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I have written about referenda before when looking at constitutional change, but as we wrestle with whether we should have another referendum on the final Brexit deal I thought I would return to the subject.
The Government of the UK has held 13 referenda since 1973 but only three of these have been UK wide. Referenda on EU expansion and on the Euro were abandoned. I have been able to vote on 6 in my lifetime - Membership of the EEC, two on Scottish Devolution, the AV voting system for Westminster, Scottish Independence and whether to leave the EU. I voted for the winning side on all of them except the last one, although we failed in the first Scottish Devolution Referendum on a technicality.
Don't tell the nationalists, but referenda are always consultative and Parliament remains sovereign. However in reality no UK government is going to ignore the democratic verdict of the people in a referendum it has sanctioned, either pre-legislative or post-legislative.
I am not a great fan of referenda. They allow Governments to absolve themselves of responsibility for decision making while being far from neutral in the campaign itself; they are only held if the Government feels fairly confident of the outcome (not always justified); there is usually an imbalance of resources between each side of the argument; complex issues end up being oversimplified; they are merely a snapshot of public opinion but can decide things for future generations.
They can sometimes be a good way of demonstrating changed public opinion on social and ethical issues when the elected parliaments are afraid to legislate. Ireland has shown this on divorce; same sex marriage and abortion rights.
When I worked for North Ayrshire Council we held a referendum on what should be on the new West Kilbride Road signs and whether they should mention Seamill and Portencross. Other momentous decisions by referenda have included car free Sundays (Switzerland); choosing from four songs to best represent the nation (Australia); whether toilet paper in public loos should hang over or under the roll (Saskatchewan Canada).
In his powerful speech on the eve of the Scottish Independence referendum, Gordon Brown stressed that he would be voting for his children’s future - not deciding just for the now but for all time. That’s the difference between a parliamentary vote and a referendum. Politicians can return to an issue and vote differently. Referenda should never be used to sneak through a change that splits the country in two but only to validate a genuine and lasting shift in national mood. Otherwise we hand democracy over to whoever can best deploy marketing and lobbying skills to impart false information and unrealistic expectations.
I would place a cap on the number of referenda which could be called - let's say one every ten years. Of course we would have to have a referendum on the Referenda Cap (which could only be consultative!).
I have marched; taken part in 24 hour sit-ins against Vietnam; stood on the picket line; got arrested during the Miners Strike and withheld my Poll Tax - but none of that comes close to the stand I took recently when I went to get my haircut. This long haired rebel walked out of the barber’s in protest - untrimmed and unbowed. The barber and the customer in the chair were agreeing that Trump was OK - he was at least doing what he said he would and that was a change in politics. Standing up for your principles is costly. I had been putting off getting a haircut for weeks and every shop I had passed had a queue to the door. At last I found one where I would be next in line. I could have stayed and taken issue with what they had been saying, or just chatted about my holiday plans and said nothing controversial. Instead I walked out.
How to challenge prejudice or hate speech is a tricky one. I remember lots of conversations at work when I was the one left to challenge the homophobic, sexist or reactionary comment. I’ve probably chosen to forget the occasions when I just let it go for a quiet life. Quite often I felt that people were watching what they said because they knew my views which isn’t really achieving very much in the long term. It’s nearly always best to call out unacceptable speech. You never know who within hearing is vulnerable to what is being said. Then there are the times someone has said to me afterwards, ‘I am glad you said that. I was not comfortable with what was being said’.
I read a report recently of a Hope not Hate open meeting in a Cardiff mosque to discuss prejudice and racism. The audience was mainly white non Muslim. The reported conversations included one young woman who said “What usually happens is I either move the conversation on to something else, or I get angry.” Someone else said, “I want a third way.” One woman in her 50s, from a village in the south Wales valleys, said she was struggling to discuss these issues with her fellow allotment gardeners. A younger man living in Cardiff worried that facts and statistics were no longer getting through to people he spoke to.
Personally my dilemma is always between acquiescence or anger. Hope not Hate espouses a better approach. If someone is telling a dodgy joke or spouting hate then by all means just say that you don’t find that acceptable. But if they are mouthing off their prejudiced views you should try to listen to what they have to say, to understand where they are and what has brought them there and to ask open questions, explaining your own feelings and views.
When Gordon Brown was caught on a live microphone calling Gillian Duffy ‘a sort of bigoted woman’ after she had raised with him immigrants flocking in from Eastern Europe, all hell broke loose. The political damage was immense but in reality he hadn’t said anything very terrible. His original conversation had covered her concerns and then he asked about her family and their ambitions. He hadn’t left her immigration comment unanswered. He stressed the two way benefits of people from this country moving abroad for a better life. A more cynical politician might have had no unguarded remarks for the microphone to pick up just so long as she had assured him of her vote.
I find it infuriating when people think they have licence to say anything they want and pass it off as small talk or general conversation but then accuse you of being controversial if you challenge them. An old friend of mine in the Labour Party (long since dead) used to tell me his approach to all Tories was to treat them with total contempt and a hint of violence. Very tempting, but we have to try to be better than that.
Naming unacceptable speech can also be quite difficult because prejudiced people find quite sophisticated ways of getting round what they are doing. We are told that we are now living in a ‘post’ everything society. The ‘isms’ have been called out and tackled and we should now lighten up about innocent remarks. The other defence against having your prejudices challenged is to claim reverse oppression. How often do you hear the male whine ‘but what about the men’ when women’s issues are under discussion. Gay people are accused of heterophobia. We are told ‘The pendulum has swung too far the other way’. Ultimately, reverse oppression mostly results in hurt feelings, which really can’t be compared to the violence, psychological abuse, or even murder that marginalised people are subjected to on a daily basis.
Did I get my haircut? Yes I did. I had to wait a bit but once in the chair we chatted about whether quorn mince and quorn sausages were as good as the real thing and, of course, what our holiday plans were.
My school motto was ‘Musis respublica floret’ - the state flourishes by the muses. My writing muse seems to have deserted me for the moment so for this blog I have searched my twitter media history for the 20 pictures that have scored highest on the chuckle count or smile sensor. Some may seem dated now but I am sure your memories can be jogged into action. Just remember you can poke fun at the ridiculous while still respecting all shades of opinion - even the shadiest!
BBC’s Inside No. 9 is a dark comedy with each episode a self-contained story. They are linked only by the number 9 in some way and rely on a combination of comedy and horror.
It’s only a matter of time before the writers Shearsmith and Pemberton come up with ‘No 9 Downing Street - a tale of blood and Brexit’. 9 Downing Street is the property that no one took any notice of until its use changed to become Brexit HQ, David Davis’s centre of Leave EU planning, or of ‘panic, plots and pique’ as the Guardian described it. That might be a better title for the episode. At one time No 9 housed the judicial committee of the privy council and has been the office of the Chief Whip though their official residence was always No 12. Davis was determined not to be shunted off to some far off part of the country to contemplate his impact assessments - he held out for an office quite literally as close to No 10 as you can get.
The comedy part of this episode will be amply covered by David Davis himself. The Guardian political sketch writer John Crace describing his most recent visit to the Select Committee wrote : “It could have been a scene from the Office. One in which David Brent had been summoned to HQ for a performance appraisal. One where he died on his feet while believing he was nailing it. Only for David Brent read David Davis.”
With cameo roles for Jacob Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson or Labour’s Kate Hoey the comedy part is well covered. Now for the horror.
Richard Corbett MEP, Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament, summed up Davis’s terrifyingly inept performance at that same Select Committee session thus:
“Today we saw David Davis u-turn on everything from ECJ jurisdiction to customs union membership, to the ease with which Britain might be able to sign trade deals - in short, a typically shambolic performance from the man with no plan. And his announcement that a future UK-EU trade deal will be a ‘mixed agreement’ further highlights the difficulties that lie ahead, requiring the ratification of all the European Union’s national parliaments.”
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, has now passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons and goes to the House of Lords for scrutiny. The Government won the final vote by 324 to 295. There were a whole series of votes on amendments to the Bill none of which passed and the Government’s narrow majority with the DUP held firm. Labour MP, Ian Murray, proposed a New Clause which would have required the Government to present an impartial economic comparison of Single Market and Customs Union membership (what we currently have) with any deal the Government negotiates with the EU and brings before Parliament. This was defeated because the Tories know full well that the deal they will bring before Parliament at the end of the process will be inferior to our current arrangements. Membership of The Single Market and Customs Union should be a prerequisite in our negotiations. There was also a horror moment for the Scots Tory MPs as they realised that the promised fix from the Secretary of State for Scotland on the devolution of powers returned failed to materialise at Report Stage as he had promised. Again Ian Murray tabled an amendment on this but the Scots Tory MPs fell into line - leaving it to the unelected Lords to sort out their mistakes. Ian Murray explained in his recent newsletter:
“As we leave the EU there will be lots of powers which go to Holyrood. The Government’s legislative approach means that these powers will go to the Secretary of State for Scotland to decide upon, and not, as per the devolution settlement, straight to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution works on the simple principle that ‘everything is devolved unless it is reserved’ therefore, any new powers which are not explicitly reserved should automatically fall within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.”
As time goes on and it becomes clearer and clearer to the British public that the promised benefits of Brexit are not going to materialise, more and more people are going to ask if Brexit is really inevitable. When people narrowly backed Brexit in the referendum they didn’t expect it to have a negative impact on the economy, jobs, NHS, environment or our rights at work. The Brexiteers have tried to convince the public that the decision to leave the EU is irreversible after the referendum vote and the passing of Article 50 but this is far from true. Right across the spectrum key players are now beginning to admit this - Nigel Farage; Boris Johnson; Jeane Claude Juncker and Donald Trusk - all agree that leaving is not inevitable. There is also robust legal opinion that Article 50 is not binding and can be revoked if we change our minds.
Inside No 9 often ends with a twist in the tale - just when you think you know where it's going - the unexpected happens . 9 Downing Street may yet end with the public changing its mind; a clamour for a second referendum becoming unstoppable, and removal vans drawing up behind No 9 (or even 10).
One person's vexatious complainer is another's concerned resident. You can decide for yourself what I am. Like most people I would read about what my local council was up to from time to time in the local papers but I seldom got a straight answer about what was going on if I contacted them. That all changed with the Freedom of Information legislation. It can take some time, but as often as not, I can now extricate nuggets of vital information to throw light on the situation and confirm my suspicions that my local council is worse than useless.
The most important document saved on my laptop is a standard letter which just cries out for the insert of a paragraph with my most recent query.
I am writing to make an open government request for all the information to which I am entitled under the Freedom of Information Act.
(Insert request here)
I understand that under the act, I should be entitled to a response within 20 working days.
"Bins to be privatised" was the headline that caught my eye in the local paper. On closer reading when I got home it seemed that the Council was planning to make budget savings by outsourcing the Council's Waste, Recycling, Catering and Cleaning Services (WRCC Services). There would be a charge levied of £20 a month, reduced to £5 if you took your own bin to a common collection point and then back after emptying. There were to be no concessions, but the Council planned to introduce a scheme of grant support to elderly and disabled residents who can persuade a neighbour to take their bins for collection. This would enable them to make a token payment to their neighbour. The scheme would be called The Nurturing Neighbourliness Fund. The Council hopes the revised service will attract some very low tenders. At first I assumed it was one of those options that councils put forward only to be ruled out as a step too far, but imagine my horror as I read that it was to be voted on at a special Council Meeting and that the SNP minority administration had secured the support of the three Tories and independent councillor Joe Malone, giving them a 16-14 majority.
I was first to take my seat on the public benches at the Council Meeting and by the time the Provost made his entry, chain dangling, there wasn't a seat to be had. The Chief Executive waffled on about how 'any adverse equality impact would be mitigated by the financial support to incentivise good neighbourliness. Social solidarity would be promoted and health benefits flow from having to push your own bins out every week'. Labour highlighted a long list of dire consequences - hundreds of missing wheelie bins; dogs rummaging through rubbish; antisocial behaviour of tenants who failed to put their bins out for weeks on end. When it came to the vote 15 hands went up for the motion. Those against saw 11 Labour and 3 independents raise their hands, and then just as the clerk was about to pass the voting numbers to the Provost, Joe Malone raised his hand. A tie at 15 all and with the Provost's casting vote supporting the status quo, the bin services stayed in-house. The flagship radical policy to balance the books was in tatters. Those in the public seats were ecstatic at this unexpected about turn. As I left I heard Joe Malone explaining to a huddle of local press he had intended to support the motion but was so impressed by the public demonstration outside as he arrived that he had changed his mind. 'That settles it', I thought - 'that can't be the reason'. I was determined to find out what had really changed his mind. I felt a warm anticipation as I placed the cursor in the gap in my standard letter and typed:
"I request all email correspondence within the last three months between Councillor Joe Malone and the Chief Executive with any direct or indirect bearing on the recent decision relating to the future of Waste, Recycling, Catering and Cleaning Services"
Nine months ago, and with the Council finely balanced, officials had been relieved when the two main parties decided not to contest the post of Chair of Licensing and had instead offered it to independent councillor, Joe Malone.
At first Councillor Malone was a picture of contented self importance as he strutted around the council corridors but soon it dawned on him just what hard work his new position was. He found himself chairing endless hearings from first thing in the morning till 5, 6 or even 7 o'clock. What really bothered him was that they ran over so much that there was barely time for more than a 20 minute lunch break. Lunchtime for Joe had been a visit to Frank's kiosk, "Pies R Us" in the Council Car Park where he would share the latest gossip with Frank before taking a couple of pies or sausage rolls back to the Council Lounge to watch the news and maybe have a bit of an afternoon nap. All this changed with his new duties. He barely had time to grab his order before he had to make it back to the Committee Room, eating on the way. Some days he was at the back of a queue of taxi drivers buying their lunch while waiting to appear at the hearings. How do I know all this? Well I too was a customer of Frank's and heard it all from him including the shocking news that brought things to a head.
It took several attempts over the following few months, and the intervention of the Information Commissioner, to eventually persuade the Council to release the emails I had requested. Here's what they revealed:
Councillor Malone to Chief Executive
"I know how relieved you were when I agreed to accept the nomination for Chair of Licensing. However, I feel you were less than frank with me about how much work it would entail. Talking of Frank, it's bad enough that I am having to eat my lunch on the move - now he tells me he is to close shop next week due to increased ground rental and a general lack of business. Unless you can give me some guarantee that "Pies R Us" isn't about to become "Pies were Us" I will have to resign."
Chief Executive to Councillor Malone
"I hope you will not do anything rash in this respect Joe. I have looked into the situation you describe and, unfortunately, as Frank's Kiosk is a private commercial concern, it is subject to market forces. My hands are tied."
Councillor Malone to Chief Executive
"It is simply not realistic to expect me to make clear rational decisions on important licensing matters on an empty stomach. Unless you can come up with a solution by return, my resignation will be on your desk first thing Monday."
Chief Executive to Councillor Malone
"I haven't mentioned this before but I did have a possible solution to this in mind but it has been overtaken by events. A few months ago I asked my Head of Catering to cost a Councillors' hot food trolley service. Pies and sausage rolls would then be available without even leaving the building. Unfortunately, I have been asked by the Council Leader to prepare a report outsourcing our Waste, Recycling, Catering and Cleaning Services. With catering in the hands of the private sector, the same commercial considerations that are forcing Frank to close his kiosk would also apply to the viability of a Councillors' Trolley. It could never pay its way and a subsidy would be out of the question so I had to bin my idea."
Councillor Malone to Chief Executive
"I think your plan for a hot food trolley is an excellent one. I would not see it as a subsidy - more an investment in improved governance and decision making.
On a completely different matter, I have been reconsidering my support for the outsourcing of WRCC Services given the public concerns expressed. I may not have given sufficient weight to the very real drawbacks of making such a radical change."
Chief Executive to Councillor Malone
"Following last week's unexpected defeat for the proposal to outsource WRCC Services I have asked my Head of Catering Services to implement my earlier plans for a Councillors' hot food trolley. I feel this is possible as a result of the economy of scale of a large service like WRCC. Furthermore, I am able to subsidise the costs from the savings on the Nurturing Neighbourliness Fund which is no longer required"
I bumped into Frank the other night, drowning his sorrows. He told me on good authority that the trolley is proving very popular, selling jumbo sausage rolls 10p cheaper than Greggs. Now that really is a scandal!
"Dear Sir, I am writing to make an open government request......"
‘What's the difference between man flu and woman flu - none except women earn less.’ Equality is firmly back on the agenda even with its own jokes. There is the #Metoo Campaign focusing on sexual harassment; ‘Times Up’ exposing the lack of equal pay for equal work e.g. at the BBC; Trump’s tax cuts for the rich impacting on support for LGBT and other minority programmes; Recent ethnicity income and poverty analysis showing that after housing costs, 35% of people from minority ethnic (non-white) groups were in poverty, compared with only 18% of ‘White – British’ people. In the battle for equality the story is always one of struggle, advancement, backlash and then struggle.
Let me state the obvious - the Labour Party is the Party of Equality. The Wilson years saw great social advances including decriminalisation of homosexuality, legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and the Equal Pay Act. Back in government in 1997, Labour again took up the challenge with the introduction of the minimum wage, civil partnerships, the Human Rights Act, equality of opportunity, the Equality Act.
I get very defensive over criticisms of Labour for harbouring unreconstructed equality refuseniks with socially conservative views. It's not that they don't have a good point but they glibly ignore the thousands of people in the Labour Party from leadership positions down to individual members who have fought for equality issues over the years. Labour is the party of equality. Even from within the party we are denied by some on the left the credit due for the achievements of past Labour Governments.
The Equality Act 2010 was a fantastic achievement. I remember the brilliant leadership of Harriet Harman and Vera Baird on this, and the stalwart work of the Labour members on the Bill’s committee as they steered it through the Commons, clause by clause line by line, in a race against time as the Labour Government came to an end. And what support did they have from the SNP for this radical progressive Bill? - their representative on the committee was a certain John Mason - a socially conservative homophobe who undermined and hindered progress at every opportunity, continually raising spurious irrelevant points.
I was responsible for coordinating equality policies at the local authority I worked for at the time public sector equality duties came into force. We particularly welcomed the socio economic duty which linked equality to tackling poverty and discrimination. Before we had even finished the process however, the new Home Secretary and Equalities Minister in the incoming Coalition Government, Theresa May, had dropped the requirement to show the socio economic impact of policies.
She dismissed the Equality Act's socio economic duty as "socialism in one clause". Not even the measure's author, Harriet Harman, would have claimed so much for it. It was a moderate and sensible effort to provide a framework for equality backed up by a serious study demonstrating how imperfect it is to consider poverty only in terms of race, gender or geography. Its conclusion was that it is class that matters most. The merit of the socio economic duty was that it left it up to councils, schools and the NHS to decide how best to tackle poverty in their area. All the clause required was that every new policy had to be considered through the filter of its impact on poverty. It was actually a small acknowledgment by the last Labour government that, despite its efforts, it had failed to make real, lasting progress against inequality itself. Along with many other Labour Councils we continued linking equality strategies and outputs to anti poverty measures anyway but what was lost was the opportunity to oblige all public sector bodies to make the connections.
The Scottish Labour Party continues to be in the vanguard of driving forward the equalities agenda. There is a very good chapter in the Scottish Fabians publication, A Pragmatic Vision for a Progressive Scotland - Gender Equality and 20/20 Vision by Sandra Osborne, then MP for Ayr Carrick and Cumnock and Chair of the UK All Party Group on Equality. Much of that vision has been taken forward by the Scottish Labour Party in developing its current policy agenda and is also reflected in the ‘A More Equal Society’ section of the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, ‘For the many not the few’. However, the battle is never over.
I very much welcome the recent shift to the left in the Scottish Labour Party both in terms of the leadership and policies, but I am dismayed by the tendency of some on the left to give less than priority to equality issues. They seem to see equality as the hobby of middle class liberals, subordinate to left wing class politics. The myth still persists that when true red blooded socialism is established things like sexism, racism, homophobia and prejudice will just melt away. We have seen this backlash in action when some dared to call for a woman Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party or challenged the new Leader’s appointment of a homophobic anti abortion colleague to the shadow cabinet with responsibility for tackling poverty and inequality. The defence seemed to be that someone else covered ‘equalities’ and, in any case, she was a ‘good left wing socialist’. Being ‘a good left wing socialist’ means recognising that socialism and equality are always interdependent and are totally indivisible.