One example of this was the creation of a so-called ‘communications allowance’ of £10,000 per annum for all MPs. Ostensibly the purpose of this was to enable MPs to inform constituents of what he or she was doing that touched directly on the constituency and to keep them informed of how affairs at Westminster impinged upon it. Party campaigning and partisan messages were effectively forbidden.
In reality the allowance was a fat dollop of taxpayer’s money designed to give a leg up to MPs in Labour marginals perceived to be targeted by the constituency-centric funding of Lord Ashcroft. Numerous examples of blatant breaches of the purposes for which the allowance was intended have already been found. As with the breaches, some of them criminal, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 revealed by the “Donorgate” scandal, Labour does not consider itself bound by the rules.
The refusal to address the democratic deficit and anti-English effect of the West Lothian Question, the inadequately policed extension of postal voting, ‘cash-for-peerages and other abuse of the party funding laws, the toleration of the imbalance in the Westminster electoral system which makes it significantly easier to elect a Labour MP than it does a Tory one, all these are of a piece with a conscious desire to manipulate the electoral system in its favour.
The latest example of the left’s scheming to give itself advantage of this kind is to be found in reports of plans to pour taxpayer’s money into pockets of local councillors (here & here). The proposals have been drawn up by a QUANGO of which I had not heard before called ‘The Councillors Commission’ which operates under the aegis of Hazel Blears, the smug smirking Minister for Communities and Local Government. Its members are Janet Roberts, Jessica Crowe, Matthew Taylor (all Labour), Cathy Bakewell (a Lib ‘Dem’ from rural Somerset), Yaseer Ahmed, Ben Page (both of uncertain affiliation as far as I can find) and Councillor Margaret Eaton (the lone Tory): I have linked to some details of their careers as they are worth looking at, being instructive of how Labour uses its placemen. Taylor was, of course, part of the Labour party’s ‘smear & trash’ rebuttal operation that ran so effectively under the Alistair Campbell regime of the 1994-1997 period.
This group is to report to La Blears shortly but, as is usual in such matters, some of the recommendations this group has been tasked to make have already been leaked. The reek of pork-barrel politics is about it.
The thrust of them is to suggest measures which would further embed in local politics the concept of the career councillor, a state of affairs designed to assist Labour whose otherwise unfunded cadre of careerist politicians will now have loads of lovely public largesse upon which to sustain themselves.
This will give a whiff of the sort of thing they are proposing:
- Higher salaries for all elected politicians
- Pensions for councillors
- Parachute payments for councillors who lose their seats worth up to £10,000
- Communications allowance for councillors
- Scrapping of attendance requirements, including enabling councillors to vote in absentia
- Ending by-elections so that party in power can never be turfed out mid-term
- Funding the recruitment, training and selection of candidates
- The right to be paid dole and other state benefits on top of council salaries.
- Banning councillors from serving more than five consecutive terms
- Council officials no longer barred from also being elected officials on same council
Forthright Tory MP Eric Pickles, Shadow Local Government Minister, observed:
“These policies are all about more cash being stuffed in the pockets of Labour, jobs for the boys and back-door state funding.
The proposal to scrap by-elections is particularly sinister: this would make the council in power immune to any sort of accountability to its electorate as each party would simply be able to replace a councillor with someone from a list, the principal characteristic of that person being that they had never been voted for by anyone. Local councils with slender majorities could sail on, passing whatever measures they want without ever having to be subjected to a mid-term challenge. This runs counter to our entire electoral tradition, but labour never lets anything like tradition get in the way of power.
The Tories have a real window of opportunity here. They should fight these proposals tooth and nail (even though in May they may yet further sweep labour to the margins in terms of local politics and so might benefit considerably from such plans) and instead look at how local politics might be given a huge dose of oxygen rather than being fattened up on a load of taxpayer’s stodge.
Iain Dale had an article in the Daily Telegraph which provides a bit of a signpost to a world of small government, but his proposals are insufficiently radical. A really radical policy for smaller government would see central government reduced to a rump which deals with such matters of obvious national dimension such as defence, foreign affairs and so on. The rest, together with a significant part of the revenue raising remit would be devolved to a local level, the closer to the elector the better.
There is no real reason why local administration should not have exclusive or near-exclusive control over education, health, policing, unemployment, planning, transport, and so on. Giving local councillors a much greater degree of control over our lives would, I am convinced, make local politics far more important to the electorate who would respond to that increase in power by paying a lot more attention to what was going on. Turnouts for local elections would be greatly enhanced and in return the role and prestige of local politicians would rise. And the closer the point of delivery of services is to the voter, the closer the voter’s relationship to those delivering them would be.
The local Mayor would become a person of significance and competition for his post would attract local people of genuine ability into local administration. His post being one of prestige, he (or she, just to keep the equal opportunities Thought Police at bay) would have to out themselves about in his community far more. This is something which the French and the Americans do far better than we. The former have many thousands of communities that number less than a thousand voters. Monsieur le Maire is a familiar character to all the commune and he eats, drinks, shops and lives cheek by jowl with his electors. When problems arise, he is eminently approachable and he has to get things done otherwise he could not sit and drink his pastis in the café of a lunchtime.
The Tories are riding the crest of a bit of a wave in local administration just now. In May, if things go on as they are, there is a real chance they will become overwhelmingly dominant in local affairs: what a perfect moment to seize to revolutionise local administration and devolve power to it. If the Tories are serious about small government, what better place and what better time to start upon it.