The Institute of Government blog has an interesting post on the value of insubordination.

The central thrust is that allowing a degree of dissent and challenge results in better policy making. The example cited, from Tim Harford’s book Adapt, was from the Iraq war:

US commanders on the ground … discarded their orders and tried something different based on local needs and circumstances. Their counter-insurgency strategies, at a time when the US Defense Secretary was refusing to admit there was an insurgency at all, formed the basis of the eventual moves toward restoring a degree of stability. The US Army never fully embraced the mavericks – but did eventually learn from them.

The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation – aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership – can lead to some horrible mistakes.

It goes on to refer to some of the institutional examples in the UK where people are licensed to openly dissent from the government that employs them, like the Chief Medical Officer (although it also mentions those that shouldn’t, but sometimes do, dissent like military chiefs).

However, I couldn’t help thinking of the government’s recent ‘U-turns’. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher these have an incredibly bad reputation, but perhaps David Cameron sees them as a deliberate policy. He might not know where the next U-turn will be, but he has the self-confidence to accept he doesn’t know everything and when there’s an uproar he might need to re-think.

Part of the bad reputation U-turns have come from a strange perception that admitting you were wrong is a bad thing; a perception I’ve don’t share (it’s nearly a year since I admitted to being a fan of – controlled – failure). The logical conclusion of a government that never changes its mind is a government that comes to office with an immutable set of beliefs and policies that will never change regardless of circumstances, a patent and dangerous nonsense.

Judging by opinion polls I can’t help wondering if Cameron has slayed the U-turn monster. Shouldn’t the Conservatives be in the polling doldrums, with Ed Miliband seen as the next Prime Minister? The fact that the Labour lead is nothing like what it should be and Ed Miliband is suffering the same sort of chatter that cursed William Hague from the start of his leadership suggests Cameron might have successfully sold the truth that it is possible to admit you’ve re-thought without a massive political penalty.

The risk is that the perception that U-turn equals weakness returns and if the story continues to be repeated U-turns in the face of opposition then return it will. But the easy antidote are a few strong stances: the hard policies that are so important to the government and won’t change. The problem starts when people remember all those malleable policies and none of the hard ones, a position I fear we are drifting towards. The Prime Minister’s saviour may well be coming on Thursday when the Unions give Cameron a high profile battle from which he won’t back down.

Since I’ve moved to London I’ve had five main addresses, not including a couple of stints ‘between homes’. Effectively a different home every 2.6 years.

Of course, if I’d been living in social housing, that would have been one home for all that time – and, actually, if I were a social tenant the chances of me moving to London in the first place would have been close to nil.

The Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should consider fixed term tenures for council properties might or might not be the right way to go about it, but that does not mean he is wrong to look at the principle. The fact that the main criticism seems to have come from Simon Hughes and not the Labour party suggests to me that David Cameron isn’t the only person thinking that things need to change.

To my mind, it’s always worth looking at a service and asking the simple question: “If this didn’t exist, would we feel the need to create it?”

Sometimes the answer is no, there are services scattered around that the council are running mainly because of historical accident or because of a need that has long since passed.

Very often the answer is yes, but not like this. And that’s the case with council housing.

To my mind, council housing should be a safety net, or a starting point, but never an ambition or a destination. But for far too many social housing has become just that.

One of the problems is in allocation. Currently once you have a council house you get security of tenure, as long as you keep up the rent and don’t do anything to get yourself evicted you are there for life. In Wandsworth, that tenure can be inherited once, in some places there is no limit on inheritance. Never is need assessed once the property has been allocated. There is no other benefit that works like this.

There are reasons for security of tenure. It creates security to help change it from a house to a home, and means people can put down roots in an area and feel they are part of the community. But people who are in private sector housing are still able to do that, despite the fact that most people know their home is not likely to be their home for the rest of their lives. I do not feel any less a part of Wandsworth because I’ve moved a few times.

It creates problems and distortions. We have a huge waiting list for large properties, partly because many of those large houses only have one tenant because, although their children have left home, there is no incentive to leave a large house that is largely maintained by the council. In Wandsworth and many other place we resort to ‘buying’ people out, offering a cash incentive and help for them to move to a smaller so people with larger families who need the room can move in. Of course, it’s a constant battle because, over time, those children grow up and leave, creating exactly the same problem.

And it creates problems for people in social housing too. They are less mobile, because moving social housing is incredibly difficult, often reliant on arranging a ‘swap’. And moving to larger properties virtually impossible. A young couple will often face a choice between not having a family or having to cope with over-crowding for several years until they can move.

Because of the glacial pace allocations move – we need to wait for properties to become vacant – instead of being a supply of housing to those in most need, it has become a supply of housing to those in most need a few years ago. It’s easy to see why, once in a council flat or house, there’s not much incentive to leave even if you don’t need it. Much better to stay put, then you aren’t at the back of the queue if private sector doesn’t work out.

I suspect that for many of the people I come into contact with, facing years of over-crowding or keen to move closer to the support of their families, it’s David Cameron – not Simon Hughes – who’s more in touch with their needs.

The Prime Minister got the headlines yesterday for his ‘launch’ of the Big Society. Along with a lot of scepticism about what the Big Society actually means.

It is a concept that a lot of people are struggling to understand. And if you don’t understand something it must be wrong. Right? Plenty were there to criticise the “ConDems” (a joke surely as tired and as unfunny as New Liebore or Tony B-liar) for using the Big Society as a mask for cuts.

But at its heart it seems, to me, remarkably simple. It is an admission that the state just cannot do everything. For a start it’s just isn’t feasible for the government to carry on Labour’s spending, in 2009 they managed a deficit of £159.2 billion. Even allowing for reduced revenues and extra expenditure because of the recession it is clear that spending so much more than is coming in is totally unsustainable.

But there is a more fundamental issue: to what extent we should expect the state to provide for us? Yes, it should be a safety net and it should ensure that people have various minimum standards in their life. But should it intrude in every aspect of our lives? Or should it enable us to do as much as possible for ourselves and each other, and leave out the rest?

The fact is that the Big Society is already all around us. Last Sunday I went to The Big Lunch on Battersea High Street, an event put together by all the traders (everyone contributed except William Hill, who perhaps don’t feel part of the communities whose money they take). The council helped (or perhaps hindered) the organisation, but it was a prime example of a community, residents and businesses, coming together to do something special. And it was a fantastic day.

But it isn’t just high-profile events like that. A lady I have known for years has, during her retirement, given her time to a number of causes: she runs her Neighbourhood Watch, been a school governor and now volunteers as a reading assistant in her local school alongside various stints of volunteering she does for charities.

Near to me a chap runs a regular playgroup, charging a few pounds a session to pay for room rental, tea and biscuits he arrives in the morning and sets up with the help of the early parents and then at the end of the session clears up with the help of the late arriving parents.

We all know people who give something, whether it’s running a sports team or occasionally helping out a neighbour. They are the Big Society.

It isn’t pure altruism. I’m sure the businesses on Battersea High Street were pleased to have an extra 1,200 people passing through their street on a Sunday afternoon. And I’m sure that even my friend will admit that part of her motivation, as well as giving something back, is the warm fuzzy feeling that comes in return.

It isn’t an issue of getting people to do the ‘state’s job’ for free, it’s about questioning whether society is better off with people building and strengthening their own communities, or just relying on the state to do everything. And helping people get more by giving more to their communities.

In the words of the Conservative manifesto, there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.

I owe readers and residents a confession.

At the weekend I drank champagne. I had quite a lot too. This is obviously the single biggest issue that faces Wandsworth at this time – so I thought you’d best hear from me before a photo appears in the local press.

Of course, if you were at a wedding as well, you’d probably have had some champagne – along with the hundreds of thousands of others who have had champagne at sometime to celebrate anything or, indeed, nothing.

That the Daily Mirror chose to run a picture of David Cameon at a party drinking champagne the day after the Shadow Chancellor became the first to start outlining plans to tackle the debt crisis we face says a lot.

It says that they have forgotten exactly what sort of parties have been going on at Labour conferences over the years (champagne socialiststs, anyone?) and it says they are utterly bereft of legitimate criticism.

They will presumably also be campaigning for a revision of second world war history, given Churchill’s penchant for Pol Roger champagne and Romeo y Julieta cigars while the country faced strict rationing.

It shows that while the Conservatives are talking about the real problems facing the country the left can do little more than trot out shock revelations that someone had a drink at a party. The level of political debate from the left in this country is shockingly and disappointingly low if this is the best they can do.

The council goes into a mini-hibernation during party conference season, partly because so many councillors attend their conferences. This doesn’t, however, apply during the Liberal Democrat conference for the simple reason that there are no Liberal Democrats on Wandsworth council. We have been in the fortunate position of being a two party council and, despite some opportunistic campaigning, the Liberal Democrats have never made inroads in Wandsworth on a council or Parliamentary level.

And this week’s conference can’t have given them any confidence they will be seeing a breakthrough at the next election.

It seemed doomed from the start. Nick Clegg’s decision to use the phrase “savage cuts” was wrong. Lib Dems are regularly (and arguably rightly) pilloried as trying to be all things to all people. But suddenly we had a leader who seemed to relish being more macho than the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition in his approach to public spending. The problem with the word ‘savage’ is that it doesn’t imply much intelligence. From being leader of a party that straddled the centre he was now the leader proposing indiscriminate cuts.

It wasn’t helped when the sainted Vince Cable announced to delegates, and his colleagues, ideas for a property tax. His reputation was further tarnished by a number of interviews when he didn’t come across as the super-economist his publicity paints.

And (although it might just be that I’m over-sensitive as a Conservative) when it seemed they were as keen to give as much conference time to knocking the Tories as highlighting their own policies you begin to realise that their aspirations of becoming the second party in British politics, or Nick Clegg’s desire to be Prime Minister, are pipe-dreams rather than realistic ambitions.

But the biggest problem they faced this year is that they were never going to be any more than a side-show.

This year the game is between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. And it’s the Labour Party conference that is the main event. David Cameron only needs to put in a competent performance. If he avoids the pitfalls of making policy from the podium and unthinking posturing he will have had a successful conference. We need to continue setting out our stall and outlining what a Conservative Britain will look like, but fireworks aren’t needed.

The fireworks will come next week, as the beleaguered Prime Minister tries to do the impossible and re-assert his authority. The papers are running rumours about resignation on vague ‘health’ grounds and we’ve already had the traditional call for him to go from Charles Clarke and there are going to be plenty more mutterings about the PM’s position in Brighton. If Nick Clegg had a bad week, he can at least take comfort that Gordon Brown is almost certain to have an even worse conference.

I’m still not sure what to make of David Cameron’s speech on cutting the cost of politics yesterday.

Obviously there’s a lot in there with which I agree. I am a Conservative member and activist, after all. But I often find myself in a minority of one when it comes to subjects like this (a position with which I’m perfectly comfortable) and I’m just not a fan of hair-shirts.

I’ll reiterate, there’s a lot in the speech with which I agree. I’ve never really understood the Standards Board when, as Cameron states, it’s usually seen as the job of the electorate to hold politicians to account (I have to declare an interest that I’m doing a fringe meeting at their conference later this year). I can’t argue with his points on the Electoral Commission or Regional Assemblies. On the number of MPs, well, I’m fairly agnostic.

It really is just the hair-shirt that causes me concern.

Of course, this isn’t actually a hair-shirt for the Conservatives. It’s largely a choice to wear a slightly less nice shirt than their predecessors – most incoming Conservative ministers will never have drawn a ministerial salary before and, for those that have, it was so long ago they will not notice the 5% cut after 13 years of inflation.

They may notice the removal of subsidy on food in the Palace of Westminster. But then so will the many many more secretaries, assistants and researchers (some working for free) for whom the subsidised food is, in reality, a little compensation for salaries that are frequently below market rates.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending ministerial salary levels, nor am I trying to make any judgment on their ideal level; I honestly don’t know the proper salary level for a minister. But what I do know is that the 5% cut is a gesture. And to be fair Cameron himself admits the saving is “trifling” and it is more about the message.

My concern, as with any gesture politics, is that the gesture can detract from the deed. The gesture got headlines today. And will doubtless get a few more headlines when the first Conservative ministers start drawing their reduced ministerial salary. And there’s absolutely no doubt that proposing cuts to politicians will be publicly popular.

But gestures are easy, and Cameron needs to make sure they don’t detract either himself, his future ministers or the public from the incredibly difficult times ahead.

It’s clearly silly season.  On Twitter David Cameron has become a ‘trending topic’ (meaning he’s one of the ten most talked about topics worldwide) because of his flippant remarks about Twitter.

I’m not sure if it shows that politics and comedy don’t mix, or the self-obsessed nature of people who use things like Twitter to communicate.

You might expect me to stick up for him. And I won’t disappoint.

It was a flippant remark with a serious point. He has decided not to go on Twitter because he feels there is a risk with an immediate and limited medium. He prefers being able to communicate in a more considered fashion. Given the response to his comments, he’s probably right. Should he have used that language? Perhaps not. Are there more important things to get worked up about? Definitely.

The response says a lot more about the people talking about what he said (and I realise the irony in me saying that) than it does about him.

I mentioned Wandsworth’s great results in the Audit Commission’s place survey in a post last week.

Over the weekend a short article by the council Leader, Edward Lister, appeared on the ConservativeHome website. (I’ve included the whole article at the end of this post.)

Obviously, I’m not going to disagree with his article – he’s basically my boss, and I’m not that stupid – but I would go further. Towards the end of the article Edward says:

…we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

David Cameron will be elected with a mandate for radical change, and should use it. The UK has seen an unremitting tide of centralisation over the past 12 years and it’s time for it to be reversed.

Now many will point to the Thatcher government as centralising, but it tended to prescribe rather than control – councils were required to work in certain ways or prevented from undertaking certain actions – but in many ways it made little difference; it was remarkable, for example, how many Direct Service Organisations ‘won’ compulsory competitive tenders in old Labour authorities.

The Blair and Brown centralisation has been much more directive while wearing the clothes of localism. Labour’s new localism may have involved delegating powers, but it would come with an array of targets and quotas that meant local government was little more than an agency of central government and often given extra duties without sufficient extra resources.

The Conservative government needs to push power as close to the people as it can be. We currently have a state in which power is wielded in Whitehall, leaving people dependent on, and dismissive of, a remote and disinterested ‘state’.

If people are to have faith in politics again, then politics needs to mean something. The easiest and best way is to empower local councils so their decisions, reflecting the will of their communities, can show what real politics is about – effecting positive change.

And Wandsworth has been more of an exception than the rule in this. The Conservative council has a clear mission to provide quality services with low tax, and has been incredibly successful in delivering this. But in the majority of councils where everything is driven by central targets and Whitehall diktat and it’s easy to see why people take the view that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.

To be sure, it would be a brave decision for the Cameron government to give real power back to local councils. It doesn’t just mean, in some cases, giving power to Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, it also means giving councils freedom to do things differently and sometimes make mistakes. But that would also be part of creating political accountability at a local level. Having real power exercised locally will mean that people will start to see how important their vote really is, and that it can make a difference.

The full ConservativeHome article:

Cllr Edward Lister: Lessons from Wandsworth for David Cameron

There’s lessons for David Cameron in this week’s survey results on people’s attitudes to their local authority and the place where they live.

In Wandsworth’s case the Government’s Place Survey gave us approval ratings to die for – top in the country on value for money (73 per cent) and top again for satisfaction with the council (75 per cent).

In London average satisfaction scores fell – down to 49 per cent. So what is Wandsworth doing that is different?

Well we do have the clear advantage of the UK’s lowest council tax – but that’s only one component. When residents are judging us on value for money they are influenced by their overriding perception of what the authority is about.

How was I treated last time I dealt with the town hall? Does the council share my concerns on quality of life issues? And how does it look after the local area?

The Wandsworth formula has been finely tuned over the years. Through a rigorous process of scrutiny and challenge that stretches into every corner of municipal activity we make sure we get the last pound of value from every service.

And like any sound business we don’t just do this once – it is a constant process of review which keeps asking why things are done the way are – and whether they could be done differently.

Wandsworth has a young and fast-changing population. Most people are here because they want to be here. It’s our job to identify with the aspirations of our residents and protect the character and quality of the place where they have chosen to live.

A Cameron government will have its work cut out getting the public finances in order – it will have to move very quickly to demonstrate that it knows how to get real value from all that hard earned taxpayers’ money.

Cutting waste and insisting on value for money from public services will be a popular strategy to start with. But it needs to go deeper if it is to generate and sustain voters’ trust in the longer term.

As Conservatives we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

It’s about saying to the public ‘we are there for you’ – and meaning it.

Yesterday I highlighted some of the things canvassing is not. Today I want to go through some of the things canvassing is, and my thoughts at the end of this particular campaign.  While the media will concentrate on Cabinet resignations and pressure on Brown, the life of a party activist is less glamorous and less dramatic; we knock on doors and talk to people.

Canvassing to identify support
At its simplest level canvassing is about identifying your supporters so you can encourage them to vote. If you imagine a constituency in which exactly half the population support the Conservatives and exactly half support the Labour party the winner would be decided by who was best at getting their supporters out to vote for them.

Canvassing as an opinion poll
But it also works as a simple opinion poll. Because we are continually canvassing on issues and support we can track changes. It isn’t as statistically valid as proper opinion research, we can’t select a ‘representative’ sample that reflects the country as a whole, but we do get an idea of the way things are going. If you canvass ten people and one has switched, that’s a 10% swing.

I will say from the outset that I don’t actually know any of the figures in Wandsworth or Battersea, I’m no longer involved at that level of political campaigning – I’m just an activist who goes where I’m told. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get a feel from the doorstep.

The feel on the doorstep
And that doorstep feel is an important indicator. The 1992 general election was the first I was actively involved in, and many will remember that, when called, it was seen as being incredibly close. A few days before the actual election one of the older and wiser heads in the association I was involved in told me that we’d win nationally. Not because of the polls, but because “you can see people aren’t ready for Labour”. I wrote it off until some months later when Neil Kinnock, in a documentary interview, said he knew he was going to lose not because of any polling, but because when he met members of the public he could “see it in their eyes”.

Its important to remember that while opinion polls give broad projections, it’s the people who go and vote that decide the result of elections, not the people who answer pollsters.

These are my opinions based on my own experience and during this campaign almost all my canvassing has been in Wandsworth, most in Battersea and the largest part of that in my own ward. If someone tells you its totally different next door in Lambeth or Richmond, they may well be right.

It’s a real pleasure to be able to say that I’ve only canvassed a few BNP supporters, indeed I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who have told me they are voting for the BNP. In Wandsworth, at least, they are not a political force. Hopefully that is the case everywhere else in the country.

Minor parties
Again, these have not featured on the doorstep, which is totally at odds with the recent polls showing UKIP in third place ahead of Labour. They may well achieve that level of support, but it won’t be in Wandsworth.

By far the most popular of the smaller parties has been the Greens. Not a huge number of them, to be sure, but certainly more than any other party.

I’m also going to include the Liberal Democrats in this category, although I do so with some caution. Wandsworth has traditionally been a two party borough, there are no Lib Dems on the council, although there are some areas in the borough where the Lib Dems are active. It might be because I’ve not been in those areas that I’ve met so few intending to vote that way.

It’s safe to say Labour are not having a good time of it. And it shows on the doorstep.

Their vote is definitely soft. Many who rejected the Conservatives in favour of Blair’s Labour Party are returning to the Conservatives if they hadn’t already. But I think the real problem Labour face are their supporter who just won’t go out and vote. It was very much the problem we faced in 1997, people wouldn’t vote against us, but we couldn’t get them to vote for us either. Around three million people fewer people voted in 1997 than had in 1992. Less people voted Labour in 1997 than had voted Conservative in 1992. Blair won not just because Tories switched to him, but also because they stayed home in huge numbers.

Oddly, one of the ways I see this relates to ‘Myth 3’ from yesterday’s post. It means that people can tell us they aren’t voting for us, but give us good news as well: “I always voted Labour, but I’m not doing that again.”

I find it hard to believe this isn’t going to be Labour’s 1997. The electorate want to punish Labour, and will; the question is whether they will be satisfied by this election, or whether the anger will carry over into the general election when Brown or his successor calls it.

Who’s winning?
Easy one for me. The Conservatives. As a Conservative each successive election since 1997 has been nicer than the last, but the change has been much more marked over the past two years. People are pleased to see us and enthusiastic about voting for us again.

Of course, the electoral system for this election means it’s impossible to predict a result. The final scores depend as much on the spread of votes between minor parties as it does on the Conservatives’ lead. I wouldn’t put a bet on the numbers of seats. But I’d put a bet on Cameron being the leader with the biggest smile when the results come in on Sunday.

Battersea In TouchWe are currently in the process of distributing the latest issue of ‘In Touch’, our consitutency wide paper.

If you prefer paperless, you can download a copy by following this link (543kb).

The issue contains:

  • Zero council tax increase this year
  • A message from Wandsworth Council Leader Edward Lister
  • Boris tackles City Hall waste to deliver tax freeze this year
  • What Wandsworth is doing to help combat the recession
  • David Cameron on the change our country needs