Posts Tagged ‘David Cameron’

Democracy – when more is less

Well before it has launched one of Cameron’s most cherished policies – the planned move to elect police commissioners for all 41 police authorities in England and Wales – is looking like a very bad idea indeed and one that ultimately raises important questions about the practical limits of democracy.

On Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Nick Herbert, Minister for policing and criminal justice repeatedly refused to answer Evan Davis’s perfectly reasonable question about what would constitute a reasonable turnout at the elections in November and whether he would be happy with 15%, saying only that he wanted it to be as large as possible.  Well, yes of course.   Ministers are usually very happy to set targets for others but strangely reticent when it comes to setting any for themselves.  It is bad news indeed if the minister is not privately confident of hitting a measly 15% turnout.

Then there is the question of costs.  Nick Herbert was emphatic that the estimated cost of a state-funded mailshot at £25 – £35 million is too much for the government to afford at this time so candidates will NOT get one.  Earth to Whitehall; policies that are unaffordable are, err, umm, unaffordable.   Yet it’s not that spending on campaigning including mailshots isn’t allowed; earlier on the same programme Ann Barnes who is standing as an independent  in Kent explained that the population she has to reach is 1.7 million, equivalent to over 17 parliamentary constituencies and the allowable expenses in the last six weeks alone are £228,ooo.  This is on top of a £5,0000 deposit.

Cameron’s notion (also from ‘Today”) was apparently that, “Community leaders and pioneers of all sorts… [should stand]”.   In practice, it means only those with the backing of a political machine and the army of free deliverers that brings with it.  The only independents with much chance are those with serious financial backing.

Multi-millionaires are not normally ‘community leaders’ in the usual sense so who might get such backing and in return for what?  The precedent from the USA where many positions are elected that we would regard as administrative appointments – everything from county clerks to judges – is not good.  The track record is that vested interests, even criminal ones, can buy privileged access to the system.  Media magnates have a particular advantage.  Incumbents with plum jobs have to keep those who will finance their re-election happy however unsavory they might be and even if it means bending the law – or driving a coach and horses through it.  Although some voters will know what is going on there is no practical and affordable way of telling the majority, at least not in the face of organised disinformation.  And when turnouts are very low, as Nick Herbert obviously expects but won’t admit, the opportunities for buying elections are that much the greater.   If I were Murdoch I would regard this as the perfect opportunity to buy insurance against any further or future exposures.

The conclusion I draw is that democracy is not about voting as often as possible or for as many posts as possible.  Elections should be arranged and financed in such a way that there is a level playing field that gives independents (and/or minor party candidates) a reasonable chance of ejecting incumbents.  Inter alia, that means that cost must NOT be a significant factor.  And there must be an effective exchange of information and opinion independent of the candidates where their relative merits and demerits can be freely discussed.  The national media (increasingly supplemented by new media) provides this for Westminster elections but only weakly for local elections which is partly why there is so much ‘cross talk’ from national trends.  But for police commissioners?  I don’t see any suitable forum.  As for who might regard £250k or so as a good investment wealthy but public-spirited citizens would be well down my list of likely candidates; top would be power-crazed media magnates and organised crime.



Cameron the car czar

David Cameron is, it seems, to take the lead in tightening the rules for insurance claims – particularly those relating to whiplash which now account for 1,500 claims a day, cost the industry £2 billion per year and the average motorist £90 per year in higher premiums.

That there is a problem is clear – claims are increasing even as accidents are falling – but does this really require the personal intervention of the Prime Minister?  Has he no other more important things to worry about?

This reminds me of a report from Russia last year on how things very often simply didn’t happen unless Putin took a personal interest.  The story focussed on a remote village that was burnt down when severe drought caused forest fires to burn out of control; somehow Putin got involved, kicked butt and made things happen rebuilding-wise.  Which was great for the village concerned and made for great PR for Putin-the-saviour but did nothing for the scores of other communities similarly affected.

That Putin runs Russia in the style of the czars is perhaps understandable (although it’s not going down too well with educated younger Russians).  But Cameron?  Does he really think this managment strategy has a cat-in-hell’s chance of working in a country and economy as complex as Britain’s?  Surely not.  And if he does, we are in even worse trouble than I thought.

£2 billion overall, £90 per motorist is a HUGE amount of money – does a problem really have to be this big before it gets sorted rather than just festering?  As it happens motor insurance provides another instance of a situation that needs intervention; uninsured drivers.  They cost each motorist an average of £30 per year (this figure from memory).  Goodness knows what the extra cost to the taxpayer is for medical bills and the like.  I once sat in (as an observer) on a magistrates court where an 18 year old was charged with driving without insurance.  He had been driving his friend’s father’s car with permission but everyone involved simply forgot that he wasn’t a named driver and for this dastardly act they threw the book at him.

And yet there is a perfectly good solution to this problem.  Some countries require every car on the road to have compulsory third party insurance that covers all drivers (even thieves and drunks).   It is evidenced by an ‘insurance disk’ like the tax disk which comes with every motor insurance policy.  Every policeman and traffic warden can enforce it and not having one is an instant towing offence.  The proportion of uninsured cars on the road?  Approximately 0.001%.

So there are better ways of doing things which we can copy from elsewhere or invent ourselves but it doesn’t seem to be happening – at least not on anything like the required scale – and that is a problem.  Unnecessarily expensive car insurance we could live with if that were the only problem.  But, of course, it isn’t.

Power should be devolved to junior ministers and their civil servants (and where appropriate to local government) and with it should go the expectation that the devolved power will be properly and wisely used – or else!  What we actually have is system where middle level executives (and this now apparently extends to junior ministers) are so snared in a complex web of targets handed down form on high that they can no longer take the initiative unless the boss takes an interest.

More Cameron adviser trouble

David Cameron’s choice of Andy Coulson as his Communications Director is considered by many to be evidence of his poor judgement in choosing advisers.

Perhaps so, but perhaps we should be generous and allow him the odd lapse of judgement.

But what then are we to make of Steve Hilton, his Strategy Director’s latest outburst?  According to the FT, Hilton wants to abolish maternity leave and all consumer rights legislation.  Apparently he thinks it will inject life into Britain’s sluggish economy.  He also thinks Britain should simply ignore European labour regulations.

Reading between the lines there is considerable exasperation in Whitehall.  One insider is quoted at saying, “… a lot of time is spent at an official level trying to deconstruct his maddest thoughts.”

Mad indeed!  This is utterly bonkers.   In the absence of consumer protection, how long does he imagine before unscrupulous firms start selling goods that are dangerous to life and limb and, by undercutting legitimate companies, start a race to the bottom?  “Made in Britain” would become a toxic brand in no time flat.  For the morally challenged financial sector with their intrinsically hard-to-understand products it’s a recipe for a rip off on an epic scale – and don’t imagine it wouldn’t be grabbed with both hands.

As for abolishing maternity leave, is this really from the party that trumpets family values?  Surely not!

The implication is that Hilton imagines that markets are self adjusting, self limiting affairs and that any sort of regulation can only get in the way.   Well, there are indeed many bad regulations but there are at least as many good ones.  What he proposes is a charter for the mafia.

The FT piece concludes with a comment from sources described as Hiltons’ “friends” that “… nothing compared with Mr Hilton’s ultimate blue-sky plan, formulated when the Tories were in opposition, to buy cloudbusting technology to provide Britain with more sunshine.” 

If Hilton is the best that Cameron can come up with, then we’re in a whole heap of trouble.  His poor judgement can no longer be passed off as an isolated error and his advisers clearly have a dangerously low level of understanding; a truly toxic combination.