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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump