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Westminster Wednesday: Devolution

This week, we’ll be looking at the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of them presents a different case study, and so we will tackle them one by one, rather than going by theme as we have in previous weeks. We’ll briefly see how these bodies came to be, what powers they have, and how they function in turn. We’ll also consider, right at the end, the missing piece of the puzzle, as it were – England.

 

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has not had a happy history – since the division of the island of Ireland in the 1920s, the province has been the scene of tensions between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) communities. For the first 50 years of its existence, there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland, dominated by the Protestants. However, in the 1970s, a spiralling surge of violence in the province led to the dissolution of the Parliament and the assumption of direct control by the government in London. This continued up until the late 1990s, when a lengthy, tangled peace process finally resulted in an agreement between Nationalist and Unionist politicians. The centrepiece of this agreement was a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being after the peace agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998.

The Assembly has power over agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, justice, and a variety of other areas, with members of the Assembly (MLAs) serving as members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Both the Assembly and the Executive function differently to how similar bodies in the UK function. In the Assembly, for example, certain votes require majority support of politicians from both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. The Executive is comprised of members of both communities – and sometimes from parties that define themselves as “other” – and there is no collective responsibility. Each minister is scrutinised by an Assembly committee chaired by someone from another party.

Since its creation, the Assembly has been suspended several times – most notably between 2002 and 2007 – when agreement between the two communities represented in the body broke down. Most recently, it has been dominated by the two largest, and traditionally less moderate, parties of those communities – the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, there is an election campaign in process for a new Assembly, after the previous one was dissolved in the midst of a political scandal. This election, like all others, will be held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, but will see fewer MLAs than before – 90, rather than 108 – elected.

 

Wales

Wales’ path to devolution has been a far less violent one than Northern Ireland, but also a far less enthusiastic one. In a referendum in the 1970s, the people of Wales rejected the offer of a devolved assembly – when asked again in 1997 by the Labour government, they very narrowly voted (a margin of just over 6,000 votes) – in favour of the proposition. Wales is not a nation with a long history of independent political institutions from the rest of the UK – since the 16th Century it had broadly been governed on the same basis as England, and only after the Second World War did a party dedicated specifically to advocating for Wales – Plaid Cymru – emerge.

The Welsh Assembly that was approved in the 1997 referendum has typically had far fewer powers than its Scottish cousin – most notably with regards to tax, which the Assembly has no power to vary. It does have power over areas such as agriculture, education, health, local government, policing and transport, and an executive to carry out the responsibilities attached to these areas. But it has lagged behind Scotland in the scope and strength of powers it has had devolved to it by Westminster. The Assembly has long been dominated by Labour – though they have rarely had a full majority – and comprises 60 members, elected originally every 4 years using the Additional Member System.

 

Scotland

The Scottish Parliament is perhaps the most complete, and stable, example of devolution in the UK. Much as with Wales, the Scottish people were offered a chance at devolution in the 1970s – and indeed voted in favour of the proposal, but a clause in the Westminster legislation requiring 40% of eligible voters to support the proposal meant that devolution was not pursued. Again, it was left to a 1997 referendum, offered by the Labour government, to re-open the issue. On a higher turnout than Wales, the Scottish people backed a Scottish Parliament by 75% to 25%, and giving it tax raising powers by 63% to 37%. Scotland had retained a host of independent institutions after joining the UK in the 18th Century, including its own legal and education systems, and its nationalist party – the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was much more electorally successful than Plaid Cymru managed to be.

Subsequently, there have been further rounds of devolution to Scotland, as with Wales, most notably after the 2014 referendum on independence. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have control over a wide range of policy areas – cultural, education, health, environment, local government, justice, housing and planning are some of them. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected, as in Wales, with the Additional Member System. The system originally delivered Parliaments where Labour were the largest, and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – 1999, and 2003 – but since 2007 the SNP have been the largest party, and indeed from 2011 to 2016 they maintained a majority in the Parliament.

 

England

The ‘missing nation’ in this equation is, of course, England. The Labour government elected in 1997 was open to devolution to England, on a regional basis – in 2004 they held a referendum in the North East of England on the establishment of an assembly, a proposal that was very firmly rejected by voters there. Whilst London experienced a form of devolution through the Greater London Assembly, the rest of England has yet to gain devolved institutions.

Spring Conference - York

Spring Conference 2017 Newbie Special

This year Lib Dems from all over the country will once again descend on York this Spring for a weekend of for fun, policy, debate, training and (most likely) drink! Once again there will be record breaking numbers of Newbies and First Time Attendees!
Going to conference is incredibly fun, giving you a chance to chat to people who you may only see once or twice a year, or to meet people in real life who you only ever talk to on Twitter or Facebook (I’m not the only one to have started talking to someone before realising that they have no idea who I am as I’ve only ever spoke to them online… Am I???). It is also the serious policy making heart of our Party, and sets us apart from other parties. If you have never been you might think it isn’t for you, however I can confirm that it absolutely is for you, and the shorter Spring format is ad ideal taster.
Attending your first conference can be bit daunting so I thought I’d set out a few thoughts about things to do, what to expect, and a few tips from my first time and from a few others here at Newbie HQ. This is by no means exhaustive and I’d recommend also reading Caron Lindsay’s excellent articles about conference on Lib Dem Voice here and here.
 
Things to do…
Lib Dem Pint – Friday 17th March 2016 19:00-23:00
To mark the start of conference Newbie HQ have arranged a social event to welcome members new and old to York. As those who follow #LibDemPint events know it is traditional to secure a speaker for these events and for Brighton we have a cracking line up with some new members speaking, and some VERY well known members speaking. Taking place at Revolution York, you can find full details here, respond to the Facebook event, and book your free ticket here (Space is limited so make sure you book a place).
First Timers FCC Q&A – Friday 17th September 16:45-17:30
Your chance to quiz the Federal Conference Committee on all things conference or about how the party works in general.
 
Members Rally – Friday 17th March 2016 18:30-19:30
Technically a fringe event the members rally is a set of speeches by a variety of speakers that is a way of energising everyone who has come to conference. I promise it is a lot more fun than I’m making it sound!
 
First Timers Reception – Friday 17th March 2016 After Rally
If you are a first time attendee you should have already received an invite to this event, and is sadly only for first timers. Whilst billed as a session to orientate new comers to conference and to answer any questions you might have this was probably my highlight of York’s Spring conference this year. As well as answering your questions and meeting other people who are at their first conference too it’s a great chance to hear the likes of Sal Brinton (and Andrew Wiseman) up close and to get a free drink or 2. To my surprise this wasn’t a whistle stop drop in my Tim fresh from his Rally speech he hung around for a long time chatting to people and posing for numerous selfies and if that is what you are after (and let’s face it who doesn’t want a selfie with the leader?) this is your best bet.
Tim Hallam, James Harvey, Tim Farron, Chris Cooke, Ross Shipman
 
Conference itself – Saturday 18th – Sunday 19th March
There is lots on offer and too much to list highlights as that will depend on what you want to get out of the 1 1/2 days. I would recommend that to get the most out of your time try and attend at least 1 of each type event from social events, fringe events, training, consultations, speeches, and policy debates.
 
Tips…
Some of these tips are my own and others from members of Newbie HQ and as such are offered with no guarantee!
  • If at a loose end head to the conference bar. There will always be lots of people milling around to chat to. Don’t be afraid to talk to other members that you don’t know – Lib Dems may have strange taste in foot wear but the never bite!
  • Find out who from your local party or region is also going and make arrangements to meet up early in the weekend that way you know you’ll have a touch point early on and can arrange further meet ups then.
  • Plan but plan in pencil, things will change as you talk to people and do things.
  • Read the motion papers and get hold of conference daily. I know it seems a bit dull at first, but if you want to follow any of the policy debates you really need to have read the motion and the amendments. Some of this can sound complicated, and it is, but after a couple of sessions it will start to make sense.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak on a motion. The phrase “This is my first conference” or “this is my first time speaking at conference” in your opening statement will be bound to get you a cheer and boost your confidence.
  • Make sure you eat, drink and sleep! With everything going on and sessions running from early morning to past midnight it can seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day! Make sure you allow time to get some food, many fringe events offer food and some offer drinks (be it coffee or wine) and these can be vital pit stops as well and interesting sessions.
  • Be prepared for a lot of selfies, if you come across any of Newbie HQ we will be sure to grab a selfie with you!
My final piece of advice is relax and enjoy it. Yes conference is serious and critical to the functioning of our party, but it can also be a hell of a lot of fun!
If you have any tips of your own please add them in the comments section.
See you all in York this weekend!
#WeAreTheWelcome

York Spring Conference 2017 #LibDemPint

EVERYONE WELCOME (newbies & oldies)

If you are heading to Conference in York on Friday, 17th March 2017 the Newbies will be hosting our welcome to conference.

Please get your free ticket for our Lib Dem Newbie UK #LibDemPint here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/york-conference-libdempint-event-tickets-31025069819

Location: Revolution York, Coney Street YO1 9NA York

Doors open at 7 with events starting after the Rally has finished at the main conference venue.
Speakers:

This event has been organised by a group of volunteers from the Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook group and promises to be a great start to the weekend!

Facebook Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1290273754354294/

Liberal Democrats Winning Here Sign

By-Election Report 09/03/2017

Yesterday there were seven principle council by-elections and with Liberal Democrat candidates in all seven, including two with no recent past Liberal Democrat candidates, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

Throwback Thursdays: PPBs: And Now For Something Completely Different, Part 3.

 

This week is the final part of the Pythonology. John Cleese returned to Lib Dem PPBs in 1997 where he asked the voting public to help him with a problem.

According to polling at the time half of every voter surveyed stated that they would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they thought we could win. This, as Mr Cleese points out, leads to somewhat of a paradox.

Though not as energetic or informative as his two previous broadcasts, I wanted to include this particular one up as it also signals my own entry into the Lib Dem universe.

I remember watching this particular PPB live back when I was an eleven year old boy, and my understanding of politics had only just started to manifest. Whether the fact a member of Monty Python was trying to reach out to me as a non voting child could be attributed to my eventually becoming a Lib Dem, I cannot say. I would probably assume having a Grandmother who voted liberal her entire life might be the most important influence. However, it’s my oldest Lib Dem memory and the start of a long journey in politics.

Looking at the history, according to some within the inner circles of the Lib Dems at the time, there was at this time a possibility of a “progressive” alliance in parliament. With Labour, under the soon to be Prime Minster Tony Blair. After the subsequent Labour landslide of 1997, the Lib Dem’s services were no longer required and Labour governed alone.

But more, much more, was still to come.

Liberal Democrats Winning Here Sign

By-Election Report – 02/03/2017

This week saw four Principle Council by-elections including a Liberal Democrat defence, a town council by-election, and City Council that is in fact more like a town council by-election (no disrespect Wells!).

Throwback Thursdays: PPBs: And Now For Something Completely Different, Part 2.

 

In 1987 our friend Mr John Cleese also discussed the topic of Proportional Representation, which, at least I believe, is one of if not the most important issue we have argued for in the parties history.

Now some people may think electoral reform is a boring subject and indeed Mr Cleese plays on that in this video, however the lack of representation and electorate feeling that they do not have a voice in politics can be linked to the dissatisfaction people have of our political system and politicians.

I would also go as far to say that the vote for Brexit at least partially could be attributed to the worst symptoms of our electoral system. Even now the arguments hold up, in fact they were stronger back then after the SDP – Liberal Alliance nearly pushed labour in to third place on 25% of the vote but ended up with only 23 seats.

It’s just not fair, “not fair to us voters.”

 

Again, with thanks to Preston Lib Dems.

Liberal Democrats Winning Here Sign

By-Election Report – 23/02/2017

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.

Throwback Thursdays: PPBs: And Now For Something Completely Different. Part 1.

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.

 

local government

Westminster Wednesdays: Local Government

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.

Structure

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.

Powers

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.