July 2010

A referendum for a change

The last time I voted in a referendum was in 1975 when the UK voted on whether to stay in the Common Market, ie European Community. Two thirds voted in favour.

Referenda are pretty rare. They can only really be used when a simple yes/no question can be put to the electorate, and most issues are more complex than that.

But we can now expect another referendum on May 5th next year, and the choice will be very straightforward - whether to elect the House of Commons using the current first-past-the-post system or to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) method.

With AV you rank the candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. If any one candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences then they are elected. If no-one gets enough, the person with the least number of first preferences drops out and the next preferences of the people who voted for that person are then added to the first preference totals. This continues until one person tops 50%.

This choice may seem rather a technical one compared with the great issues that face the Government today - sorting out the economy, controlling the banks, whilst protecting the most vulnerable. No doubt in the past opponents have said much the same in the face of campaigns for voting reform - from the Reform Act of 1832 to Votes for Women. But electoral reform is crucially about fairness, which must lie at the heart of democracy. We should not let this opportunity slip because there are other matters to deal with as well.

Lib Dems have campaigned for proportional representation (PR) for many, many years. In a pure PR system the proportion of MPs in Parliament would match the proportion of votes cast for each party across the country. In the May election the Conservatives got 36% of the vote, Labour 29% and Liberal Democrats 22%. If those percentages had been converted directly into seats then the Conservatives would have gained 234 seats, Labour 188 and Liberal Democrats 149, instead of 306, 258 and 52.

The challenge is to produce something close to proportionality at Westminster and still maintain local representation. What we are after is fair votes - a system that feels fair to the voter, and where each person elected can truly be said to represent the majority of people who voted.

AV has the advantage of being simple to understand. Under AV the majority of voters will have given the winner a high preference. Whilst it won't deliver pure proportionality, it will move in that direction, and will certainly appear to be fairer.

AV will change voter behaviour, because people will no longer feel the need to vote tactically in order to keep out the person they don't want. They can give their first preference to the candidate they really support, knowing that their second preferences will come into play if their preferred candidate is not popular.

One of the consequences of voting reform is that there will be far fewer safe seats. Some interesting research last year on the blog Mark Reckons showed that MPs in safe seats were more likely to cheat on their expenses than others. Under AV, MPs will know that they have to earn every vote.

Another consequence is that there may be a greater chance of no overall winner in Parliament. Coalitions are common in other democracies, such as Germany. It is a new experience for us all in Westminster (though not in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly which already use AV) and as a country we may well discover that it produces moderate and sensible government. Coalition government tempers the extremes of parties; it focuses on areas of agreement instead of fighting over the areas of disagreement.

Fair votes are the way forward, and I'm really looking forward to the campaign for a Yes vote next year.

No funding for new school in North Kingston

So we all heard today that the Building Schools for the Future programme was to be cut severely as part of the overall cuts in Government spending. It was to be expected, of course.

But even so, I was very shocked to hear that there was to be no BSF funding for the new secondary school planned for North Kingston. (You can download the full list from the BBC site). This is not the rebuild of an existing school but an essential new school to meet the rising school population.

So what happens now?

I no longer have insider access to the Council's information, so can only speculate. What I can say is that five years ago when parents were campaigning for a new school I had to tell them that the numbers, at that time, didn't justify a bid for funding. But I did tell them that if ever there was evidence of 'basic need' - that is, insufficient school places in the area - then this could trigger funding from the Department for Education. Basic Need funding was quite separate from the BSF programme, which was designed to rebuild and refurbish existing schools.

I'm now not at all clear whether the Basic Need funding still exists - but if it has been subsumed under BSF, then how on earth is Kingston going to provide places for the growing numbers of children? Even further expansion of existing schools - which would probably not be feasible anyway - would have a substantial capital cost.

Chessington Community College cost around £27million to build, most of which came from BSF funding. That's what new secondary schools cost. The Council simply does not have access to that level of capital for another school. It could not possibly service a loan of that magnitude from Council tax and its reserves are held at just a few million.

So - indeed - what happens now?

Update

The Deputy Leader of the Council has just issued a press release in which she states: “We very much regret the loss of the BSF funding, but we expect to win the case for funding the new North Kingston secondary school because of the pressures for new places". You can read the statement in full here.

Your Freedom

I've been busy this week volunteering with the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston, which has been a huge success. But it has meant that I haven't yet written about something very dear to me - the Freedom Bill.

Uniquely it's an opportunity to get rid of laws instead of adding to them. And the Deputy Prime Minister is asking for suggestions about which laws to repeal.

You can add your thoughts on the Your Freedom website. Nick Clegg poses three main questions to get you thinking, but ideas are not restricted to these:

  • Which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?
  • Which offences do you think we should remove or change, and why?
  • Which regulations do you think should be removed or changed to make running your business or organisation as simple as possible?

You can have a look at all the ideas that have been submitted already and give them a star rating, or you can add a new suggestion. So far there are about 10,000 suggestions, which are going to give a couple of civil servants a lot of work!

To my huge relief, the Government has already announced that it is getting rid of ID cards - so that is one thing that doesn't need to go into the Bill. The right to non-violent protest (especailly near Parliament) was also signalled in the coalition deal.

I can see a re-run of the debates around the bans on hunting with dogs and smoking in public places. Both of these were the result of a careful balancing of civil liberties against the need to protect people and animals from harm. Which reminds us that most issues are not black-and-white and that laws and regulations have consequences, not all of which can be foreseen.

Interesting times ahead...

Ed in the stocks

"Note to Nick: Regulatory Framework for School Fetes, Section 3, subsection 5c , Use of stocks for members of parliament – top priority for removal in Freedom Bill."

Caption competition over on Lib Dem Voice.

Higher education - personal privilege or society's gain?

Vince Cable and I were at University at the same time. He came down from York to Cambridge while I went in the opposite direction from London to York. Both of us were the first from our families to go to University and both of us lived on a maintenance grant, based on our parents' incomes. (You might think that the similarities end there ...)

The grant in my second year was £330 per term. I put the cheque straight into my post office account, and drew £3 a week to live on, leaving me enough to pay for rent and travel home at the end of term (I couldn't afford to travel back to London more often unless I got a lift). There were no credit cards, and no-one gave loans to students - in fact, it was quite difficult to open any sort of bank account - so there were no other sources of funding. My parents could not afford to subsidise me.

Like everyone on a grant, I wasn't allowed to take paid work during term time - the reasoning was that we should be studying. One of my fellow students was a professional wrestler, performing under a stage name, and we all piled into the TV room on Saturday afternoons to cheer him on - until one Saturday when the commentator said that he was a student at York and disclosed his real name. That was the end of his grant.

Towards the end of my first year I was invited to take part in a group discussion for the Guardian. We were asked whether we thought we were privileged to be at University, receiving free education and grants from public taxation. I remember answering quite clumsily, and saying that I should not be made to feel grateful; the country needed my skills and was paying for me so I could contribute to the good of society.

Of course, at a personal level I was deeply grateful for the opportunity, and was thoroughly enjoying my time, but the point I was making then is still valid. As a nation we should not be judging higher education (or indeed, any level of education) in terms of the benefits it gives to individuals, but in terms if what it contributes to society's economic and social wellbeing.

So I'm delighted that Vince is taking a line that starts to distinguish between the personal gain and what society gains from putting young people through higher education.

In the 1960s only 10% of young people went to university. York was one of half a dozen new universities and I was there in the early days. There were only 300 students in my year, and 200 in the year above, and we felt like pioneers because of the new styles of teaching and experiments in community building. Despite dire warnings from traditionalists who were worried about the dilution of academia, some of those new univeristies, such as York and Warwick, are now amongst the top ranked in the country.

However, that 10% figure is rather misleading, since many professional training courses - for teaching, nursing, business administration - did not have degree status. These were quite rightly upgraded in the next decade or so. Polytechnics like Kingston were already offering HNDs in vocational subjects, and it was natural for these to be extended into degrees. So the expansion of higher education in the 70s and 80s did not really bring many more people into higher education, but instead recognised and upgraded the qualifications they were already doing. Employment was widely available for well-qualified people.

The push to get 50% into higher education did represent a new direction, since it was aiming to lift the educational achievements of a generation quite dramatically. But it came at a price, and I was never clear whether a proper analysis had ever been done of the net effects of increasing the number of graduates. Would it result in more jobs that genuinely required a degree? Would it increase wealth and make society more resilient? Or would it, perhaps, be one of the contributory factors in the credit crunch?

The price was, first, student loans instead of grants. This created a generation of young people who were being taught, by the state, that it was OK to take on debt. They were also encouraged to do paid work for long hours, udoubtedly affecting the quality of their studies.

Then tuition fees, again paid for through loans, pushed young adults into very substantial levels of debt, whatever their future earnings might be.

Whilst it may be unrealistic to call for the return of maintenance grants for most students, it is a huge relief to see the ending of tuition fees. A graduate tax is just about acceptable as a way of funding universities, although many would argue that graduates on average already pay more tax through higher earnings. I would personally prefer the Government to place the burden on society as a whole, through general taxation, since we all benefit from a highly-qualified workforce. But that can only happen if the number of graduates produced is geared to the demand.

As a footnote,it seems astonishing now that in the 60s, only 10% of the places at Oxford, Cambridge and medical schools were open to women. Vince got into Cambridge, I was put on the waiting list for PPE at Oxford. Actually, going to York turned out to be a real blessing and I have no regrets, but in those days the inequalities based on gender in universities were far greater than the inequalities based on class.

Only three women

I've just remembered that back in April I predicted that, whatever the overall outcome, there would be a maximum of four women Conservative councillors in Kingston after the election. (There were only two of them before May)

Of the 21 Tory councillors elected in May, precisely three are women.

Big Society - an apology for Maggie?

"There's no such thing as society" said Thatcher.

Ah, the irony that her successor is bigging up society - and giving it capital letters.

The Big Society is an attractive proposition, and I was quite taken aback when Cameron started using the phrase before the election.

Society is already a lot bigger and of greater significance than politicians, of all colours, seem to believe. Encased in the inward looking worlds of politics and government, it is all to easy for them to adopt a world-view which assumes that government is the main driving force in people's lives.

In practice, when we think about the lives we lead, we all know that the things that make us happiest, give us greatest fulfilment and generally enrich our lives are the relationships and interactions that we have with family, friends and the wider community. Government hardly comes into play, except perhaps to provide some necessary underpinning services.

Society is already big, and government is really relatively small. Maybe Cameron is simply recognising something that most other citizens always knew.

But there is more to the rhetoric than an apology for Maggie. Cameron bases his argument on the premise that Britain is broken. At one time that kind of talk was code for an attack on single mothers, working mothers, inadequate parents (usually mothers) and the high levels of divorce (again, usually blamed on mothers feeling dissatisfied with their lot). Women's liberation had damaged society and a man in shining armour was needed to mend it again. I'm not suggesting that Cameron shares those views but their faint echo can be heard in the language he chooses to use.

Britain is not broken in any meaningful way. So the Big Society does not need that kind of justification - even though Cameron may feel he needs to use it in order to win round Middle England, and his own right wing.

Of course, the question that is being asked is whether the Conservatives would have adopted the concept of Big Society if there were no pressing need to cut public services and expand the voluntary sector. I do get the impression that he genuinely wants to support and endorse those unselfish acts of kindness that make our communities work. It's a view that grows out of a centrist liberal tradition, which he shares, to a certain extent, with Liberal Democrats. With the coalition constraining the wilder elements in his party, he may now be grasping the opportunity to develop a strand of Conservatism that has been rather muted in the past.

From my position, as a social liberal, I do welcome the focus on the voluntary sector, and even more on something that doesn't really fit into a sector at all - good neighbourliness. I am not averse to some services being taken away from government, local or national, and given back to communities. I have always supported the idea of community management of local resources (Dinton Fields, for example, for which I can claim some credit).

In principle - John Stuart Mill's in fact - a person's liberty to behave as they wish should only be restricted by government if there is danger of harm to others, and the restrictions should always be proportionate to the risk.

The 'but' in all this - and I expect you could see it coming - is that we always need to temper liberty with equality. Liberty on its own does not ensure that everyone's needs will be met, whatever the free-marketeers may say. A society founded on the principles of liberty and community must also protect the weak and vulnerable. Equality is essentially about empowering every citizen with the skills and confidence they need to exercise their liberty and take advantage of what society has to offer.

That is why, for me, Big Society has to be coupled with compassionate government, led by strong elected representatives, particularly in local government, who have a specific duty to support the weak and speak for the silent. That is, in fact, why I am a Liberal Democrat and not a Conservative.

Freedom Parade

I don't usually do military, but I always make an exception for the Territorial Army, and particularly for Kingston's own TA unit.

They are the 256 (City of London) Field Hospital Volunteers - all medics who, amazingly, volunteer their services on top of their demanding professional lives as doctors, surgeons, nurses, physios etc. Last year they were deployed to the field hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. That is a tough placement for anyone, so I am full of admiration for them all.

Back in March 2009 a special meeting of the Council was called to agree to confer the Freedom of the Borough on the unit. This gave them the right to parade through Kingston, which they did today, led by the band of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

First, there was a civic ceremony outside the Guildhall, when the Mayor (no doubt, very warm in her full regalia) inspected the troops.

We held a minute's silence for the victims of war, during which there was perfect quiet - quite extraordinary for a Saturday morning in the town centre.

After the National Anthem, they marched off to claim their right, all round the Market Square and back to their base on the Portsmouth Road.

Then we all met up again in the Guildhall for an awards ceremony and a chance to mingle.

One of the pleasant consequences of having been Mayor is that I do get invited to civic events like this. It was good to catch up with the only two living Honorary Freemen of the Borough - Robert Smith (former Vice Chancellor of the University) and David Jacobs (former Deputy Lieutenant of the Borough) - both of whom received the honour when Ian was Mayor.

Lease signed on local police base in Hook

I bumped into our Borough Commander Chief Superintendant Martin Geenslade yesterday at the Freedom Parade. He told me that the lease had, at last, been signed on the police base for the Chessington Safer Neighbourhood teams.

So the two police teams for Chessington North & Hook and for Chessington South will eventually be moving into the shop next to the Debra charity shop in Hook Parade. They were given planning permission for the work some time ago, so are hoping to be ready to move before the end of the year.

It's been a long ride, but I'm pleased that finally our local police teams will be based where they should be, within their own area.

Boris bikes spotted in Central London

Seen in Finsbury Square today.

There are plenty of docking stations (as they are called) in the central area. You can find out how the scheme works and see a map of locations here.

It costs £1 per day, or £5 per week, or £45 per year, plus £3 for the key. Then every time you borrow a bike you get 30 minutes free but are charged for anything more. I'm not a cyclist but thought you ought to know.

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
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