All eyes were on the 2 Westminster by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central for differing reasons, but there were also 3 Principle Council by-elections and a number of Town & Parish Council by-elections to talk about also.
John Cleese, Python, Former Torquay Hotel Owner, and Serial Groom; switched from Labour to the SDP after their formation on 1981. Shortly after they joined the Liberal Party to form the aptly named SDP Liberal Alliance. Gaining 25.4 percent of the national vote but only 23 seats in parliament amongst a landslide victory for the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher.
Come the following general election of 1987 a new approach to PPBs came about with the inclusion of the alumnus of the Dead Parrot sketch to help keep the prospects of the Alliance overtaking labour as the main Opposition party alive.
In two broadcasts for the party both coming in at a leisurely ten minutes in length. Mr Cleese would tackle two main thrusts of argument. Extremism in Politics and Proportional Representation (more on that next week).
In this video we once again see how much has changed but also how much has stayed the same in our politics.
With thanks to the Preston Lib Dems.
This week, Westminster Wednesday’s is on the UK’s system of local government. This is a complex component of the UK’s politics, and also an incredibly important one. UK local government employs well over 2 million people, and is responsible for 23% of all government spending (around £95 billion in 2015-16). Whilst in three of the nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is relatively simple in structure, in England it remains a perplexing mix of structures and powers. This post aims to try and provide an outline of local government, especially in England – by looking at its structure, and its powers.
The structure of British local government, as indicated above, varies between the various home nations. In three of them, the structure is relatively simple. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a single (principle) level of local government – 32 councils in Scotland, 22 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland. In two of these – Scotland and Northern Ireland – councillors are elected using the Single Transferrable Vote system; whilst in Wales, the First Past the Post system is used (the same as is used for the House of Commons).
In England, the situation is more complex. To understand why, we need to recall a principle from the very first posts in this series – that of parliamentary sovereignty. Because Parliament has the ability to make or unmake any law, Parliament alone is responsible for the creation, redesigning, or removal of local authorities. Their boundaries, responsibilities, and financing is designed or set centrally. If Parliament wished to do so, it could remove all local government – but, given the important role that it plays in the running of the UK, that would be extremely unlikely! What Parliament has done, over many years, is continually give force to large-scale and repeated redesigns of UK local government. It was the Conservative government in the 1980s that gave Scotland and Wales their single-tier system of councils, for example. In England, however, the process has resulted in that more complicated picture.
In 1931, for example, England’s local government looked like this – a mass of local authorities, some very small, (very) broadly divided into two categories; boroughs, and counties. This was the result of a considerable reform process in the 19th Century, but after the war this system was under growing strain. It took until 1974 for a comprehensive review to be pushed forwards, resulting in these boundaries. The 1974 review was extremely comprehensive – everything that had existed before was swept away, and replaced with two levels of local government. At the top, there were counties, and below them were districts (in rural areas) and boroughs (in urban areas).
Unfortunately for people seeking to understand English local government, but perhaps fortunately for people such as myself and Jonn Elledge, this simple two-level system has not lasted to the present day. There were a myriad of problems created by the 1974 boundaries, summarised in two key ways – where the lines were drawn, and what the new authorities were called. For example, Humberside was regarded as a monstrous creation by the people on the north bank of the Humber – who considered themselves part of Yorkshire – and on the south bank, who considered themselves part of Lincolnshire. Other unpopular authorities included Cleveland and Avon – these were done away with in the 1990s. What replaced them, and other bodies such as Wiltshire County Council and all of its districts, were unitary authorities. These are single-tier councils which have all the powers previously divided between two. There are periodic pushes to create more of these, but they aren’t always popular – take, for example, the Coalition’s decision to prevent Norfolk from becoming a unitary authority in 2010.
Things become even more confusing in urban areas. Here, the Conservative government of the 1980s did away with the county councils that had been created, turning metropolitan boroughs into a single level authority; but with formal structures to help them co-operate on issues such as transport. Then there’s London – which until 1986 was divided into 32 boroughs (which had only existed since 1965) – and a Greater London Council, in a similar structure to other urban areas. When the GLC was abolished, along with all the other urban county councils, there was created instead a variety of bodies to try and carry on co-ordination among the 32 boroughs – an unpopular choice, which was ultimately overturned in the late 1990s by the Labour government. They created a new Greater London Authority, with a Mayor (the position currently held by Sadiq Khan) and an Assembly, who have a variety of powers over the London region as a whole. Similarly, since 2010, the Coalition sought to grant more powers to urban regions throughout the UK – creating combined authorities for regions such as Greater Manchester, Teesside and the West Midlands. These, in many cases, share boundaries with abolished councils, and hold a variety of powers. It is the heads of many of these that will be elected for the first time this May.
Therefore, there are broadly 6 flavours of council in England – counties, which are divided into districts; unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs, combined authorities, and London boroughs. This is to say nothing of smaller, much more local authorities – parish and town councils – and the total anomaly that is the City of London. Today, when we map them out, it looks something like this. Each of them has a different set of powers and responsibilities, to which we will now turn.
As we’ve already clearly established, the structure of local government is determined by Parliament, and so (traditionally) have been its powers. Local government does not get involved in such issues as defence or foreign policy, but instead focuses on delivering a variety of more immediate services to the communities within its area. Each different type of authority will, naturally, deliver slightly different services to another – perhaps the easiest way to lay this out is to begin by considering the county/district divide set up in 1974, and seeing what each half of that equation does.
County councils are broadly responsible for; education, social services, transport, strategic planning, fire services, consumer protection, refuse disposal, smallholdings, and libraries. District councils cover local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health, and refuse collection. Unitary authorities, or metropolitan boroughs, combine all these responsibilities into a single authority. The new combined authorities combine all these powers, and in some cases considerably more – Greater Manchester’s new regional mayor will have control over the healthcare budget for the region, for example.
But these powers come at a cost – quite literally, in some cases. The majority of funding for local government comes from grants from central government; money handed out by the government to cover the provision of important services. In this, there will be requirements attached as to how to spend the money, whether particular programmes should be prioritised, and so on. Local government can raise its own money, principally through two key taxes (council tax, and business rates) but these raise relatively small amounts of money for councils, compared to their needs, and what they receive from central government.
There have, however, been some positive changes here for local government – perhaps the largest of which was the Localism Act of 2011. The key provision here was what’s called the “general power of competence”. Briefly put, prior to this point, local government could only do what Parliament specifically authorised it to do – this power allows local government to do anything that is not explicitly forbidden. If retained, and coupled with a less tight financial situation, this could give councils considerable scope to experiment in future.
Broadly, though, local government is responsible for delivering a variety of services that can often seem almost invisible to us – or have relatively small levels of awareness. We generally only consider them when they impact directly on us – when our bins fail to be emptied, or the pothole outside our home grows ever larger. But councils are responsible for almost a quarter of all government spending in the UK, and their services are vitally important to our communities.
It was another busy week of elections with by-elections held on both Thursday and Friday and the Liberal Democrats had 3 seats to defend.
In previous posts, we have discussed Parliament and the constitution – this week, we will consider the executive branch of government, so named because it is responsible for executing and enforcing laws. In the UK, this is centred on the Prime Minister and their cabinet, though it extends out to a host of other bodies. We look at these two key components in turn, and see how they relate back to the concepts and bodies we discussed previously, as well as trying to understand how they interact with each other.
Whilst the post of Prime Minister sits at the very top of government, and commands considerable public attention, most of their powers do not come from statute or common law, but rather from convention. They are exercised on behalf of the monarch, who appoints the Prime Minister – who has traditionally been the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. So long as they are able to retain the support of a majority of MPs, the Prime Minister and their government should remain in power – by convention, if they lose this support (known as confidence), they would resign. Their powers range from appointing ministers to head government departments, through to attending international summits, and on to dispensing patronage through the honours system (knighthoods, MBEs, and so on).
The most important of these powers is the Prime Minister’s power to appoint and dismiss other members of the executive – ministers, who either head or help to oversee government departments. There are currently over 100 ministers, all of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister. By convention, these ministers are drawn from Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons – by necessity, it may be that the Prime Minister has to include certain MPs in government, in order to appease party factions, or may be forced to exclude others on political grounds. Nevertheless, this is a formidable power, and allows a Prime Minister to shape the government to suit their policy preferences and desired direction of travel for the country.
The next key power to consider is the Prime Minister’s role as chair of the cabinet. In this role, the Prime Minister determines who can attend cabinet, when its meetings will be heard, what will be on the agenda, and will sum up its discussions. This is not a process that involves a formal vote – it is rather rare for Prime Ministers to seek a vote in cabinet on any point. As we shall go to see, the ability of a Prime Minister to mould their ministerial team and the cabinet as an institution has considerable importance.
The other powers of a Prime Minister include their ability to appoint senior civil servants – they decide who the senior civil servant will be in each department (the permanent secretary) and it is only with their approval that a minister can have a senior civil servant moved. They also represent the country at international summits, such as those of the European Council, granting them considerable influence over foreign policy. Finally, we should remember the media and political attention that comes with being Prime Minister – giving one access to a significant reserve of influence to try and shape the direction of the country, and of policy in Parliament.
There are, however, a variety of restraints in place on the Prime Minister. They attend a weekly questioning session in the House of Commons, known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), as well as making annual appearances before a Parliamentary committee called the Liaison Committee. They are required to retain the support of a majority of the House of Commons – and the support of their party colleagues. If either of these fail, then they can find themselves removed from office, and often find the agenda set after their departure contrasting with much they had laid down.
The cabinet is the collective decision-making body that the Prime Minister chairs. It serves three key functions; finally determining what will be submitted to Parliament by the government, overall control of the executive in line with what Parliament agrees, and co-ordination between the many component parts of the state. It meets on Tuesdays, in the cabinet room in Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister in London.
Its composition is decided by the Prime Minister – who has broad scope to make and unmake the government departments that ministers run. For example, since 2007, the department responsible for overseeing universities has been, in order – the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and now the Department for Education. Very few departments do not experience this process, which is driven entirely by the Prime Minister’s desire to shape government, with the exception of the Treasury. It is traditional that all the heads of government departments are members of the cabinet – the Prime Minister can also ask a range of other ministers to attend. Currently, there are 23 members of the cabinet, and 4 others who attend.
As with the Prime Minister, the cabinet’s powers and functions exist by convention. Aside from the key functions laid out above, to which we will return in a moment, two other key conventions apply. The first is one already stated – if the government loses the support (confidence) of the House of Commons, it will resign. The second is the principle of collective responsibility, which states that once a decision has been made by cabinet, all members collectively accept responsibility for it, even if they disagreed prior to the decision being made. Ministers who cannot do this are expected to resign, or will be removed by the Prime Minister if they openly disagree after the decision is taken.
In executing its three key duties outlined above, cabinet faces a huge workload – the UK government is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of spending, almost 3 million public sector employees, and of course the executing and enforcing of a vast array of laws and regulations. As a single committee, cabinet and its members would struggle to cope with this workload – so two tiers of support are in place. First are junior ministers; every departmental head has a number of these, with whom they can share their workload, delegating particular areas of their department to the junior minister. Secondly, there are the cabinet committees – these are made of members of the cabinet, and perhaps some junior ministers as well. They are constituted by the Prime Minister, and assigned particular areas of responsibility. Like cabinet, they are there to assist in determining policy, ensuring it is implemented, and co-ordinating policy on a variety of areas – they act to clarify issues before the main cabinet decides them, dividing up the workload. Decisions of cabinet committees have the same power as those of full cabinet, and matters are only referred from them to the whole cabinet if the chair agrees.
We have seen that the UK’s executive branch, particularly the Prime Minister, has considerable powers at their disposal to make and change government, and to set the direction of the country. We have also seen how they shape the cabinet, which in turn serves a key function at the heart of the executive – as a body to make decisions, oversee the operation of government, and settle disputes. When they operate together, government can deliver policy quickly, effectively, and with an assurance of easy passage through Parliament. Disunity between them, however, can lead to disorder and perhaps even the fall of ministers – or the Prime Minister themselves.
Another week, another great set of results for the Liberal Democrats where we stood candidates. There were 5 principle council by-elections yesterday with Liberal Democrats standing candidates in 3 of them.
There are few examples of the Party Political Broadcasts (PPB) for the liberals between 1945 and the Early 80s. Some incomplete versions missing large chunks of audio have been archived on YouTube. Throughout this period the Liberals suffered in the relative political doldrums of only a handful of seats in Scotland and Wales.
In 1974, after a general election that left no party with a majority, attempts were made to form a coalition government with the Conservatives, but it fell through when the Conservatives and their Leader Edward Heath refused to agree to bring in Proportional Representation (PR) for Westminster elections. As a result Labour attempted to govern in a minority.
This ultimately led to the second General Election of 1974 that following October and the narrowest of majorities for Labour. The liberals again attempted to support the government in order to deliver PR which ultimately backfired.
After the Election of 1979 and victory for Margaret Thatchers conservatives, the Labour party, now in opposition, began to change. Alleged corruption and left wing militancy was becoming more and more of an issue within Labour.
On the 25th of January 1981 the “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers Launched the Council of Social Democracy, later to become the Social Democrat Party (SDP), in what would become known as the Limehouse Declaration. Within six months the SDP had joined the Liberals under David Steele to form the SDP – Liberal Alliance which was to remain in place until the ultimate merger of the two parties.
The Alliance was polling at 50% at one point before the General Election of 1983, but after the Falklands War of 1982, Margaret Thatcher and the conservatives stormed back into first place to win by a landslide. Although The Alliance polled 25% of the vote, thanks to our first past the post electoral system they only achieved twenty three seats.
The following PPB by the SDP as part of the SDP – Liberal Alliance was made in May 1984. Here SDP leader David Owen coveres topics including, European Unity, Trident, and the use of Nuclear Weapons, an important issue in this period of Cold War between the west and Russia.
Last week, we discussed Parliament, and described it as the “central component of the UK’s constitution.” This week, we are going to briefly survey that constitution, and understand where we might find it – its sources – and the basic rules that it lays out for UK politics – its provisions. Before we do so, as ever, we need to define our terms. A constitution is a “body of laws, customs, and conventions that define the composition and powers of organs of the state and that regulate the relations of the various state organs to one another and to the private citizen.” The UK’s constitution is very different to the model of constitution present in most other states, in that it is uncodified. This means that there isn’t a single document which contains all, or at least most, of the laws, customs, and conventions that make up the constitution. Rather, it is spread across four key sources, to which we will turn first.
The UK’s constitution draws on four sources – statute law, common law, conventions, and works of authority. Statute law in the UK simply refers to Acts of Parliament, and particularly those with key significance to the relationship between the parts of the state, and the state and its citizens. For example, the Scotland Act 1998, which created the Scottish Parliament, is a prominent constitutional act, because it created a new body in Scotland to handle certain Scottish matters, and outlined relations between that body at the existing Parliament in Westminster.
Secondly, we have the common law. This refers to legal principles created by the courts in making decisions, and ones so ancient that the courts treat them as law. This is a shrinking part of the constitution – more and more law is now in statute form – but nonetheless retains an important role. For example, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that we introduced last week is considered to be an aspect of common, rather than statute, law. Similarly, what are called prerogative powers are used under common law – these are powers that are recognised as belonging to the Crown, but are exercised by the Prime Minister or other ministers. We will return to these next week in more detail.
Thirdly, there are conventions. These are the least tangible form of the UK’s constitution – they don’t exist in statute form, nor are they enforced by the courts. Rather, they are abided to by the parts of the state because to break them would disrupt the normal operation of politics. For example, it is only by convention that the monarch grants their approval to all Acts of Parliament – a convention dating back to the early 18th Century. Sometimes, conventions can be breached temporarily, and then restored to use afterwards – some conventions are stronger than others.
Finally, there are works of authority. Whilst these are much more tangible than the conventions – but their power in the constitution is persuasive only, and they are rather poorly defined. Clearly the work of scholars such as A. V. Dicey, who we encountered in last week’s discussion of Parliament, and Erskine May, count as works of authority – they lay out key principles of how the constitution is meant to operate, and how one of the most important organs of the state is meant to be regulated on a day to day basis, respectively. They are most useful, therefore, in interpreting the conventions and common law that form a part of the constitution.
The UK constitution, drawn from the four sources above, lays out four basic provisions – parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, a unitary system, and parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. We can restate the definition given last week from Dicey to cover the first provision, parliamentary sovereignty, as being the power to “to make or unmake any law whatever, and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”
Dicey also argued that the rule of law was a key provision of the UK constitution. This is a little trickier to define (Dicey himself gives three definitions!) but here we will use Lord Bingham’s definition in his book on the subject: “all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.” This might be characterised as the idea that no-one should be above the law; as Bingham and other scholars on this note, this principle is not evenly applied in the UK constitution, but it remains an important provision all the same.
The third provision also causes us a little difficulty – the idea of a UK as a unitary state. These are often contrasted with federal states such as the USA. In a federal state, power is divided between the national and more local units by the constitution – in a unitary state, it is the national government that holds all the power. Parliament, as the sovereign body, can create local government bodies, such as councils, hand them powers, withdraw them, redesign them – or even abolish them outright. This constitutional principle holds over even bodies such as the Scottish Parliament – but here the difficulty lies. Whilst it may be constitutional to abolish the Scottish Parliament, arguably the political pressures against doing so would be too great.
Finally, there is the idea of parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. This covers the relationship between parliament, government, and monarch – with the government the distinctly stronger component. It may broadly be expressed as the idea that the government governs through Parliament, rather than the country being governed by Parliament, with the monarch having a ceremonial role. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are appointed by the monarch, rather than Parliament, but are politically responsible too Parliament for their actions.
We have seen where the UK’s constitution is drawn from, and what its basic provisions are. It is worth remembering that, like any constitution, these are continually under pressure to change as circumstances do. Unlike most constitutions – which are codified – the UK’s uncodified constitution has no special provision to make amending it exceptionally difficult. There was no need, for example, for two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 – it was created through a statute that holds the same basic status as any other statute. Whilst this makes the UK constitution flexible – a strength for some – it also means it can be changed very easily – which is alarming for others. As the UK withdraws from the EU, this will impose further strains on the constitution, a point worth bearing in mind.
After a few quiet weeks there were 3 principle council by-elections this week and the Liberal Democrats wasted no time getting back to winning ways.
Throwback Thursdays begin with a series on the Party Political Broadcast.
Party Political Broadcasts. In the United Kingdom the Communications Act 2003 prohibits political advertising on Television or Radio, instead, parties are provided with slots, usually about five minutes long on the major broadcast channels with rules set by parliament.
There have been many Party Political Broadcasts made by the Lib Dems and the Liberal and SDP parties before it, but I wondered where it all started. I found this footage in the Pathe archives. The following video shows footage taken of former Liberal Party leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, in 1945, including extracts of a speech on the country “turning to liberalism again”.
Although not a PPB as such, it comes from a time where information about politics and political parties moved from print media and radio into the world of the visual. From this time onward image became more and more important in politics.
Sadly Sir Archibald would go on to lose his seat, amongst the postwar Labour surge, in the 1945 general election. He came third, off of first place by just 61 votes! He was also one of the last Liberal members of Government (Minister of the Air Force) until 2010.
Archie also mentions the Liberal economist William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report. It formed the basis for the post-war reforms known as the Welfare State, which include the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.