Author Archives: John Marriott

Local Government is facing what could be an existential crisis. How can it be saved?

Some of you may think that the title of this piece is another example of hyperbole. You might be right as the local government has faced crises before. However, as someone with 30 years’ continuous service as a local councillor, I do think that what we have come to expect concerning local services could be something we will in future only read about in history books unless something is done to reverse the downward spiral.

Especially since WW2 governments of all political hues have over the years progressively emasculated local councils, not only by taking many of their responsibilities away from …

Posted in Local government, News and Op-eds | Tagged | 36 Comments

The Thorpe Affair – What if?

I am one of those with a fascination for history, who sometimes indulge in the practice of ‘What if?’. Some of you may know what I mean; but, if not, here are a few examples. Let’s start with 1066. What if King Harald had actually defeated Duke William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings? Scroll forward some eight hundred years and ask yourself what if President Abraham Lincoln had not attended Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night in April 1865? What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t taken a detour in Sarajevo in June 1914 or what if Adolf Hitler hadn’t shortened his speech at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich in November 1939 and left early? And finally, more recently and perhaps nearer to home, what if Nick Clegg hadn’t accepted David Cameron’s ‘generous offer’ in May 2010? I’m sure you get the idea.

So, you might say, what has this got to do with Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberal Party? Well, what if, following a massive surge in support (around 20% of the popular vote) which, thanks to FPTP, resulted in only a derisory 14 MPs, he had managed to win over his colleagues and the party grassroots and accept the offer of Ted Heath to join a coalition government following the ‘Who governs Britain’ general election of February 1974?

The ‘baby boomers’ will surely remember the early 1970s, which started out with Heath’s surprise victory in the ‘70 General Election, when his government embarked upon a race for growth with the infamous ‘Barber Boom’, that, despite the inflation it eventually unleashed, especially in the housing market, appeared to many, even up to the summer of 1973, to be bearing fruit in economic terms, despite storm clouds on the horizon.

What really derailed the ‘project’, besides the Heath government’s inability to deal effectively with Trades Union militancy and ineffective management, was the OPEC oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel in October 1973 which saw oil prices quadruple in a matter of months, thus presenting unions such as the NUM with an open goal. Just to think that, only a few years earlier, the Economic Minister of the booming West German economy, Karl Schiller, had confidently claimed that “the future belongs to oil”.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 18 Comments

So, where do the Liberal Democrats go from here?

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

These famous words, spoken by former Liberal, Winston Churchill, in 1942 after the second victorious Battle of El Alamein, could very well sum up where the Liberal Democrats find themselves after what many would see as a very satisfactory comeback after a few difficult years. But, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. There is no guarantee that even moderate success at local elections will translate into success in a General Election. Despite the accusation …

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The ‘Education battlefield’

It wasn’t always Tory v Labour, and it doesn’t have to be again!

State education, particularly at secondary level, is like the proverbial curate’s egg, thanks largely to mistakes made by politicians of all parties over the past sixty years – and I include the 2010-2015 coalition as well. However, much of the mess was already in place by the beginning of this decade so I suppose that we could call it a joint affair between Tories and Labour. However, much of the success of state education is down to Liberals, as were the ideas behind the Welfare State, which emerged from the 1942 Beveridge Report.

State education, that is to say, the education of the many not the few, really began with the 1870 Elementary Education Act, and drafted by Liberal MP William Forester, which established through democratically elected School Boards, voluntary elementary education for children from 5 to 13 (raised to 14 in the 1918 Fisher Act). What Forster wanted to achieve was to retain Britain’s competitive edge in world trade. To do that, he needed an educated workforce (where have we heard that before?). This was achieved in spite of massive opposition from certain quarters, who saw no reason to educate the working classes above a certain rudimentary level. The 1901 Balfour Act, opposed largely by the Liberal Party and non conformists, replaced local School Boards with Local Education Authorities and succeeded in allowing the C of E and Catholic Churches to get on board and possibly was the main reason why the Tories were virtually annihilated at the 1906 General Election.

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How to pay for local services?

For many years now, governments of all political colours have seen fit to centralise more and more powers to themselves. The result of this has impacted directly on the councils that once were the major providers of services that have improved the lives for generations of our citizens. Today, they are a shadow of their former selves, whose lack of influence is clearly reflected in poor turnouts in local elections.

There have been promises to reverse the centralisation of powers and to devolve many of the powers back from where they have been taken over many years. So far, progress has been painfully slow.

Whatever services that remain the responsibility of local government must still be paid for. Traditionally the bulk of the funding came from central government grant, based on a formula devised and administered in Whitehall. The rest (around 30%) came from revenue and a smaller contribution from the recipients of those services via the Council Tax.

The strains are now really beginning to show. The 2010-2015 Coalition Government used its austerity programme to cut its central grant progressively and used the so called ‘Council Tax Freeze Grant’ to bribe councils not to raise Council Tax, at least not above 2%. The result was that a council like Lincolnshire that accepted the grant was forced massively to reduce its staff and many of the services it provided, libraries being just one example, in an attempt to protect Frontline Services such as Adult Social Care. Interestingly, had the County not accepted the grant but had raised Council Tax by 1.99% for the duration of the grant, it would now be around £30 million better off.

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We need to challenge some of those Brexit statements

 

Well, the ‘official’ EU referendum campaign has finally begun. Funny, it appears to have been going on for months already.

I was interested to see the images of the two official campaigns juxtaposed the other day in the BBC report on my TV screen. The ‘Leave’ campaign was illustrated by old footage of Tories Grayling, Gove and Whittingdale etc. manning the phone lines, whereas the ‘In’ footage showed Tory, Labour and Lib Dem politicians, including the Prime Minister, doing the same thing. For an organisation that has tried so far to be unfailingly impartial in its reporting of the campaign in its ‘phoney war’ stage, I have a feeling that the BBC has possibly given the ‘In’ campaign a visual leg up, by showing its multi party nature. Now, whether we get politicians of different parties actually sharing a platform as we did in 1975 is a different matter.

So far, the arguments for and against have been pretty well rehearsed. We should park immigration for a moment, which could be the deciding factor, but which will still pose problems for us whether or not we stay in the EU. As an EU pragmatist, who thinks that, on balance, leaving the EU now would be a massive gamble, I do have to say that some of the arguments being put forward repeatedly by the Brexiters need challenging.

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EU Referendum: Are you still undecided?

Those wishing to stay in the EU will point to the economic benefits of membership of what is still the world’s largest single market in an increasingly dangerous world and the unnecessary risks of our coming out, while those opposed to continued membership will cite the need to take back sovereignty ceded gradually to Brussels over the past forty years and to regain control of our borders. Their view is that then we could strike deals with the rest of the world and have a much more money to spend as we would not be paying into the EU coffers.

Neither side of the argument is in any way watertight. The ‘Common Market’ which some of us voted to remain in over forty years ago was very different from what we have created today. There are serious questions about the democratic deficit and whether it is still fit for purpose. Despite delivering prosperity and a certain degree of stability for over half a century there are some serious question marks over its its long term future. The Euro has hardly been a massive success and the EU GDP is currently shrinking. Probably the single biggest crisis for us all both in and out of the EU is how it will deal with migration from the Middle East and Africa, which currently shows no sign of abating.

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The Government finally “nationalises” all our schools

So the government has finally decided to nationalise our nation’s schools. At least we now know where we stand. So, if an academy fails under the new system, the buck goes straight to the Secretary of State and not, as now, to the Local Education Authority (which, I assume will simply disappear).

When are we going to stop messing about with education? We are dealing with human beings, not building motor cars, for goodness sake. I note that the current secretary, like most of her cabinet colleagues, was educated privately. In the independent sector, business acumen and PR are part of the DNA of its member schools. “Sell yourself or go under”- and a few actually do!

Some have you may be aware of the goings on at an academy chain in Lincoln where the former Executive Head and his Director of Finance recently went on trial and, to many local people’s amazement, were acquitted.  Only this week it was announced that another secondary academy, the one I taught at for 23 years, is having to face redundancies because of some of its grants being cut. Now it is planned also to remove parent representatives from governing bodies, what chance will the local community have to influence their schools?

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One particular “fear” could decide the result of the EU Referendum

BMW writes to its UK employees highlighting the dangers of Brexit. A French minister threatens to wave through migrants at Calais en route to Dover and to roll out the red carpet to welcome financial services to his country if we leave. Boris and others say none of this will happen. Great Britain still is great. From his residence across the Channel Lord Nigel Lawson tells us not to worry. The EU needs us more than we need them. Confused? I bet many people are.

Like Lord William Hague, I’m an EU pragmatist. Better inside the tent etc. Unlike our former leader I don’t think that the EU will be ‘about the same’ in ten years’ time. The remarks from Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, following last week’s summit were very apposite. The ‘negotiations’ undertaken by David Cameron, while casually dismissed as ‘thin gruel’ by Eurosceptics like Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, have whetted the appetite of many recent, and not so recent arrivals in the EU for a fundamental change of direction for a project that started life in the aftermath of WW2 when many parts of the world were on their uppers and the numbers of nations actually making things was a shadow of what exists today.

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Putting our faith in ‘Leaders’ – There are lessons to be learned

The recent acquittal of the former Executive Head of the Lincoln Priory Chain of Academies and his Director of Finance appears to have caused a few raised eyebrows in many areas. It is not my intention to pass my own personal judgement on the rights and wrongs of the case. What concerns me more is the fact that the Department of Education considered there to be sufficient grounds to ask the local police to conduct an enquiry which eventually led to a court case that is set to cost the taxpayer a considerable amount of money.

This is not the first time that so called ‘Super Heads’ have made the headlines following revelations about their conduct. If you add to that the affair in 2013 of Lincolnshire’s Acting Chief Constable, who was first suspended by our Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), was exonerated by an enquiry and then reinstated with an apology from the PCC at a cost to the taxpayer of around £160,000, you can see that putting our faith in the judgement of individuals without effective and stringent checks and balances can land us in a great deal of trouble and cause embarrassment to institutions that ought to have our respect.

Posted in Op-eds | 13 Comments

The crisis in the Middle East – Is this the ‘end of the beginning’?

 

As the tide of war turned in 1942 following the second battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill spoke about “the end of the beginning” of the fight back against fascist oppression. I have to confess that these words went through my mind as I sat through many hours of TV parliamentary debate last Wednesday on whether or not to bomb Daesh in Syria. For those who are cynical about the goings on at Westminster, this was an occasion that illustrated perfectly how important our parliamentary democracy really is.

There were some cracking speeches on both sides. Tim Farron rose in my estimation with his contribution, as did Margaret Beckett and Alan Johnson and, as for Hilary Benn, could this be the end of the beginning of his march to the leadership of his party? I noticed that one critic claimed it was short on facts; but there are times when “fight them on the breaches” carries more emotional and symbolic weight than the practicality of fighting on sand. I just  wonder whether the reaction to his speech had anything to do with the shoring up of Labour’s majority in the Oldham by-election.

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Passing the buck for the cuts

George Osborne, and the Tory Party for that matter, are lucky so and so’s – even jammy, as they used to say where I come from. The goings on in Parliament yesterday illustrate perfectly why the government can make itself virtuous by not doing what it said it would only a few weeks ago. Not only are Tax Credits safe for the time being (although how long we the tax payers should continue to subsidise employers is debatable); but also Police Budgets are to be protected, thanks to the £27bn the Chancellor has suddenly found from somewhere.

We can speculate about the wheels eventually coming off the Tory wagon; but don’t hold your breath. Even with a slim majority it is unlikely that there will be enough by elections between now and 2020 for the balance of power to shift decisively, and, in any case, at 42% in one recent opinion poll, it’s unlikely the Tories will lose the plot.

What worries me more is how local government is going to cope with the cuts still to come its way over the next five years unless another non U turn might be in the pipeline. My authority, which has responsibility for Adult Social Care, can now, in theory, raise its portion of the Council Tax by 3.99% without the need for a referendum. That increase works out at about 83p per week for a Band D property in Lincolnshire and would raise around £9 million of which around £4 million would be ring fenced for Adult Social Care. However, as government grants will continue to be reduced that means that, as far as my county is concerned, things will, at best, more or less stand still.

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Working together to stay in the EU

 

I was personally impressed by the article in last Wednesday’s Guardian by Labour’s Pat McFadden MP, which challenged the Brexiters to spell out just what life would be like for us if we chose to leave the European Union. Coupled with the recent sensible remarks from his party colleague, everyone’s favourite ex-postie, Alan Johnson MP, and the furious back tracking of Messrs Cameron and Osbourne, it gives me hope that all like minded people WILL bury their differences and show a united front against forces both political and popular that seem to think that we can throw our weight around as we did a hundred years or more ago.

As someone who has concerns about the current Lib Dem tactics on the upcoming EU referendum, which seem to be operating in a bubble, with no reference to political reality, the chances of politicians from most, if not quite all, parties sharing both physical and media platforms in the run up to the vote, whenever it takes place, makes a great deal of sense.

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Working with other parties in Local Government – What is it about Labour?

I have been fortunate, if that’s the right word, to have managed to stay a councillor at various levels of local government since 1987. However, with advancing years playing a greater role, I am currently only serving on the Lincolnshire County Council. For over 28 years I have had to work with colleagues of all political persuasion and some who profess to have none, so I have a fair amount of experience of how they react to the fact that I just happen to be a Liberal Democrat. Perhaps ‘true blue’ Lincolnshire is not a good example from which to draw; but it’s all I know.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is far easier to get on with Conservatives than it has ever been my experience with Labour members. Perhaps it is because Tories expect to rule around here and, indeed, since the County Council was established as a local authority in 1973, until two years ago, only once before have the Tories failed to form an majority administration, namely between 1993 and 1997 when Labour and Lib Dems ran the show. Although I was only a humble Town and District Councillor at that time, I do recall talking to my County Council colleagues and being told what hard work it was trying to get agreement from the larger Labour group.

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  • User AvatarJoeB 18th Aug - 1:30am
    David Raw, "Jesse Collings MP could have helped there" - we could do with men of his commitment right now to maintain the rights his...
  • User AvatarInnocent Bystander 18th Aug - 12:24am
    How about ? "LibDems - often battered - never bettered".
  • User AvatarDavid-1 18th Aug - 12:07am
    If you really must have slogans, start by stating *fully* what we stand for and then work on boiling it down to its essence. Then...
  • User AvatarMichael Cole 17th Aug - 10:28pm
    Perhaps we should consider"We Demand Better". One short word longer but more difficult to turn against us and more in tune with the spirit of...
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    @paul barker Apologies - I had a vague recollection that you computed a rolling average as I think you have mentioned it before but you...
  • User AvatarMichael 1 17th Aug - 9:15pm
    On the dairy theme: I can't believe it's not better! Watch out there's a Vince about! --- From the supermarkets: Every Lib Dem helps! Live...