Saturday 31 May 2014

Stoke's Trip to the Chelsea Flower Show

One problem when you have an market-based economic system built around production for profit, is that those with binding decision-making powers (heads of companies, politicians, etc.) frequently have to make perverse choices. Enter stage left Stoke-on-Trent City Council's entry to the Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite being the son of prize-winning gardeners, what I know about plants and gardens could fit on the back of a seed packet. But looking at the pictures the Council's garden looks very swish. In the socialist future all our cities will be adorned by horticultural displays of its like. And robots. Apparently, it represents Stoke as a renewed centre of advanced materials manufacture and, thanks to ambitious plans to exploit the hot rocks beneath the city, a coming powerhouse of a new green industrial revolution. The judges were very impressed. In a field of 12 showcase gardens, Positively Stoke was awarded silver, just missing out to Birmingham City Council's entry.

Not as impressed are local residents who follow the Council's comings and goings. The cost of the garden and a VIP reception lies between £250k and £450k, the majority of that picked up by the local authority's coffers. To rub it in Birmingham's costs were met mostly by sponsorship. The bill to the second city's taxpayers was just £5,000. In the context of £100m worth of cuts over the next four years, splurging on a glorified London soiree is taking the piss. Or is it?

Responding to objections, Council chief executive John van de Laarschot lays out the logic of the game the Council has to play. Because of the heavy cuts falling on Labour-run authorities, they are compelled to seek new sources of revenue. They can increase charges for council-provided services, and put up council tax. In both cases, there isn't much room to rake in mega money. And, thanks to Eric Pickles, from 2015 locally collected business rates will be returned to council as the pool from which local government presently share is abolished. As Stoke has fewer businesses in number and size terms compared with, say, Derby, that means another cut to revenues. There is only one precarious ladder out of the deepening pit the council finds itself in, and that is regenerating the local economy and increasing the numbers of people who live inside the city limits. More business = more business rates. More residents = more council tax.

This is where the perverse logics start kicking in. If the council adopts a strategy of fighting fires, of protecting budgets according to demonstrable need then it is a matter of buying time for those services. However, there will be nothing left for immediately intangible things like economic regeneration strategies. On the other hand, if the council applies cuts across the board but retains a budget to market the city to potential investors, and/or attempts to make the city more attractive through controversial developments, it opens up the possibility, the hope that it will pay off and put it on a better footing to protect services in the future.

Keeping this in mind, as unpalatable as it is, the council's decision to enter Chelsea should be seen as a speculative investment. Because it's not about the horticulture, it's about business. More politicians and business people attend the flower show than any other, outside of elite summits and the like. Chelsea is the number one networking event on the corporate calendar. Yes, unfortunately, if you're playing the regeneration game it means going where the potential investors are and spending money to catch their eye.

I don't like it. When the food bank queue is growing in our city, it is appalling that the council are spending and borrowing for things that do not address these problems. Yet that is the game by which it has to play. As those rules are unlikely to change any time soon, neither by new legislation or a mass movement challenging these logics, it's stuck. The council can do nothing and let the city's decline continue, or stretch every sinew to turn the situation around. It stinks. It's the stuff anti-politics is made of. Sadly, however, I don't think it or any other local authority in a similar position has much of a choice.

Friday 30 May 2014

Rozalla - Are You Ready to Fly?

It's Friday night and the All That Is Solid disco is underway. My pick for this evening was placed highly in the best dance songs of the 1990s, but now haunts the backwoods of YouTube and Spotify with other huge and tragically forgotten tunes of yesteryear. Yet until my dying day I shall maintain there are fewer better ways to touch off the dance floor than with this house monster from 1992. Are you ready to fly?

Local Council By-Elections May 2014

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**

* There were four by-elections in Scotland.
** There was one by-elections in Wales.
*** There were five independent clashes in May - four in one contest, three in another.
**** 'Other' this month consisted of Scottish Christian (63), Inds for Bristol (354), NF (80), Respect (141).

Overall, 233,573 votes were cast over 103 individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see April's results here.

With the majority of by-elections taking place on the same day as the local and European contests, as per tradition the parties have rolled as many by-elections into last Thursday as possible. Hence the large number of votes cast, hence the boosts to everyone's vote average.

Just a methodological note before we go any further. This results were tracked down by the Vote UK Forums, home for the discerning electoral cretin. However, in their results they have counted double elections (i.e. where you have two votes for two vacant seats) just once whereas I have twice where both vacancies were by-elections. Hence the discrepancy between my contest tally and theirs.

Without further ado, two significant things jump out. Labour won May's popular vote - just - despite fielding fewer candidates than the Tories. But to my mind of greater importance is the absence of a UKIP surge. Sure, they're up four seats but their momentum did not translate to a large increase of their vote in percentage terms. Average is a different story. That's a high. Speaking of highs, this is the best Green performance yet seen in my by-election coverage in terms of averages, votes polled and seats won. In the wave of hype enveloping UKIP, the quiet consolidation of the Greens is passing almost unnoticed.

For some reason, I couldn't enter the +/- figure for TUSC, but as they didn't stand last month it's easy to work out. However, to stand 13 candidates and poll under 900 votes is a pretty poor effort. Still, as it disproportionately pinches votes from Labour than other parties the comrades will no doubt be satisfied their interventions probably cost it three or four seats this time.

Thursday 29 May 2014

LibDem Leadership Crisis

Oh no, not the LibDems again. Yes, the crisis in the yellow party rumbles on and on. Though, to be accurate,  this is nothing new - it's been on slow burn since they spectacularly and wretchedly betrayed their tuition fees pledge. Every vicious turn since, be it the bedroom tax, defending work capability assessments, cheering the backdoor privatisation of the NHS, or ignoring the billions wasted by IBS on botched social security reforms, the litany of regressive, vindictive policies goes on and on. And quite rightly the LibDems have paid a heavy price in blood and treasure. You cannot approach the electorate as touchy-feely muesli-eating lefties and then back the most sickening attacks on vulnerable people seen in recent history. So here is the world's smallest violin for Clegg's cravenly opportunist gang.

In a way, it is a joy to see the LibDems going through ringer, even if it's scant compensation for the damage done. This time I'm especially gratified that it is Uncle Vince, the man with an unearned left reputation, getting a hammering. So it turns out that Lord Oakeshott, one of those who set up the SDP in the early 80s (thereby splitting the opposition to Thatcher), had commissioned a series of (leaked) private polls to show how the LibDems face decapitation in 2015. One of the seats set to tumble was Clegg's own. The difference between a Nick vs a Vince-led LibDem party was, according to the polling, one per cent - just enough to make a difference in marginals and preventing the coming calamity from being as, um, calamitous.

In one of those little ironies of which I am fond, Oakeshott - whose career was founded on treachery - was himself outed by Vince, his bestest political friend. Cable, away backpacking around China or something, has confirmed he knew all about the polling, while strenuously denying he had any role commissioning them. Definitely not, I'm sure Vince pleaded long and hard with his friend to stop it.

Marx once noted that history tends to repeat itself twice: first as tragedy, and then as farce. It's not hard to see which Clegg's leadership crisis should be filed under. It reminds me of a time, not that long ago, when another beleaguered leader faced the old cloak and dagger, of intrigue whipping about his person in a gale of backbench denunciation, front bench resignation, and potential defenestration. The foes arrayed against Gordon Brown believed that if he was replaced things would get much better. Never mind the exhaustion of Labour's policy offering and anti-political antipathy arising from the MP's expenses crisis. A return from beyond by Clement Attlee would not have prevented Labour going down in 2010, let alone the likes of David Miliband. Had there been a proper policy overhaul perhaps things could have turned out differently.

This is where the similarity ends, because the LibDems are in a worse position. Switching to Vince might save two or three extra seats. Perhaps breaking the Coalition early might cause a transient uptick in polling fortunes. However, just like the has beens seeking to topple Brown, our hapless plotters cannot see the fundamental malaise afflicting the LibDems. When you're mired in the crap, you become habituated to the smell and, after a while, you're barely conscious of it. Changing who shuffles to the front of the cesspool or what you're saying to passersby does absolutely nothing to neutralise the noxious niff. Unfortunately for the LibDems, they are absolutely stuck between now and polling day. No jockeying for position, no new shiny policies, nothing can avert the drubbing that's coming. What the LibDems need is a deep, steam clean. The sort only a decade of oppositional activity can perform. And then, when seats have be re-won and reputations have recovered, the LibDems might be in a position to throw it away all over again.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Why the BBC Loves UKIP

All that was missing from the BBC's coverage of the local and European election results was Nick Robinson giving Nigel Farage a wet, sloppy congratulations kiss. Seldom have the BBC elections team been more starstruck, more craven in its uncritical promotion of a political party. Is it yet another instantiation of a putative BBC bias? Maybe. Sure, there is an overall tendency to go soft on the government of the day. Since 2003's "dodgy dossier" and the fall out of the Gilligan/Kelly affair, the BBC have self-interestedly tiptoed around those who have the power to scrap or change its Royal Charter. But why has coverage been skewed toward UKIP? Why go completely ga-ga for Farage and co and ignore the Greens, Left Unity/TUSC, Elvis, and the melange of other xenophobic, petty English nationalists? Here are three theories.

1. Let's grub around in the guts of the political economy of news. The BBC News have a rolling 24 hours channel and a high traffic website. Both are Sarlacc pits of eternal hunger, eager to grasp anything that passes by. So when a story comes along on slow news days - which is nearly every day - it is properly done over. Every conceivable angle is scrutinised, pundits are drafted in for new perspectives, employees are sent to the scene, and there are endless hours of reporters interviewing reporters about what they are reporting. UKIP is one of these news stories that has near infinite potential to generate more news. Recently-elected MEP makes dodgy comments = more news. UKIP responding to mainstream parties promising to solemnly listen = more news. Car crash interviews with journalists = more news. On and on it goes. Soon enough, the coverage itself because a topic worthy of coverage, filling those crucial broadcast slots and column inches. And the BBC think it can get away with it because UKIP are new. They are a novelty. That brings me to my next point.

2. Politics is boring, there's no point pretending otherwise. For most people the awarding of points in Eurovision is more exciting than your elections coverage. And if you think it's bad for the general viewer, try reporting on it. Consider coverage from the start of the television age up until, say, the 2009 European elections. The winner was either going to be Labour or the Conservatives. Your heart might miss a beat when a minister is unexpectedly knocked out, or that the outcome is by no means certain, but the results were always going to be one or the other. UKIP changes all that. It's the cat among the anoraked pigeons, the wild card that has proved politics need not alternate between red and blue. And for hacks like Nick Robinson and Dimbles, it has brought some excitement to their lives. It has made their jobs more interesting. So of course they're going to chase the sexy and the new like a lovestruck teenager, even if it means tremendous overexposure. Besides, no one wants coverage of the stodgy old grey parties anyway.

3. UKIP are an uncouth lot. They refuse to abide by the niceties of received political discourse, have no policy as such to scrutinise, and has lots of members who can be relied on to say sexist, racist and homophobic things. They are a rabble, an uneducated cadre of oafishness no self-respecting BBC journalist would ever consider voting for. Yet what fascinates them is not so much the story of a bigoted party getting traction, but how the figurehead of this party/movement came to be a privately educated city slicker. This is Farage's appeal for the BBC. Not his blokey pub bore charm or worryingly expansive smile, but how one of them, a man as every bit as establishment as leading politicians and media personalities has been able to vault the chasm of disconnect and engaged "authentic", "real" people to the point he's looked upon as the repository of desperate hopes. This is why BBC journalists interview him with a mix of appalled fascination and unabashed admiration. To their minds he has cracked the problem of disengagement. However, to allow the real world to intrude, he certainly hasn't - UKIP did little to boost turn out for both sets of elections.

Monday 26 May 2014

No2EU and Far Left Election Results

For inveterate leftist trainspotters, only one question demands an answer: how did No2EU do? You can find the answer below, along with any other far left also rans who paid down the hefty deposit and made their way onto the ballot. The figures in brackets are +/- 2009's results.

East Midlands
No2EU - N/A (-11,375, 0.93%)
SLP - N/A (-13,590, 1.11%)

Eastern Region
No2EU - 4,870 (0.31%) (-9,069, 0.56%)
SLP - N/A (-13,599, 0.85%)

No2EU - 3,804 (0.17%) (-13,954, 0.84%)
SLP - N/A (-15,306, 0.87%)
SPGB - N/A (-4,050, 0.23%)

North East
No2EU - N/A (-8,066, 1.37%)
SLP - N/A (-10,228, 1.74%)

North West
No2EU - 5,402 (0.31%) (-18,178, 1.12%)
SLP - N/A (-26,224, 1.59%)
SEP - 5,067 (0.29%) (+5,067, 0.29%)

No2EU - 6,418 (0.48%) (-3,275, 0.40%)
SLP - N/A (-22,135, 2.00%)
SSP - N/A (-10,404, 0.94%)

South East
No2EU - N/A (-21,455, 0.92%)
SLP - N/A (-15,484, 0.66%)
SPGB - 5,454 (0.23%) (+5,454, 0.23%)

South West
No2EU - N/A (-9,741, 0.63%)
SLP - N/A (10,033, 0.66%)

No2EU - 2,803 (0.38%) (-5,797, 0.87%)
SLP - 4,459 (0.61%) (-7,953, 1.20%)
SPGB - 1,384 (0.19%) (+1,384, 0.19%)

West Midlands
No2EU - 4,653 (0.34%) (-8,762, 0.61%)
SLP - N/A (-14,724, 1.04%)

Yorkshire and Humber
No2EU - 3,807 (0.29%) (-11,807, 0.98%)
SLP - N/A (-19,380, 1.58%)

No2EU - 31,757 (0.2%) (-121,479, 0.9%)
SLP - 4,459 (0.02%) (-168,656, 1.12%)
SPGB - 6,838 (0.04%) (+2,788, 0.01%)
SEP - 5,067 (0.03%) (+5,067, 0.03%)
Total - 48,121 (0.29%) (-292,684, 2.22%)

By the scant electoral standards of the far left, socialist organisations can, as a rule, expect to poll between one and two per cent. Higher than this they are "doing well". If it's lower, then things are not so good. So, what do we have here? Utterly abysmal results. In No2EU's case, so much for "putting down a marker" back in 2009.

More about the far left when I get round to writing about TUSC's local election results later this week.

Where Now for the Liberal Democrats?

While we wait for the final results from the Orkneys to trickle in so I can scrutinise those all-important No2EU votes, let's spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats. They went from 11 MEPs to just one, and managed to lose even more councillors than the Tories. In all, a very bad night and a grim portent of things just round the corner. With no surprises whatsoever, some have been calling for Clegg's head. Others point to his radio debates with Farage as a contributing author to their misfortune. In short, it's panic stations. So, where do the LibDems go from here? Is this a death spiral that will finish them off for good? Are they forever doomed to be beaten by the Greens?

No. Extinction does not beckon, but they are buckling under the political equivalent of front-loaded austerity. If last night was "peak UKIP", then 2015 is likely to be "trough LibDem". Forget about plots and rumours of leadership plots, nice guy Nick will be leading the yellow party into next year's general election. As previous rumbles and grumbles have shown, Clegg's grip on his parliamentary troops is impressive - Dave must envy the discipline of PLDP. "Left" pressure coming from Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and the recently re-principled Sarah Teather haven't caused him headaches worthy of the name. And, because their stock is so low, the Lord Rennard scandal scandal has barely touched them. Who notices a bit more mud when you're covered already in swill? LibDem ministers also like their cars and offices, and those who'd resigned their Parliamentary careers to a lifetime of opposition are enjoying the novelty of policy influence - an illusion that rubs off on layers of their beleaguered, traumatised membership. It will be an age if the LibDems ever get a look-in at government again, so best enjoy it while it lasts.

Their plummeting fortunes, however, are not a result of being in government per se. Had the arithmetic stacked up differently and the LibDems and Labour had gone in together in 2010, I can't help but think the damage to them wouldn't be anywhere near as bad. They have effectively acted as the Tories' meat shield. Their body politic is riddled with bullets as they betrayed the social liberalism assiduously cultivated from Paddy Ashdown on - tuition fees, bedroom tax, work capability assessments, the backdoor privatisation of the NHS, tax cuts for the very rich. It's the sidebar of policy shame. It's what happens if you promise one thing to the electorate, and do the opposite in power.

Where then do the LibDems go from here? Some hold out the hope that their reduced Westminster posse could hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. That's possible, but with Ed Miliband nor Dave wanting to run another coalition, you can rule out high office. More likely, in my opinion, is the party looking at the blood price paid for five years of government and concluding they cannot carry on as they are. Returning to their all-things-to-all-people leftish liberalism holds the promise of rebuilding, of repeating all the patient, local work done over the last 20 years and getting the rewards for it. This will be much easier if next year's election takes out LibDem ministers and reduces them even further. On the other hand, assuming Labour wins on its equality ticket the LibDems may find it difficult to outflank them from the left. But as things stand, returning to their old comfort zone is the only viable option.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Lazy Thinking and the Election Results

Some points challenging the avalanche of lazy thinking tumbling off Mt Politics about the local election results.

Complacency, part one. UKIP did very well, they won 161 seats. It is very silly, as some do, to bang on about the party having zero MPs and not winning any councils. Outside of London, UKIP have put down and strengthened their roots in Tory and Labour-held constituencies alike. The project to replace the Tories, to muscle in on non-Labour working class voters continues apace.

Complacency, part two. In last year's County Council elections, UKIP polled 23%. This time round it was "just" 17%. That makes a drop of six points and, on the face of it, suggests NF's gas guzzler is stalling. This is not the case. Look again. 2013's were county elections. Those elections were better disposed to express the disgruntled wills of Tories and angry non-Labour voters than Thursday's mix of metropolitan, unitary and district councils. It's foolish and wrongheaded to take the difference on face value - it is not a like-for-like comparison.

Complacency, part three. Despite ample evidence of UKIP disproportionately drawing off Tory votes, commentator after pundit after churnalist repeat mantras that the reactionary right menace all three mainstream parties equally. "Hold on a moment Phil, aren't you being equally complacent by implying the opposite?" No. There are clear patterns to UKIP successes against Labour. In Rotherham, on my own doorstep in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour seats were lost from local authorities we control in the absence of credible, established oppositions. Take Newcastle. Up until two years ago it was run by a LibDem/Tory lash up. The lingering legacy of recent local incumbency plus generalised anti-government and anti-political grumblings, and the media's rocket beneath UKIP's backside prevented the received opposition from benefiting, and why Labour fell back. Likewise, had Stoke-on-Trent City Council been up the established, populist City Independents' group would have done well at Labour's expense while UKIP, the Tories, etc, were likely to be left as also-rans.

Complacency, part four. "Labour need to have done better - a two per cent lead in the locals is not enough to win next year." If this was the case in a conventional second order election, I'd be very worried. But this was not a conventional election. That script has been ripped up by identikit politics and long-term social trends and it won't be coming back. UKIP have and will continue to remain a contender in local and European elections. Contrary to what "professional" commentators might think, UKIP aren't about to die. So while talk of four party politics is overstated, it is the new normal for second order elections. What this means for Westminster elections is what pollsters, such as Lord Ashcroft's most recent one, have been saying for some time. A very sizeable chunk of UKIP support are very likely to drift back to the mainstream next May, but the remaining UKIP core will stay loyal in numbers sufficient to damage the Tories.

Complacency, part five. There is some truth to Labour not running a decent, national campaign. Volunteers and councillors did the campaigning on the ground. For example, returning to Newcastle more people were spoken to January-May than in the previous 13 years combined. But what is needed is a clear national story that can stitch the local campaigns together, and that largely didn't happen. True, some of it was out of the party's control. You cannot force the BBC to suspend its love-in with Nigel and cover policy announcements on the minimum wage and GP appointments. The leadership, however, chose not to go all-out. Sure, Ed Miliband and the shadcab visited target councils and marginal seats, but that was all. There was little European literature to deliver - I saw none. Nor were there any billboards. Instead we had UKIP's scapegoating plastered across the nation's hoardings. Then there was that silly party election broadcast with the incredibly shrinking Clegg. Okay, I accept the party hasn't got much money and it is very wise to accumulate resources in advance of next year. However, the implied message this sends out - that Euro and local elections aren't worth expending cash on - does little to reassure voters who are increasingly anti-Westminster minded.

Complacency, part six. You could be forgiven for thinking the Tories haven't just lost over 200 seats and 11 councils. Bizarrely, the media have fed this complacency by talking up the impact UKIP have had on Labour's vote when the real story is how badly mauled the Coalition parties were, and the part UKIP played in damaging the Tories. Similarly, we are told how disunited Labour apparently is while rent-a-gob Tory MPs go round and will tell anyone who listens how badly they need to make a pact with UKIP. Another favourite is that no party has never won a Westminster election without accruing a majority of council seats. Eric Pickles summed up their complacency on The Sunday Politics this morning. They're going to keep banging on about their non-existent long-term economic plan, growth figures and immigrant-bashing in the hope it will work. In actual fact, they're trapped. Just like their economic policy, their strategy for 2015 is now little more than keeping the fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Complacency, part seven. Everyone's focusing on the results and what they mean for party politics. But this set of elections are potentially significant for a more substantive reason. Last week, I wrote about the amateurism of the barely-noticed No2EU slate and noted how UKIP stood as many local candidates as possible to take advantage of so-called 'double ticketing' - the idea voters turning out to support you in one election will automatically vote for you in another ballot taking place simultaneously. Obviously, at the time of writing the European results are not yet known but I cannot imagine UKIP will reflect their 17% local government vote share. Therefore any gap between that and the local results indicates split ticketing, of voting differently in two different elections. If the respective party vote shares are variant to a large degree across the two elections, it points to a further sophistication of the electorate. And if that is the case, those who hope their local positions might be safe off the back of a Westminster turn out next year might find themselves unpleasantly surprised.