Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Case for Elected Mayors

Isn’t it about time people knew who was running their towns and cities?
If directly elected mayors achieve anything, it will surely be to make local government, and the people who run it, more visible, and therefore more answerable. It will catapult regional politics from something that takes place, away from the public gaze, in grand town hall buildings, with its elections, won on slim majorities in tiny constituencies with small turnouts, to something more tangible, recognisable, and acceptable.
It will help inject some much needed razzmatazz into local democracy. Mayors will no longer be ceremonial posts complete with gold chains and giant scissors, but ones with bite; someone who can project their city onto the world stage, and away from the parochial confines of their local area.
In its desire to continue what Labour set in motion, the coalition government has outlined its plans for elected mayors in 11 cities in England, if approved in referendums over the course of the next couple of years.
There are several reasons for hoping that each and every city responds with a resounding yes.
According to the Institute for Government (IFG), an independent think tank leading the way in championing the yes vote, the economic benefits are too obvious to ignore:
Time and again, history shows that it is cities with strong and effective civic leadership that are well placed to make the most of local economic assets and compete better in a global economy. And mayors create an opportunity to have exactly this type of strong and effective leadership.”

The IFG points to previous studies which have shown that economic growth in England’s cities has been ‘highly uneven,’ partly due to central government’s insistence in implementing ‘catch-all policies.’
A mayoral model would offer cities the chance to ‘deliver more tailored policies that take account of their specific needs.’
Improving private sector performance would be one area to address. Creating a business friendly environment where cities focus on developing transport, planning and skills policies, is one of the key recommendations made in the IFG’s Big Shot or Long Shot, a report released earlier this year, evaluating the government’s Localism Bill.
Its director, Lord Adonis, argued, in a visit to Bristol, one of the cities due to vote next year, that an elected mayor would help sort out Bristol’s chronic transport problems. Loathing the city’s bus network is an issue guaranteed to unite Bristolians. Having spent several years living there, I can vouch (and concur) for their anger.
A visible mayor, with strong name-recognition, and a personality to match, is enticing. A poll conducted by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) found that after 12-18 months in areas that have already plumped for elected mayors, 57% of people could identify them, compared to only 25% who could identify their council leaders.
Those who value local democracy should be even more concerned by a survey carried out ahead of this year’s local elections which found that most people couldn’t name a single one of their councillors, and were deeply dissatisfied with the work he/she was doing, whoever he/she might be.
Contrary to what was alluded to on the political blog Left Futures last week, independent-minded mayors, free from the shackles and constraints of party politics, are something which should be embraced. And even being affiliated doesn’t necessarily result in blind party loyalty: Ken Livingstone being the obvious example, but also Michael Bloomberg in New York.
If elected mayors are able to re-energise local government, pique people’s interest, and most importantly, generate a greater (domestic and international) attraction to our cities, then they have to be a good thing.
My only concern, and a large one at that, is that the government’s plans are too timid, and shy away from granting powers that the London mayors have been afforded.
The Economist optimistically predicts that: “mayors will surely acquire more powers as people get used to them.” But, notes that: “...it will not be easy to persuade people to vote for a vague promise of civic reorganisation, without the powers to match.”

This article was first published by Left Futures on Monday 28 November 2011

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Young People and The England Riots

Back in August, little more than 24 hours after calm had finally descended on our chaotic and debris-filled streets, I wrote that it was perfectly reasonable to believe that opportunism and copycat criminal activity could be blamed for fuelling the rioters, looters and other troublemakers.

I also remarked that whilst this may have helped provide us with an initial explanation, this would never satisfy in terms of seeking out long term and lasting solutions. A complete picture as to who the rioters were, and why they behaved as they did was needed.
The last few weeks have begun to shed some light, with the release of three separate reports, all offering an insight (and very often, an unsurprising one) behind what has become known as The England Riots. The focus on young people is most compelling.
The first and second reports came out towards the end of October: Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Home Office studies, released concurrently, which gave a statistical analysis of who the rioters were and exactly what crimes were committed.
Crucially, it delves into their socio-economic backgrounds, with a glance at educational attainment and past criminal activity. I will return to both of these reports later.
The third, published last week, was a government-funded one, carried out by a group of independent researchers and commissioned on behalf of the Cabinet Office. It is this one that I’ll deal with first.
The study sought, as its main premise, to understand why some young people got involved in the trouble, whilst at the same time investigating why others chose not to.
Statistics have already revealed that half of those caught up in the riots were under-20, with just over a quarter of those between the ages of 10 and 17.
Taken from an admittedly small sample of just 206 young people from the affected areas, of which only 50 were actively involved in the disturbances, it found that a cocktail of excitement and opportunism, together with a desire to get back at the police, drove the disorder.
The researchers speak of ‘moments of madness,’ and ‘a day like no other, when normal rules did not seem to apply.’ Some of the young people described the thrill and the buzz of what took place as being akin to a rave.
This was a chance to get their hands on “free stuff;” the materially inaccessible and out of reach kind of stuff. Witnessing the events on TV, online, egged on by friends/associates via social media, brought many in from being mere ‘watchers, bystanders,’ to active ‘looters.’
Opportunism, thus, played its part, no doubt with the view that many felt they could get away with it, thanks in no small part to the images circulating of the police in certain areas, in cordons, standing and observing, rather than intervening.
A series of ‘nudge’ and ‘tug’ factors were found to determine young peoples’ level of involvement.
Those quizzed referred to being bored, with ‘nothing else to do,’ as a ‘nudge’ factor, with previous negative experiences of the police a significant one. In fact, hostility towards authority figures in general was regularly cited.
 ‘Tug’ factors such as peer and family pressure played their part:
The strength of parents as inhibitors depended to some extend on whether they were around or not...and on the degree of their control.”
A young person’s criminal past acted both as a motivator and a deterrent. Current education, future job prospects and aspirations also came into play. With youth unemployment at 21.3%, the highest since records began, and well over double the overall national rate, many were right to wonder what kind of future lay ahead.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, that the findings showed that:
“...some young people felt that their prospects were so bleak that they had little to lose by their involvement.”
As opposed to this young person from Peckham who chose to stay away:
“I was inside planning my future. I couldn’t see myself out there. It was stupid.”
A wake up call for our politicians if ever there was one.
The Ministry of Justice report was concerned with providing data and information regarding all the perpetrators brought before the courts, whereas the Home Office one relied on police data of all those arrested, as well as detailed accounts of crimes committed. Both were released a couple of weeks before, and serve to compliment one another.
In short, their scope was more interested in the who, rather than the why. They are, however, no less revealing.
Correct up until 12th October, the Ministry of Justice found that of the 1,984 people who had appeared in court, 90% were male, with 26% being juveniles (aged 10-17), up from 16% for similar offences in 2010. Only 5% were over 40.
In terms of criminal pasts, 76% of those who appeared before the courts for the disorder had either a previous caution or conviction; 62% for juveniles. Yet, almost a quarter of all offenders in court had no previous caution or conviction, thus lending credence to the view that a lot of the rioting and looting came from opportunists, rather than experienced, prolific criminals.
It is only by wading through the socio-economic and educational data that one sees a picture of poverty and deprivation, combined with academic failure. Almost two-thirds of 10-17 year olds up in court lived in one of the 20% of the country’s most deprived areas.
The MoJ was unequivocal in its findings that:
“...compared to population averages, those brought before the courts were more likely to be in receipt of Free School meals or benefits, were more likely to have had special educational needs and be absent from school, and more likely to have some form of criminal history. This pattern held across all areas looked at.”
Overall, a pretty gloomy picture.
Whilst the Home Office produced a ‘sub-set’ of those arrested, reproducing similar figures to the MoJ, it found something additionally noteworthy. Only 13% were found to be affiliated to a gang, thus punctuating the gang myth propagated by Iain Duncan Smith at September’s Tory party conference, where he told delegates that gangs ‘played a significant part’ in the riots.
Not the first time (and it certainly won’t be the last) a government minister has jumped the gun, reaching for conclusions before all the facts are known.
The conclusion of all three reports should surprise few. The responses from young people as to why they rioted don’t reveal anything particularly new or groundbreaking.
Instead, they build upon much that has already been known about from earlier studies. The high-profile nature of August’s events meant that they carried even greater weight.
Yes, we know that opportunism, thuggery, mindless violence, took place on our streets, but past studies show that these things don’t just operate in a vacuum. The Cabinet Office report gives yet a further example of the simmering tension, anger, and frustrations at the lack of opportunities felt by the young.
For some, the riots were a release, no matter how opportunistic.
Many of those convicted of looting and handling stolen goods have received far stiffer punishments than normal, both in terms of going to prison and length of service being handed down. This was particularly the case for juveniles.
Short-termism and populist headlines still dominate government thinking.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, an independent charity which believes that prison should be reserved for only the most serious offenders, argued that while the reports’ figures were to be expected, they also showed that now was the time to tackle social deprivation.
Indiscriminate prison sentences were only going to be counter-productive:
“The worst possible outcome would be just to sling all these young people in prison and risk their joining gangs out of terror and becoming hardened criminals."
Unfortunately, nobody in the government was listening.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Thursday 10 November 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Human Rights Abuses in the New Libya

I'll begin by saying that I was never a supporter of the West's military intervention in Libya.

All I could think of were ulterior motives: oil, defence contracts, geo-political influence in such a vital and unstable part of the world.

Also, why help Libya but not other countries rising up against tyranny? Why not intervene in Syria or Yemen or Bahrain, where there were some equally appalling abuses taking place? Why do we pick and choose which countries to help and which to not?

At the time, The Economist wrote that not intervening everywhere was no reason not to intervene somewhere. I accepted this as a plausible argument, but still found myself against intervention.

Another reason I gave was that whilst we were defending and arming Libyan rebels one day in their fight for freedom, these could be the very same people in power, many months or years down the line, ruling just as brutally and fiercely as Gaddafi before them. We've been here many times before haven't we?

A Human Rights Watch report out this week backs up some of these reservations. It builds on similar reports that have gone before it, detailing instances of dreadful human rights abuses committed by the rebels against supposed Gaddafi loyalists:

"Militias from the city of Misrata are terrorizing the displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawergha, accusing them of having committed atrocities with Gaddafi forces in Misrata. The entire town of 30,000 people is abandoned – some of it ransacked and burned – and Misrata brigade commanders say the residents of Tawergha should never return."

"Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Tawerghans across the country, including 26 people in detention in and around Misrata and 35 displaced people staying in Tripoli, Heisha, and Hun. They gave credible accounts of some Misrata militias shooting unarmed Tawerghans, and of arbitrary arrests and beatings of Tawerghan detainees, in a few cases leading to death."

As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, rightfully pointed out:

"Revenge against the people from Tawergha, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution."

This report came off the back of one released a few weeks ago by Amnesty International telling of torture meted out against anyone suspected of being tied to the Gaddafi regime.

They found that:

"Captured Gaddafi soldiers, suspected loyalists and alleged mercenaries [were] being tortured into ‘confessing’ to pro-Gaddafi crimes."

A pattern was found of '...arbitrary detention and widespread abuse of detainees.'

The report, Detention Abuses Staining the New Libya, worryingly found that:

"...sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being mercenaries make up between a third and a half of those detained.

Many were released, with little evidence found to back up these accusations.

Back in September, the BBC drew attention to reprisals being waged against black African migrants living in Libya's capital, Tripoli. Many had been accused by the rebels of working for Colonel Gaddafi as 'mercenaries,' rather than doing the casual manual labour that they claim they had been doing.

Hundreds of migrant workers were rounded up and imprisoned, with claims that their homes had been looted, and women and girls subjected to beatings and rape.

The lessons of all these reports is surely that we know very little about the people we've supported. I know we've helped in removing another tyrant (although the manner of Gaddafi's death is also profoundly disturbing), and of course Libya and the world is much the better for it, but what's going to come next?

Whatever it is, surely we've already given it our tacit approval.

A slightly edited version of this article was published by Liberal Conspiracy on Monday 7 November 2011