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
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.