What is power and who should have it?

I was recently invited to give a presentation on what power is, and who should have it. This a write up of my notes.

What is power?

Traditionally power would be seen as rather hierarchical, exclusive or elitist. The word has a binary dimension; to be powerful is not to be powerless.

But this is just one example of what power is. Today politicians, employers and academics talk about the benefits of empowerment.

Who do they think should be empowered? Frontline workers such as social workers or nurses should be more empowered, because when they are, production tends to be increased, they have a sense of ownership over their role, they tend to stay in the role for longer, ensuring consistency, while it promotes mental wellbeing.

On this, there are many crossovers between the political left and right today. The link between sense of purpose through ownership and empowerment can be seen as important from the right, in say the think-tank Respublica, to the centre and liberal left, from The Work Foundation to Compass.

On the question of whether empowerment is beneficial is almost a subject of political consensus.

Who else should feel empowered? Citizens need to feel empowered; at a local level citizens need to feel their voice is being heard on issues that directly relate to them. They need to feel consulted with on relatively minor things like on an installation of a new park bench, to something larger such as the planning permission of a block of flats.

The same goes for citizens at a national level; voices need to be heard via referendum, be that for membership to the European Union through to the voting system. This is a radical cultural change; no decision should be too small at a local level, nor too big at a national one.

Though on the question of power, is it something to be bestowed upon the people from the top, or is it something that can be created by the people themselves? Is empowerment top down or bottom up? The freedom of information act is a good example of where government has acted and allowed citizens to gain access to information we once had no right to. Is that empowerment? In a way this knowledge is empowering, but it’s nothing if we just leave it there. Empowerment comes from what we do with that information, and how we use it to instigate change.

What is citizen empowerment?

So if this is what empowerment is in general, what is citizen empowerment specifically? It’s about having input into decision making. In 2006, when David Miliband was Minister for Local Government, he talked about the “double devolution of power” from Whitehall to the town hall, from the town hall to the neighbourhood. Today more than ever, we have the ability to take that a stage further – the triple devolution of power – from Whitehall, to the town hall, then to the neighbourhood to our online communities. Already the internet has created a space for citizens to be more powerful.

The reason for this is that the internet can harness unique forms of social contact; it’s now the task of people, politicians and organisations to promote this social contact as a way to influence change at both local and national levels.

In a Demos report published in 2006 entitled “Talk us into it: putting conversation at the heart of public realm,” Samuel Jones discusses two interesting statistics; the first being the English average for how many people an individual knows in their street which is 14, whereas for Scotland that figure is 31. The second is the English average for how many people can name a local councillor which is 42, whereas for Scotland that figure is 59. The conclusion Jones has come to is there seems to be parity between knowing people in the local area and knowing who to influence in order to bring about change to that area.

The other conclusion is that the national average is quite low and could be higher, and if it were communities could be more empowered.

For this purpose, is the information highway empowering? Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture, notes that the technological age could produce the “monitorial citizen” by which is meant one who becomes, not enlightened through mass information, but bombarded by conflicted versions of the truth. I take a different view; mass information seems to be far more deliberative in that it encourages people to discuss and work out solutions with a whole range of information. Jenkins’ citizen sounds rather robotic believing everything she or he reads; the reality is information promotes nuanced opinion.

Can social media be empowering? I think it already is – in a way which cannot be ignored. An example of this happened to me last Thursday. I was walking from work to go to Holborn, in Central London. I just happened to look at my twitter feed only to find a few messages explaining how there had been a bomb scare and that the police were evacuating the area. I wanted to know more so I looked at the BBC website where I found nothing. I checked the Guardian website where I found nothing. Typed “Holborn” into google news to find absolutely nothing. I switched back to twitter where now many people had started to retweet more information on Holborn, this time with pictures taken from mobile phones, being tweeted and re-tweeted to their followers and their followers’ followers.

Already citizen empowerment is undercutting the traditional ways in which we receive information.

Who should have power?

In short, the answer is anybody who is affected by the decisions, services and provisions in their local area. Advocates of citizen empowerment, such as Simon Burall and Jonathan Carr-West in a 2009 report for Involve and the Local Government Information Unit, cite evidence for it’s benefits as local knowledge improving local services. It also builds links between the community and the provider, thus increasing accountability – a particular political hot potato, rendered so not least by the recent expenses scandal.

In his paper entitled Democracy Pays: How democratic engagement can cut the cost of government, Anthony Zacharzewski makes the financial case that democratic engagement of citizens can improve transparency and the accountability of where tax money goes. This would inevitably counter waste and reduce the cost local councils spend on consultancy, instead opening up decision making to the neighbourhood.

Another popular reason given is that citizen empowerment would re-enfranchise the disillusioned (such as NEET – not in education, employment or training – young people). If those on the cusp of society felt their voice heard, and they participated to the betterment of their society in a considered and meaningful way, this would hopefully return otherwise alienated people back to the communities in which they belong.

The one overarching reason that people should have power in their local communities is because it is a widely accepted, and fundamentally necessary, principle of democracy. People should not only be able to participate in making decisions related to the things around them; they should be able to frame the very terms of those debates.

To this end, and in the spirit of the times, there should be a single online access point, where people, with their local councillors and MPs, can enjoy such power.

Thank you.

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What could we buy with expenses repayments?

The sum of £478,616 has been returned in repaid claims, but where does this money go? Or rather, where could it go, if we were a little more creative with our winnings the rightly repaid money.

(this involved me searching £478,616 on google)

Would be quite enough to keep Solva in Pembrokeshire sweet.

More than enough to award one headteacher compensation for stress after she was accused of not giving sufficient attention to the needs of Muslim pupils.

Will afford you the cost of a certain football player – one Kevin Kilbane – following Hull City’s survival.

Should be a suitable amount to stump up enough in fines, after a fatal lift accident in Southampton.

Boris Johnson maybe wouldn’t fork out this much for Wandle Park, Croydon.

Was too much for such a risk-taking venture for cannabis haulers.

Is in the price range of Swindon, for a Radio 1 festival.

Perhaps quite enough for a man who wants his health back.

Can be enough for a trusted treasurer who stole said sum.

Should not buy a businessman rights no other man (or woman) has, by building a house worth said amount without permission.

Surplus to how much NHS south central will set aside for fluoridation review.

Just over the amount to get Guido Fawkes foaming at the mouth (bastard!!)

****

Though if Parliament were up to spending £79 more, they could afford 289 duck islands with that money. (Exclusive!!)

In defence of striking (or, not quite what Richard III had in mind)

Richard Duke of Gloucester never did utter the words “Now is the Spring of our discontent” so we shall perhaps be spared the same levels of corruption as was the case in 1978-79, but never the less, striking workforces are monopolising news columns and commanding the attention of idle chatterers.

For the Lindesy oil refinery workers we’ve been here before. In February of this year, French oil company Total, which owns the refinery, were brought into meetings with unions over an Italian sub-contractor who had hired its own workforce – including 200 Italian and Portuguese workers – excluding the British workers.

Trade unionists argued that management used this measure to undercut domestic wages.

The left made it clear at the time that foreign workers were not to blame, but rather the loopholes that management were able to practice impinged on workers rights – since those foreign workers hired were working more hours for less pay than the company would be obliged to pay the British workers. Workers, regardless of their nationalities, the left argued, should be paid a fair allowance and one that reflects the legalities of wages in this country.

This time the strikes concern the decision by Shaw, a subcontractor at the Lincolnshire refinery, to dismiss 51 workers on the HDS-3 project while another contractor RDC was hiring 61 staff on the same project.

Those workers have no been told they have until Monday to re-apply for their jobs. As of this a number of wildcat strikes of sympathy have taken place around the country.

Dave Osler for Liberal Conspiracy blames Total for hypocrisy. He notes that Total would be afraid to commit such an odious act for fear of both legal and strategic reasons (he mentions the “notion” of le bossnapping). So why, he asks is it acceptable to do it here? He goes on to say;

“The difference is that where continental countries guarantee some form of employment rights, Britain celebrates the hire and fire culture”

Perhaps a little too simple, but certainly the issue of contractor’s rights should be raised again. More legal emphasis on the rights of agency workers, perhaps?

Total have said they will not talk to unions until production has started again by striking workers. And herein lies the strategic deadlock of wildcat strikes, i.e. the legalities.

A Times entry explains;

“those involved [in the wildcat strikes] have far less protection. Unofficial strikers breach their employment contract by not making themselves available for work, and can be fairly dismissed by the employer as a result. The employer can dismiss and re-engage selectively, so could pick off the ringleaders, whilst retaining or re-employing the rank and file strikers it needs to continue the business.”

But Dave Ossler seems correct again when he adds;

“Total’s nakedly nasty move makes its intention absolutely clear. Shop stewards, troublemakers, lippy bastards and/or anyone with minimal self-respect need not apply. What we are seeing is the return of hardline, back-to-the-eighties, management’s right to manage old skool union busting, pure and simple.”

Total are holding the workers to ransom; deal with our unfair sackings, or get lost we have plenty more contractor opportunities.

Lack of communications are the problem here, no dialogue has been verified yet between the unions and Total unlike in February, all on Total’s own terms.

But for the postal workers it is not communication that is (altogether) the problem. A modernisation agreement in 2007 [doc] was supposed to be put in place after talks with union officials. Yet signs of modernisation, or improvement, have unyet materialised.

Reuters reported David Ward, deputy general secretary of the CWU, having said;

“it was only a matter of time before staff cuts without pledged fresh investment, in machinery for instance, would have a major impact on the service.”

Not a good prospect, especially when even oiks of the Labour Party like Peter Mandelson (I know things will perk up for my party when he is not the most important member of it) would bend over backwards looking for justifications for his plans to part-privatise Royal Mail.

John McFall MP has issued an interesting idea for avoiding Mandy’s proposals to his correct insight that “the taxpayer must be rewarded”. Where Mandy wants to part-privatise in order to maximise profit-margins (makes me sick to think something like this could be said by a member of the Labour Party, let alone one so highly ranked), McFall’s solution is, “[r]ather than selling a stake in the company, why not raise bank debt or issue bonds?”

With bonds, the government could have creditor stake security, and have a defined term for fixed interest payments. It might indirectly curb excessive bonuses and obscure pension pots, and with increased international pressure on tax havens, could spell out good things in finance for years to come. Those taxpayer savings could rescue the Royal Mail as it is today, and still be no match for its competitors.

So for the contractors at Lindsey oil refinery it is lack of talks; for the postal workers, of what communication there had been it didn’t stop promises being broken; and for the tube strikers communication wasn’t enough since talks with TfL brought about no progress anyway.

Though already a Downing Street official said of the Lindsey dispute that ‘Unofficial strike action is never the right response to industrial relations problems’, the ends to which those workers are strking for should be in direct correlation with the overall project of the Labour Party; worker’s rights, public services.

George Osbourne; Value For Money

When it comes to public spending, Tory voices will emerge calling Ed Balls a liar, and George Osbourne a hero. I set out in an entry on Liberal Conspiracy today to show that Balls’ comments were far more cautious than the caustic Tory bloggers/journalists make out, and detail why critics should not attempt to paint Balls as trying to fraud the voter.

When it comes to personal finances, even the Tories will have to admit that the shoes are on the other feet today.

In Andrew Sparrow’s commentary on the official release of MP’s expenses, we see that;

“Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, and his wife, Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, were cleared by the parliamentary commissioner for standards last year after being accused of wrongly nominating their London home as their second home.”

whilst on Sam Jones’ report, we see;

“• George Osborne [claimed for] £47 for two DVDs of his own speech on Value for Taxpayers’ Money”

Value for money indeed, and at only £23.50 each.

I’m a celebrity, vote me in here

Safe, as Cameron is, in the knowledge that anything he says he can do, and that Labour cannot do, will be bought and consumed like a hot-dog on Tottenham court Road, Friday night, way after the tube has finished and you’ve got to walk all the way home to Kilburn because the buses have been taken off the road due to the unprecedented amount of bikes blocking Edgware Road.

So safe in fact that Cameron will wax lyrical on the very thing that people want to hear, that also characterises the very thing the Tories are not in touch with: People Power (just observe the noticeable omission of proportional representation).

As Tamasin Cave has said today

“Only six years after a national poll found that over half of us felt we had “no say over what government does”, he’s today calling for “the redistribution of power from the powerful to the powerless”.”

But so far Cameron’s call has only seen Tory celebrities and hacks go to stand against disgraced Tory MP’s, that list so far is (from the Guardian);

“Simon Heffer, the Daily Telegraph columnist, said today he would to stand against his local Conservative MP unless he paid back £12,000 in expenses.”

[…]

“Esther Rantzen, who plans to stand against Labour’s Margaret Moran in Luton South unless she resigns.

Robert Harris, the journalist and writer, said he was considering challenging Tory MP Alan Duncan, and Lynn Faulds Wood, the TV consumer rights campaigner, is also considering running.

David Van Day, the former Dollar singer and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! contestant, said he planned to oppose Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.”

I’m a celebrity, vote me in here (don’t tell me you haven’t thought this!!)

What could be worse than MP’s expenses scandals than those same scandals of journalists and celebrities when they are our local representatives.

On this subject I started reading Nadine Dorries blog – which is back up (hat-tip)- and she was raving about Esther Rantzen’s decision to stand. She ended her entry by saying;

“Politics isn’t showbiz, it’s life; and if Esther thought the celebrity jungle was tough, she ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Nadine has her own jungle oppnent to worry about now, but as of yet no entry regarding it…

Warning for the Bedfordshire Gays

It says on Liberal Conspiracy that reports are circulating on former Bucks Fizz singer David Van Day and his possible decision to stand in mid-Bedfordshire, where Nadine Dorries – who thinks the spending of expenses is an MP’s duty, being an extension of their salary – sits.

Though it seems “Burger Van Day” has a bad record.

While standing as a Tory candidate in Brighton he attended a charity fundraiser, PinkNews reported at the time;

“At a Valentine’s Day charity fundraising dinner in Brighton Pavilion, Mr Van Day gave a speech after a performance by The Brighton and Hove Actually Gay Men’s Chorus.

The Tory candidate said that the members of the choir “bend over backwards for anybody.”

He later apologised for his comments, but this will provide concern for the nice folk of Mid-Bedfordshire. Nadine  Dorries didn’t put her vote in for the issue of equal gay rights, as it says on her TheyWorkForYou profile. This important issue surely can’t be left alone to Van Day, can it? Isn’t Cheryl Baker a gay icon? Are they still in contact? Isn’t Van Day gay anyway?

Now we hate independent advice

This morning I was woken up by the lovely presenters of GMTV, waxing lyrical about some party or another they had attended. They then read the news items (or someone did), and it was from here that I first found out that Alistair Darling (et al) had paid for financial advice.

My first thought on the matter (tired as I was) was, oh bollocks yet another thing. But I realise now that my concern over the current carnivalesque show being put on in Westminster is informed only by how easy it is now for the opposition to point a finger and poke out their tongues.

Certainly this is what most Tory bloggers are doing right now. See Iain Dale’s blog entry for it. He positions YOU as the person funding all this independent advice. But, as I’ve just commented on his page, independent review is the idee de jour, only apprently not when it comes to the bill.

A lot of our MP’s have proven over the last three weeks that they are no longer to be trusted with autonomous financial revieiwing (we’ve heard a lot of ticked-the-wrong-box’s) and that therefore expenses claims need independent review (or public scrutiny by means of tax return publication, see other my entry on the ‘toberlerone affair’).

Alisatiar Darling has sought the advice that parliamnet has always deemed necessary, the only thorn in the side is that he is an unpopular Chancellor. It will make for banter at PMQ’s, but otherwise he has done nothing illegitimate.

Of course it comes at a time when nothing once worthy of oppsition banter is funny anymore. If anything, the expenses scandal might have taken the fun out of PMQ’s (although actually, this clearly happened way before).

Since MP’s are advised to take financial advice (even if your role in Government is finance) then in real politics this need not be as embarrassing as some will twist it to be. The really embarrassing claims are (from the Guardian);

• Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, tried to claim for the costs of two Remembrance Day wreaths. His claim was rejected by the Commons authorities.

• [Jacqui] Smith used her expenses to pay for a £240 Apple iPhone for her husband, who works as her parliamentary assistant.

• [Hazel] Blears and Yvette Cooper, the chief secretary to the Treasury, were among eight ministers who claimed for digital cameras or camcorders using office expenses.

(I make no apologies for leaving out Harriet Harman’s media training)

These claims border silly but within the recent context are rather damning, but Darling’s is less so.

Further, it seems not to have affected Tory defection much, since Cameron is calling on anyone who is upset to stand for them (pretty much…).

These are testing times for us all, eh’.