Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Elected Mayor league table.

Several councils in Britain have elected Mayors. How are they doing? I decided to use the Audit Commission's Comprehensive performance assessments to find out.

The lesson seems to be that electing men in Monkey suits is a really good idea. Hartlepool Council continues to be the best performing Mayoral council in the country.

Two serious thoughts.

First, Only two of the Mayors can claim to have had a noticeably positive impact on performance so far. Kudos to Sir Robin Wales in Newham for moving the council from Fair to Good. Jules Pipe in Hackney can also be pleased that Hackney was named as one of the top ten performance improvers. The fact that Hackney is still one of the worst councils in the country is a sobering baseline. (Martin Winter in Doncaster gets a personal positive mention by the AC, but no noticeable shift in overall performance)

Second, The preponderence of Weak/Poor ratings is more an indication of why the Mayors were elected, rather than a comment on the performance of the individual. It's the trends that would matter. While it can't be represented in league table form,

Finally it should be noted that many of these councils were previously run by a different political party before the election of the Mayor. These were : Hartlepool (Lab, then NOC) Middlesbrough (Lab), North Tyneside (Lab), Stoke (Lab), Mansfield (Lab), Bedford (NOC), Watford (lLab)

Council 2002 2003

Hartlepool (Ind) Excel Excel
Middlesbrough (Ind) Good Good
Newham (Lab) Fair Good
Stoke (Ind)* Fair Fair
Doncaster (Lab) Fair Fair
Mansfield (Ind) Weak
Hackney (Lab) Poor Poor+
North Tyneside (Con) Poor Poor#

* Mayor has been in office for less than a year.
+ Although no change in Classification, was mentioned as one of top ten service improvers.
# First mayor resigned. By-election elected another Conservative.

No CPA or Best Value assessment has been carried out in Bedford BC (Ind) since the mayoral election there.

Watford BC (LD) has been rated one of the worst councils in the UK in a Best Value assessment. However, this was only a few months after the election of the Mayor and change of political control, and no CPA has yet been done, so I thought it would be unfair to include here.

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Do MP’s matter any more?

We'e coming up to the end of term for our wonderful MP's. Across the country, Honourable members will be returning to their constituencies, writing Christmas cards, attending very dull parties and ferrying thousands of bottles of House of Commons whisky to agents, assistants, friends and possible rivals.

From being one of hundreds of MP's crammed into offices and voting lobbies, the humble backbencher will once again experience the magical weekly transformation into local celebrity.

In Westminster they might be lobby fodder, but at home our MP's are the holders of awesome power, the national legislators, the princes of the common man.

In theory.

It's worth asking why we bother. At this point we usually hear a condemnation of the salaries of the privileged members. You might wonder if we get value for money. Yes, we do. Most MP's work hard, and in any case, the purpose of paying them isn't to reward them for work, it's to allow any citizen to become an MP.

That's not the point. The problem is that increasingly, MP's just don’t matter as much as they used to.

25 years ago, MP's exclusively elected the leaders of all three major parties. Now the membership elects the leaders of all three. The only way MP's have a role is through nomination and coup d’etat.

25 years ago, MP's had exclusive legislative power. Now those roles have been devolved upwards to Europe and downwards to the Scottish parliament. The London mayor and Welsh assembly have delegated powers that were once controlled by ministers based in parliament.

Even the jobs that MP's aspire to have declined in influence. How better to illustrate this than the career of Baroness Morgan of Huyton? The noble Baroness was Tony Blair's political secretary. She lost an internal power battle with Anji Hunter and was ennobled and made Minister of State for Women. When Anji resigned, Baroness Morgan immediately resigned as a minister and took Anji Hunter's job. As far as I am aware this was the first example of a minister resigning to become an adviser.

It’s a commonplace that we have become a more presidential political community, with central power directed by the Prime Ministers office. Yet at the same time we've also become a more politically distributed society. Who is more important for a community- the elected Mayor, the local backbench MP, the leader of the regional assembly or the adviser to Prime Minister for regional affairs? What of the MEP who happens to be leader of the socialist group in the European Parliament?

The fact is that 25 years ago, the House of Commons was at a peak in its power. The state was unified and centralised. The House of Lords were happy to be second rate. MP's had sole power in electing party leaders and they were the only route to national political leadership.

Now only the last of these remains. Even this is tenuous. Jack McConnell. Nick Bourne. Ray Mallon. None of them have built a career as MP's- each of them could credibly ascend further.

Why am I so confident of this now? After all, we have had major regional figures before. Because now, a regional politician might continue their current role and look forward to appointment to the newly reformed House of Lords. There, they could claim democratic legitimacy due to their outside role. They would be significant political players but not MP's.

Our political career structure is lagging behind real power. Nye Bevan used to say that he chased power from his district council to his county council to Westminster to the cabinet and he still hadn’t caught it. Today he'd be obliged to run through a maze to find power, not climb the greasy pole.

In effect, our political culture is heading as much towards Europe as it is towards the US. Look at the career of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Local Mayor, National Assembly member and MEP. Or the rest of the French cabinet. MP’s yes, but also senators, advisers, businessmen, regional politicians, and old cronies.

So is it vital to a political career to be an MP? Not as much as it used to be. Not by a long way. What really matters is the power to make a difference and garner attention. MP’s are not always in the best position to do this.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

That Iraq-Niger connection at last...

They're both home to unfeasibly wealthy people who want to give me money.

I was delighted to receive the following e-mail. It's touching story reached the depths of my Christian heart.

I am former Mrs. Fatima Aisha Alamin, now Mrs Elizbert Alamin, a widow to late Sheik Mohammed Alami. I am 72 years old, I am now a new Christian convert, suffering from long time cancer of the breast. From all indications, my condition is really deteriorating and is quite obvious that I may not live more than six months, because the cancer stage has gotten to a very severe stage."

What terrble news, I think you'll agree. Mrs Alamin's woes didn't stop there though:

"My late husband was killed during the Gilf war, and during the period of our marriage we had a son who was also killed in a cold blood during the Gulf war. My late husband was very wealthy and after his death, I inherited all his business and wealth."

Well, that cancer/massive wealth/death in war trifecta would make anyone think about the nature of the soul and fate, and how best to put God's bounty to work, so I was delighted to read on and discover:

"I now decided to divide part of this wealth, by contributing to the development of evangelism in Africa, America, Europe and Asia countries. This mission which will no doubt be tasking had made me to recently relocate to Nigeria

Well, you would move to Nigeria, wouldn't you? Anyway, to cut to the point Mrs Alamin is:

" willing to donate the sum of $10,000,000.00 million US dollars to your church/ministry for the development of evangelism and also as aids for the privileged around you."

An Iraqi woman, a convert to christianity, who wants to help privileged evangelical Christians? Someone call the Whitehouse. We've found the motherlode!

I hope all of you who wish to help the privileged around you will " contact immediately my attorney whom I have briefed on this, he is to get all the paper works in favour of your ministry, Barr. Usman Y Usman Tel ;++234-80 -23021722 {}"

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Labour announce new General Secretary

To the shock of no-one in the Labour movement, Matt Carter will take over as Labour General Secretary in the new year.

Two thoughts.

1. Matt Carter is very able and as such, a good thing.

2. Matt Carter has no personal or factional power base, and will therefore act much more as a manager than a traditional General Secretary. Politically he will be far more manageable. This is in itself no bad thing, but it marks a major change in the role of the Labour General secretary job, probably inevitable given the fact a senior politician now acts as Party Chair.

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Talking about a revolution…

No, not in Iraq, here.

I want you to imagine the next but one election for the leadership of the Labour party.

Labour has just lost the General election, and the party is bruised. Membership has sunk to below 200,000 and, after 12 years in office, many cabinet ministers are seen as tired, unpopular or not credible leaders.

Three main contestants for the leadership emerge. There is Ed Balls/Douglas Alexander/Ruth Kelly and Alan Milburn/David Miliband/Stephen Twigg representing the successors of the Brown/Blair division of the party. These are the favourites, known to the Westminster village, all able, talented insiders.

Then there’s someone else. Maybe a Mayor, or MSP, maybe a businessman or orator. Someone not taken that seriously by the centre and therefore left alone, someone charismatic, energetic, sparky.

They might have to be an MP, but whatever the case, they are an outsider. No-one gives them a chance. They announce their campign regardless, claiming that they will run the first grassroots campaign in British politics.

Unknown, to anyone else, this candidate has spent the previous five years building mailing lists, their campaign manager has toured CLP after CLP, visited union branch after union branch, quietly spreading the message and signing up activists who feel disenfranchised by the likely choice.

These people swing into action when the election is announced, organising independently, but doing so through a host of websites, they pressure their MP’s to nominate this grass roots candidate. They start pushing union branches, which are calcified and represent only a tiny percentage of their members to nominate their favoured candidates. They phone party members and CLP officers, and write letters to everyone in their own area.

The first warning for the conventional candidates comes when the outsider gather a surprising number of nominations from unions and MP’s. Union political officers from left and right start trying to push their favoured candidates, only to discover a political machine has sprung up overnight and has captured branch after branch with excited union and CLP members who are attending their first branch meeting.

Suddenly, the campaign managers for the traditional candidates are thrown into a panic. They have campaign teams of MP’s, but solid MP’s are coming back and saying they can’t deliver their constituencies.

They have Union leaders backing them, but the unions have to call a ballot, and the on the ground organisation of the outsider has e-mail addresses, is holding packed meetings and demanding the union endorse their man. Trade Union leaders who haven’t endorsed, waiting to anoint the winner, are deluged by calls, e-mails and letters to move to the outside candidates.

Then the election comes. Thanks to the votes of MP’s, one of the traditional candidates wins by a whisker…. Trouble is, the outsider is demanding the deputy leadership- with a veiled hint that if he doesn’t get it, He’ll walk- and take the now, outraged and angry trade unions, members and CLP’s that support him into a new political party for all the PR elections of the coming parliament….

No-one in British politics seems to be thinking seriously about this kind of scenario, but we need to be. After all, the question posed by this Washington Post Article “What will happen when a national political machine can fit on a laptop?” applies here too. the only question is how it'll happen.

Of course, you never know, there might be an ambitious young politician who wants to run this campaign. If they do, tell them where to contact me.

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Monday, December 15, 2003

On such a good day, why do I feel uncertain?

Perhaps it is a particularly personal reaction against good news, but I find it hard to take great pleasure in the capture of Saddam Hussein.

It’s particularly odd that my reaction is so negative given that I supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Hussein’s removal from power was important and necessary.

So why am I not jubilant? Because the good the men do is oft interred with their bones. The capture of Hussein marks the end of my justification of the war. The Ba’athist regime is now comprehensively finished. The good we have done in deposing Hussein can now be taken for granted. The mistakes we make in ruling Iraq will become the sole focus of the Iraqi peoples hopes and fears. Without the lurking threat from Saddam justifying our presence, the questions will become louder: What are we doing in Iraq, how long will we have to be there, how well will we do and what will we do if we are not wanted?

The destruction of Saddam’s regime was our noblest and proudest moment, but it is a past achievement.

As the Prime Minister said on the 4th of April this year:

“this is not a war against Iraq. It is a war against Saddam. It is a war against Saddam because of the weapons of mass destruction that he has, and it is a war against Saddam because of what he has done to the Iraqi people”

Now there is no Saddam, and inter alia, no WMD, That war is presumably over. Now what?

The words that Bush and Blair have used in the past are noble aspirations, but vague in methods of achievement.

“we will uphold our responsibility to help the people of Iraq build a nation that is whole, free and at peace with itself and its neighbours. We support the aspirations of all of Iraq's people for a united, representative government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy. We reaffirm our commitment to protect Iraq's natural resources, as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used only for their benefit”

Reading these fine words, I begin to wonder if any of us really know what we want to do to get that free Iraq.

Do we want a modern liberal, secular democracy? To deliver this need to run a police state for a few years and have a running battle with various theocrats.

Do we want a democracy at any price? If we do, what happens when they vote for those we don’t want anywhere near power?

Do we want a stable (if non-democratic) government? A government of this type might be able to restrain Islamic fundamentalism, and run the country, but what of the Iraqi’s?

No, it seems what we are aiming for is a kind of Kosovo solution. We end up with a patchwork of local authorities, overseen by an outside viceroy or high commissioner, operation with the permission of the domestic authority. This has worked pretty well in Kosovo, but, to state the obvious, Iraq is not Kosovo.

For a start, we have to overlay the dangers of Islamic opinion in a highly armed society. Iraq’s neighbours include Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. Not one of them has an interest in a successful coalition in Iraq.

Second, Iraq is simply bigger and more dangerous. Today, there are 33,000 troops stationed in Kosovo, 4 years after the end of major combat operations, for a population of 2 million over 10,887 square kilometres.

Iraq has ten times the population, and is 40 times the size of Kosovo. As of now, there are about 4 times as many coalition troops stationed in Iraq than in Kosovo. Even assuming that the US and coalition is prepared to bear the burden of a Kosovo style occupation force of 150,000 for four or five years, it will be a massively under-resourced occupation. Remember, there are not likely to be the same number of NATO and other forces available to cycle through Iraq as there are for Kosovo, so the burden on the US and UK will be even greater.

Military strength and long term commitment is one thing, but what lost America Vietnam was not their military defiency, but their inability to build a strong, stable, Vietnamese government that could resist the North without total US support. The big victory after the deposing of Saddam is the creation of a stable society. It is a huge challenge. Reconciling the interests of the different population groups, religious groups and sectional interests in Iraq has defeated all but the most brutal rulers of Iraq.

If we don’t care about Iraq, we can get out quicker. Bush’s team is now talking about being out of Iraq in seven months.

So I feel a little uneasy about the expectation that a Kosovo solution could work -and certainly very doubtful about trying to do it in seven months.

Let’s face it. If we want Iraq to be a stable society, we’re going to be there for a long time and we’re going to lose a lot of people. Whether We’re talking on the Northern Ireland level, the Chechen level or something else, I’m not qualified to say- but it’ll hurt. This is going to be even tougher because no-one wants to help us out. if the much maligned UN were helping, we could share the burden- but they're not, so it's all on us.

So our choice is between a long term commitment with a loss rate of troops that is unpredictable and domestically unpopular and a fast abandonemnt of our supporters in Iraq, perhaps shored up by military "advisers" and lots of money. That would lead to a South Vietnam style Iraq, just waiting to fall to a putsch of some kind., but the alternatives, nicely set out in this Washington Post article, don’t seem to have a lot of domestic upside for Bush.

As a result of this oddly hidden choice for Iraq and the obvious risks that go with either option, the final unequivocal success of the invasion of Iraq feels, to me at least, as if it is a brightness against a dark background. I hope it is dawn, I worry it is dusk.

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