Local government

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Meet the Peecyclers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/06/2022 - 7:02am in

Is a headline I have unashamedly stolen form the New York Times. Their article actually concerns fertiliser – a product now under suspicion because it is fossil fuel based and Russia produces lots of it. The article suggests that human urea could have a substantial part in replacing it. Now I know the article is... Read more

How the ‘Big Society’ Commodified Poor People

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/06/2022 - 12:22am in

TJ Coles inspects how David Cameron’s widely-scorned idea ended up institutionalising a smaller state

In the words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the austerity imposed on the British public after the financial crisis by successive governments was “a political choice” not an economic necessity. It gave the Conservatives an opportunity to forge ahead with their privatisation agenda, shrinking the size of the state.

Austerity consequently forced public service providers to invent novel ways of raising cash, one of which was the social impact bond (SIB) – a relatively new financial instrument that ends up using destitute people as an investment opportunity.

SIBs are now used in prisons, shelters and childcare services. They have inadvertently contributed to the normalisation of charity as a means of replacing state services.

A SIB is a 'payment-by-results' financial instrument that relies on volunteers and the community sector to complete work that central or local government would normally undertake. If a homeless charity, for instance, can convince funders that it will get a certain number of people off the streets, it will be financed to do so.

Investors agree to fund social programmes on the condition that the given charity achieves its goals. The Government or local authority (i.e. the taxpayer) then reimburses the investor for the work done by volunteers. However, the investor is only paid a return if the project is successful – if the scheme doesn’t work, they lose the investment.

The SIB market – pioneered in the UK but also in existence in the US – is now worth some $1 billion. In Britain alone, the wider and related ‘social investment market’ – which sees business opportunities in social care, weight loss and mental health – is worth more than £5 billion. An even wider definition that includes environmental management – the so-called ‘impact investment markets’ – is now worth half a trillion dollars, globally.

The first SIBs were designed in 2008 during the financial crisis under the New Labour Government. The city of Peterborough piloted Britain’s first SIB in 2010 – worth £5 million – the year in which the Conservative-led Coalition Government came to power.

The National Probation Service was arguing that cuts to its budget had led to a crisis in the sector. The social cost was that offenders had no post-jail guidance and were therefore more prone to reoffend. The SIB pilot sought to tackle recidivism in HMP Peterborough by using charities to undertake the work of probation officers.

In 2010, the Ministry of Justice paid the defence contractor QinetiQ (privatised by New Labour) and the University of Leicester to study the outcomes of the Peterborough SIB. Four years later, they concluded that the percentage of reoffenders was “insufficient to trigger payment for the first cohort”.

As the Peterborough SIB agenda was being hammered out, the Coalition Government announced the imposition of austerity. From 2010 to 2015, 9% of central government departmental spending was cut. In London alone, real-term funding to local authorities was reduced by more than 60% in the decade up to 2020.

In parallel, then Prime Minister David Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative – a broad slogan essentially encouraging ‘civil society’ to fill in the gaps created by a shrinking state. It was accused of being 'a cover for austerity' that shifted responsibility onto communities while simultaneously cutting local budgets.

Cameron said that, in an ideal society, people “don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face”.

More recently, Home Secretary Priti Patel remarked that people are always blaming government – those who make laws and manage our budgets and taxes – for the existence of poverty.

A Profit Opportunity

In 2011, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee’s report on the Big Society largely focused on SIBs, suggesting that they formed the backbone of the agenda.

Money for SIBs and other pay-by-results initiatives, was mainly raised through the Big Society Capital (BSC) – a financial institution now investing £1.9 billion via pooled funds in social investment markets.

BSC’s investors include several huge investment firms: Bridges Fund Management, CBRE, Nesta, Rathbones, Resonance Asset Management, and Schroders.

By 2018, there were an estimated 40 SIB projects across the UK, covering a wide variety of public policy areas.

Launched in 2014, the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme introduced SIBs to the sector. By 2018, there were an estimated 389,000 children in need of intervention and/or protection in England alone (the figure is closer to 800,000 when other factors are considered).

Intervention and protection usually fall into two categories: safeguarding (such as putting children into care) and non-safeguarding (through early intervention, for instance, through Sure Start centres). By 2015, child social care budgets had been cut by up to 45%.

SIBs sought to remedy the fall-out: Birmingham City Council’s ‘Step-Down’ programme sought to find foster homes for children in residential care, while the UK-wide ‘It’s All About Me’ campaign sought adoption for hard-to-place children.

SIBs have also been used as a means of addressing rough sleeping. However, a Department for Communities and Local Government report published in 2017 noted that after three years of using SIBs to try to help vulnerable people in London into sheltered accommodation, “targets were largely not met and performance against the [more positive] metric tailed off during the third year”.

While still claiming that the NHS will always be free at the point of use, successive Conservative governments have fragmented and privatised the system. SIBs are another method of achieving this goal.

By 2015, social care funding had been slashed by a third. Notoriously, this contributed to 120,000 excess deaths by 2017 in England alone. In addition to foster care and homelessness services, a series of England-wide SIBs called ‘Trailblazers’, sought to plug NHS funding gaps. 

A Policy Innovation Research Unit report concluded that “in four of the five Trailblazers, there was no outcome analysis against a counterfactual, thus it was impossible to judge robustly whether the outcomes achieved were a product of the SIB-financed intervention or not”.

We cannot say that SIBs alone have perpetuated the undermining of public services under the cover of austerity, but it is evident that these novel financial instruments have inadvertently justified the weakening of the role of government – and local spending on the most vulnerable. They have arguably marketised the destitute; turning them into an investment opportunity for global funds with little stake in the common good.

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Five Years on From Grenfell: A Community Betrayed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/06/2022 - 11:49pm in

Former Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad reflects on the broken social contract that has underpinned the Grenfell tragedy and the five years since

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The social contract has been broken. The bond between those who vote for, put their trust in, and pay their taxes to those charged with their affairs, has been trashed by both national and local government.

We saw that in the disdain paid towards laws and regulations in 10 Downing Street as ministers wasted billions of pounds of our money on bad, and possibly corrupt, contracts during the pandemic. And while we were scrupulous not to hold hands with our loved ones as they passed away, those in charge danced on their graves.

We see the destruction of the social contract in the Government’s constant attempt to wriggle out of accountability for the Grenfell Tower fire – now five long years ago – and its unwillingness to implement meaningful improvements to building and fire safety.

They have pitted businesses, professions and individuals against each other, just as they have divided so successfully the various Grenfell communities. Divide and conquer is the guiding mantra of our governing elite.

We see this in local government, also, where councils across the country struggle with impossibly large workloads for building remediation, attempting to navigate unattainable eligibility criteria to access to Government funding. They need help, but have been placed in an obstacle course.

Meanwhile, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – the council that contains Grenfell Tower – local leaders crow about keeping the streets clean and the al fresco revolution of outdoor eating, but refuse to accept full accountability for the questionable spending on Grenfell-related services, or the huge sums spent on local directors while so many in the community are still traumatised, unable to or barely-able to work. Indeed, children still struggle with intense mental health problems – affecting their everyday schoolwork – and face the danger of falling behind and being ‘off-rolled’ into a pupil referral unit, that some call ‘crime academies’.

The Westminster Government has decided that it can spend billions on dodgy contracts, writing off yet more in fraud, yet cannot feed children or raise benefits. Parents already working full-time are therefore forced to find another job to pay for soaring food and energy bills. The Government’s refusal to raise wages, or to put in place meaningful support, belies its real intent – to keep the poor in a state of deprivation and desperation.

The inequality divides witnessed during the pandemic are suffered by those whose ethnic background, social status, or indeed accent doesn’t match what is deemed acceptable by those we entrust to care for us. And when these people suffer, there is little safety net to fall back upon.

An Alternative

All of this was mirrored in north Kensington in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire atrocity. Inequalities have worsened in the area around the tower, despite ten of millions of pounds spent there. Where did the money go? we ask, while obfuscating council reports tell us nothing.

Inequalities are a festering wound in Kensington and Chelsea, where even half the money ‘invested’ in vanity projects, if spent on tackling poverty long-term, could make a genuine difference. Not just hand-outs, not just hardship funds or tokenistic gestures – local spending could and should offer serious financial investment in people to improve their life outcomes and financial incomes.

There is simply no excuse for the extreme inequality in Kensington and Chelsea. Here, at least, in the wealthiest corner of Britain, it could be fixed. The problem is a lack of commitment from those who make decisions. They will not share power, they will not devolve responsibility to our energetic, caring and organised communities. Instead, they want to limit any attempt at self-organisation, and they do this by imposing an arcane and complex funding system.

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They forget that council money is our money. They forget that the council is there to serve and not to rule. And they will do everything possible to maintain the pyramid of power that keeps the little people at the bottom.

This attitude has been made clear throughout the revelations of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. What we always knew, and what was always denied, has now been evidenced. The game is up.

Realising that the social contract has been broken, and that we owe no deference to those who have failed us so comprehensively, is painful but essential.

Many in the community say they no longer recognise the authority of the council. Once we have recovered from these years of abject failure, the community will look for potential alternatives. And many of us will be beside them all the way.

Emma Dent Coad was the Labour MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019

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Why I’m in favour of the right to buy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 07/05/2022 - 11:16pm in

I was reminded of this by a tweet from a Birkenhead MP which was picked up by journalist, Paul Mason: Being in favour of the right to buy may be an unpopular view because there are enormous numbers on council and social housing waiting lists. But the two are connected largely because the right to... Read more

Local Elections 2022: A False Dawn? Labour’s Success in London Masks its Deeper Problems

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 9:23pm in

Labour’s local election performance spells danger for the party, argues Sam Bright

I awoke this morning to a frenzy of jubilation on social media – from London-based Labour activists, celebrating the party’s historic electoral success in the capital.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” one posted, seemingly referencing Tony Blair’s 1997 General Election landslide.

Labour has undoubtedly seen some remarkable results in the capital, following yesterday’s local elections. Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster councils have all fallen to Keir Starmer’s party, after years – even decades – of Conservative rule.

However, with the Labour Party, there must always be a caveat.

“London will be even more clearly a one-party fiefdom,” says elections expert Professor John Curtice. “But outside London, as compared with 2018, when the seats were last contested, it looks like Labour’s vote is actually down slightly.”

Indeed, Labour went into the night expecting to lose seats overall in England outside London, and that appears to have been the case.

The so-called ‘Red Wall’ is a consideration here – the bloc of former industrial Labour seats that flipped to the Conservatives in 2019. The seats contested yesterday were last fought in 2018, and so Labour’s relatively stable showing in the north has been interpreted as the party improving its performance from the last general election.

But this analysis neglects several important factors.

Primarily, Labour lost three consecutive elections prior to 2019, even though it retained the bulk of its Red Wall seats. Theresa May’s Conservatives won a narrow majority of seats in 2017, with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, even though Labour’s support climbed in some former industrial areas.

To interpret Labour’s performance, we therefore need to look both beyond London and the Red Wall.

The party’s decline as an electoral force has coincided directly with its demise in Scotland. In 2005, Labour won 41 of the 59 available Westminster seats in Scotland and 39.5% of the vote share. At the 2019 General Election, however, the party won a solitary seat in Scotland – Edinburgh South – and 18.6% of the national vote.

Though the results of this year’s elections in Scotland are behind England, the polls suggest that Labour will replace the Conservatives as the party of opposition, while the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) will largely maintain its position.

Labour’s path to power runs through Scotland – either in the form of mass Labour gains, or a pact with the SNP. The latest Britain Elects general election polling tracker has Labour 30 seats short of a Westminster majority, with the Liberal Democrats winning 18 seats and the SNP on 55.

In fact, if Labour doesn’t make up significant ground north of the English border – or agree a deal with the SNP – Starmer’s party would need to win North East Somerset from Jacob Rees-Mogg (who currently has a 36% majority) in order to walk into Downing Street as the single party of government.

Camping in the Fortress

Labour’s performance in these local elections presents another danger: the risk that the party will become further entrenched in its ideological heartland – London.

Over recent years, Labour’s support has fortified in diverse, liberal metropolitan hubs – particularly in the all-consuming capital. Roughly a-quarter of sitting Labour MPs represent a London constituency, despite the capital only accounting for some 13% of the UK population.

As described by Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford in Brexitland, by 2015 Labour represented 67 of the 75 seats in England and Wales where the white population share was below 75%. These MPs also carried overwhelming local support, boasting an average majority of 30%. 2015 was the first election in which liberal identity groups outnumbered conservative identity groups among Labour voters – signalling the direction of travel within the party towards a more urban composition and outlook.

Labour has a problem in towns and rural areas – and these local election results do not show a marked abatement of that trend. As the Fabian Society pointed out in a 2018 report, 61% of surveyed people in rural England and Wales said that Labour does not understand people who live in the local area, compared to 45% in ‘town and fringe’ areas and 39% in urban Britain.

“Labour’s association with cities leads to an association of Labour with urban snobbery towards rural areas – a sentiment that was shared almost unanimously by participants in all focus groups,” the report stated.

In the south-west, for example, the Liberal Democrats have been mounting a charge against the Conservatives, logging big gains. This will act to Labour’s benefit overall, stripping the Tories of seats. But Labour’s concentration in London risks skewing the party’s mindset even more towards the beliefs embodied by the capital – a place that is ostracised from the rest of the country and therefore poses a danger to the progressive movement.

London is more liberal, more diverse, better educated, more wealthy (and more impoverished) than anywhere else in the country – a political and demographic outlier.

The non-white British population constitutes 55% of the capital, compared to just 20% in the second most diverse region, the West Midlands. Statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics in 2020 suggest that, of the 50 places with the highest disposable incomes in England and Wales, 41 were in London. The capital also has the highest rates of poverty in the country. If London’s impoverished formed a city of their own, it would comfortably be the second-largest in the UK.

If, in the hysteria of its electoral successes in the capital, Labour further absorbs the ideological composition of London, it will continue to alienate towns and rural areas – or, at the very least, it will not be able to recover these seats in sufficient numbers to win a general election.

Taken as a whole, this year’s local election results merely uphold Labour’s direction of travel since 2010.

In 2019, Labour’s share of the vote increased in just 13 seats – 2% of all House of Commons constituencies. These seats were characterised by a relatively large number of black and ethnic minority voters, a significant number of professional workers, relatively high levels of deprivation, situated in or around large cities – especially in London. 

In short: Labour gained votes in London, lost some votes in other cities, and haemorrhaged support in all other areas. The continuation of these trends in 2022 – albeit with a modest uplift in support relative to 2019 – shows that Labour has not become a potent electoral force.

An Opportunity

We must also keep in mind the scale of Labour’s task. To win the number of seats needed to form a majority at the next election, Labour must increase its number of MPs by more than 60% – a feat that has never been achieved by any major party.

Yet, to stand a fighting chance at the next election, Labour must resist its retrenchment to London. Its path to victory runs through the north, and it must quickly establish how to win over Scotland – or how to align with the SNP without alienating England.

However, in this regard, the Conservatives may present Labour with an opportunity. Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ antics, and the prevarications of Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross – first calling for Johnson to resign, before backing the Prime Minister – looks set to give Labour a firm foothold in Scotland.

Additionally, it seems likely that the migration of ‘Blue Wall’ seats to the Liberal Democrats will prompt the further dilution of Johnson’s flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda.

“The Government is evidently letting politics drive levelling up,” Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said in an interview for my book, Fortress London.

Burnham notes that, since the Conservative Party’s loss to the Liberal Democrats at the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021 – a model Blue Wall constituency – the Government has stretched the scope of levelling up beyond the Red Wall, increasingly applying the term to the south as well as the north. 

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“Without being cynical, levelling up is the right theme – but it has got to be done in the right places and in the right way – and not so broad that it becomes meaningless,” Burnham told me. “If anything, we’re in retreat from where Johnson was a couple of years ago. The question is how far in retreat.”

In other words, in order to stem its losses in the south, the Government may diminish or even dispense with its pledge to invest disproportionately in former industrial areas – instead redirecting funds to the Home Counties.

On this front, Labour must be ruthless. It must pore over the Government’s plan and expose its contradictions – showing unequivocally that Johnson’s sloganeering will not provide economic sustenance to the midlands or the north. And Labour must develop a compelling alternative agenda – speaking to the cultural conservatism and the economic radicalism of voters who are increasingly disenfranchised with mainstream politics.

Above all else, Keir Starmer must realise that Labour has entrenched its support in London for the last decade – and has lost four consecutive general elections. The party’s success in the capital will generate a lot of noise, but the next election will not be won in London – and, right now, it appears that the party’s former heartlands are still not willing to hand Labour the keys to power.

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Local Elections 2022: Boris Johnson is Leading the Conservatives to Disaster

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 4:50pm in

The Conservative Party is refusing to deal with the Prime Minister's failing leadership as he leads the UK into a recession which could expel him from office, reports Adam Bienkov

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Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party have suffered a terrible night in the local elections, losing votes right across the country, as well as the control of several flagship councils in London.

Margaret Thatcher's favourite council Wandsworth was the first to fall to Labour, with fellow Conservative stronghold Barnet following shortly after. 

However, it was the loss of Westminster Council that has caused the biggest shock overnight. Even the most optimistic Labour sources Byline Times spoke to in recent days had downplayed their chances of taking this council, which has been held by the Conservatives since its creation.

The London losses are totemic for the party.

The party's former leaders in Wandsworth and Westminster were both hired by Johnson as his chiefs of staff while he was London Mayor, while their boroughs were portrayed as a model for his own future premiership. His two victories in London also helped create the myth of him as a 'Heineken' politician who could reach voters that other Conservative politicians simply couldn’t.

Last night’s results have ended that myth. Across the city, Conservative politicians spoke out against the Prime Minister, with the party’s outgoing leader in Wandsworth saying that “the issue of Boris Johnson” had been raised “consistently” by voters.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP for Wimbledon, Stephen Hammond, said that his party's voters had deserted them in large numbers due to Johnson’s handling of the 'Partygate' scandal.

Yet, while voters across the country are clearly turning against the Prime Minister, the results suggest that there is not yet evidence of any great enthusiasm for Keir Starmer's leadership. Although Labour’s vote share is up on last year, it appears to be broadly unchanged from its performance in the 2018 elections. Its performance also appears to have been decidedly more mixed in those parts of northern England it lost to Johnson's party in 2019.

Overall, the picture in these elections is that voters are turning away from the Conservatives rather than turning in great numbers to Labour.

Johnson Sailing Conservatives Towards the Rocks

However, this last fact risks lulling the Conservative Party into a false sense of security that could cost them dearly at the next general election.

The fact that Labour’s overall performance does not yet indicate a party heading towards forming a majority government will give many Conservative MPs yet another excuse to avoid tackling their own leadership crisis.

Across the news channels overnight, Conservative ministers queued up to dismiss the results as mere mid-term blues that could be easily recovered by the party. This would be a mistake.

The big losses suffered by the Conservatives overnight were due in large part to the Prime Minister's own unpopularity. While Conservative campaigners right across the country avoided mentioning the Prime Minister on the doorstep, opposition parties featured his name heavily on their leaflets and doorstep pitches.

Speaking at the result of Labour’s victory in Wandsworth, London Mayor Sadiq Khan described that Prime Minister as “a vote-winner for Labour” in the capital.

In other parts of the country, campaigners from all parties told Byline Times that Partygate had turned Conservative voters against the Prime Minister, with older voters in particular seeing the issue as one of “morality” in which Johnson had fallen short.

The Prime Minister's character failures, which were exposed so vividly by that scandal, do not appear to be going away.

Asked by Good Morning Britain this week about a pensioner who had been forced to ride buses all day because she could not afford to heat her home, Johnson responded by boasting about his own role in introducing the 24-hour free bus pass. This response was both callous and dishonest. In reality, the pass is only available in London where it is funded by local boroughs, and it was slashed at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic due to a deal forced on the city by Johnson’s Government. 

This cost of living crisis is also only going to get worse. The Bank of England on Thursday suggested that the UK is heading for recession and a painful period of stagflation. This would be difficult for any government which has been in power for as long as this one has, but it will be even more difficult for one that has deliberately chosen to avoid using the powers it has to help people.

Johnson's refusal to help those suffering from surging energy prices or to raise the benefits of the nation's poorest people, will only make his party's prospects worse at the next election.

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As the leading elections expert Professor John Curtice told Byline Times this week, while Labour may not currently be on course to winning a parliamentary majority, it will not take much for Johnson to lose his. And once lost, it will be very hard for him to find the friends in Parliament he needs to sustain a Conservative administration.

This fact has led to some speculation that Johnson is planning to call an early general election, potentially as early as this summer.

There will be very few Conservative MPs looking at today’s results who would welcome such a prospect. However, as long as Boris Johnson remains in post, their prospects will only continue to deteriorate.

Speaking to Byline Times earlier this week, one Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister said that the party was now “strapped well and truly to be the mast of the good ship Boris”.

The message from these local elections is that, unless there is a sudden change in course, the entire Conservative Party risks going down with the ship.

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Where do they find these local candidates?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/05/2022 - 11:32pm in

A quite remarkable Conservative leaflet has arrived through letterboxes in Hartlepool. The Conservatives have the Union Jack attached to their logo but Labour has the EU flag! No sleight of hand there then… And then a plea not to punish ‘local’ Conservatives for the crookedness – sorry, mistakes – of Westminster! “Please don’t punish local... Read more

Andy Burnham: We Need a ‘Complete Rewiring’ of Britain’s Political System

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 8:11pm in

The Greater Manchester Mayor comes out in support of proportional representation and House of Lords reform, Sam Bright reports

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called for a “complete rewiring of Britain” and its political system – including the introduction of proportional representation (PR) for general elections and wholesale reform of the House of Lords.

In an interview for my book, Fortress London, Labour's Burnham said that the ‘levelling up’ theme currently advocated by the Government – the regional rebalancing of Britain – was at risk of being “a fad that burns brightly but disappears quickly”, without fundamental democratic and economic reform.

Burnham caused a stir last week when he highlighted the cost of train services from Manchester to London – pointing out that an open return ticket costs more than a flight to India, Jamaica, Brazil and the Ivory Coast.

The former Health Secretary, who stood down from Parliament in 2017, has been a vocal critic of the growing divide between London and the rest of the country – a process that has been spurred on by successive governments. From 2009/10 to 2019/20, London transport spending per head on average has been £864 – compared to £379 in the north-west of England and £413 in England overall.

The Greater Manchester Mayor said that “all parts of the north need substantial regional devolution” in order to fulfil the Government’s promise of levelling-up left-behind areas of the country.

“The House of Lords needs to be an elected senate of the nations and regions," he continued. "And I would turn House of Commons elections into a proportional representation system. Every MP is fighting for their small constituency, and it prevents people from acting across a broad region. I would like to see MPs elected more on a regional basis than on a constituency basis."

These ideas are a notable departure from the current Westminster system – and a divergence from central Labour Party policy. Indeed, a poll conducted by YouGov last summer found that an overwhelming 83% of Labour members surveyed supported the introduction of a PR system for general elections, whereby seats in Parliament are more closely related to the share of votes cast. However, Labour’s official stance has not been to support electoral reform, or changes to the structure of the House of Lords.

This is despite the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, pledging during his leadership campaign in 2020 to consult members on electoral reform – and advocating for abolishing the Lords, “[replacing] it with an elected chamber of regions and nations”.

“We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count,” Starmer said about the current 'first past the post' electoral system, during his leadership campaign. “That’s got to be addressed by electoral reform. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

The current voting system – which allocates local seats to candidates who have won the highest vote share – benefits the Conservatives. Indeed, there are a larger number of viable parties on the left of the political spectrum than on the right, splitting the non-Tory vote and allowing the Conservative Party to accumulate more constituencies.

If the 2019 General Election had been held under a proportion model, the Conservative Party would not have won an outright majority, according to University of Strathclyde academic Heinz Brandenburg. Under the first past the post system, however, Boris Johnson claimed a sizeable 80-seat majority.

Proportional systems also allow for representatives to be drawn from larger geographical areas. UK elections to the European Parliament, for example, functioned on a regional closed list system, with a number of representatives elected from each of the three nations and nine English regions, elected on a proportional basis.

Alongside an Upper House formed of representatives from the nations and regions – more akin to the American or Australian systems – Burnham maintains that such reforms would ensure more power and influence for regional interests.

Structures and Mindsets

“Labour’s instinct under the first past the post electoral system is to temporarily supplant the Tories and become a top-down centralising force,” Labour MP Clive Lewis told me. “The problem is that we lose three times as often as we win – so we don’t get much opportunity to govern and often when we do, we tinker at the edges.”

What is needed instead, Lewis believes, is a vision of levelling up that promises electoral reform and greater political control for devolved leaders. For him, Labour needs to claim Vote Leave’s ‘take back control’ slogan and promise to fulfil the wishes of the British people by “giving power to local communities, to regions… Labour has to frame its agenda through power, control, agency and democracy, rather than simply by promising more public spending than the Conservatives”.

However, the leadership of the Labour Party remains unconvinced – despite Starmer’s previous promises.

Labour’s levelling up chief, Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, told me that she is “frustrated with the endless debate in Westminster – and actually some parts of local and regional government as well – about structures”.

In order for left-behind areas of the country to form a more central part of our collective political psyche, the “mindset” of political leaders must change, she believes, rather than the democratic constricts in which they operate.

Nandy and Labour are keenly in favour of devolving greater powers to local, regional and national administrations. However, in terms of democratic reform to the voting system or the House of Lords, the party remains unconvinced.

Nandy seems sceptical of fundamental democratic reform and its ability to shift the balance of power in Britain. Instead, she feels that it’s incumbent on individual political leaders to change the weather. The MP told me that, the day after she took over as Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, she privately informed her opposite number Michael Gove that she wants the rebalancing of the country to “become as uncontentious as equal marriage by the time that David Cameron took office”.

In terms of devolution, the Government’s proposals contained within its levelling up white paper are among its “most radical”, according to the Institute for Government.

By 2030, the white paper states, “every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified long-term funding settlement.” In the short-term, the Government plans to negotiate 10 new devolution deals in England, and has promised extra powers to Burnham in Greater Manchester and to Conservative Mayor Andy Street in the West Midlands.

As for electoral reform, however, the Conservative Party is demonstrating its natural instincts – by protecting the status quo. After Labour won 11 of 13 mayoral positions across the country last year, the Government signalled its intention to change the voting system for these contests from the existing supplementary vote system – in which the public ranks their two favourite candidates – to the first past the post system used in House of Commons elections.

“It’s likely that first past the post would make it somewhat easier for the Conservatives to win if they could come up with a really good candidate,” local government academic Professor Tony Travers told the Guardian.

Despite Andy Burnham’s convictions, it appears as though the campaign for electoral reform – moving away from the established first past the post system – is currently going backwards.

Sam Bright’s book, ‘Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country From its Capital’, will be published on 28 April

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Johnson to escape scot-free?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 2:55am in

So Johnson had up until now enquiries into his Covid conduct from the Metrpolitan Police, Sue Gray and now the third enquiry from the Commons Privileges Committee. Now we have a further and fourth inquiry likely, in the form of two complainants who think that the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons has... Read more

Rishi Sunak’s Plan to Soften Blow of Universal Credit Cut has been a £1 Billion Bust

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 7:30pm in

Nic Murray explores the Chancellor’s under-funded and misjudged scheme to help deprived families make ends meet

“Is that it?” came a heckle from the Labour frontbench. The response could have been used to describe any number of his policies, but the exasperation on this occasion was directed at what the Chancellor had just announced in his Spring Statement.

The Household Support Fund, an emergency pot of funding for local authorities to help residents with essential costs, due to wind down on 1 April, was to be given an extra £500 million to run until September.    

First launched a week before the removal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift late last year, it was clear the fund – initially resourced with £500 million – was barely a sticking plaster, aimed more at placating Conservatives ahead of its annual conference than helping the 500,000 swept into poverty as a result of the Universal Credit cut.

According to the Government, the fund was supposed to “be distributed by councils in England to directly help those who need it most" and it would be "distributed through small payments to support vulnerable households meet daily needs such as food, clothing, and utilities”.

At the time, the Household Support Fund was estimated to, on average, to replace less than 18p for every £1 cut from Universal Credit. New figures provided to Byline Times show how far short the scheme is falling, with tens of thousands of people across England lucky to get even that. 

Data obtained by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request indicates that, by January, halfway through the fund’s original duration – before the cost of living crisis truly began to bite – one in five applications to the fund were not being approved.

Of the 95 English county councils and unitary authorities open for applications to the fund that responded to Byline Times' request, a total of 174,000 applications were received, 22% of which had not been approved.

Brent Council, a third of whose residents are living in poverty, only approved 35% of the 1,182 applications made to its funding pot. For Blackpool, one of the most deprived areas in the country, this figure was a staggering 12%.      

Not all local authorities require direct applications from individuals. Some have automatically targeted funding towards households that already received support such as free school meals or council tax reductions. However, millions already miss out on this support, and are likely to be left out again.

For those required to apply, the fund is often a last resort, but one that requires applications to meet unspecified levels of ‘deservingness’ when competing against hundreds of others for already insufficient funding.

“I have £4.01 in my bank to last until 21 April,” Ashleigh in Liverpool told Byline Times. “Never asked them for anything before, applied and was rejected and told I could appeal, asked what I was rejected for so I could appeal against it and was told that they don’t give a reason.” 

Less than one in five local authorities operate their own local welfare assistance scheme, research in 2021 by End Furniture Poverty found, leaving many rushing to establish eligibility criteria. While some have used their discretion generously, such as Newham, by ensuring those with no recourse to public funds were eligible, others have replicated the most discriminatory aspects of the benefits system. 

Applicants in Preston, for instance, are required to submit two months of bank statements with no signs of ‘irresponsible’ spending. Meanwhile, in the City of London, any financial support comes with a stipulation that individuals must also show proof of receiving debt advice. Both frame the problem as one of individual choice – rather than an inability to make ends meet in a climate in which energy bills are rising 17 times faster than benefits.

Austerity Reborn

For those who have been lucky enough to have their applications approved, there is no guarantee that even accessing this support will be easy.

Janina told Byline Times that Ashfield District Council approved her application but that her internet was down for a couple of days, which meant that the vouchers sent to her expired two days later.

"I was hardly given the best chance to access it," she said. "I simply don’t know how I’m going to manage. As things are, I stay in my bedroom most of the time so that I can use an electric blanket when I’m cold.”

Plenty of people in local government feel that those on both sides of the Household Support Fund are being let down.

“The Government hasn’t properly involved local government in the shaping of the guidance so that we can then go ahead and deliver it effectively from day one,” Ian, head of a district council in the Midlands, told this newspaper.

“There is a danger they are setting local government up for failure in two ways – one by failing to deliver what we’ve been asked to do, and second at the end of the process as the Government isn’t going to carry on giving us some extra money to dole out.”

Rather than distributing necessary financial support through a social security system already set up to target those most in need, the fund places the administrative burden on local authorities – many of which have chosen to direct much of this to local ‘delivery partners’, adding another layer of administrative cost.

By the time it reaches individuals in need, not only has the total amount been depleted, it may not even come in the form of financial aid. FOI responses showed that at least £2.7 million has already been given directly to food banks across England. Kensington and Chelsea was the largest donator, directing £200,000 of its £1.8 million funding total to local food banks.  

Ultimately, slashing welfare funding accompanied by piecemeal increases to pots of local authority funding is a path well-worn by the Conservative Party over its 12 years in power.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 – which introduced Universal Credit and the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – abolished the £732 million a year Social Fund, providing just £170 million for local welfare assistance in its place.

Meanwhile, former Chancellor George Osborne’s three-year freeze on Local Housing Allowance in 2015 – part of a raft of £4 billion worth of cuts to the welfare budget which put more than a million families at risk of homelessness – was accompanied by just an extra £170 million per year to the Discretionary Housing Payment. 

In the current political climate, this austerity is taking place while households face the largest fall in real-term incomes since the 1970s – delivered by a Chancellor whose approval rating is currently in free-fall, in part due to his piecemeal approach to tackling the cost of living crisis. 

Current guidance issued to local authorities stipulates that they must “reference that the grant is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions or the UK Government in any publicity material”.

The Household Support Fund may be funded by the Government, but only with the same amount of cash that it allocated in the Spring Statement to "increasing DWP’s capacity to detect fraud and error" – highlighting just how inadequate the scheme truly is. 

Almost a month on from Rishi Sunak's announcement, the latest guidance for local authorities is still in draft format – leaving many in the dark. For Ian, one question is particularly pressing: “This fund only runs until September. So what’s the answer for next winter’s fuel bill?”

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