doing a backroom deal to sell our library service down the river - is not an option," said Mr Hutchison.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Lower taxes that are paid are better than higher taxes that are avoided


We need to invest in this country, and close tax loopholes that cost us billions. After all, we are all in this together… aren’t we? ...Latest Bristol 24-7 article here

Proportional Representation in Bristol

With an election approaching, the subject of how we elect the people who are our representatives in the House of Commons has been the focus of much attention - for some, like the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, the subject of electoral reform has been a long standing issue, others appear to have had an almost Damascene conversion to its merits perhaps brought on by concerns of self-preservation, whilst for some the concept that most voters should actually have an impact on the election of our representatives is a custom that appears to be more honour'd in the breach than the observance.  I suspect that a few lament the passing of rotten boroughs where all this campaigning business was largely unneccessary, and they could get on with the important business of running the country without pandering to the public sensibilities of the less politically capable.  Consensus politics is for wimps, after all.

Unfortunately, progress being what it is, and the result of the upcoming election being somewhat uncertain for the two main parties - and it is a well-documented fact that the more uncertain an election, the greater the  interest in electoral reform because nobody almost certainly guaranteed of an election win (whether at national level or at constituency level) has much enthusiasm for giving a greater say in that election to those who will in the current system be the losers - electoral reform is on the agenda.

The map above, is one suggestion for how the country might be divided into constituencies for an election to be decided by Single Transferable Vote (STV) - explanation here.  Below is the Bristol area in more detail with colour used to define different constituencies;


The system above is based on a system supported by the Liberal Democrats which also reduces the number of MPs by 20% to 500.  It proposes that Bristol and South Gloucestershire be combined to create a single constituency electing 5 MPs (for the forthcoming election 7 MPs will be elected to cover individual portions of Bristol and South Glos.).  My own feeling is that that it would be better for Bristol and South Glos to be treated as separate constituencies, and that the proposal to reduce the number of MPs to be retained for a time when greater levels of governance are devolved to local communities.

So in my adaptation of the above, I would have a constituency of Bristol electing four members of parliament.  This is actually quite conservative - because a conservative view is one of maintaining the traditional approach, and for much of its political life Bristol has been a single constituency electing multiple members to represent the city as a whole.  For 225 years from 1660 Bristol had two MPs who represented the entire city between them, it has only been for the last 125 years that Bristol has been subdivided by bad mathematicians into discrete areas apparently on the premise that Southmead has more in common with Stoke Bishop than it does Hartcliffe, or that Stockwood has less in common with Bishopworth than it does Hillfields.

So, thanks to the bean-counters, Stockwood is in Bristol East not Bristol South and Easton (the name's a clue) is now not in Bristol East but in Bristol West (which actually covers Central Bristol) and the largely Conservative voting residents of Stoke Bishop have been transferred, in the interests of equal democracy, from the constituency of a Lib Dem MP to the constituency held by a Labour MP (which most Stoke Bishopians presumably hope will soon be a Conservative constituency much to the dismay of the largely Labour voting Southmead electorate).  The situation is absurd.  The constituencies as defined bear no relation to the reality of any functional adminstrative and organisational boundaries.

The political party that appears to be most set against any move away from the First Past The Post system that, in my view, currently makes a mockery of much of the democratic process in all but a few marginal seats, is the Conservative Party.  It is strange therefore to report that it is the Conservative Party that has, potentially, the most to gain in the Bristol and South Glos area from electoral reform.

In the 2005 election the four Bristol seats saw, roughly, 79,000 votes cast for Labour, 52,000 for the Lib Dems, and 46,000 for the Conservatives.  Another 12,500 votes went to the other parties, about half of those for the Greens.  The MPs elected were one Lib Dem and three Labour.  If the election had taken place under STV rules, the result would almost certainly have seen the nearly 25% vote for Conservatives getting the result of 1 Lib Dem, 2 Labour, and 1 Conservative MP.  In addition at least 93% of those who voted would have seen their residential area represented in parliament by a candidate from the party they voted for.

For South Glos, the MPs sent to Westminster in 2005 were 1 Lib Dem and 1 Labour despite a voting pattern that saw approx 40,000 vote Lib Dem, 33,000 vote Labour but 38,500 vote Conservative.  STV would have almost certainly seen the Labour MP replaced by a Conservative MP whilst the increase to three MPs in 2010 would be likely to allow 96% of voters to be represented by the party they voted for.

In summary, a STV system would have seen the Bristol area elections that sent 4 Labour and 2 Lib Dems to parliament replaced by an election that sent 2 Labour, 2 Lib Dems, and 2 Conservatives to Westminster.

So why are the Conservative so set against any changes to the electoral system?  Are they willing to sacrifice the votes of Bristol Conservatives in the cause of greater gains elsewhere?  Or do they simply believe that the FPTP system is the best system there is, despite the fact that the British failed to recommend it when determining the most democratic political system for the new Germany in 1945?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

What do six of the seven most economically powerful English cities have in common?


Spot the odd one out in the two lists below of the largest English cities by economy outside London, and their approach to integrating transport.

Urban Areas outside London and size of economy measured by GVA

1. West Midlands (Birmingham)  = £44.9 billion
2. Greater Manchester = £44.8 billion
3. West Yorkshire (Leeds)  = £37.6 billion
4. West of England (Bristol) = £23.3 billion
5. Tyne and Wear (Newcastle)  = £19 billion
6. South Yorkshire (Sheffield) = £18.8 billion
7. Merseyside (Liverpool) = £18.4 billion

List of Integrated Transport Authorities in England

1. Centro (West Midlands)
2. GMITA (Greater Manchester)
3. Metro (West Yorkshire)
4.
5. Nexus (Tyne and Wear)
6. SYITA (South Yorkshire)
7. Merseytravel (Merseyside)

Rail patronage in Merseyside has increased by 10.1%, in South Yorkshire by 9.4%, and in the West Midlands by 5.9%

Bus patronage has increased by 7.4% in Tyne and Wear, and by 4.9% in Greater Manchester.

Manchester
"Bus operators in Greater Manchester have continued to invest in new low-floor, accessible vehicles which have raised the percentage of wheelchair accessible vehicles to 71.5% – exceeding the national target of 50% by 2010/11" -

Newcastle
"The Tyne and Wear Metro is the UK’s most cost efficient urban railway system. 69 per cent of operating costs are met from revenue alone, with only seven per cent of costs coming from local authorities. The subsidy per journey is 42p, which is up to seven times smaller than that of heavy rail systems in other UK cities"

Birmingham
"The Midland Metro line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton, which opened in 1999, has taken an estimated 1.2 million car journeys off the roads with 15 per cent of passengers using the tram instead of their cars for the same journey. It operates at around 99 per cent reliability and carries around 5 million passengers a year."

Sheffield
"The South Yorkshire heavy rail network provides benefits of £35m and costs £20m a year in subsidy. This indicates a benefit of around £1.75 per £1 of subsidy."

Leeds
"The free buses that Metro has introduced in Leeds, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Bradford have carried almost 6.9 million passengers between them."

Liverpool
"Passenger Focus's Autumn 2008 National Passenger Survey found that, at 71%, satisfaction with value for money was higher among Merseyrail passengers than among passengers for any other train company"

(All quotes are from the Passenger Transport Executive Group)

Meanwhile.....back in Bristol;

"Bristol had the slowest average road traffic speed—16.8 miles per hour—of any of Britain’s major cities"

"Bristol, the economic heart of the [South West] region, is severely affect by road traffic congestion and is the only city in the United Kingdom where congestion is projected by the Department for Transport’s own figures to increase despite improvements already planned."

"Bristol has the lowest proportion of public transport per head of the population of any major urban area in the UK."

(Bristol quotes are from the House of Commons South West Regional Committee First Report on Transport in the South West )

Transport for Greater Bristol have more background on why the Bristol area should have an Integrated Transport Authority just like every other major city in England, and the statement they made and presented to the Joint Transport Executive Members of the West of England Partnership is well worth reading here

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Friday, 26 February 2010

The Fabian Society's View of Bristol

AN EXHAUSTIVE COLLECTION OF STATISTICAL
AND OTHER FACTS RELATING TO THE CITY;
WITH SUGGESTIONS FOR REFORM
ON SOCIALIST PRINCIPLES.

Published by

THE FABIAN SOCIETY


//

PRICE ONE PENNY.

MAY, 1891.

To be obtained at the Office of the Fabian Society, 276 Strand, London, W.C.; of the Secretary of the Clifton and Bristol Fabian Society, 18 Cotham Road, Bristol; or of Mr. Rydill, Bookseller, Union Street, Bristol.

 
I found the a copy of the above document whilst searching out some background information for a presentation that I am due to deliver.
 
One of the key features that stands out is how Bristol even then, and in contrast to most other British cities of the time, had put many of its key public services into the hands of private business - essentially Bristol was an example of early privatisation - and it is apparent from the Fabian Society study (who, of course, may not have been entirely neutral on the matter) that the results were not entirely satisfactory;
 
"BRISTOL is in many respects the most backward of English municipalities. Most important towns in England own their own waterworks: Bristol leaves this vital public service in the hands of a monopolist company earning a dividend of eight and a half per cent. Two-thirds of the gas-consumers in the United Kingdom are supplied by municipal enterprise: Bristol depends for light on a company earning ten per cent. More than a quarter of the tramways in this country are owned by public authorities: Bristol allows private adventurers to earn five per cent, by running cars through the public streets. Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, and many other places keep all three of these public services under public control for public profit. Bristol enjoys the bad pre-eminence of being the largest provincial municipality which allows all three to remain in private hands for private advantage. Bristol can borrow capital at three and a half per cent: if the capital of these companies had been municipal stock at three and a half per cent, instead of private investments at an average of six per cent., the inhabitants of Bristol would be saving £50,000 per annum, representing a rate of one shilling in the pound."
 
Other issues of concern to them was the confusion caused by different parts of the city being under different administrations, and the multiplicity of local elections leading to a lack of public interest in local governance;
 
"Public administration in Bristol is a confused and perplexing tangle of uncoordinated authorities, exercising diverse and ill-defined powers over varying and over-lapping areas, elected on different franchises, at different dates, with different qualifications for membership. One public body spends money in opposing the projects of another.....During three years, 1881-4, no fewer than 16 elections to one public body or another have taken place.......Lack of public spirit, due largely to lack of knowledge of public affairs, is the inevitable result of this confusion. "
 
Later in the pamphlett, the Fabian Society says;
 
"The times and method of election, and the qualifications of candidates for these bodies, are in almost in each case different, and it is obvious that under such conditions, there must be waste of power, of money, and lack of interest and of harmony, and an unnecessary multiplication of officials. At present there are some 180 elected members of the various governing bodies, and with ex officio members, about 250 in all."
 
the study then goes on to describe how the city is divided up into four parliamentary constituencies, with a population of approximately 300,000. It estimated that there was an adult male population of about 65,000 with about a third of those being ineligible to vote (along with women, the poorest men did not get the vote until 1918). At the previous general election only 25,422 had voted, about two-thirds of those eligible.
 
The Fabian Society than cover in some detail, various aspects of living in Bristol in 1891.
 
Poverty
 
"it is practically certain that one in three of the wage-earners ends his or her life in a bed provided by public charity. Over a third, indeed, of these deaths were those of indoor paupers in the three workhouses."
 
Housing
 
"the people of Bristol are crowded together more closely than the inhabitants of any of the 27 largest provincial towns in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Liverpool, Birmingham and Plymouth."
 
The density in the city proper was estimated to be even higher, with a rate of 71.5 persons per acre, and in the 600 or so "courts" which the Fabian Society considered "mostly unfit for human habitation" they were living at a density of 4 per room.
 
"Notwithstanding these facts no action has been taken by the Town Council under the Artisans' Dwellings Acts to provide decent accommodation for the poorer citizens! Other municipalities have been less backward in this respect."
 
Education
 
"About two-thirds of Bristol's children attend schools over which the citizens have no control"
 
"Bristol compares badly with other cities with respect to the number of children at school"
 
Utilities
 
"If the water works had been constructed by the Town Council, the annual interest payable upon their cost would have been, at 3 per cent, only two thirds of the amount annually received by the shareholders"
 
"Why should not Bristol imitate Bradford, for instance, and, taking over its gas-works, reduce the price to the consumer, secure fair treatment of the gas-workers, improve the lighting of its streets, courts and common stairways, and make an annual surplus in aid of the rates? "
 
Public Transport
 
"The internal communications of Bristol are mainly in the hands of the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company, which makes a profit out of its gratuitous use of Bristol streets, and pays its ordinary shareholders five per cent......To earn this profit for the tramway shareholders, the tramway workers are kept on duty over 14 hours per day."
 
Health
 
"Much additional public provision for the sick is needed before the ideal is attained of a hospital bed available for every case of serious illness in the city"
 
The Fabian Society also looks at the city's finances.  It estimates that rental values had grown by some 50% in the two decades between 1870 and 1890 and that as "the city proper has long been entirely covered with buildings" this rental growth was an "unearned increment" which over a 15-year purchase period "represents a capital sum of nearly £2,000,000" and was "a gratuitous present from the people of Bristol to the proprietors of their homes".
 
"Bristolians pay every two years to the proprietors of their city, for the mere privilege of inhabiting it, as much as the whole outstanding cost of the docks, schools, public buildings, and street improvements"
 
It later adds;
 
"It is impossible to avoid the suggestion that the Bristol authorities have been less active than those of other municipalities in those departments of collective expenditure such as public sanitation, the re-housing of the people, and the common provision for the needs of crowded urban life, which, though not pecuniarily remunerative, are of such inestimable public advantage."
 
The final conclusion of the study still rings true, at least for me,  today;
 
"The two signs of a free and self-governing community for which Bristol burgesses contended in the earliest days were popular elective government and municipal control of the revenues from city land and from profitable public services. A free city, in the view of our forefathers, should not be beholden to any landlord — not even a royal landlord — nor subject to any monopoly. The plain duty of the commonalty at the present moment does not differ one jot from the principles which constituted the life and breath of the patriotism of free Bristolians six hundred years ago. By a strange irony of fate, the Socialist who appears to himself, no less than to others, to be the advocate of brand-new revolutionary changes, has only to search the annals of the past to find that in his principles of municipal reform he is, after all, in truth, a most consistent Conservative. If the large income from its city property proves the wisdom of the city fathers of the past, the deficits on the Dock account prove the folly of those of the present day in allowing private competition to usurp the field and to spoil the game, when, in the end, the city was forced to step in at the eleventh hour. But, in the case of the Docks, it was the private self-interest of a number of merchants and others which forced the city into the policy of undertaking their management. This is a very one-sided application of municipal Socialism, if the city should only deal with concerns that will least pay. The public self-interest of the mass of citizens must be aroused to overcome any opposition of landholders and shareholders, and to acquire for the profit of the community those monopolies which the municipality can manage. "