The regeneration of housing estates illustrates the change in the Government’s narrative

Inner city demolition of High rise building

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) argues that the announcement of funding to undertake an initial identification of housing estates which need ‘regeneration’ should not be dismissed:

I am not suggesting that there has been a change in priorities where the allocation of resources is concerned. The amounts outlined over the weekend do not go far enough, nor is the assumption that pension funds will be the primary source of money convincing. But, the announcements mark another subtle but quite important shift in the Government’s public policy narrative.

Following the 2010 and 2015 elections, first the Coalition, and then the Conservative Government made it an important part of their new approach that most of the New Labour initiatives were cut (out went Regional Development Agencies, integrated Government Offices and regeneration initiatives were regarded as old fashioned and not relevant to the new public policy  priorities or strategies).

So has everything changed? Not totally. But just as the devolution agenda (the Northern Powerhouse) is a case of taking other party’s policies and claiming as your own, so is the regeneration agenda. Does this matter? I think it does. Because in both cases to be successful there needs to a ‘public’ or civic society presence. Neither of these two developments can be undertaken by the private or not for profit sector alone. It is this reintroduction of the ‘public’ and with it the idea of the local agency facilitating or brokering changes as well as providing some element of accountability for what is done, which is the real potential shift in policy. Both of these developments need governance mechanisms to ensure that public needs are met or at least addressed. Governance is what the public agency or civic institutions provide. We need to reflect on what this means in the long term but in the short term it is another subtle but important shift in thinking and decision making at a central level.

After the election: What next ?

The General Election result will, for those fascinated by the intricacies of such events, provide much fertile ground for endless speculations and interpretations.

And there is a risk that these conversations crowd out some important questions as once again the daily media return their gaze to the succession competitions in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the up coming leadership campaign in the Conservative Party (given Cameron’s decision not to seek a ‘third term’).

The important questions which remain after the results were announced last Friday still remain:

What are the immediate consequences of the planned austerity cuts?

Where are the cuts coming to fund the reductions in welfare spending?

Where will the funds come to meet the crisis in the Health Service?

We know that there are planned cuts in public spending and we know that some of these planned cuts have factored into them a failure to keep pace with increases in utility costs.

As a consequences for those managing budgets across the public sector (education, health, social care and all locally provided services) the real reductions in funding are likely to have more impact than has been assumed or expected.

We know too that those responsible for managing local government services are talking about not being able to meet their statutory duties and services. One of the known (but often unappreciated by the wider public) ways in which some social and welfare services are provided at the local level is through the voluntary and community sector. What might appear to be small scale operations (good neighbour schemes or community based mentor or advocate schemes) but have a profound significance for those that use them are at risk in this context. There has been a contradiction throughout the last government’s policy and practice.

On the one hand there was a time when the Cameron-led Conservatives valued the idea of volunteering and the ‘Big Society’ on the other hand the cuts to mainstream services has pushed the provision of some of these services to the voluntary sector. So rather than providing an important added extra based on what might work locally, the Voluntary Sector has found itself looking to provide core services or in some cases through contracting out seeking to win commissions to run them.

There are also questions about those aspects of the last government’s budget which were never quantified. We can anticipate that these will be made explicit sooner rather than later. We might expect that the Government will want to get these cuts announced and implemented within the next three to four years to give themselves a chance of preparing for 2020.

And yet, there is still the impact of these changes at the local level. We can expect that as the cuts result in still further and major reductions in services there is likely to be more campaigning and opposition. One of the unintended consequences (perhaps) of last week is that the political context is ‘clearer and cleaner’ than it was in 2010. The Government no longer has the political advantage of being in coalition (that advantage enabled them to see their partners punished last week) and the opposition (whilst not united at all) might yet begin to articulate a shared critique.

The other potential base from which we might see opposition developing is at the local level. We are moving, I expect, to more direct cuts in services and so those who are local councillors or those who are school governors or members of hospital trusts will find themselves either defending their decisions to cut services or sack staff or they will be joining a broad network of opposition.

It is this period of unpredictability which we need to watch and engage with.

The results are in: What do they mean?

As the results come in across the UK there are a number of headlines from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats to the rise of the SNP to the growth in votes for UKIP but with little electoral success.

As with every election night the stories and speculation focuses on the individuals. So there is lots to fill the airwaves of the futures of a number of high profile candidates from Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband.

But it’s important to remember that this is the first stage in the election story. Now there will be the results from the local elections where councillors in city halls across England were being elected. This second part if the story is really important.

If Act One is the election of a national government – that looks like (at 5.10am) to be dominated by the Tories then Act Two is who will be responsible for implementing the decisions of the central government across the cuts in public spending. It is this which is as significant I think as the results in Scotland. I say this because the vote in Scotland does not change the balance of power in Westminster it actually strengthens (in the short term) the power base of the Conservative economic policy.

It means that the austerity measures as outlined (and as implied) are likely to be implemented. And the pace and scale of the cuts will be similar to the last five years.

Why does this matter ? I think it’s important because at the local level (where the bulk of the cuts are directed ) the gap between city hall and Westminster will accentuate. And the gaps between the political classes (including the media) and communities and families and individuals dependent on the welfare state will widen.

It is these widening gaps which reflect growing inequality too which is the longer term story of the night. And they are ones we will return to.

How Northern Ireland’s parties could hold the balance of power

Northern Ireland might be a small place that has receded from the public imagination since the end of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but it might just be propelled back into the political spotlight.

It remains religiously and politically divided along sectarian fault lines, but the 18 MPs that it returns to Westminster might just hold the key to forming the next government in the event of a hung parliament. Its pro-British Unionist parties, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has links to the neo-Conservative Christian right and the Ulster Unionist Party, are traditional Tories in Westminster.

In recent months there have been two major developments.
Firstly, to combat the threat of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA which has made the dramatic move from the political margins to leading Nationalist party, the Unionist parties have agreed an electoral pact to only run one pro-unionist candidate in four constituencies.

Secondly, this pact means that the DUP, assured of keeping at least seven of its current eight MPs, while also winning back its leader Peter Robinson’s East Belfast seat, is in a position to demand financial reward for supporting whichever government is formed after May 7.

The Independent noted that Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the former radical Protestant DUP leader, said the party, “will seek up to a billion pounds more funding for Northern Ireland as the price of keeping a Tory or Labour government in power.”

With the former three party domination of Westminster likely to be smashed at this general election, thanks to the remarkable Post-Indy Ref advance of the Scottish Nationalists north of the border and the projected growth in UKIP in England, the smaller parties are central to forming the next government.

Northern Ireland shows there is always going to be a price to pay for that support.

Why we are missing out on a genuine political conversation?

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to ‘real’ people talk about their hopes and aspirations as well as their anxieties and fears.

Their voices, as opposed to those which we hear on the news or indeed those that we engage in at conferences or workshops, provide a very different frame of reference from that which has shaped the political and national conversation over the last five years.

In this conversation people talk about what happens when their benefits are stopped or they describe the experiences of managing on very low wages ( sometimes barely meeting the minimum wage) and how they support their extended families in very emotionally fraught circumstances.

Or the conversation has been about how to raise the question of domestic violence and gain support from local community organisations, when to raise the issue runs the risk of even further marginalisation or exclusion. What about how one individual now feels able to talk to their child’s teacher whereas before they felt vulnerable and lacked the confidence to do so. Or where an individual describes the support they have had to start a training course which they didn’t think they would be able to do?

All of these conversations (some in the different parts of the North West, others in London) are examples of how the televised general election presents a very partial and different discussion.

The alternative conversation is one in which the support to vulnerable individuals and communities is itself vulnerable. The ways on which talented and committed individuals, some paid professionals, but many not giving of their time voluntarily, support others, campaign for change or indeed just offer very ordinary but humane support is huge and amazing.

It’s a different world from one which is trivialised on the news over how many kitchens a politician has. In this conversation we see the infrastructure of the social and welfare state creaking and bending.

The risk is, apart from what happens to individuals, that the gaps between these two worlds accentuates and on so doing it becomes much harder to have the political conversation and so individuals become even more disconnected from political discussions.

This is a theme to which I will return.

Predicting results.. what works and what doesn’t

Predicting election results is a mix of art and science.  We can all think of polls and pundits in the past who have got it wrong.  But there are some signs observers can look out for to make at least a partial judgement.

Yesterday (March 5th) I attended an excellent event at the BBC in Media City which looked at the North West (the region with the joint highest number of marginal constituencies) and attempted to make some predictions.

This got me thinking about what we should be looking for as indications of potential political success at election time.  So I’ll be writing a few pieces about the various measures and what they might mean.

Yesterday’s predictions, which only involved four seats in the North West region changing hands, used a number of factors including financial donations, polling data, local election results, incumbency factors and so on.  Audience members raised other potentially significant aspects such as levels of activism, key campaign issues and the personalities of the various contenders.

The aspect I am concentrating on today is local election results.

It is easy to look at a constituency, look at the local election results in the run up to a General Election, and make a party-based judgement on those figures.  In fact, in isolation, local election results are among the weakest of predictors of GE success.  Let’s take Edge Hill’s local constituency, West Lancashire.  In the run up to 2010 there had been Conservative local victories in Skelmersdale.  (If you don’t know the area, think in terms of Labour suddenly winning Surrey).

These were unexpected and many felt this pointed to a growth in Tory support that would turn out the incumbent Rosie Cooper.  In fact , although there was a small vote-share increase for the Conservatives, in line with the national trend, Ms Cooper is still the MP and had a 2010 majority of more than four thousand.

The thing is, local elections are simply different.  Firstly the turnout can be considerably lower than in a General.  Secondly, party allegiance can be weaker.  Finally the personality and activity level of a local candidate, particularly one running on an “us against them” ticket can be significant in a way that simply does not transfer.   This becomes apparent on those polling days when a General Election and Local Election take place on the same day in the same area.  Vote-splitting can be very common.

So what do local election results tell us?

Well they give some indication of party organisation.  A badly organised party will not  usually manage a large number of victories.  They give some indication of activist levels as volunteers need to be found to stand and again found to campaign. And they give some indication of local roots and knowledge.

But what they don’t do is tell us who will become an MP.

In 2001, had local election results been an indicator of national success I would have become an MP in Liverpool.  This on its own should be a warning to those who put too much prediction weight on the colour of the local council.

Unaccustomed as I am…..

This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.

Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place.  Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.

Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling.  But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.

For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight.  The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.

Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management.  Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience.  And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.

This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless.  But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.

As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round.  Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative.  Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.

In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green).  From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.

But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.

(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).

Words… words…words

Is there any phrase more annoying than “hard- working families”?  This seems to have entered the political phrasebook and is now trotted out by just about every party on just about every occasion.  Some say it was first used in the 1990s although Liverpool University’s Dr Stuart Wilks Heeg has pointed out a use in Hansard in the 1920s. (Just above the start of column 515)

When George Orwell wrote about Politics and the English Language back in the 1940s he argued that for clear thinking you needed clear language.  He wanted political writing to be more direct and straight forward.

One reason I dislike the phrase “hard-working families” is that it combines vagueness with a sort of “dog whistle message” intended to push certain buttons.  If you think about it, how on earth can a family actually be hard-working (unless of course the children are up the chimney and granny is on piece work)?

I suspect this coming election will be full of words and phrases that either don’t mean a lot or mean a huge amount if you can pick up the signals.

So to join “hard-working families”  here are the other two in my starter list of three words or phrases that should go in the banned box.

“I want to start a debate on this”.  A common political phrase in interviews and discussions which roughly translates as “don’t really know what I think about this one”.

“Firm but fair immigration”.  What on earth does that mean?  If the opposite doesn’t work (in this case flabby and unfair immigration) then the phrase carries no concrete meaning.

Writing speeches is not easy.  Taking part in interviews and debates can be tricky.  So you can see why scribes and speakers fall back on their regular phrases.

But I wonder if, this time, we can have a little less obfuscation and a little more of Orwell’s clarity.

Why the public realm still matters

 The idea of the ‘public realm’ is one which is unlikely to grab everyone’s attention. But it captures an important set of ideas and they are ones we tend to take for granted.

At its heart is the simple proposition that the health of a good society can be seen through its commitment to shared and collective provision of services from public health to education to welfare and social services.

In the late 19th century the urban centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow were places where this set of ideas had their expression through the provision of range of services including gas and electricity as well as libraries and parks. This age of city hall being the centre of a newly emerging public realm is an important historical moment. It sets up the expansion of the public realm  following the end of World War 2 with the NHS as well as key changes too in public education.

Why does this matter? And why now? It matters, I think, because we are at risk of forgetting the long history of state funded or locally funded investment in services which were about improving the quality of life as well as improving the health and education of society more broadly. Would we fund libraries now? Or would we assume that those who wanted access to books could go and buy them for themselves ? Would we fund art galleries from scratch – without the economic case or the business case which we make now?

The recent open letter (Who Is My Neighbour : A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015) reminded me of this past history. It makes the case – not just for public engagement with the debate and voting too  but also for a debate on what kind of society we are. It is a letter which sets out a particular case (based on the values and theology of the Church of England) and, at the same time too, makes the case for the ‘public realm’.

It argues for an healthy civil society which is itself a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democratic society too. Whilst, I think there are absences too in their analysis it is a good starting point for comparing the idea of a ‘public realm’ in which there is a sense of the shared and collective arrangements of services to the market in which provision of services is determined by price and demand not by values and an ethical framework. I will come back to this tension in the next series of postings.

Vote: Politics is about more than political parties and the ballot box

Russell Brand caused a stir in the media and amongst the political classes in recent months as he questioned the value of voting in what he sees as a corrupt political system which fails to serve the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Whilst I might have sympathy with some of the things Brand says, I disagree with him on the question of voting. The legitimacy of representative democracy, imperfect as it is, depends on as many people as possible exercising their duty at the ballot box. That’s why the recent voter registration drive to encourage people to register and vote in the forthcoming General Election was an important and much needed initiative and campaign.

But love him or loathe him, where Brand does have a point is in his insistence that politics is about more than what happens in the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’. The media’s obsession with Westminster-based politics feeds the idea that political parties and the act of voting represents the only real means of engaging politically.

Yes, voting and party politics matter very much but we need to remind ourselves that democracy, politics and the exercise of power is about more than parties and voting – it is about who we are, what we value and how we envision and work towards a good society. As Bernard Crick, the political philosopher once said: ‘Politics is an activity which must be carried on; one does not create it or decide to join in – one simply becomes more and more aware that one is involved in it as part of the human condition’.

As citizens it is up to us to ensure that the public sphere is not just dominated by elected politicians and other elites, whether they be from corporate life, celebrity life, think tanks or academia. The political agenda must be shaped by and reflect the concerns of so called ‘ordinary’ people and this calls for different forms of political agency, including protest, lobbying, and campaigning. A good example of politics in this broader sense is the work of Citizens UK who started the Living Wage campaign over ten years ago. Click here to see their 2015 Manifesto and how they are engaging thousands of people in the activity of politics.