Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chocolate teapot: the Local Government Ombudsman

"Dr" Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, takes home, according to her shambolic and disgraceful organisation's annual accounts, between £135,000 and £140,000 per annum.  The organisation costs the taxpayer £20m, of which £12m goes to support its alleged delivery of its duties under the Local Government Act, and £8m to plug a hole in its pension fund.  The £12m would be better spent on paying off its parasites and replacing it with a fit-for-purpose body that is capable of shining a light on the murky and inconsistent world of local government.

As part of the Coalition's "bonfire" of red tape, which was more an inchoate smouldering, bodies such as the LGO should have been held up to scrutiny.  The poor quality of national decision-making and the inability of much of government to understand the consequential impacts of its actions, hardly surprising given it was under Eric Pickles's remit, meant that the obvious corollary to the "localism" agenda Hameron put forward was the need to have a body of external repute and competency to ensure that as controls over local government conduct were loosened there was a credible check to the activities of the venal and incompetent.

Instead the LGO has continued on its unaccountable, self-satisfied smug path - perceived as acting as at best an apologetic gatekeeper to protect the interests of councils, who are after all its main clients and most consistent contacts.  Any organisation which, by its own admission, only upholds around 2% of the complaints it receives - invariably at the end of a protracted process of frustration and financial, psychological and physical damage to the aggrieved party, and which, for up to a quarter of other cases, attempts to negotiate "local settlements"( in which the victim is not even party to the discussion or decision-making) is a parody and an insult.

The interpretation that "Dr" Martin places upon her poltroonery is that the LGO is purely there to remedy "injustice".  In defining the organisation's role through an abstract concept, it avoids both consistency and the ability to define a term to hold her and her third-rate pen-pushers to account.  It is also beyond her competence and that of anything beyond case law to determine, but that does not stop a brigade of self-empowered arrogant ignoramuses (alternatively referred to as Investigators) from assuming the moral high ground.

Any organisation that lacks transparency and accountability is likely to maladminister and assume that it can get away with it indefinitely.  Instead of a definition of "injustice" that appears to flex within even an individual LGO investigation, a properly-consistuted organisation would define clear objectives across the whole of local government with respect to the level of professional conduct citizens should expect and the remedies when any organisation falls short.  Maladministration and failure to follow process is not just about the consequences when the victim suffers the consequences of council decisions and actions, but the interaction between authority and citizen, with the expectation that statutory and defined processes are followed.  This should be enough in itself to send alarm bells ringing.

It might be slightly better if a reasonable person could not entertain suspicion that the LGO itself is less than impartial.  The number of its staff with a local authority background is not clear, as it is not something that it would wish to advertise.  Without proper scrutiny this is a recipe for at best unconscious cronyism, given that the tendency of local government officers is to cling together given the justified obloquy that they meet in those who have passed beyond mere satisfaction at meeting a daily challenge of walking and breathing at the same time.  The manner in which complainants are trivialised and belittled by the LGO, without sight of (potentially misleading and mendacious) interactions between the LGO Investigator and the organisation complained about, is hardly a manifestation of "justice" - ringing further tocsins.

Accountability of government is a basic precondition of a civilised society with aspirations to democracy.  The LGO is manifestly failing - and, at least in the short term, saving £20m by consigning it to the dustbin would probably not have a material increase in the consequential impact of local government misdeeds.  Indeed, if the remedy of the courts was open, and funded, at the exhaustion of local process, councils might be less inclined to cut corners and screw over their residents - after all open proceedings could result in much more scrutiny and internal control before issues got to the complaint stage.

Martin and her self-satisfied annual report and "Business Plan", which, on the LGO website, does not refer at all to the objectives of remedying the impact of bad local government, merely to the current voguish "stakeholders", should be given the push.  Paying taxes for efficient local services is one thing - £20m would buy a huge bucket of whitewash, after all.  Paying for an organisation which is inspired in equal parts by Orwell, Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka in perverting language, arrogating the concept of "justice" and acting well beyond a reasonable interpretation of its powers and scope, is not acceptable.

At least a chocolate teapot has an alternative function, and is edible.  The LGO should only be gobbled up by the cesspit that, in an ideal world, awaits useless fig-leafs for government arrogance and incompetence.

In contemporary terms, if the LGO were a car, it would be a Volkswagen diesel.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Conservative enemy remains

Less than a tenth of the way through their term, the Tories have reverted to type.  While some of the grander claims being made for the moderating influence of the Liberal element to the previous coalition may have the whiff of casuistic apologetics, the reality is that the unfettered Cameron administration is a throwback to the worst era of Thatcherism.  The moral compass has spun into its grave, and we are blessed with a government which is rushing through its agenda of arrogance and vileness with unseemly haste.

Little wonder that they have been rejoicing in the immediate aftermath of Labour's leadership election, having calculatedly destroyed their erstwhile partners.  The inadequacy of an electoral system that has not delivered a majority endorsement for any governmental combination (save, arguably, in 2010) since 1906 and the ability of the anti-Tory forces to squander their moral and policy advantages in the context of sectarian bickering, are all godsends to a party driven purely by authoritarian cynicism and self-interest.

In the early days of Cameron's pomp, the risible claim of communal suffering was heard, occasionally, amongst the canards that Brown and Darling had, rather than steering a sensible path through the global financial crash, been personally responsible for every incidence of capitalist cupidity since the neolithic period.  Now the mantras are aimed at client groups, many of whom have been suckered into Tory narratives against their own interests.

There are very few prepared to declare the Tory emperor to be naked - or to expose it to the kind of "rigorous" deconstruction that their mouthpieces dole out to those who question the wisdom of deflation and squandering economic capital.  Yet the cant and hypocrisy around the "hard-working families" dog-whistle is breathtaking.  Many others work hard, including single people, economic and political migrants and other less worthy groups - yet the former are cast, subliminally, as at best potential outcasts and at worst predatory perverts, and the latter groups as destabilising the basis of society.

It is perfectly possible to construct an argument that the impact of population movements has been to depress wages, and that the impact of the well-intentioned tax credit system has been to shift responsibility further away from employers.  However, this is an intelligent debate that will never be permitted by a bunch of charlatans determined to reduce the state as an ideological lodestar, which will benefit them directly as the replacement of communal provision results in lucrative outsourcing where they, or their friends, will secure the opportunity to extract profit and maximum gain from the misery of the majority.

Ironically, given the smearing and innuendo flying around demonising Jeremy Corbyn as a Trotskyite, Communist or at best a naive fellow traveller (not to mention the slur that he might have been sexually active), the Tory world-view is closest to Marxism than any of the myriad of drivers of opposition to them.  Whereas Marx predicted that the inherent tensions in capitalism would result in its downfall, the Tories are devoted both to exploiting them and to consolidate their hegemony.

Opposing this tendency requires both focus and generosity.  Labour's reformulation is a potential catalyst for change - articulating the case for reform, civil society and the values of a decent community needs to be carried out with moral authority rather than relativism to a barbaric right.  The aim of politics has to be secure a citizen-driven society where freedom and opportunity are preserved and promoted, and the core values of politicians are better aligned to those they are seeking to serve.  Labour is not, and will not be, the sole conduit for progressive values - but it is not the obstacle to their achievement that the Tories represent.

It is now a quarter-century since David Marquand's The Progressive Dilemma, which continues to resonate as a narrative of the failure to challenge Tory hegemony in the 20th century.  Ignoring this will continue to ensure a diminished, feudalist Conservatism remains in power far longer than the electorate desires, and to continue a politics where the narrative is both crude and reductionist.  Working within the British electoral system will require creativity.

For a start, it is naive to assume that partisan divisions can be overcome, or should be.  Philosophically, liberals, socialists, greens and civic nationalists come from different traditions.  This cannot mean that the practical business of policy-making should be beyond them - nor that co-operation and common campaigning should not take place.  Recognition that there is a need for dialogue and compromise before the next UK General Election could support the hypothesis that a more radical pact would be constructive and just, rather than the fear of the Scots and the "other" that feeds contemporary Tory media manipulation.

What the 2020 endgame looks like is impossible to define - particularly as there will have been the European referendum and its incalculable impact on the right.  However, defining a space for debate and development of the counter-narrative to the inevitability of Tory supremacy is needed now.  This cannot be a tribal arena.  A coherent programme for government, including economic and constitutional change, that can be signed up to by people in all parties and none, is a prize worth swallowing the partisan ego for - and to avoid mud-slinging.

To watch and listen to some of the Liberal Democrats, you would have thought that Corbyn's election creates the opportunity to destabilise Labour, even to the extent of a new SDP formation being seen as desirable.  These voices tend to come from the pro-Tory wing of the party, demonising him in terms that the projectile vomiters of the Murdoch press would applaud, continuing the tradition of lickspittle adherence to their role models, even after the hypothesis of Tory malevolence was proved incontrovertibly back in May.  Labels are less important than a programme for government, clearly mapped out in advance to minimise the chances of the hypocritical challenge that scared people into voting Tory to keep out the SNP.

The opposition needs to provide the conditions where, if the electorate want it, there can be a change of government.  This may need pragmatism - even if only to avoid direct competition where there is the potential to dislodge Tory MPs and to be realistic about the ability of one of the opposition groups to form a single electoral force.  One of the reasons for the failure of coalition was the inability to demonstrate willingness to co-operate and engage before the event, and this should be recognised by all those who oppose this pernicious and undemocratic regime.  Destroying the Tory lie that there would be no agreed set of policies and priorities, based around the overlap between the practical implementation across a range of political philosophies, is a challenge.

Fighting amongst the opposition, especially when no party can claim supremacy across the whole electoral battleground, lets down the people who political activists are seeking to serve.  Building common platforms over the next four years will not be enough, but it does provide a start and the basis on which any post-electoral pragmatism could function.  Labour are not there yet, but other parties need to be sensitive to the requirements of giving confidence that a more diffuse yet unified approach is the only way to end the unquestioned dominance of a minority party.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Delivering effective opposition - not party squabbling

Tristram Hunt's expression of wounded rejection was almost sufficient justification for Corbyn's election on its own.  The sight of sulking apparatchiks taking their balls home, without usually justifying their actions beyond a cursory "unelectable" comment that demonstrates a total lack of self-awareness, added to the glee of the right-wing press is paradoxically an indiction that the political pendulum is swinging once more.

Ironically, as the Tories move off into the right-wing hinterlands, to sound left-wing in relation to them becomes much easier.  Yet the challenge now is to define a future that is rooted in principles rather than oppositionalism, and which embraces party, community and individuals in a much less structured way.  The Blairite period was an aberration, electorally successful on its own terms, but which was in retrospect a Trojan Horse for the assimilation of a right-wing hegemony.

For the last fifty years, the fragmentation of political allegiances and the decline in mass-party support has been a dominant trend in British history - alongside a tendency for disengagement from the process.  Partly this is due to the complexity and unaccountability of government - rule by technocrat, economic regulator and contract manager does not encourage citizen involvement, especially where the design of administration and public service delivery appears to have been deliberately skewed to reduce any incentive or mechanism to hold politicians to account.

Where Corbyn was clever in his leadership campaign was to start articulating this - in the sense that austerity, the privatisation of the public space and the disconnect between generations and geography are all causes of grievance and alienation.  Bringing people into the process requires some expectation that their voices count - the Blairites and the Tories regard the electorate and the citizen as at best a necessary evil and at worst with utter contempt.  Corbyn's agenda is not new - it has been the mantra of the Liberal, Green and non-Labour left for the last fifty years - but in bringing it into the Labour leadership it is probably a first.

Labour's self-appointed pragmatists and rebels should have been silenced by the scale of change - but instead they are queuing up to do the bidding of the Tories and the media in stirring up trouble for their own side.  The irony of their condemnation of the new leader's rebellious tendencies over thirty years in politics, compared to their destructiveness in thirty hours, should not be lost or forgiven.  They have learned the lessons that Clegg and his acolytes did - that if you offer more of the same and a cosy relationship with the Tories you will not convince.  Far better to be starting redefining the terms of debate.

What is clear is that the Tories will find the new paradigm harder to cope with - whereas the Blair response to attack would have been to curl up and surrender to the parental authority figures there is not much for Labour to lose at the moment.  The liberating effect may be to open up debate in ways that create opportunities for genuine questions about the nature and aims of society and community, and which are not cloaked in a toxic fug of economic efficiency and capitalist determinism.

Whatever happens within the Labour Party, there is space to engage and to make common cause where there is genuine convergence.  For those of us who come from a left libertarian view, with a suspicion of the state, this does not imply full endorsement of any philosophical position, but a practical desire to deliver policies that effect change - ensuring that there is provision for the citizen not merely to benefit but to dissent and challenge.

Most people do not see the point of politics - nor do they see the point of theological debate around points of principle.  The challenge for the opposition is now to articulate that differences may exist, but that there is  common enemy that requires addressing.  Shifting the terms of debate back to the citizen and society will be a start.  Given that the Labour right will be spending most if its time plotting to upend the result, the constructive response has to be to support and engage - even to disagree - with the new direction, as it is the only potential focus (at least in England) for achieving meaningful broader change in the medium-term.  Idealism needs to be pragmatic - the lesson of Blairite pragmatism without idealism has been a cul-de-sac.  Now at least there is a possibility of a new discourse.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn's challenge to the left

The landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn is neither a comfort blanket nor necessarily a new dawn.  The steady tacking to the left within Labour since the unlamented departure of Tony Blair has finally been confirmed with a clean sweep of the right - Corbyn has managed to push the terms of political discourse away from a feeble echoing of Tory tropes into something more akin to a democratic movement.

Feeble mutterings from the Blairites aside, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate split with the social authoritarians heading off into a sulky, short-life hinterland.  There is no prospect of party realignment, which is a disappointment and an opportunity.  Even with a centre-right leadership platform there was only a very slim possibility of Labour recovering enough ground by 2020 to challenge the Tories in a loaded election, and Corbyn's election does not change the psephological underpinnings.

However, Corbyn's presence has managed to secure a growth in Labour membership - and a participation in the election that other parties would dream of.  Where his success has been greatest is in redefining the terms of debate towards an insurgency and a popular uprising, and sidestepping the political "reality" that has been spoon-fed over the last thirty years as a means of first ridiculing and then neutralising the left.

New mass memberships are often inert - how many of those who have joined the Liberals since the election will be active?  Yet the messaging for those who believe that the main focus of attack should be the Tories must be around galvanising discussion and debate which the Corbyn effect has catalysed.  The realities of parties of radical national identity, and the surge in the Poujadist support, means that there is no point in attempting to appeal on narrow party identities.  For radicals of all schools, libertarian leftism requires momentum and ideas, only then does the need to recognise the realities of the electoral system become paramount.

The Tories may think that by channelling the ghost of Michael Foot (a good and humane individual) through Corbyn they will continue their rigging of the system.  I suspect that this is hubris, because at present all that is keeping them together is the Kipper threat and the realities of a small majority.  Asking questions about equality, fairness and efficiency, including the question of whether a numerically-small country should be a nuclear power and what benefits it bestows on us, does not make him a raving lunatic, nor a terrorist.

Where Corbyn's weakness is likely to be greatest is in the context of his party tribalism, and that of those who oppose him.  Intelligent engagement is much more likely to secure success for other viewpoints, rather than joining in the demonisation - so it will be of peripheral interest how Tim Farron responds - as it is only adult to consider that the next election will require at least some tactical voting in many directions.  A mature politics should reflect that Labour have rejected twenty years of shifting ever closer to the right as a means of securing power, and that the terms of debate may now be very different.  Individuals and parties that recognise this are much better placed than those who want to fight the battles of the 1980s all over again, not least because it undermines the strategy of the Tories and their paymasters.