Lucy Stephenson: There is no magic money tree in Rutland. Fundamental reform is needed.

27 Jun

Cllr Lucy Stephenson is the Leader of Rutland County Council.

May 2023, for Rutland, will be the four yearly performance review, aka the Local Government elections. To some extent, what is happening in Westminster, over which, as a Councillor, you have no meaningful power aside from barracking from the sidelines and forming good lines of communication with your MP, will have a significant impact on the ballot box at a local level. This is embedded by political commentators using Local Government election results as a KPI for Central Government. Irksome in many ways: to know that regardless of what you have achieved or not locally will pale into insignificance compared to what your Party has done or not nationally.

The average turnout for Local Government elections is shockingly low at around the 37 per cent mark, meaning that an average of 63 per cent of any given local population has shown no interest whatsoever. Local Government is the workhorse of any Government of the day. It is the bin collections, the pothole fillers, the Council Tax demanders, the Adult Social Care deliverers, and the child protectors. It manages buses, libraries, housing development, our daily lives in its broad hands. It is the less glamorous magician which turns theory into practice. It is also the barometer of where we have got to as a society. Demand for service far outstrips budget. The result: tighter thresholds for services, universal services trimmed, and persistent increases in Council Tax all against a backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis. 80 per cent of Rutland’s revenue budget comes from Council Tax; the national average 60 per cent. This equates to £331 less central government funding per Rutland household.

I will not explore the amenity disparity resulting from unfair funding between a rural area such as Rutland and that of its urban counterparts – it is an incredibly valid argument, but it is a smokescreen for an uncomfortable truth: Local Government in its entirety is creaking at the seams. Levelling Up is a start to redressing geographical disparity, harnessing local knowledge and understanding to make long-term plans to enable crucial investment in infrastructure that will help local economies flourish for the greater good of the wider community. It resonates with me as a Conservative, but it is a start only. Local Government requires something more fundamental.

Rutland, like every other Council, faces a bleak outlook: a medium-term financial plan that indicates gloomy deficits. Medium term, living within our means feels to be no more than a laudable aspiration – there are no laurels to rest on here, the magic money tree far away despite rigorous and persistent efforts to reconfigure and transform; ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ the buzz words of the day. It confirms my assertion that there must be fundamental reform.

This is the backdrop against which we prepare for the May ’23 elections. Rutland has had a politically turbulent time since 2019. We started our new term with a healthy Conservative majority (19 out of 27 Councillors). We have since dropped to six; some have simply resigned prompting by-elections – which has resulted in the rise of the Independents, Lib Dems, Greens and for the first time in many years a Labour Councillor; others have jumped on the Independent bandwagon. I deliberately use a capital ‘I’: it is Political. People should not be hoodwinked into taking a literal meaning of the word ‘independent’ – it speaks to a ‘Politics has no place at a local level’ view. However, if a group of people align, form a group, have a leader and agree voting positions ahead of a meeting then the duck is most certainly quacking! I am new in post, as of May this year, a visible culmination of the aforementioned turbulence. In effect, I have a 10-month mandate to turn things around.

The big personality model for a leader has many things to recommend it; it does, however, carry with it the significant risk of being a single point of failure. It also runs the risk of diluting any Party’s fundamental philosophical approach because the focus becomes personality, not principle. A group that pins its fortunes on any one individual will need to weigh up this risk. A leader that acts with clarity, measure, and vision will help no end, but this does not eliminate the need for a strong team that is united by a commonality of purpose with a drive to deliver for the residents they serve. Decent candidate selection, is therefore crucial.

An effective election campaign necessitates thorough community engagement, not just to identify key support or indeed to get soundbite tag lines across. It is about residents understanding the not terribly sexy topic of Local Government. It is about understanding what is important to people who wish to live their best lives.

With deepened understanding, there is a chance of a bigger election turnout, whilst demonstrating clear principles that shows an honest, solution-focussed, and long term approach with deliverable actions. Democracy is great but it is vulnerable to fickle promises, opinion presented as fact, soundbite temptations that miss the nuance of policy development. Our electorate must be equipped to make informed choices – and that starts with a clear manifesto that people can see will improve their lives if delivered.

 

The post Lucy Stephenson: There is no magic money tree in Rutland. Fundamental reform is needed. appeared first on Conservative Home.

Grant MacMaster: Parking charges – not partygate – is the reason the Conservatives lost in Havering

23 Jun

Grant MacMaster is a Young Conservative in Romford, having recently graduated from university. He grew up in Havering and has run in the local elections. He studied politics and economics, and was the first in his family to go to university.

Having faced the biggest defeat in Havering for eight years, the Conservatives remain the largest party on the council. However, the Havering Residents Association (HRA) just sold out the borough to the far-left socialists of the local Labour Party for a coalition agreement.

During May’s local elections, I ran as an independent candidate in my local ward, which is Havering’s most deprived ward on the council estate of Harold Hill. Growing up here, I felt my connection with local people could forge a better future for them, representing their interests at the Town Hall as opposed to Labour’s usual message of ‘vote for us then go away’.

I’m 21 years old and I’ve just finished my degree, being the first of my family to go to university. My peers and I see socialism and the far-left first hand everyday: it isn’t pretty. It’s rotting our schools, universities, and educational establishments, united under one common goal, a distain for sensible, pragmatic politics. Now it has come to the formerly safe Conservative borough I call home.

Having lost in my ward to the Labour Party, I have realised the vehicle for change in Havering isn’t independent or Resident Association councillors, it’s the local Conservative Party.

Some ask ‘How do you come to this conclusion?’ Here’s how.

Having done a great deal of door-knocking across Havering, I can safely say that Boris Johnson and partygate came up just a handful of times. What came up much more was the Conservative Leader of the Council’s (now opposition leader) handling of rising local parking costs (which were reversed, eventually) and increasing his cabinet by 2 members. Yes, its insanity.

But for all local people’s faults of focusing on an issue so small as parking charges increasing by a pound, it spoke to the heart of how the HRA and Labour won – they sold that the Conservatives cared more about themselves than helping locals.

We need to change this, sowing the seeds of a better Conservative Group on the council, fit to govern again.

How? Our message needs to go back to basics. Take it from me, I first voted aged 18 at the 2019 General Election. What attracted me to vote Conservatives most was the message of “Getting Brexit Done” – investing in our schools, hospitals and police.

Let’s re-ignite the same fire in the bellies of local people, that the Conservative Party is the vehicle to get us to better times and a better place.

This means truly lower taxes, instead of increasing taxes at the same time as increasing the Council Cabinet. It means providing high-quality performance-measured services, instead of focusing on building new leisure centre’s which Havering does not need. We need to be scrutinising the Labour Group’s control of Havering’s mayoralty and Cabinet position for Housing also.

This package should be rooted in the best traditions of our local communities and how we can improve them. This doesn’t mean flying the Union Jack every now and then. It means upholding the values of our country and exhibiting them at the Town Hall and beyond.

Havering’s founding motto is ‘liberty’, derived from our days as a Royal Liberty from 1465 to 1892. The HRA and Labour will stop at nothing to demean our communities, our local heritage, and our country. We must be the reminder to them that decency, tolerance and our individual liberty must always be protected.

Whilst they offer Labour councillors housing posts on the cabinet, they attack the very tradition that residents want cherished. We should shamelessly contest their plans to filibuster housing and planning decisions, resulting in increases in multi-story sites across the borough, increasing pressure on local services, and taking more of our green space.

The message on housing from local people is clear: we want affordable homes, but not sky-scraper sites. The HRA/Labour coalition will increase multi-story buildings; we must offer the credible alternative of being pragmatic with our space, and attract the right investment in our towns. Build quality homes which act as a gateway to future home ownership.

The pathway to winning also cites the organic society we live in as a key component to our policy programme. Life isn’t always fair, but we can work to provide opportunity for local people.

Opportunities do not appear out of thin air; they have to be carefully planned out and costed. Over the next four years, we need to find a role for everyone in our community, from those who create jobs to the way local roads are paved, using our pitch as a type of functionalism of local people.

A local off licence owner recently impressed upon me, ‘the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers are just as important as the Lawyers, the Doctors and the entrepreneurs’. He is right. A Conservative party that recognises this, is on the side of the middle of our communities. We need them to win, otherwise they’ll sway to the HRA and Labour coalition out of confusion from our message.

We must work out a programme that engages local people, inspires new voters to support the Conservatives as I did in 2019, whilst keeping our core supporters onboard. This is do-able. It was Edmund Burke that said a ‘state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

I’m a Conservative now more than ever because our beliefs and values are under attack from an administration willing to sell out decency to the far-left. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

It’s time to change locally, returning to our fundamental values – for the revival of the Conservatives in Havering.

The post Grant MacMaster: Parking charges – not partygate – is the reason the Conservatives lost in Havering first appeared on Conservative Home.

Local elections – how the results measured up with our predictions

12 May

While the council election results last week were mixed, there is no denyng that, overall, the Conservatives were in retreat. There were substantial losses in Wales and Scotland – which was pretty much inevitable as those seats had last been contested in 2017 – which was a very good year for the Conservatives in the local elections. For England, the comparison was mostly with 2018 when the contest was more even between Labour and the Conservatives. Most of the contests took place on Labour territory. But it was possible to extrapolate a projected national vote share. In 2018 the Conservatives were one point ahead. This time Labour came in two points ahead. They were on 35 per cent, with the Conservatives on 33 per cent according to the calculations by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher for the Sunday Times.

Labour’s lead in vote share was a few points below their lead in most recent opinion polls. Usually, Labour’s local election vote is a bit below their opinion poll ratings at the time. By contrast, the Lib Dems tend to do better in their local elections vote share than in the opinion polls – the Sunday Times analysis had them on 17 per cent, while the opinion polls have them on 12 per cent or below.

So in that sense, Labour’s vote share met reasonable expectations. Talk of devastation for the Conservatives from some pundits a few weeks ago rested on the assumption that Labour would have an opinion lead well into double figures.

The more relevant test looks at historic comparisons of how well an opposition party should be doing mid-term if it expects to win the next General Election. Mark Pack has produced a useful summary of past local election results. In the 2009 local elections, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by 15 points on projected national vote share. Under Ed Miliband’s leadership in 2013 Labour was nine points ahead in projected national vote share in the local elections. We didn’t have a calculation of projected national vote share for 2000 but under William Hague’s leadership the Conservatives had pretty good results and would probably have been several points ahead if such a calculation had been made.

A rule of thumb is an opposition party should have a lead of well into double figures in projected national vote share in the local elections a year or two years before a General Election to really be “on course for victory” when that General Election comes.

Next the measure of the number of councillors. The Conservatives made net losses of 336 seats in England – plus 86 in Wales and 63 in Scotland. But these seats went all over the place. Labour’s net gains were much smaller than the Conservative net losses. So that means that my prediction that the Conservatives would still be the largest party of local government in the UK was proved correct. Given the significant lead the Conservatives have, it was a pretty safe prediction – it would have meant a wipeout for it to be otherwise. Yet after 12 years in power natonally it remains a notable achievement.

Beneath the surface of these figures, there was significant variation. In London we saw Labour gain Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminister – but lose Croydon, Harrow and Tower Hamlets. So they ended up running the same number of boroughs as before. I predicted that Labour would “not make overall progress in London” and so it has proved. I said there was a “decent chance” of the Conservatives gaining Harrow. Also that Enfield “is a borough where the Conservatives might well gain some seats – although probably not enough to sweep to victory.” I highlighted Labour’s poor record in Croydon. But my report of “optimism” that the Conservatives would gain Sutton from the Lib Dems and my declaration of being “sceptical” that Westminster would be lost did not age as well.

I said the Green Party would make “solid but modest progress.” That was about right. They ended up gaining 63 seats in England.

With the district councils I’m afraid my fears came true that the Conservatives could be in trouble from independents in Castle Point, the Lib Dems in Gosport, and from Labour in increasingly woke Worthing. More encouraging was that Labour missed two of the key tests highlighted for them – to make progress in Nuneaton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. They lost ground in both places.

Looking at towns and cities, I warned the Conservatives “will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival” in Somerset and Wokingham, which transpired.  I suggested that while Labour “may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains”. That was broadly fair. But their decisive victory in the new Council of Cumberland was an important result I did not anticipate. I thought Labour would “do well” in Wakefield which they did. However, they lost a couple of seats in Birmingham. They gained a couple in Derby and a couple in Dudley. In Peterborough they made no gains, in Bury only one. These were places I highlighted as key contests in terms of General Election implications where Labour needed to be making really strong gains.

Not too bad. I suppose I would give myself seven out of ten.

These results have not produced the fresh impetus to challenge Boris Johnson’s leadership that some expected. Tory morale will certainly have taken a jolt. The defeat in Wandsworth on it’s own was enough to ensure that, given it has been an iconic success story. Elsewhere, even the modest overall setback will be discouraging for Conservatives who have got used to make advances. Those of us who remember the John Major era will be thankful they went as well as they did.

Taylor O’Driscoll: Britain needs more young councillors

5 May

Cllr Taylor O’ Driscoll represents Westway Ward on Tandridge District Council.

Young people often perceive councils as groups of older people gathering to talk about flowers and building extensions and conservatories. Many young people feel that councils don’t listen to or care about their concerns.

I feel this is a sad situation since a significant proportion of our society, the proportion that represents its future, believe that they cannot influence the future of their own area and make it a better place to live in.

Many feel that there is no point voting in the local elections because they are choosing between a ballot of retired professionals looking for a final pay day before sailing off into the sunset.

It was this disillusionment among young people, which I also felt as a 20-year-old wanting to make my community a better place to live in, that inspired me to stand to be a district councillor in last year’s local elections in Tandridge in Surrey.

I felt that if the existing councillors of all political parties weren’t going to try to listen to young people, a young person on the council will make them listen. I was elected to represent Westway, the ward I live in, by 15 votes over the incumbent councillor.

When I was elected, I felt intimidated by the council and some of its members. There were and still are a lot of bold personalities on the Council, and elaborate rules of debate that I wasn’t used to. Many didn’t expect me to win my seat, and there was a sense of shock that a 20-year-old was elected to the Council – let alone a 20-year-old Conservative.

When I made my nervous first speech on behalf of my residents after I was elected, I was openly laughed at by some very prominent councillors in the party of the councillor I unseated. I found at this stage, making my speech to the Annual Council meeting as the first of the Class of 2021 to speak as a councillor, that many councillors simply don’t appreciate the needs of young people.

That’s why I think young people generally don’t think it’s worth turning out to vote in local elections. Because they feel their voice doesn’t matter. Because they feel that they aren’t going to be listened to. Because they feel that nothing will change. But not turning out at local elections is not the answer to solving this problem.

We need more young people to stand to represent their communities at their local council. A young person can help bring a fresh perspective with innovative and exciting ideas, which some councillors may not have even thought of. This helps to ensure that a wider proportion of our community is represented by a group of councillors with a wider skillset and a broader range of experience, as opposed to the stereotype of retired headteachers and accountants, ensuring that more in our community are properly represented.

And if several young people are elected, then the local council will be able to consider more intelligently how it can deliver for the next generation, since the most directly affected area of our society will have the capabilities to help make the decisions.

Since my election, I have managed to deliver positive change for my residents in Westway. My proudest achievement so far was proposing a motion to exempt care leavers from paying council tax until their 25th birthday. I feel that young people’s needs have been pushed up the agenda since I was elected, and that young people in my ward feel that they are listened to. There is a lot more to be done, however – and while having one person on Tandridge is positive, I stick out like a sore thumb compared to other councillors.

We need more young people willing to stand up for our local communities as councillors, representing the youth perspective. If we had more of them, existing councillors would no longer ignore the needs of young people, and take them for granted.

Stephen Greenhalgh: Directly elected mayors? Croydon is showing us the way.

18 Apr

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

The Blair era brought about a lot of constitutional reform – and one of those reforms was the introduction of the directly-elected mayor in London boroughs. Only four of London’s 32 councils adopted this structure: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. However, Croydon will now also be governed by this system after an effective grassroots campaign raised a 20,000 signature petition (of which 17,000 were unique and valid). The failing Croydon Labour council did its utmost to stop an election taking place and deliberately misinterpreted the Covid regulations to claim the referendum could not be held until 2022.

In the end a referendum for a directly elected mayor was held last year and every single ward in the Borough voted for change and to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. In the meantime, the Labour-run council was officially declared bankrupt last year. This Labour council ran up a staggering £1.5 billion debt and is the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The council’s external auditors highlighted in their damning report that the council had “not responded promptly to previous audit recommendations and concerns…” and that “…numerous opportunities have been missed in recent years to tackle the Council’s financial position.”

The borough received a £120m government bailout last year, the biggest to a UK council, but continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. An allegation of fraud has also been made to police over the £67.5m revamp of Fairfield Halls and an investigation has just been announced, with a firm specialising in ‘investigating issues relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering and embezzlement’ appointed to handle it. It is a sorry record, and it is no wonder that Croydon Council’s Leader, Labour’s Cllr Hamida Alia, has announced she will be standing down in May.

Cllr Jason Perry who leads the Conservative opposition group on the council is the Conservative mayoral candidate. Jason is a proud Croydonian, born and bred, who wants to restore pride in Croydon. He faces seasoned London politician, Val Shawcross, who was the council leader in the 1990s and has spent twenty years at City Hall.

Despite being a former council leader for 6 years, I am a huge advocate of directly elected borough mayors. Here are some of the failings of the current council leader system:

  • Zero accountability. No one knows who is responsible for major decisions, such as raising Council Tax.
  • Buck passing. Council leaders often fail to fix local problems like the emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge or a knife crime epidemic. Instead, the council leader passes the buck and prefers to play the political blame game when he or she should be taking action.
  • Undemocratic. In Hammersmith & Fulham, the current Leader of the Council is elected by two small groups: the residents of Hammersmith Broadway ward and their own Labour colleagues.

Mayors matter. Mayors can’t hide behind others – the buck always stops with them. A directly-elected Mayor would have a clear mandate to deliver his promises. A directly-elected Mayor would be a visible local champion. A directly-elected Mayor can work with councillors from all parties who want to improve local services for residents – not just those from their own party.

If a directly-elected Mayor doesn’t deliver on his promises and fix problems – like the closure of Hammersmith Bridge to all road vehicles including buses and ambulances for nearly three years – or knife crime – then voters can vote them out after four years. A Mayor has to listen to every single ward – even safe ones – as every vote counts equally. This was the main issue in Croydon as Labour could win the council while ignoring (and in fact deliberately dumping on) much of the borough as all the marginal wards are in Croydon Central (Croydon South is almost all Conservative and Croydon North all Labour).

Finally, we are more likely to win under a Mayoral system than under a ward system as turnout in Conservative wards tends to be higher than in Labour ones. I hope where Croydon has gone, more London boroughs will follow.

The Government defends free speech for councillors

7 Apr

Every day we have instances of local councillors making comments that are contentious, misleading, provocative – even, to some people, offensive. What is the proper remedy for those who might happen to disagree with a particular comment? We are fortunate to live in a free and democratic society which allows those of us who disagree with our local councillors to make our views known…and to vote for someone else at the next election. Political parties can also use the sanction of withdrawing the whip and/or deselecting any councillor whose views it regards as unacceptable. But the councillor should also be entitled to continue expressing his or her views and to stand for re-election (if necessary as an independent.) We really don’t want some Council committee to subvert the democratic process by sanctioning or removing from office a councillor for expressing an opinion that the high minded worthies have decided they dislike.

So it is welcome news that the Government is not recreating the Standards Board of England. The Committee on Standards in Public Life review of local government ethical standards had predictably decided that more Quangos and regulations were the answer. The Government responded:

“The Standards Board regime allowed politically motivated and vexatious complaints and had a chilling effect on free speech within local government. These proposals would effectively reinstate that flawed regime. It would be undesirable to have a government quango to police the free speech of councillors; it would be equally undesirable to have a council body (appointed by councillors, and/or made up of councillors) sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors.”

There was a particularly chilling proposal from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It proposed that:

“Councillors should be presumed to be acting in an official capacity in their public conduct, including statements on publicly accessible social media. Section 27(2) of the Localism Act 2011 should be amended to permit local authorities to presume so when deciding upon code of conduct breaches.”

The Government responds:

“As the government outlined to Parliament in March 2021 on tackling intimidation in public life: ‘It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on the one hand, and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence on the other. British democracy has always been robust and oppositional. Free speech within the law can sometimes involve the expression of political views that some may find offensive: a point that the government has recognised in a Department for Education policy paper. But a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation, which refuses to tolerate other opinions and seeks to deprive others from exercising their free speech and freedom of association.’ It is important to recognise that there is a boundary between an elected representative’s public life and their private or personal life. Automatically presuming (irrespective of the context and circumstances) that any comment is in an official capacity risks conflating the two.”

Even better though, would be measures to strengthen the right to free speech for our elected representatives. Take the case of Lisa Townsend, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey. Last November, the Surrey Police and Crime Panel cleared her of “misconduct” after complaints about her views on transgenderism. But a more recent complaint (concerning Townsend retweeting a comment from JK Rowling) was upheld by the complaints sub-committee of the Surrey Police and Crime Panel. It is missing the point to get drawn into a debate about transgenderism. The Surrey Police and Crime Panel and equivalent bodies should be abolished. Even if they grandly decide (while claiming thousands of pounds in allowances from us for the benefit of their wisdom) that some comment or another of Townsend’s is “acceptable” the process is a great waste of her time and emotional energy. That too has a “chilling effect.” PCCs and councillors find it prudent to only make the most bland and banal of comments. A better model would be for them to be free to express their views clearly and robustly and for the electorate to determine their fate.

Before you all cheer too loudly I would point out that that would mean Labour councillors making comments that Conservatives might well find offensive, would escape official sanctions too. In 2006, Ken Livingstone was suspended for a month as Mayor of London by the Adjudication Panel of England. Livingstone had compared a journalist to a concentration camp guard. He was found to have “brought his office into disrepute.” He certainly had – in that and countless other ways. But the remedy came through the ballot box a couple of years later. A Labour councillor in Wandsworth tweeted the other day that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (who was born in Southampton) “should go back to India.” Awful. But elections are next month.

I certainly do not suggest that councillors should be above the law. If there is corruption or incitement to violence then the police should get involved – as with anyone else. But let’s sweep away all the prissy monitoring officers, panels, boards, and commissions. They might regard themselves as maintaining “standards”. The reality is that they have a stultifying impact on debate which is corrossive for local democracy.

Peter Golds: When it comes to the “family voting” scandal, the Electoral Commission is more weak and muddled than ever

4 Apr

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Democracy Volunteers is an independent organisation that observes elections without fear or favour. They are given accreditation by the Electoral Commission to undertake this work in the UK and issue verifiable reports after elections based on what they have seen. Their report on the 2019 General Election has this disturbing section on the growth of what is called “family voting.”

“Family voting continues to be biggest challenge to polling day integrity.”

They go on to say:

“Family voting occurs when two people enter a polling booth together, collude or oversee the casting of another’s vote. It is a clear violation of the secret ballot and something which is an offence. However, it persists in being either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”

Note that this independent organisation is sufficiently concerned about this law-breaking that they not only highlight it but add that it is “either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”

This has been the reality in recent years and, in this, both the police and the Electoral Commission have been culpable.

In May 2021, an elector complained that he was concerned that in the short period he was waiting to vote in his polling station, he saw two males accompany female electors into the polling booths as they voted. According to what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission has written on this site, this is breaking the law. The response by the police to the elector was as follows and I quote directly from the letter:

“In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries cannot substantiate any allegation of that any influence was being exerted in the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken. The reported matter is now closed.”

This contradicts what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, writes on Conservative Home. He says:

“Every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressurised into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with.”

As understood by every electoral act since 1872, if an elector is not voting in secret then the law is broken. In which case, how has the Metropolitan Police reached the conclusion that no law is being broken when complaints are raised that electors are being watched whilst voting?

I took this up with the officer concerned on September 1st, and wrote, quoting the law as it stands, asking how he could claim no electoral law had been broken, when it obviously had. My letter has joined my unanswered letters on electoral matters to the Metropolitan Police Service, although a reply has been promised.

In January, I met a senior police officer who informedme that the decision in this letter “that no offence had been committed” was based on advice from the Electoral Commission.

I was then sent an email by the police officer, naming the official from the Electoral Commission who had advised the police on this matter, in the following terms:

“We have checked with the Electoral Commission and have been informed that just because the voter process was not followed, in terms of secrecy (under S 66 (3) of the RPA 1983) it might not necessarily relate directly to an offence.”

The officer added that the Electoral Commission also wrote:

“The onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached or that they have been unduly influenced.”

That, of course, is completely incorrect, as the law is that every person in a polling station “shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting.”

As it happened, similar advice by the same named official had been sent to Tower Hamlets Council, who confirmed this to me. I wrote to Bob Posner immediately who responded saying:

“It may be the advice attributed to ourselves came from some other party; there may be confusion as the Commission would not state this.”

We therefore have the situation of the police and a local authority being advised that the electoral process, in terms of secrecy, not being followed might not necessarily be an offence, by the Electoral Commission, which is legally required to protect and advise on the electoral process. A fundamental of which, is the secrecy of the ballot. This is an extremely serious matter as an official of this regulatory body is changing the law relating to the secret ballot without recourse to parliament or the public. As both Tower Hamlets and the police referred to advice in the same terms, given to them by the same named official of the Electoral Commission, I enquired, for the second time “was this official acting alone or had he reported to anybody within the Commission?”

The response from Bob Posner is quite extraordinary although he writes I may have “reservations” regarding his response:

“That is not to say, of course, that there might always be a direct correlation between a situation were it may appear that a vote was not being cast in secret and an actual offence as set out in S66 of the Act. It could be the case that there would be a simple explanation as to why more than one person appeared to be in a polling booth at any one time without necessarily pointing to interference with a voter recording their vote”

This is the same Bob Posner who writes on Conservative Home “every voter has the right to vote in secret.” Sorry Bob, if more than one person is in a polling booth then the voter is not voting in secret and electoral officials and the police are failing in their duty if this is not stopped.

I responded and again asked how and why an official of the Electoral Commission is seeking to change the law regarding the secret ballot without recourse to the public or parliament.

I also reminded Posner of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as incorporated into the founding charter of the United Nations, which refers to the right of all persons to partake in elections conducted by a secret ballot. This can be found under Article 21 – 3 of the declaration:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote.”

The secrecy of the ballot was raised whilst the House of Lords was considering amendments to the Elections Bill. There was unanimity across the chamber with respect to protecting the secrecy of the ballot and it should be noted that Lord Adonis (Labour) read into Hansard the provisions of secrecy included in the 1872 Act which have remained enshrined in UK law ever since.

This was followed by a ministerial letter from Kemi Badenoch MP expressing concern with regard to infringements of the secret ballot. The letter goes on to say:

“No elector should ever be subject to intimidation or coercion when voting. It is never acceptable for men to direct women how to vote – irrespective of any (outdated) cultural activities.”

The minister reiterates the legal foundation of the secret ballot and calls on the Electoral Commission and the police to advise how the rules relating to secrecy are to be enforced consistently.

This will require the Electoral Commission to issue unequivocal guidance to the police as to how protecting and maintaining the secrecy of the ballot must be paramount in a democratic election. This will require the Commission to withdraw the guidance their official circulated earlier and which I have quoted above. I would also expect that the Electoral Commission itself strives to protect the secrecy of the ballot; this means there is no reason for more than one person to be in a polling booth at any one time: unless this is a polling official assisting a blind, disabled, or illiterate, voter under the procedures in accordance with successive RP Acts.

A voter not being alone in a voting booth, is not voting in secret, therefore the law is being broken.

In view of the importance of this matter and the differing responses the Electoral Commission has given to the public and others, I have three times asked the following questions regarding the author of the faulty guidance that has been circulated:

“Was the (named) official acting on his behalf or that of the Electoral Commission in advising the police and Tower Hamlets as to his interpretation of the secret ballot?

Was this matter discussed at any level within the Electoral Commission?

If so, what body discussed this matter?

If this (named) official were acting alone and without recourse to any board or committee within the Electoral Commission, by what authority does he act to advise on a fundamental change to historic election law?”

It will be interesting to see if, at the third attempt, I obtain an answer to these questions. Those who know me, are aware that I can be persistent.

Importantly, I look forward to the police and the Electoral Commission working to ensure that the secret ballot remains secret.

Faye Purbrick: A new beginning for Somerset

1 Apr

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

On March 18th 2022, the statutory change orders (SCO) that represent the final piece of the puzzle in creating a new unitary council for Somerset passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. With the legal boxes ticked, Somerset (along with colleagues in North Yorkshire and Cumbria) will see local government structures from 1974 fall away on the 1st April 2023 as we make a once in a generation step change in the way that services are delivered and decisions made across our county. Some may ask “what’s the big deal?”; others will have been living in unitary areas for years and will not see what the fuss is about – but for us, in Somerset, 2023 marks a new beginning.

It aligns with government policy and ambition around levelling up (West Somerset was the second-lowest area for social mobility when opportunity areas were rolled out last decade), builds on the opportunities of devolution (enabling economic development and inward investment to be driven from the heart of Somerset, not the heart of government) building on the successes of Hinkley C and the Gravity Smart Campus; and it provides a platform for the whole area to build back better as we recover from the pandemic with our communities at the heart of decisions, delivery, and ambition.

A 2019 report titled The Future of Local Government in Somerset (FOLGIS) highlighted key challenges for the county: challenges for disadvantaged children; an underperforming economy marred by high housing costs; poor connectivity and low productivity, skills and wages; environmental challenges from flooding to the drive to carbon-neutral; education, housing and wellbeing challenges for young adults; and a growing older population with health, care, and isolation issues. Now most councillors I know across the country will say they face the same challenges in their area; ever more so as we slowly emerge from the COVID pandemic – but what Somerset had before it was a solution. A solution that could free-up millions of pounds to invest in frontline services and improvements that could work to address these challenges. A solution that could bring services and support together in a way that was logical for residents and businesses, not civil servants, starting from a place of what is possible, not what have we always done. And finally, a solution that could build on the strengths of our communities that had become so apparent during COVID and support those communities in a way that best meets their needs, their ambitions, and their resources. Not a one size fits all, but a one council solution that was large enough to manage strategically, whilst being hyper-local to adapt to community needs.

When we sat down in February 2020 to build our case for a new Somerset, our communities were at the heart of our ambition. Addressing those challenges identified in FOLGIS was essential but we knew it was time to look at things differently. Looking at colleagues who have preceded us on the journey from two-tier to unitary, a number of opportunities and risks became apparent, but the biggest opportunity lay in an ability to take a county-wide ambition and strategy and deliver it in the right way, with the right priorities in our communities. We saw amazing examples of this work in other counties, known as Area Boards in Wiltshire and Community Networks in Cornwall – we weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but we were going to customise it, for Somerset, for our community needs and for the best possible solution to deliver levelling up across our county.

We called these utopian entities Local Community Networks (LCNs). And, in the best examples of doing what it says on the tin, these were imagined to be networks of communities across Somerset bundled into local groups. These LCNs will remain part of the unitary council but be spread out across the county in communities, driving the conversation about what a place needs and drawing on the services of the council alongside town and parish councils, health, education, police, and voluntary sector partners. They will act as a voice for the community into these organisations and a conduit for support, services, and enablement back into those communities to address the wider FOLGIS challenges and their local nuances.

Some remain uncomfortable that, with 12 months to go until the new council is formed, these LCNs are not fully formed and mandated. For me, this is the essence of them. When we were writing the business case for a unitary Somerset, it was clear that we must work together to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. I ask you this: if a community voice is key is shaping and delivering services in a new council, how can that voice not be a part of shaping how these LCNs will work? Don’t get me wrong, this is the South West not the wild west, so there are clear principals and a vision for what they will deliver, as I’m often heard to say “it’s in the business case”, but their boundaries and operating models will be set in conjunction with the people of Somerset.

Our new advisory board are already starting to help that shape and ambition. And no, the advisory board is not just another group of councillors tasked to find solutions – it’s open to everyone from our partners in the voluntary sector, health, education, police, town and parish councils and every business and member of the public in Somerset – all views are valid, all views are welcome, and I invite anyone from Somerset reading this piece to get involved with shaping the future of our Somerset Council. There is no doubt that there are challenges to be faced in the coming decade; there is no doubt that there are amazing opportunities for our county to drive our ambition and level up across Somerset; and there is no doubt that the future starts now.

Elections to town, parish, city, and the new unitary council (following a year of sitting as county councillors) take place on May 5th. All those elected will serve a five-year term overseeing and implementing the new local government structures and ambitions for Somerset. Everyone, from parish councillors to the unitary leader, has a key role to play in shaping Somerset for a generation. So, take a look at the business case, think about how you want to be involved, and step into this once in a lifetime chance to deliver real change, real vision, and real success.

Bob Posner: Let’s be clear. “Family voting” is not allowed. The secret ballot is protected by law.

29 Mar

Bob Posner is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission

As we approach the polls taking place across the UK on May 5th, people will have a number of personal choices to make, for instance, whether to vote, to do so by post, or in person at a polling station, and who to vote for.

But some aspects of voting are not subject to individual preference: they are determined by the law.

The secrecy of the ballot is one of those. This means that every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressured into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with. Enshrined now in the Representation of the People Act 1983, it is an important element of our democracy.

Concerns have been raised on this site, by Cllr Peter Golds of Tower Hamlets Council, about family members entering into the same polling booth, sometimes termed “family voting”. Some reports have suggested there is a lack of clarity about this issue. In fact, it could not be clearer: your vote is yours alone.

Voters have the clear right to cast their ballot in private. Attempting to influence how another person votes, or stealing someone else’s vote, is breaking the law.

The Electoral Commission provides guidance to electoral administrators and polling station staff, which makes it clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.

People voting in polling stations are not permitted to be accompanied by another person, other than in cases of specific need, such as for voters with a disability or sight loss. Children are also allowed into the booth with their parents, but should not be allowed to mark the ballot paper.

Anyone with any concern about voter interference or fraud at a polling station should raise it with staff immediately.

While the UK has very low levels of proven electoral fraud, public opinion research confirms it is an issue that concerns voters. Voter fraud risks undermining the strong tradition of free and fair elections in this country.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, the Commission is running a public awareness campaign in partnership with Crimestoppers, which highlights what constitutes electoral fraud and aims to empower people to protect their vote and encourages people to report concerns.

Whilst it is for the police to investigate allegations of electoral fraud, the Commission works closely in support of the police, prosecuting authorities and local authorities to prevent, detect, and take action.

Many readers will be aware that Tower Hamlets is an area that has heightened interest and concern around fraud in recent years. We are in regular contact with the local authority electoral services team, and polling stations staff are being briefed on the need for vigilance, in line with our guidance. Extra signage and staffing measures will also be in place at the polls to make clear that voters must enter polling booths alone. These are just some of the practical and tangible steps being taken to safeguard the integrity of the May elections.

Thanks to the enshrined legal rights of voters, and the efforts of the wider electoral community to preserve the security of polls, the UK has a long tradition of maintaining a trustworthy electoral system, where abuses are the exception.

So, on 5 May voters should feel confident in the integrity of the system and remember that their vote is theirs alone.

To vote in the elections on 5 May 2022, eligible voters in England, Northern Ireland and Wales must be registered by midnight on 14 April, and by midnight on 18 April in Scotland. Register to vote here.

Peter Golds: How “family voting” in Tower Hamlets is undermining democracy

10 Mar

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

I have previously written about the increasing problem of the police failing to enforce the historic law relating to the secret ballot. For years now, there has been increasing concern about electors, usually women, being watched and even supervised whilst voting, to the surprise and concern of other voters. Democracy Volunteers, which is accredited by the Electoral Commission to observe polling, recorded that in a recent election in Tower Hamlets they witnessed “family voting” in 58 per cent of polling stations they attended, which came to 19 per cent of those they observed voting.

During the GLA election last year, a resident formally complained to the local returning officer and the police that in the space of a few minutes in his local polling station he saw two different men in a polling booth watching female electors cast their votes. The police response, three months after the complaint was registered, concluded “In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries carried out cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken.”

This is completely incorrect as every single election act since 1872 has reaffirmed the primacy of the secret ballot. Section 66 of the 1983 Act, which this officer was using as the basis of his response, is headed “Requirement of Secrecy.”

I wrote to this officer regarding this matter and received the same response. I responded to this, by letter, quoting the requirement of secrecy in Acts between 1872-1983 and, having taken advice, asked the following question “Have I misunderstood the Law as quoted from the 1872 and 1983 Acts or, despite the elector approaching officials at the polling station, is there an absence of evidence?”

I am told that this officer is currently working on his response to my question. I now know why there has been a six month delay in replying to my letter. As well as the police, I also contacted the electoral commission. I asked them, as I did the police “if a person is standing alongside a voter in a polling booth watching this person cast their vote, do they accept the secret ballot is no longer enshrined in law”?

Before moving on to the various responses that I received from both sources, the law which has remained unchanged from 1872 is that blind, disabled and illiterate electors may be assisted to vote. However, this is to be undertaken in controlled circumstances by the presiding officer and recorded by the presiding officer.

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission, responded to me saying that ”someone accompanying another person into a polling booth would bring into consideration whether there may have been an offence under S66.”

Section 66 is headed “Requirement of secrecy.” If there is a requirement of secrecy when voting, how can Posner say “there may have been an offence?”

Posner then goes on to remind me that the correct course of action is “to report this to the police.” This is, despite my confirming to him that the police claim that they “require evidence that influence was being exerted” and in the absence of this, no other electoral law is broken.

In responding, I again referred to the Requirement of Secrecy pointing out that an elector cannot be voting in secret if watched by another person. I asked, “am I misunderstanding the law” and if not, “why is the Metropolitan Police requiring proof of “influence” before they consider an offence has taken place.”

In response, Posner confirmed the secrecy of the ballot is enshrined in law but then added “for the police to follow up on any potential breach they would require a specific allegation relating to an offence, eg: “ that a voter had been interfered with when recording their vote, or that the voter had been induced to display their ballot paper after marking it,” Again, this sidesteps the overall objective of the secret ballot; that an elector casts their vote in secret.

The letter concludes with information of the Electoral Commission campaign “your vote is yours alone.” If the Electoral Commission believe that this is possible whilst electors are casting a ballot, not in secret but under observation, then their “Your vote is yours alone” campaign is meaningless.

After receiving this response from the Electoral Commission, I met a senior police officer who informed me verbally and later by email that the police have been acting “on advice from the Electoral Commission and this advice is “the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been broached or that they have been unduly influenced (S115 of the 1983 Act).”

Following this meeting, I wrote again to Posner with details of both the conversation and the email adding that nowhere in any legislation from 1872 to date is it the onus of the elector to claim that secrecy has been broached. I reiterated that, from 1872, all legislation and Statutory Instruments require election officials’ election agents and the police to protect the secrecy of the ballot..

I was even more surprised to see the reference to Section 115 of the 1983 Act which concerns the use of (or the threat of) ‘force, violence or restraint’ or the infliction of ‘temporal … injury, damage, harm or loss… to induce or compel that person to vote. This goes well beyond protecting the secrecy of the ballot within a polling station and an elector being overlooked whilst voting by another person.

I then asked the following questions:

  • When was the decision made by the Electoral Commission to advise the police on the ballot in the terms that I have quoted above?
  • Which body or person(s) within the Electoral Commission approved and initiated this advice being given to the police?
  • Why were neither the public nor Parliament consulted on this advice, which, fundamentally alters the secret ballot, and the protection of the secret ballot, as established since 1872 and which has remained unchanged in all subsequent legislation?

The response from Posner is quite extraordinary. My questions are put aside but he then writes “the MPS indicated to you that advice from the local authority and the commission is that the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached, but this does not appear to be advice that the Electoral Commission would or has given.” That is not what I was told either verbally or in writing by the police and verbally by Tower Hamlets Council.

Suddenly, the Electoral Commission is reverting to the law that has existed since 1872 regarding the secrecy of the ballot. This then brings into question the conversation and email from the police and indeed a similar email to Tower Hamlets electoral services, both of whom stated that they had received, by email, contrary advice to that Posner stated was the position of the Electoral Commission.

Lord Hayward, who takes an interest in these matters and has witnessed “family voting” whilst acting as a polling agent in Tower Hamlets, is seeking to introduce an amendment to the Elections Bill to reaffirm the primacy of the secret ballot. This was reported in the Sunday Telegraph and the Electoral Commission are quoted:

“The existing guidance to returning officers and their staff makes clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.”

Are they denying the existence of the guidance that both the police and Tower Hamlets Council say that they have received? I have written to Posner and will publish his response.

Now for the BBC intervention in this matter. The Corporation publishes numerous briefing papers on its website. In 2015 they published a paper on Britain’s first secret ballot.

At the end is a contribution from an academic, in this case, Professor Steven Fielding, who is extremely supportive and active within the Labour Party and takes a contrarian view of the secret ballot.

The Professor suggests that voting by secret ballot may no longer be necessary:

“When you vote it’s a private action but it has enormous public consequences.

“You might think that if people are voting secretly, then they are voting for their own selfish interests. Would it not be worth considering voting in public again – would that be more likely to make us vote as members of our community? “Before, you couldn’t police it properly to protect people from intimidation, but you could do that now.

“Maybe we don’t need the secret ballot any more.”

Can you imagine public voting in front of the assembled ranks of Momentum? Had Donald Trump suggested this, the BBC would clear their schedules for attack programmes. Nearer home, we have a left-wing Labour supporter proposing that a fundamental of democracy be abolished yet it remains on the BBC website as a briefing on electoral matters for several years.