Victoria Ayling screen grab
Victoria Ayling, in an unflattering screen grab unapologetically taken from the Mail’s website

Following The Mail on Sunday’s exposé of Victoria Ayling I should confess that I was a key advisor to her.

I’ll qualify that by adding that I was a key advisor in the same way as (I suspect) she is a ‘key Farage ally’ and a ‘high-profile’ UKIP politician: in other words, not at all except in the eyes of journalists wanting to make a story bigger than it is.

My non-position only lasted a few minutes when she called me about the Great Grimsby constituency after she was selected to see if I could offer any advice as the candidate-before-last. It was mildly flattering, although unnecessary, and I spent a while outlining my analysis of the constituency’s politics1. I’d like to think she paid attention to my diagnosis, and that it made a difference to the result. But putting the phone down I couldn’t help feeling it had been a nice courtesy, not a serious call.

I didn’t find myself thinking, “wow, that Victoria Ayling is a horrible racist” because the conversation didn’t cover anything to do with race. Even now I don’t know if she is a horrible racist. Having watched the video I’m inclined to think her comments were racist, but I’m not naïve enough to take at face value excerpts from a video edited by either the newspaper or her (seemingly embittered) ex-husband.

So the story is that someone who once stood for Parliament and is now a councillor is possibly, or even probably, a racist. Not good, but surely not worth the front page of a national paper.

As someone who once stood in Great Grimsby and is still a councillor I’m very comfortable with my place in the foothills of politics. I don’t expect to make the front page of even our local rag, let alone a national, because I recognise my lowly position in public life and public interest. I may be at the pinnacle–if looking down the precipice–of my political career, but it’s not that high up. The failed MP and local councillor combo is not front page, it’s footnote at best.2

But that ramble through the foothills of political careers brings me to my main point. The problem here is the sensationalising of such issues. The Mail on Sunday have taken a bit of video of a non-entity provided by an ex-husband motivated by, I assume, a mix of spite and financial gain, and published it. Ironically this is a from a newspaper stable that sensationalises everything. They bring daily cures or causes of cancer. Column inches demonising anyone who might dare to be vaguely foreign. Then put it all on website adorned with such banal fluff that it’s a Herculean effort not to feel your IQ dropping whenever you glance at it.

In fact the awful truth is that, as reading the comments on the Victoria Ayling article reveals, her alleged views are far too common and the political party makes no difference, especially once you are out of metropolitan areas. It isn’t just UKIP supporters, but also Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters, sympathisers, activists and candidates sharing these views (nor is just those involved in politics, they are a small proportion of the population, and merely reflect it). Part of the reason they share these views is that papers like The Mail and Mail on Sunday give them all the ammunition they need.

A quick Google search reveals that in recent weeks Mail newspapers have been concerned about race riots, the £3.7 billion a year cost of immigrants, the loss of working class jobs to–you guessed–immigrants and the failure of the government to meet immigration targets. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the conclusions some will reach from this barrage of coverage. It does not excuse racism, but it certainly doesn’t help reduce it.

Plenty of other people have made the point before, though it is always worth repeating. The point that is less often made is that racism isn’t, generally, a political stance. People support political parties through a rational choice, for some that choice is more analytical than others, but it’s an informed choice based on principles or economics. Racism isn’t a rational choice, it’s driven by hatred, or by fear, or by ignorance. Instead of attaching political labels when such accusations are made, we may as well attach other information: “‘Send them all back home’ demands Sky subscriber” or maybe “EDF Energy customer demands stricter limits on benefits for immigrants.”

It means that we can’t have a proper debate on immigration, its advantages and disadvantages, because the risk of accusations of racism is too great; even typing this I’ve been wondering if I’m leaving myself open to criticism. That so many other media sources have rushed to cover the Victoria Ayling story means the problem continues. Rather than creating an environment which can host proper debate that might result in a more educated and enlightened society , the media’s break from immigration sensationalism to hunt for a racist non-entity means that the insidious grumbling racism that exists in homes, workplaces and pubs up and down the country will thrive for just a little bit longer yet.

  1. Being young and arrogant in 2001 and I didn’t bother calling the 1992 candidate. I paid the price for this, when, late one night at a subsequent party conference, the relevant candidate button-holed me–possibly tired from the late night and emotional from the sleight–to offer a lengthy, but hopefully therapeutic, exposition of my failings.  ↩
  2. But I’m happy with that, I like footnotes.  ↩

YouTube’s attempt at ‘the motion before the council’. I think.

I love MySociety’s latest idea to create a ‘local government Hansard’. Hansard, of course, is the record of parliamentary debate, but as MySociety’s post explains it:

has no actual legal power [but] still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.

One of the things I discovered when attempting to tweet from council meetings is that it’s actually quite hard to do if you are trying to remain ‘present’ at the meeting, but it was well received outside of the meeting. On both occasions I engaged with far more people via Twitter than were in the public gallery watching. But it was imperfect, even when I’d pointed towards the agenda documents on the web, people found them hard to follow.

The council does publish the meetings via its YouTube channel, but the viewing figures are hardly stellar. They rarely hit double figures, even for controversial debates (and, no, I’m not any of those viewers), and this reflects that such unstructured broadcast isn’t that useful. How do you know who is speaking, when, on what?

But that is overcome by the written word which is easily accessible, searchable and adaptable. Rewinding a few seconds to catch something you misheard is a pain, re-reading something is second nature to most.

But, as MySociety identify, the benefits to local democracy and the local democratic process of having a plain text transcript could be huge:

We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.

I wonder if they are being a little ambitious with their faith in transcribing technology – YouTube’s automated captioning needs a lot of work – but this is definitely something to watch: a great idea and can’t wait to see it in action somewhere.

This post was published on the Local Government Association blog as a very quick response to the government social care white paper; it is not particularly profound or in depth. As noted at the post’s original home the views do not necessarily represent anyone or anything else, so all lack of insight is my own.

All too often we let our emotional attachment to the welfare state get in the way of the urgent need for reform.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is incredibly brave – it’s always going to be politically harder for a Conservative to implement reform – but absolutely right to tackle how we approach social care.

Even before the Barnet graph of doom became a local government cliché we knew that social care costs were absorbing increasing, and alarming, shares of council budgets. In a time when retirement can last as long as a working life, and the frailties of extreme old age require specialist and scarily expensive care, something has to change.

Much as I believe in localism, and the inevitable consequence that councils offer different levels of service, it is hard to justify differing levels of care for the elderly based on borough boundaries. A minimum standard, as proposed by the care white paper, helps address that. But far more important are the guarantees given to individuals to allow them to manage their own care budget. Care will have to be provided for the benefit of the individual because they are involved in managing it.

The role of carers will be recognised, with their needs assessed to ensure they do not suffer just because they are looking after a loved one. Aside from the savings this will create, it is an obvious fact that care from a loved one will almost always be better than care from anywhere else.

Equally important is the right for everyone to get a loan, secured against their home, and not have to sell their home while still alive to fund their care. Combined with the other white paper proposals, it will give older people a greater chance of maintaining their dignity and independence throughout their old age.

Many of these proposals already work well in councils across the country and while there are still uncertainties (not least a decision on capping costs) that should not stop us welcoming the move towards a better system of social care that is fit for our times and provides improved care and certainty for those who need it.

A leaflet produced by the City and County of Swansea on the different roles of local councillors
Swansea’s take on being a councillor (click to see full-size)

I’ve thought rather a lot about this leaflet from Swansea council since I saw it on the Localopolis blog in the middle of last month. Part of that is because, despite its simplicity, it’s a good assessment of what a councillor actually is (or could be).

But moving past the desire to self-evaluate I was drawn to a contradiction. As a councillor I’m most drawn to the campaigner role (though probably score poorly, at least publicly, on that): thinking to the few times I was on the judging panel for the LGiU’s Cllr Awards it was always the campaigners that tended to impress. They showed a passion and a dogged determination for their causes that got results. The problem was that those causes were often sectional, like environmental issues or aiding a small group within their community.

However, do most members of the public really want that? Aren’t they more interested in the caseworker, or the signposter? My guess is that you can put these six roles on a spectrum (probably in the same order as on the leaflet) and that’s what people expect of their councillors, and politicians generally. Whereas I’d probably rank them in the reverse order (except with a high-ranking for ‘decision maker’).

These roles aren’t exclusive, of course, being a campaigning councillor doesn’t mean you aren’t also a caseworker – though obviously there are limits on time – but it did leave me wondering if there is a mismatch between the expectations of the elected and the electorate.

In what will be remembered as the biggest success my political ‘career’ will ever see I managed to get a change on the Number 10 website.

For months I’d been railing about the typo at the bottom of their page, see here in a screen grab I made about a week ago.

Take part in my what?

Neighbourood? Really? I’m not having our head of government’s website have a typo on every page for the world to see.

When I first spotted it, last August, I immediately fired off a tweet pointing it out. But it was ignored.

However, after battling away, I’ve finally got Number 10 to change. This week I noticed the typo had been removed, and now it’s ‘neighbourhood’.

That's much better

So to all those that say the government doesn’t listen. It does, eventually.

(Full disclosure: I can take no credit, that all belongs to @marxculture who I told about it on Twitter and then he got right onto it.)

Birmingham City Hall
Birmingham: Not home to directly elected mayors

A week after the elections one set of results particularly disappoints me.

Not the Conservative and Lib Dem losses – while I’m sure we lost many fine councillors this election was a typical mid-term where the government is traditionally punished. Coming from a high point four years ago the losses were not at all surprising.

What really disappointed me were the results of the mayoral referenda.

As a localist, of course, I’ve no problem with the people all those cities exercising their right to not to have mayoral government. But I can’t help thinking they have missed an opportunity. Mayoral government isn’t right everywhere, but surely some of those cities would be better with a mayor than a traditional council.

The result that disappointed me most was Birmingham. I’ve a soft spot for the city, I don’t know why – I’ve no connection and probably wouldn’t particularly want to live there. But I have enjoyed every time I have visited or worked there. And I’ve always pondered the oddity that leaves it struggling to be seen as the second city ahead of Manchester, when on all objective measures Manchester shouldn’t even be in the running.

And one should not forget Birmingham’s magnificent local government heritage. It is the place that made local government. Led by Joseph Chamberlain Birmingham initiated massive improvements in the lives of its residents, and remains a great example of innovation at local level that would be impossible now after decades of centralisation and prescriptive legislation.

Chamberlain was not directly elected, but used the position of mayor to provide exactly the sort of personality-driven leadership a modern directly elected mayor should provide. In doing so Birmingham became a laboratory of democracy which changed both the city and Britain for the better.

His contribution was so significant that I write about him under the assumption that you have at least a vague idea of who he was. But I’d also bet you couldn’t name either new or old leaders of Birmingham.

'Diamond' Joe Quimby, dressed as a sandwich
An avatar for British local democracy?

As an aside, a few years ago I ran, with someone else, a website called Cllr Tweeps. It was a fairly simple searchable directory of councillors by name, party or council on Twitter in the days before Twitter became mainstream. In its day was the biggest, and I like to think best, directory of its type. (We eventually ended it because of the cost in both time and money, and because a publicly funded equivalent was created, although even now I think ours was more useful to councillors and residents).

The accompanying Twitter account needed an avatar, a picture to represent local government. After much searching we decided the best image was ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby.

Animated, American and directly elected though he was, not a single person complained, or even commented, that it wasn’t the best representation of British local government. He was just accepted.

And this country’s existing mayors all seem to have been accepted too. I didn’t see any serious debate in the recent London mayoral compaign about the existence of the position. Doncaster actively voted to keep their mayor, despite being seen as ‘controversial’.

Perhaps it is simply that those cities who voted no don’t want to be laboratories of democracy. Maybe they will re-consider after Liverpool, Salford and Bristol have had mayors in post for a few years. Though by then they will be playing catch-up.

Returning to Birmingham, I can’t help feeling that some of the reasons suggested for Bristol’s yes vote on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog should have applied:

Even those in favour of a mayor recognised a yes vote would be a leap of faith. But it was a leap worth taking. Why? The overarching narrative of the ‘Yes’ campaign was an appeal to civic pride and to a sense of underachievement. Bristol may be one of the richest cities outside of London but there is a feeling that it is less than the sum of its parts.

The no votes were an expression of localist will. That should be respected and celebrated. But I wonder if Chamberlain, having seen so much changed by his time in local government, would be comforted or shocked to see that Birmingham’s government still works in much the same way as it did when he ran it.

The ballot is a little more complex than this...

Until motivated by my letter from Brett Harrison yesterday, I don’t think I’d posted anything about the Mayoral and GLA elections this time around, so this is my last chance. I’ve tweeted a little about it, but not that much. What I have found myself doing (perhaps a little too often) is the campaigning.

I can’t help feeling that, at my age, I should have better things to do than deliver leaflets and knock on doors. And for a short while during this campaign I did: I had flu and stayed in bed. (My definition of better perhaps needs some work.) But apart from that I’ve been dutifully plodding the streets, mainly in Shaftesbury, doing my bit for Boris and Dick Tracey.

It has not been the most inspiring campaign for a number of reasons. I suspect it might have been better had Labour’s selection decision gone a different way. But I’m not going to get into those issues, if you want, perhaps read the Evening Standard’s endorsement of Boris or The Guardian’s endorsement of Ken.

Perhaps my mind was already made up, but I’ll be voting Boris for Mayor, Dick Tracey for the constituency GLA seat and Conservative for the London-wide GLA seats. I hope you’ll consider doing the same, but whatever you decide, it’s important to cast your vote.

If you live in Wandsworth the council’s election information pages contain useful information, including a postcode finder for your polling station (open from 7am until 10pm).

If you live in Shaftesbury and usually vote at the Devas Club your polling station for this election has moved to the grand hall at Battersea Arts Centre.

Dear friend... (click the picture to download the full PDF)

A fantastic bit of campaigning from the Labour Party.*

This sort of thing that the Liberal Democrats pioneered. A ‘hand-written’ letter to try and persuade you of the merits of their candidate. It’s meant to be more personal than a traditional leaflet and, therefore, have more impact. I got this delivered by Royal Mail this afternoon.

Except this doesn’t even mention Ken. Instead, it attacks Boris, purporting to be from a former Conservative activist.

The only way you’d know it was from Ken is by reading the small imprint where it reveals it’s from the Labour Party.

Promoted by London Labour

A desperate, desperate measure. Don’t mention Ken, just attack Boris in the hope it depresses his vote a little.

No wonder the bookies are already paying out on a Boris victory.

* By which I mean an awful bit of campaigning from the Labour Party

This post first appeared on the Local Government Association blog.

What do you say to someone who wants to be a councillor?

After agreeing to meet someone through the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign, I needed an answer.

There are, of course, the platitudes: you can make a difference, improve your area, maybe get that parking problem sorted. Or the time commitments: the town hall, the ward, being horsewhipped by your local party to deliver another newsletter. And the perks: though no examples spring to mind.

But I’m probably going through some sort of electoral mid-life crisis and found myself asking a more fundamental question: what is the point of a council?

I found it hard to answer.

We could use the same platitudes writ large, but that understates the historical importance of local government. For centuries any social progress worth shouting about was the result of local boards and corporations making the lives of citizens healthier and happier. National government defended our borders (and occasionally attacked other people’s) but for everything else there was the town hall.

The result may not have been consistent, but what is now derided as a postcode lottery set the rapid pace of social improvement in the 19th century. Councils and their forerunners identified service needs and innovated, their neighbours copied and improved, and the country benefited. Even those services we blithely assume could only be national had local roots. Before the NHS was a beloved institution if you needed a hospital bed the odds were your local council would provide.

Yet in the space of a single lifetime (extended, I should point out, thanks to local authority work in public health) these dynamic councils were brought low. Their sovereignty raided, powers taken and freedoms shackled.

Even the current suggestion of a ‘Magna Carta for local government’ seems more about central government returning appropriated powers and rights than recognising the potential of a dynamic and free tier of local government. It is still about things being done to us, not with or by us.

So what would I say to a potential councillor now? Well, the platitudes remain, after all, casework is a modern councillor’s bread and butter and we know change isn’t just around the corner.

But the conversation wouldn’t be complete without reference to local government’s proud history, and the suggestion that maybe, with determination, vision and the correct permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government, they could be part of a new era of innovative and independent local government.

Yesterday I used the Internet as follows:

  1. Sent and received 81 emails, of which 58 related to council and ward work, 10 related to my non-council work and 13 were to friends and family
  2. Visited pages at BBC News, Department of Communities and Local Government, London School of Economics, Local Government Information Unit, Angry People in Local Papers, Literature and Latte, The Guardian, Wikipedia, Liverpool Council and YouTube
  3. Downloading an application from the Mac App Store (Byword, it’s excellent.)
  4. Automatic back-up using an offsite service.
  5. Syncing my Dropbox folder (a great free service, sign up with this link and we both get a bit extra for free.)

I’m sure this information is as interesting to you as it is useful to the security of the nation.

Without knowing the content of those emails it’s both boring and useless. I might have emailed my wife about my secret plan to blow up the Thames riverside by igniting sewage gases.

Or I might have dropped her a line to let her know a delivery had arrived.

Of course, if the security services knew I needed monitoring they could apply for a warrant to see the content: but that’s exactly what they do now.

The proposals seem to amount to little more than a massive intrusion into privacy with the only benefit being to save the security services (and a lot more) a little administrative effort. And all the while using the excuse of national security; overlooking that nasty scary things like terrorism seem to have declined without a police state in any case.

The idea of the state having access to our emails and internet activity without independent oversight should shock everyone to the core. You might trust the current government with this information, you might not. But what about the next government, or the one after that? The principle of personal freedom and liberty is an absolute.

Even assuming our traditions of liberal democracy counter the potential of authoritarian government it is a worrying intrusion of our privacy and contrary to the notion that we are a free, liberal democracy. I am astounded that the proposal comes from a government that should be respecting and promoting the primacy of the individual over the state. I know there can be an authoritarian streak in the Conservatives, but thought one of the benefits of the coalition was the Liberal Democrats would check it.

What troubles me most of all, however, is the number of people who are so used to this sort of erosion of civil liberties that they not only trot out the ‘nothing to hide’ line, they even believe the surveillance of a populace is the price to be paid for security. As dangerous as the all-powerful state is, a submissive population that does not value its rights is worse.