Are blogs still useful?

Are blogs still useful?

In August 2009, I wrote an article questioning if blogs were losing their influence. In conversations over the last two weeks, I had reason to go back to it because I thought they were important things I’d said then which I need to check if they were still valid. If so, I thought they were worth repeating. I found the old article quite hard to read. I tried to simplify it, and clarify my proposed architecture. I have also tried to update it given the developments in the internet service provider space, both technically and commercially. It’s much harder to build a personal content graph these days; one needs to make it easy for people to find what you say! The revised article is on linkedin and medium.  …

Starmer’s politburo?

Starmer’s politburo?

Fixing the Centre

The Institute for Government (IfG) produced a report recently in which they analyse the power, influence, and success of the machinery supporting prime ministers. They came up with a number of recommendations. Amongst constitutional law geeks there has been some excitement although I wonder whether this is warranted or not. One campaigning ally of mine described it as the road to Stalinism, but I think not. The Times takes a more measured approach, although the Times’ language suggests that it was fed by a Labour source.  The IfG report was produced by a commission consisting of the great and the good, and a number of ex-Civil Servants.

Possibly the most concise definition of the problem made by the IfG is,

The prime minister has over time become ever more of an executive leader of the government, but the support they are given has not kept pace with their responsibilities. The centre of government fails to set and maintain an overall strategy for the government to follow. The resulting vacuum is filled by the powerful Treasury.

I question the idea that Prime Ministers want to be strategic in terms of delivery; much of their exercise of control would seem to be aimed at managing/delaying the succession plans of others.

“The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.”

Winston Churchill

The IfG then argue that one of the reasons for such a power vacuum is an inadequate Office of the Prime Minister. They observe, correctly in my view, the cabinet has ceased to be an effective decision-making body. Some of this is by design of numerous prime ministers, other factors include the mushroom therapy operated by the Treasury, and the lack of time spent in cabinet meetings. The last factor is not compensated by the use of cabinet committees.

This is a long standing problem, possibly dating back to the sixties when Harold Wilson instantiated the No 10 Policy Unit  which was designed to think long term and led by Bernard Donoughue. We should if considering delivery management and its political accountability note that Wilson also demerged economics from the Treasury creating a Department of Economic affairs. The Wikipedia page, details how Tony Blair set priorities with sub-units specified for strategy and delivery. This all shows that is not a new problem and it’s rarely been solved well.

The IfG recommend taking the management of the civil service out of No 10, appointing a cabinet member as responsible and carving the Head of the Civil Service role out from the Cabinet Secretary’s. Also, the department for the civil service should be demerged from the Cabinet Office; there is a talent management argument in favour of this. The IfG argues that the Civil Service has the wrong skills nexus for delivery. (This is a very old criticism, and I for one, believe the impermanence and short-termism of ministers is also, possibly a more important, part of the problem.)

While dissing the Cabinet, they suggest that their proposal of an inner cabinet is in fact already common practice; I would suggest that they underestimate the reliance that Prime Minsters have made of special advisors as opposed to other Ministers: Johnson/Cummings, Blair/Powell, and Thatcher/Ingham.

They argue for a new Civil Service Board to hold the Service’s leadership accountable for reform priorities. (This is the shortest part of the summary and I feel the least well argued. While the language is much more moderate than Thatcher and her team would have used, these are criticisms that they made, that the civil service were not committed to programme and manifesto. These complaints were repeated by Johnson and Gove. The Thatcherite answer was non-departmental bodies and replacing those permanent secretaries they considered butskellites and insufficiently committed to the agenda. I note that Permanent Secretaries, the financial accounting officers, are now on 5-year fixed term contracts. ) One reform I’d like to see is the reduction on politicians influence in the appointment of .and if Braverman’s custody of the Home Office is anything to go by, the management of their Permanent Secretaries.)

The IfG also propose, “to ensure the Priorities for Government are translated into a coherent strategy, collective government priorities will be fully reflected in a new, shared, strategy, budget and performance management process at the centre of government. This will be managed by the secretariat in the new DPMC”.  Are they breaking up the Treasury? They say not.

In summary, they propose,

  1. A five year plan (😉)
  2. An inner cabinet
  3. A first secretary of state responsible for delivery and the civil service
  4. A separate Department for the Civil Service
  5. a new statute for the civil service and a Civil Service Board
  6. The roles of cabinet secretary (accountable to the prime minister) and head of the civil service (accountable to the first secretary) should be filled by separate individuals.
  7. The government’s priorities should be fully reflected in a new, shared strategy, budget and performance management process owned collectively at the centre of government.

Hardly a route to the gulags.

There is a problem, it’s rarely been solved and these reforms are not exactly revolutionary. Prime Ministers have many tools to exclude the Cabinet, they don’t need more permission.

An unanswered question

I’ll finish with a slight diversion, three of their proposed reforms relate to management of priorities and talent in the Civil Service. They do this without mentioning pay, probably because they know that it would go down like a cup of sick at a banquet within the Labour Party. Civil servants don’t just work in Whitehall and the average pay for crown employees is not very high as the IFG observe. The national minimum wage is about £20,150 and it would seem that a number of civil servants earn less than that. Despite the huge outsourcing initiatives that have occurred since 79, much civil service work is done by junior people and pay restraint is an issue in recruiting and retaining skills and talent at all levels, especially as the report notes where there are shortages in project management, procurement, and information technology. …

PR in Wales

PR in Wales

I wrote, nearly two years ago, welcoming the change on the composition and size of the Welsh Senedd, [or on Medium] and was pointed today at what they’ve become. While using the d’Hondt method  i.e. the generally preferred counting method for PR for the new and much larger constituencies, they propose that there are no top up members. The mathematical purpose of the top-up members is to ensure proportionality and the higher the proportion of top up members, the closer to proportionality one gets. It is usual for the top up members to be elected based on a party vote.

The Welsh system proposes to have 16 constituencies each electing six members of the Senedd, meaning a quota and thus a wasted vote of 14.29% and a requirement that the constituencies are of equal size.  I wonder what the impact of abolishing the top-up members will be. Perhaps I’ll build a model.  …

Keep the red flag flying (on workers rights)

Keep the red flag flying (on workers rights)

In an article entitled, “Keir Starmer seeks to reassure business over Labour’s worker rights pledges”, the FT reports on the pressures being put on Keir Starmer to weaken Labour’s promises made in “A new deal for working people.”

It should be noted that this is what happened to the Blair opposition, which caved on Trade Union rights but held the line on the minimum wage. Sadly the value of the minimum wage became an internal political football within the Labour Party and at the moment the promise in “A new deal …” has been eroded to the point that it is less than the current law (for adults).

Labour summarises its plans as legislating for decent, safe, secure and fair work, critically, re- introducing day one rights for tribunal access, and the abolition of zero hour contracts and fire and rehire. They also plan to update trade union legislation so it’s fit for the modern economy, repealing some of the Tories petty and vicious legislation, strengthening Union’s rights of access to workplaces and workers, and establish a single enforcement body to enforce workers’ rights, which will include national minimum wage violations. Labour also plan to legislate for a structure of fair pay agreements negotiated with the Unions across industry.  

What are employers afraid of?

In order for the economy to be internationally competitive, goods and services need to be better than or cheaper than the alternatives. It’s not possible to have a high wage economy while being cheaper than others, so let’s choose being better. In most companies and public sector organisations value is created by employees. Successful companies need to attract and retain talent. Staff are the collective memory of the organisation. I have met and worked for some shocking managements; day one rights of access to tribunals should be a right, everyone should have access to the law, only bullies need fear this and for equality cases, day one access exists today. The only organisations that would fear this all those who as a matter of policy abuse their staff.

This is only one prerequisite for international competitiveness, the UK needs an immigration policy nice and compassion decency indignity and one that recognises the great talent may be born elsewhere. Another requirement is to minimise barriers to trade;  the simplest way of doing that is to rejoin the EU’s single market.

My experience is primarily in what are considered to be high knowledge industries i.e. Information technology and banking, but it is clear to me, that all organisations require commitment and talent. All organisations should welcome a legislative backing for a floor on decency. Those that want to behave well, if only to attract and retain workers will no longer need to fear being undercut by those that don’t.

The business lobbyists should lay off and welcome “A new deal …” …

On Referenda

On Referenda

I attended UKiCE’s webinar on referendums. It is available on You Tube, or at and they said in publicising the event, “The tumult that followed 2016 led many politicians and commentators to conclude referendums and UK politics don’t mix. The 2019 Conservative manifesto explicitly pledged not to waste time on more ‘acrimonious referendums’. But are they really off the agenda? Debates in Scotland and Northern Ireland would suggest otherwise. Contention continues to surround state-wide and national votes, whether on Scottish Independence or Net Zero, this panel discusses whether there is still space for referendums and direct democracy in the UK.” This blog article, highlights some contributions and adds some of my thoughts; they’ll be please to know I shall be having a think.

The panel consisted of its Chair: Joelle Grogan, UKICE, Joseph Ward, University of Sheffield,  Matt Qvortrup, of Coventry University and Meg Russell of University College London’s constitutional unit.

Russel’s first contributions criticised the 2016 referendum on the grounds that there was no plan for parliament’s role after the vote. It’s an important part of Ms. Russell’s thinking.

Qvortrup argues that a referendum is an effective people’s veto which I think he thinks is a good thing. He also argues that it may be a useful tool when changing the rules.

Ward argues that the Brexit referendum was repurposed by some. The debate amongst academics and others of good faith is to seek to determine if referendums can play a role in democratic decision making. The 2016 referendum was designed to overrule parliament which it effectively did; this is why Russel’s thinking about the need for a plan and a common understanding of the role of the referendum in making policy and law.

They discussed, particularly in the light of the Irish referendum on abortion, the role that referendums can play in determining both politics i.e. governance, and policy. They argued that the Irish abortion referendum may have been called because of the constitution but was in effect a policy vote. It was noted that referendums are becoming more common at local government level; referendums are required if raising council tax above a certain threshold and required to change the governance model.

The panel considered questions of thresholds and super majorities. It was observed these were the  most frequent reason for referenda to fail in countries other than the UK. Russell in one of her contributions stated that democracy needed more elements from citizens and the citizens assemblies is one way of achieving that. It fascinates me that academia is coming to the conclusion that collective discussion is necessary for effective decision making and yet the trade unions are regulated to prohibit such collective decision making; strike decisions and the election of senior officers and executive committees must now take place using individual postal ballots. These laws were not installed in order to improve the democracy of the unions, but designed to achieve a specific outcome, that have reduced militancy and weakened solidarity.

The question of information and knowledge amongst the electorate was considered, and it was felt that citizens assemblies were potentially an important way to build confidence in the process. A lack of confidence has been exacerbated by the fact that both EU referenda have been called for reasons of party management and not as exercises in democratic consultation.

Qvortrup stated that the election laws for the Brexit referendum had been adhered to, this is not correct. The vote leave campaign over spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in a breach so egregious that the High Court determined if the referendum had not been advisory they would have demanded it be rerun.  Russell reinforced the need for effective regulation of referendums, especially with respect to social media. Those who are seriously addressing the question of secret campaigning and fake news have much to offer.

During the panel, both Ward and Russell made reference 2 the UCL constitution units Independent Commission on Referendums report. The landing page makes reference to a blog article on the constitution units website.

Looking at the UCL CU’s report on referendums, I need to reconsider my views. The report is clearly of the view that referenda can play a role in politics and ask people like me to raise my eyes.

I am of the view that Issues cannot be isolated; there are stories of some Scots voting for the UK to leave the EU because they thought that it would accelerate the support for Scottish Independence.

It is my view that referendums only polarise, and with a large electorate, a close vote will not obtain a loser’s consent; I therefore believe that referendums may need super-majorities, although why should no-change be embedded in this way.

In terms of mediating between sides of a debate, Parliaments can compromise; everyone’s second best might be more supported and thus more democratic than the choice between everyone’s first  .

The panel’s arguments make me think about the role of Citizen’s assemblies, and timing of referenda and assemblies and thus their role in the process.

To conclude, here are two quotes from the UCL CU’s “Report of the Independent Commission on Referendums”

… referendums have an important role to play within the democratic system, but how they interact with other parts of that system is crucial. They must be viewed as co-existing alongside, rather than replacing, representative institutions. They can be useful tools for promoting citizen participation in decision-making, but they are not the only, or necessarily the best, way of doing so.


Wherever possible, a referendum should come at the end, not the beginning, of the decision-making process. It should be post-legislative, deciding whether legislation that has already passed through the relevant parliament or assembly should be implemented.

While the UK has what is in effect a unicameral legislature, with no legal checks and balances, elected by first past the post, I think that referendums are not the first question for democratic reformers.

It’s not possible to have a single vote amongst multiple options that is not gameable. i.e. that provides people with the motivation to vote for other than their first preference although in some cases, people have a dislike stronger than their preferences as it seems the Tories are about to find out. People such as this will always have difficulty in expressing their wishes in a voting system. See also Multiple choice voting systems by me, on my wiki.