Reform

Democracy matters – we need a debate on devolution

If you’ve not been following the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill going through Parliament at the moment, you’re not the only one. But something exciting is happening this weekend that can finally get the public stuck into the debate.  

Saturday will see a major democratic experiment to find out where citizens think power should lie at the local level. In Sheffield and Southampton, we’re launching ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ to coincide with the Government pushing through devolution legislation.

The two Citizens’ Assemblies – four-day events in Southampton and Sheffield taking place in October and November – will bring representative samples of the local population together to discuss and decide on the future of local democracy.

With city deals being brokered left, right and centre (no political pun intended), it will be the first time citizens in English regions will be given the chance to deliberate on the question of where power should lie – within a few days of the government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill receiving its second reading in the House of Commons.

All this is being co-ordinated by Democracy Matters, a group of leading academics and the Electoral Reform Society, in a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. They are pilot projects for the sort of deliberative event envisaged by those calling for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. We want to eventually see a proper national debate about Britain’s constitutional future.

A year on from the Scottish referendum, it’s more vital than ever that the public – particularly in England – have a say on where power should lie in the UK.

As the Government seeks to devolve powers towards local areas, they need to include citizens and not simply deliver their chosen solutions from above.

These Assemblies are a real chance to shape the devolution agenda so that it genuinely involves the people which it affects.

We’re expecting some really interesting stuff to come out of this project – so make sure to follow its progress.

About the Assemblies

These Assemblies have been organised to rigorous academic standards. Each assembly will have 45 members – one will be held in Sheffield with membership drawn from across South Yorkshire; all participants will be members of the public. The other will be held in Southampton with members from across Hampshire; 30 participants will be members of the public and 15 will be local politicians.

Members of the public have been chosen by YouGov to be representative of the local population. Politician members of the Southampton assembly have been invited in proportion to their vote shares.

The Sheffield Assembly (Assembly North) will be chaired by Len Tingle, BBC Yorkshire Political Editor. The Southampton Assembly (Assembly South) will be chaired by Peter Henley, BBC South Political Editor.
The work of each assembly will be based around four phases: learning; consultation; deliberation; and decision.

Each assembly will use a mix of plenary and small-group formats at every stage, in order to facilitate inclusive deliberation. The work of each group will be aided by a trained facilitator and a note-taker.

For more information visit http://citizensassembly.co.uk/ or contact Edward Molloy (edward.molloy@electoral-reform.org.uk)

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This May will be a boost for female representation – but there’s a catch

House of Commons

First published on Left Foot Forward

With less than a quarter of MPs currently women, a 50:50 parliament seems like a distant hope.

But there are grounds for optimism. Based on polling trends and an analysis of every party’s candidate for the upcoming election, the Electoral Reform Society has predicted that 192 MPs are likely to be elected this May – up 44 on the current 148. It would mean three in ten MPs would be women, the highest ever figure.

Parties are putting forward more female candidates than before, too, with every party except UKIP fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than parliament’s current make-up (see Table 1). And in target seats, Labour and the Conservatives are actually fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than their overall number, meaning they are clearly trying hard to get more women into the House.

JosiahTable1

This is good news. The predicted boost this May would see us rising up the world ranking for female representation in lower chambers from 56th to 36th. We’d finally be ahead of Afghanistan and other countries with less-than-positive track records on gender equality.

But we’d still not be world leaders, by any means. And while moving from 23 per cent women to nearly 30 per cent is a welcome rise, there’s one big barrier that’s blocking future progress: our electoral system.

Under First Past the Post, there are hundreds of effectively uncontested seats where parties have a big enough lead not to worry about opposition. That means many MPs can act as ‘seat-blockers’, occupying their seats for decade after decade.

Here’s the catch: the longer an MP has been in situ, the more likely he is to be a man.

As you can see in Table 2, there are 67 MPs first elected in 1992 or before who are standing again this May. 59 of them are men. Having held their seats for over two decades, we can guess that most of these men will keep their positions effectively unchallenged.

josiahtable2

This is a major barrier in terms of increasing women’s representation in the future. We can’t allow the existence of safe seats to act as a block on reaching a 50:50 parliament. We need to reform our voting system.

Proportional representation isn’t a silver bullet, of course. It can only facilitate – rather than guarantee – more diversity in politics. But experience from other countries shows that nearly all of those with a high proportion of women in parliament use some form of PR. Moreover, larger multi-member constituencies would increase the likelihood that more women would be able to win seats, as voters would have a greater choice of winnable candidates. Under our current broken electoral system, less ‘traditional’ and ‘safe-looking’ candidates lose out.

Nonetheless, it’s good news that nearly 200 women will be elected in two months’ time. Let’s just make sure it doesn’t become a new ‘glass ceiling’.

Josiah Mortimer is Communications assistant at the Electoral Reform Society. Follow him on Twitter

Read the ‘Women in Westminster’ report here

Grasping the nettle: how to clean up party funding

First published on OpenDemocracy

Another week, another scandal. Party funding is back in the news again, and for many it sadly comes as little surprise.

We have grown used to allegations of tax-dodging donors, multi-million loans from wealthy backers that will never be repaid, paid access to ministers and more.

As party membership has tumbled in recent decades, reliance on a handful of big donors and organisations has increased. Donations over £250,000 accounted for over half of Labour’s, a quarter of Conservatives’ and a sixth of the Liberal Democrats’ donations income between 2001 and 2010. These donations are coming from just 60 ‘donor groups’, giving rise to justifiable suspicion that these groups have far too much influence on our politics. And this serves to reinforce the assumption that politics is increasingly something for a small number of people, and not something for everybody.

It’s clear that the public are fed up. Polling last year for the Electoral Reform Society showed that 75% of the public believe big donors have too much influence on our political parties, 65% believe party donors can effectively buy knighthoods and other honours, and 61% believe the system of party funding is corrupt and should be changed. ‘Corrupt’ is a strong word, so it says a lot that this is how the public feel.

The question is: what to do about it?

Looking for solutions

The problems are pretty clear to most – we have a party funding system where individuals or businesses can effectively ‘buy’ a party, pumping as much money into it as they desire. Parties then have to spend much less time trying to win the financial backing of millions of ordinary people. The lack of a donations cap, then, is a serious impediment to democracy. Many developed economies have donations caps in place. It’s time the UK followed suit.

The presence of big money in our politics is particularly damaging at election time. One thing driving the dash-for-cash is the lack of a proper spending cap in the UK. The fact that the limit has just been increased by 23%, with the Conservatives building up a £78m ‘war chest’, suggests that this May could be a particularly high-spending election, particularly with the surge in smaller parties. This race to outspend each other destabilises our politics. Parties, with their highly volatile sources of income, could be left exposed by a lack of funds compared to their rivals, which in turn increases the incentive to be less than pure about what they provide in return for cash. A proper spending cap would end this arms race and put parties on a much more sustainable footing.

Needless to say, parties do need money to function. We live in a modern democracy with millions of people whom the parties need to reach. But the source of the funding needs to change – from big donors to cleaner and more democratic sources of income.

One part of the solution is for parties to shift to being funded by their millions of supporters. Many are pointing to online funding and supporter engagement as the new panaceas. But let’s not kid ourselves. Disillusionment with politics and parties runs very deep indeed, and people aren’t rushing to donate just to take the place of hedge-fund managers or union leaders.

There are promising developments, it’s true – for example the use ofcrowdfunding by parties – but these still don’t remove the incentives for parties to accept multi-million pound contributions. Nor do they deal with the arms-race in campaign expenditure. They are, unfortunately, a democratic trickle of funds amid a deluge of undemocratic cash.

So what else is needed?

A not-so-radical idea

Mention state funding of parties in the UK and it can be hard to get past the barrage of instant booing. And not without reason: the idea of giving taxpayers’ money to some of the country’s least trusted institutions does, understandably, cause some discomfort.

But it’s not as controversial an idea as it seems. In the UK, we already publicly fund our political parties. Opposition parties receive ‘Short’ money to pay for parliamentary activities (£7.5m in 2014/15 alone), travel and the Leader of the Opposition’s office, in order to ensure proper scrutiny of the government can take place. ‘Cranborne’ money is the equivalent in the Lords, at nearly £650,000. In addition to direct funding, parties do not pay for political broadcasts (paid broadcasts are prohibited), and are entitled to free postage for one leaflet in both General and European elections.

But we don’t invest enough, with the UK spending just a tenth per voter on political parties as the rest of Europe – 36p a year to £3.25. It’s a shocking indictment of how we treat our democracy in the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, leaving it to the whim of benefactors. Some 91% of European countries publicly fund their political parties – they understand the need to avoid parties luring wealthy backers with peerages or policy commitments.

The question of where the money will come from to replace the estimated £30m lost by parties if a £10,000 donation cap was put in place is a valid one. But there’s a very simple answer. A cross-party report in 2013 found that £47 million could be saved by replacing the freepost leaflet system with a joint election address booklet (copying the Mayoral and GLA election practice) – more than enough to cover the lost £30m. And if a donations cap and public funding is combined with a lower spending cap, parties won’t need as much money in the first place.

Next steps

Reforming our party funding system is completely achievable. There’s strong public support for doing some deep-cleaning of party finance, while the latest scandals show the need for change is more urgent than ever. We can’t go on stumbling from crisis to crisis and headline to headline, with public trust continuing to plummet. If we’re serious about democracy, it’s time to clean up this mess before it’s too late. The stakes are too high not to act.

The past few years have seen cross-party reports on this with no action. Waiting years for another report or further deadlocked party negotiations isn’t the only option. There are gains to be made by any party or parties that go ahead with funding reform after May.

Let’s hope, whoever gets to power, that they do.

Read the Electoral Reform Society’s new report, ‘Deal or No Deal: How to put an end to party funding scandals’, released today.

Could you go five weeks without money? Under a new DWP plan you might have to

[Reposted from Left Foot Forward]

Further punitive restrictions on Universal Credit are on the way

Job Centre ncrjThe latest development of Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit scheme will soon mean that people made unemployed will have to wait at least five weeks before getting any financial support.

At present it’s two weeks; still a long time to wait when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Some of this is administrative delay, but with the new five week wait it will be a deliberate strategy to force people into immediate work or push them into penury – the latter being more likely in an economy where jobs increasingly can’t actually fund even basic necessities like housing and energy costs.

That’s why the TUC have launched a campaign to ‘Stop the Five Week Wait’ as part of their Saving Our Safety Net project, launching a petition against IDS’ impoverishment strategy.

It poses a very clear question: how long could you go without any income? Even for those in work, many have to scrape together money from friends and family at the end of the month in what some call ‘scrounge week’. Imagine that week becoming five.

Why so long? A whole calendar month will be spent ‘assessing’ the amount of benefit you’ll be able to receive. Then you’ll have to wait a week for the DWP to actually arrange your payment.

But you’ll also have a week-long period when you will be unable to even apply for Universal Credit. The government is deciding whether this will be during the assessment period or beforehand, meaning potentially sixweeks in assessment, admin and spiteful restrictions.

And this from a government that supposedly hates bureaucracy and red tape.

There will be some emergency support available. But the rules on who can claim it will be so strict that very few able to claim Universal Credit will be eligible. Richard Exell at the TUC writes that “one reason for being turned down, for instance, will be that your family has debts that might make it hard for you to repay the advance.” Unbelievable.

The public are against it, understandably – by 70 per cent to 18 per cent when told about the policy. Even the vast majority of UKIP and Conservative voters oppose the wait.

But there’s a problem: just 13 per cent have actually heard of it. We need, therefore, to spread the word fast if there’s to be any chance of stopping this disastrous scheme going under wraps.

The policy can be summarised quite simply: the state safety net being outsourced to food banks and payday loan sharks. This is a government hand-out to Wonga and co, while returning to the Victorian welfare state of unreliable charity. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has branded it+ ‘cruel and vindictive’.

It comes in next April – just a month before the General Election. With a strong enough campaign, it can be halted or pushed beyond that date. So there is an opportunity for the opposition to succeed. Millions of people who might be made redundant over the coming years are relying on that outcome.

You can read the TUC’s report on the five week wait, Universal Credit: Solving the problem of delay in benefit payments, here.

Please share this and spread the word against this deeply disturbing plan.

How do we revive the global union movement?

The global labour movement is at a crossroads.

That’s the verdict of Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School in Barnsley this week. Workers are being hit by neoliberalism across the world – that much is obvious – but politically, the issue is this: how are unions to respond in the face of supposedly left-wing parties that have conceded to many of the neoliberal policies unions despise?

It’s question being asked while the populist right soar in much of the global north – filling the void where previously socialist politics would have existed.

Fletcher sees the current attacks on workers – from privatisation to public sector cuts – as representing the ‘obliteration of the social contract’ that emerged following the Second World War. But it was a social contract that was also ‘historically specific’ – built amid fear of the red threat.

It’s a message echoed by Asbjørn Wahl of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. For him, the tripartite state-union-employer relationship dominant across much of Europe following World War Two was the ‘child of class compromise’ – a child that’s now left home. In other words, there’s no going back. But neither should we. Capitalist and union cooperation dampened the radicalism of working class in an attempt to bolster support for the Cold War.

While it did lead to several decades of social progress in the West, social democracy became a mere ‘mediator between classes’. Such mediation became the final aim of the labour movement. And in capitulating to this, they gave up on socialism, contributing to an ideological crisis on the left.

Yet the end of the social democratic accord in the 1980s has made nation states less and less responsive to popular demands, while the stresses of neoliberal globalisation turn populations against one another. For Fletcher, the system’s weakness has created a breeding ground for a right-wing populism – what he amusingly calls ‘the herpes of capitalism’ – that is now on the rise across Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, any resistance to the neoliberal project is met with repression.

There is clearly a strong sense of alienation among people however. It’s up to the left to politicise this discontent. To do this will require broad new social alliances, concrete alternatives, and unions taking on broader political responsibility amidst mainstream party capitulation, Wahl claims. Such alternatives must be built on a minimum programme that includes standing against austerity, taxing the rich, cancelling public debt, socialising finance and defending democracy.

The current crisis is of course political. The response must also be political – rebuilding labour movement and rebuilding left must go hand in hand. There’s no going back to the corporatism of the 1970s. But Fletcher argues unions can be a ‘civilising force amid the current chaos’ – if they go through a reformation.

Such a reformation must involve the re-radicalisation and re-politicisation of unions instead of continuing a business or servicing model. And that’s no small task. But if the labour movement is to get out of this current conjuncture, we can’t depend on doing the same and expecting different results. Nor can we rely on revivalism and nostalgia for some by-gone social democratic past. Instead, we need a fresh start if we’re going to have any chance of challenging the ‘capitalism on crack’ that is the current paradigm. That will include working with social movements like those that organised the millions-strong Madrid march against austerity in March. If we do this, Wahl says, ‘we have a chance to avoid extinction’. It is, therefore, a chance we can’t afford to miss.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘Capitalism, Anti-Capitalism and the Trade Union Movement’.

The privatisation of education: what is York getting INTO?

[More to follow, but here’s an uncensored version of an article I wrote for York Vision]

You’ll be hard pressed to find much about it online. Or in any emails from the university. Or any consultation with lecturers and students. York’s proposed ‘joint venture’ with INTO University Partnerships – a for-profit company which focuses on recruiting and teaching international students – has largely gone under the radar – in all likelihood, deliberately.

I came across the plans not through the university or YUSU, but through a UCU lecturer’s union briefing chucked on a few tables in Vanbrugh.

The plans are to half-privatise the recruitment and English language-teaching of international students by 2015, to an INTO-run building on Hes East near Goodricke. It appears they’ve already started the outsourcing process, with closed-door talks apparently being underway for half a year. According to my source, the UCU only found out through a ‘by-the-way’ comment during an unrelated VC presentation late last year.

Although the full plans aren’t completely clear yet – due to a notable lack of information and transparency – it looks likely that the uni will emulate other universities that have bunked up with INTO in the past. Almost all of which seem to have ended in disaster.

Let’s look at the partnerships at UEA, Exeter and Newcastle universities. According to Freedom of Information Requests, in the best case scenarios, four or five in every ten international students ‘recruited’ failed to progress onto one of the university’s courses. That opens up the risk of huge financial losses for the university.

The joint venture at Queen’s Belfast lost over £1.5 million in 2009/10, and was still losing £630k two years down the line. At Manchester College, the whole venture was called off in 2009 following £1.4m losses.

It was a similar story for City University – £2.5m losses in 2009/10. That’s nearly 300 students’ £9k fees down the pan.

INTO promised profits but actually wreaked financial chaos. Does the university really want to take such an enormous gamble with students’ money?

Where profits are sought and achieved however, the means are risky. In a bid to fill international student numbers paying sky-high fees at Exeter, the quality of those recruited was said – by management – to be ‘lower than those recruited by the university’. What can the university do about it? Locked into a long-term joint venture, not a lot. Moreover, the university – not INTO – sponsor students’ visas, meaning if INTO messes up, it’s the university that gets hit.

Moreover, new workers’ pay and conditions are likely to be affected. With no union recognition or public service ethos, INTO could put non-transferred staff on zero-hours contracts, lay off workers, and strip back hard-fought conditions. Even the company’s chair said ‘rates of pay are probably worse’. Their contracts say you can be sacked for actions which are ‘likely to prejudice the interests of the Company whether or not such conduct occurs in the course of your employment’. What could that mean? Speaking out against malpractice and mistreatment? Pushing for better working standards? It’s vague enough to be very dangerous indeed. The situation looks frightening for our Centre for English Language Teaching and its extremely (and rightfully) worried staff.

Finally, a company part-owned by a private equity firm is likely to want to expand its involvement with the university in the future. Will we even know the extent of its involvement? After all, it will be allowed to trade under ‘University of York’ branding.

Students and staff should – like 96% at Queen’s University, 94% at Goldsmiths and 90% at Essex – reject this whole dodgy scheme and keep services in-house. Many universities have indeed done so. Now that the lid is blown on the bid, York should follow suit.

Renationalise? Our railways are already publicly owned…

A frequent – and growing – call on the left in Britain is for the railways to be ‘renationalised’, ‘brought back into public ownership’ or ‘put in the public’s hands again’ – and any other number of similar phrases. It’s an interesting case really in that it’s another example of the left failing in terms of discourse in uniting the country (the phrase ‘bedroom tax’ being an obvious recent exception and success) – even if the vast majority of people do believe rail should be domestically state-owned and run.

Why is the left ‘doing it wrong’ on the rail issue? Because, as the title suggests, our rail network is already basically in public ownership. Just not by us.

According to RMT union research:

Overseas companies, mainly state-owned, now control 65% of Britain’s railways proving that the Government are happy with state ownership as long as it’s not by the British state in the interests of British people.

Yep, 65% foreign ownership – mostly by other governments.

From the Daily Express (of all newspapers…):

Nearly one in four operators are owned wholly or in part by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway.

SNCF, the French state railway, part-owns six operators.  Three are wholly or part-owned by Dutch state railway Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Deutsche Bahn owns Chiltern, Cross Country, Grand Central, Tyne & Wear metro and Wales & Borders and part-owns  London overground.

SNCF part-owns Gatwick Express, South Eastern, London  Midland, Southern, First TransPennine Express and Eurostar. Dutch state railways own or part-own Northern, Greater Anglia and Merseyrail.

Why am I dragging up this early-mid 2013 research now? Because UK state-owned East Coast mainline is currently in the process of being privatised…sort of – with the government announcing the final bidders last Friday. East Coast, the current (fantastic) operator of the London-Edinburgh line, is banned from bidding for the contract now up for renewal, after the government had to take over the network due to market failure a few years ago.

So the bid is an interesting case in ‘privatisation’ for a key reason – a joint bid by Eurostar and French firm Keolis is being permitted to apply to run the service, but our own East Coast is not. So in an appeal to private-sector virtue and ‘competition’ we have 55% SNCF (French state rail)-owned Eurostar alongside majority-SNCF owned Keolis bidding to run the line…while our own national service can’t. Bizarre.

It’s hypocritical because the government’s declared rationale for the sale is that:

For our railways to continue to grow we need strong private sector partners who can invest and innovate in ways that deliver a world class service.

For a start, East Coast already provides a world class service – it’s certainly one of the cheapest and has delivered over £600m to the treasury since the government took it over in 2009 (after National Express failed miserably to ‘deliver’).

Meanwhile, FirstGroup, as well as Virgin and Stagecoach (together) are also bidding to run the line. This is interesting because Stagecoach have a 49% stake in Virgin rail. Very competitive [sarc] – particularly as it’s supposedly a ‘joint venture’ anyway. FirstGroup also happen to run lines part-owned by mostly state-owned Keolis. So ‘re-privatisation’? Not really. ‘Competition’, ‘free-markets’ etc etc.? Certainly not.

Raising this isn’t an appeal to nationalism, merely a case study in the contradictions of the neoliberal ideology that dominates the British political arena. Through understanding that the government doesn’t really care who owns our services and bleeds them dry as long as a) the owners hopefully aren’t us and b) corporations/capitalism get to make a killing, we can see the political ideology that drives our national politics for what it really is – socialism for the rich.

This was best highlighted in the equally questionable ‘privatisation’ of Royal Mail last year. In order to privatise it ‘successfully’ – i.e. to make sure companies got the most out of tax-payers – not only did the government set a ridiculously low selling price but they were also simultaneously nationalised Royal Mail’s pension fund to sweeten up the offer for investors.

How do we get around this and reassert domestic popular control of our infrastructure? Getting rid of capitalism altogether is one obvious/implausible answer, but until then, we need to deconstruct the decisions and discourses politicians use and show them for what they really are. A sham and a facade. And (I would say this wouldn’t I?) to get behind the only party that is pushing for genuine public ownership of rail (and water and energy for that matter – the Greens.

On top of this, and finally, the left needs to change its language about rail ownership – instead of calling for ‘renationalisation’, we should call for some form of ‘local/British public ownership’ – a call that would win even more support from right across the spectrum than the slightly inaccurate/misleading terms used now. Language isn’t everything (and I’m not one to jump up and down about ‘value-framing theory’ etc.), but it is one good weapon in our arsenal.

So it’s local public ownership the left should be demanding – e.g. regional municipalisation – not just any old state running our services. And who’s to say it’s not possible? Labour are making promising noises – with a few big pushes they could well embrace the idea in government post-2015…