Serving should be a vocation

Brian Coleman bemoans what he argues is the passing of a tradition of service over salary in local g

Dame Jane Roberts was a reasonably good Labour Leader of the Council of the London Borough of Camden until in 2005 she decided there was more to life than night after night at the Town Hall and decided to spend more time with her family, literally in her case.

Whether or not she foresaw the meltdown the Labour administration was heading for in the May 2006 local elections and decided to abandon the sinking ship with her reputation intact I have no idea.

In my experience, once they've gone ex-councillors either never want to sit on a committee of any sort ever again or they desperately hang around the Town Hall seeking crumbs from the Civic Table.

Occasionally, if they have sucked up to the relevant ministers enough and not rocked the boat, they get awarded some pointless quango.

In the case of Dame Jane she agreed to head up a commmission charged with looking into how local democracy can be revived. It's an all-party body consisting of leading local government figures most of whom should have known better.

When I was first elected to my local council the annual allowance payable to a councillor in suburban Barnet was £600 (less income tax). There was also a complicated attendance scheme that necessitated filling out a monthly form which most members, including me, couldn't be bothered with for the sake of a couple of quid.

Then along came the 2000 Local Government Act and the end of the century-old committee tradition of doing business. The replacement was executive government in councils.

Cabinets were devised, councillors became "portfolio holders"; substantial allowances were paid, and members became eligible for the Local Government Pension Scheme.

Some council leaders now receive up to £65,000 per annum and, for being an executive member, the average in London is about £30,000.

To keep the backbenchers happy so-called 'Special Responsibility Allowances' now have to be paid for all sorts of minor, functionary positions: £2,500 for being vice-chair of the Trees and Cemeteries Scrutiny Committee or for turning up at a Licensing Committee once a year. In short big money for local politicians.

The danger of this, of course, is leaders now win or lost their positions on the strength of who they had promised well paid jobs to.

And I fear getting to form an administration in local government has more to do with how all the allowances are distributed than which councillor is best for which job.

So has Dame Jane’s commission tackled these issues? No, it has come up with a further ludicrous proposal that takes local government even further away from the values of its founding fathers - the Victorian civic leaders who had community service as their driving force.

Suggestions include 'redundancy' payments to councillors voted out of office, an end to local government by-elections (to be replaced by a 'it's buggin's turn' list system) plus forced retirements after 20 years. In my experience the retired councillors are often the most dedicated.

The repeal of the 2000 Local Government Act, the ending of executive powers for councillors and a return to proper, accountable, local democracy would be a first step to ensuring that service rather than salary was the driving force for Local Councillors.

Political service should be a calling not a career!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war