Will a Tory town hall victory in May lead to bitter defeat in July?

St Albans Civic Centre: One of the new Tory controlled councils. Pic Credit: St Albans gov.uk

St Albans Civic Centre: One of the new Tory controlled councils. Pic Credit: St Albans gov.uk

This weekend’s Observer contained a very interesting article from Toby Helm revealing that local councils are planning to lobby the government like mad to stop yet another huge wave of cuts.

What was interesting is that it was coming from the victorious Tory leaders in May’s local elections who are now fearful of having to implement heavy unpopular cuts to local services.

It has gone virtually unreported the scale of the local government gains by the Conservatives who gained of 32 councils and 541 more councillors on the back of getting a majority in Parliament. the full results are on the BBC website here.

The gains – many from  no over all control include Amber Valley (from Labour),Basingstoke, Bath,Brentwood, Broxtowe,East Staffs,Gloucester, Gravesham,Hinckley (from Lib Dems),Herefordshire,Lewes, Newark,North Warwickshire,Scarborough,St Albans,Taunton, Warwick, West Devon,Winchester,Worcester and Wyre Forest.

Labour had just three gains, Chester, Stockton-on-tees and West Lancashire but overall lost control of  three councils and lost over 200 councillors.  But this masks the scale of Labour defeat in places locally like Dacorum in Hemel Hempstead where Labour is down to two seats and the Liberal Democrats down to three, with 46 councillors from the Conservatives.The Liberal Democrats lost another 411 councillors and control of four councils, holding on to South Lakeland, Eastleigh and Eastbourne..

UKIP gained their first council in Thanet  where Nigel Farage was defeated and put on another 176 councillors.This council will become a yardstick on how UKIP run local services.

The Conservative victors have every reason to be apprehensive. Local government has borne a disproportionate share of the cuts under the now departed Eric Pickles and George Osborne is introducing an emergency budget in July. The Treasury often prefer to land local government which supplies personal services with big cuts to spare some of the lobbying from anxious Whitehall departments.

I predict that we are going to see some very radical changes to services. Private companies like Capita must be rubbing their hands with glee and many councils may have to follow the London borough of Barnet and outsource the entire council to private companies. People will soon find out that the only way to contact their council will be by a call centre – if they are lucky in England – but if unlucky in Bangalore or Chennai. The Tory victors could end up being defeated by their own austerity policies.

Election 2015: Are We Bovvered?

Driving around England just days before this week’s poll what has struck me forcibly is the absence of party political posters in ordinary people’s homes. Years ago when it was a simple two horse race with a rogue mare in a few Liberal strongholds the country would be a sea of red and blue with a spattering of orange.

Twice I have driven between Hertfordshire and Nottinghamshire ( half of it not on the M1  but sticking a lot to the A5 and cutting across towns and villages Like Leighton Buzzard and Towcester) and I could count the number of party political posters on two hands. Now it may be that the old party poster is out of fashion or political support is now emblazoned on Twitter rather than the front window, but I suspect it may reflect a deeper malaise reflected in the polls.

Given that we have had a ferocious election campaign the extraordinary fact – barring a last minute switch in the next 48 hours -is that the English polls have remained roughly the same ( given a point or two ) throughout the campaign.The earth has not moved.

The exception is Scotland where the SNP looks heading for a landslide on the back of the referendum campaign – and has if anything strengthened its lead if the polls are to be believed. It could achieve a virtual wipe out of the opposition. Gordon Brown , Alastair Darling and Sir Menzies Campbell must be very relieved they stood down this election rather than face defeat at the hands of the voter.

What I suspect – beyond the hard core of supporters – is a general disillusionment with politicians, a lack of trust, and a sad view that politics can’t change things. This was shown by one Tory supporter who told me she had decided to support the party ” because things were just about all right”. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for a party which claims to have saved the country from Labour fiscal disaster, created full employment in the South and destroyed inflation. I know the Tory top guard -minimum income £67,000 a year – just can’t understand why voters aren’t flocking to them in droves to give them like the SNP either a  Thatcherite landslide or a decent working majority.They must be desperate now.

Labour seems also to have failed yet to achieve a convincing swing – though Miliband who is being portrayed as a weird wonk by the right-wing media- has actually increased his poor ratings once people saw him perform on TV. How Murdoch must regret he hasn’t got Fox News over here where he could run stories which  Sun Nation and Zelo Street highlighted – like Miliband’s plans to evict the Downing Street cat – to garner landslide Tory support from the Cats Protection League and RSPCA.

And Nick Clegg has the student tuition fees lying promise like an albatross around his party’s neck – people do not trust what he says. Individual Liberal Democrats may do better in individual seats than national polls suggest – and they could even have a freak win in Watford  over the Tories where the  Liberal Democrat mayor is fighting a ferocious campaign against strong  opposition from Labour and Tory.

As for UKIP – their highlighting of immigration and quitting the European Union – has meant they have not faded away – and still attract a significant minority of disillusioned voters but their poster count is not high either.In my view they have a nostalgic and nasty view of the modern world that won’t work in the 21st century.

And the Greens have made some inroads though not enough to gain seats – though they have a fighting chance in Bristol and Norwich.

But the general impression is a public still interested in political issues but disillusioned with politicians. The expenses scandal, and broken promises still resonate. The lack of trust can be shown by Cameron’s desperation in promising to frame in law his uncosted plans to promise no tax rises and Miliband’s promise to erect a stone monument in the Downing Street’s garden  featuring his election pledges.

My serious worry about this election is what happens next if politicians and political parties can’t garner the trust of the people.Siren voices are already suggesting getting rid of them and leaving the country-like much of society -to be run by business. The latest is Ministry of Sound man James Palumbo. His article in the Evening Standard is dangerous stuff. It suggests  simplistic solutions that would deny a proper debate about the issues. And there are real issues – but politicians have to level with the British people to regain their respect.

How Britain’s Political parties still campaign in an age of steam

Very 19th century: Ed Miliband campaigning, Pic credit:BBC

Very 19th century: Ed Miliband campaigning, Pic credit:BBC

The county council elections are upon us. Ed Miliband goes on a soapbox, leaflets are pushed through doors, canvassers turn up on doorsteps and people are supposed to rush to polling stations.

How brilliantly nineteenth century when  Gladstone and Disraeli drew crowds of thousands or even early twentieth when  Churchill (then a Liberal like Clegg) and Balfour campaigned across Manchester.

Politicians seem wedded to the old ways – like our splendid heritage railways – harking back to the glorious age of steam.

But this is the twenty-first century – the age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and the rise of the blogger. – and the parties still – especially Labour – seem totally oblivious.

Indeed it is said that Tony Blair never communicated by computer – always getting a gopher to do his work – and  Gordon Brown tried to – but I gather his mistyping and mispelling are going to provide a field day  for commentators when his 5.30 am  e-mails are eventually released in 20 odd years time.

I see from my lobby colleague Oliver Wright ( http://ind.pn/11rWoWi)  – that Ed Miliband has asked Matthew McGregor, the British savvy computer guy who helped Obama attack dog Mitt Romney  to work on a new project for them. But this is but a straw.

Compare this to the massive success of campaigns since 2010 by groups like  38 degrees  and the glimmering of fights between Political Scrapbook and Guido Fawkes blog on the net , the rapid rise of hyper local blogs across London  from Barnet to Kidbrooke and  rural Derbyshire to West Wales. Compare  this also to the end of newspaper buying (unless free)  by almost anybody under 40, TV losing ratings, and most news being confined to a few sentences on an I phone.

Yet many politicians still behave as though the entire public still engage in debate in the same way as the crowds listening to Gladstone and Disraeli and avidly reading the morning newspapers. Sorry, I do not see people on the Berkhamsted Flyer debating the merits of Matthew Ancona versus Polly Toynbee.

It is time that  Britain’s political parties looked at how 38 degrees harnessed public opinion and not only used the net to find out what people want but engaged with their own members.

Otherwise David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are little more than replicas of Squire Boldwood in Far From the Madding Crowd They are sad political estate owners who give an annual Christmas party ( substitute party conferences) for their labourers who till the land (  the party faithful). Why not use  the net for dialogue with their members and bring in the public to debate the issues.

Deference is dead, people want to communicate on an equal basis. They have great freedom to express themselves, from praise to local attack dog, and through the net  reach a wider audience  than they could possibly dream about a decade ago.

But politicians cling to being patricians, all not only out of touch but out of date. None of them has to live on £50 or even £250 a week. No wonder an  old fashioned election campaign is encouraging a party harking back to a Golden Britain, UKIP. Wake up you dozy leaders, get a grip.

Election Campaign:What the politicians and civil servants didn’t tell us

Are you voting without them telling you all the facts?

The election is virtually over. Tomorrow  you can cast your vote.  The parties will concentrate on their key messages over the last hours before polling day. But have all the issues been covered? No way.
Just as there is a black hole in all the parties’ planned spending cuts, there are lots of issues that have not been properly covered and many more that have been completely ignored.
They fall into three groups: there are issues that have been discussed but  not properly explored; there are issues that have been ignored by the political parties; and, perhaps surprisingly, there have been issues that Whitehall – not the politicians – has buried under the carpet.
The biggest issue that has not been properly explored is immigration. It was partly catapulted into the election by Gordon Brown’s “Bigotgate” gaffe after meeting pensioner Gillian Duffy, but the parties have tried to obscure the facts.
The Tories have promised to introduce a cap on immigration – but it will not apply to the 27 existing members of the European Community. They account for 80 per cent of immigration – according to Channel Four’s fact check file – almost 1.8 million people coming into Britain against 1 million Brits going to live in the EU.
While those coming from outside the EU account for only 20 per cent of immigration, according to a BBC analysis for the last recorded year, 8,000 more people left than came in. In effect this makes Cameron’s cap almost meaningless.
The Liberal Democrats, while promising to give an amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years, estimate it could help 600,000 – but, as Nick Clegg admits himself, nobody knows where they are. UKIP would block immigration altogether – but that will mean leaving the EU as well. The Liberal Democrats’ policy would mean hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants paying taxes, while Labour say they would deport them all, if they can find them. So more heat than light.
Then there are buried issues. The biggest is pensions and how we are going to fund an ageing population. The Tories have promised to raise the pension age to 66 but not until 2016, after the next election.
And while the election is taking place, more companies are ending final salary schemes, which will make it more difficult to get a good pension, and the cost of providing care is going up all the time. The parties have touched on the cost of care but the multi billion pounds for pensions has not even been debated. Anyone thinking seriously about this would know that something has got to give.
Similarly, for younger people, one issue that might have been raised is the draconian measure – rushed through Parliament just before the election – to curb illegal file-sharing.  There is now a law that could give the music and video business powers to demand internet providers disconnect people from the internet. This has been barely mentioned.
Other issues hardly touched on include the environment, overseas aid, transport and housing.
But probably the most surprising thing that happened during the election was a decision by Whitehall – which runs the country while the PM is busy campaigning – to ban the release of new statistics which would have revealed how much you are funding farmers and agribusiness through the European Union.
Last Friday the EU expected every one of their 27 members to release details of the billions of euros spent subsidising farmers and big companies to produce food for last year. Every country except the UK published these figures.
In Whitehall, civil servants took the decision that to release this information in the middle of an election campaign would be wrong. They justified this on the grounds that some Parliamentary candidates might be receiving the  subsidies. I quote the explanation: “This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that … payment  information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.” Possibly as many as 80 candidates, mainly Conservative, and a few UKIP and Liberal Democrats are benefitting from this.
Extraordinarily, in Scotland – where there is a devolved government – the figures were released. They showed that 19,000 farmers and businesses shared nearly £600m of taxpayers’ money. The figure for the UK was over £3 billion the previous year.
But the effect was to close down any political debate on the cost of the EU to the taxpayer. Other statistics like hospital admissions, road statistics and all the economic data have all been released.
So it is not only politicians who have limited debate during the election.

This blog is also on the msn website as part of their general election coverage.

Whitehall’s censorship of farming subsidies spares Tories (and UKIP’s) blushes

tucking into censored farm subsidy pic courtesy daily mail

Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public  from seeing  information because  they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.

They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.

 What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3 billion from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.

On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.

But in London – against an EU directive – the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: “Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election.”

A letter from a DEFRA official to Jack Thurston, head of farmsubsidy.org, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why:

“This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that CAP payment  information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.”

Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads just to name two. And in Scotland because of devolved government – they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend –revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.

So who does this protect? Initial research by farmsubsidy.org reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen UKIP candidates- who campaign against the EU- could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat and BNP candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year’s subsidy figures.

 Yet we won’t know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election- even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.

Frankly disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in “ hung Parliament “ territory when Whitehall  will be effectively  running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief.

This blog is also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.