Thursday 31 May 2012

Keeping an ear on Brittany

With the legislative elections in France just days away (1st Round 10th June – 2nd Round 17th June) – you might like to listen to some French radio. For these elections, I will be keeping a special eye on Douarnenez in Brittany (for background – see my post on The Furzton Blog).

The widget below will enable you to listen to France Bleu Breizh Izel (from Quimper). France Bleu is a network of local stations around France (someone likened it to the BBC local radio network).

Douarnenez is the 7th circonscription in Finistere (Like the districts in the US House of Representatives – the constitutency is given a number within the State – but the ‘departement’ is the unit used for French national elections) The candidates for the 7th circonscription are - Serge Defrance, Sophie Niderkorn (LO) Didier Guillon, Valérie Dreau (UMP) Janick Moriceau, Jean Cathala (EELV) Evelyne Delgrange, Yvette Fournol (FN) Michel Canevet, Isabelle Clement (AC) Annick Le Loch, Paul Gueguen (PS) {CURRENT MEMBER} Jean Jouanno, Marie-Claude Le Guen (AEI) Françoise Pencalet-Kerivel, Jean-Yves Leven (FDG)

Wednesday 30 May 2012

French Legislative Elections

Francois Hollande won the Presidential Election - but will he enjoy a co-operative Assemblee nationale? Some people have spoken of the possibility of a "Vague rose" (in French that means 'pink wave' - referring to the the success of the Left - a delayed 'coattails effect')

The Opinion Polls are not hopeful - Le Monde reported yesterday:-

"The balance of power favors the Left, but we are not moving towards a tidal wave of (soft) red to the Assemblee nationale. This is the main lesson from the first survey of voting intentions on the parliamentary elections by Ipsos-Logica Business Consulting for Le Monde, France Television and Radio France.

In this study, (carried out on 25 and May 26 from a representative sample of the French population of 962 people), the UMP {the party that backed Sarkozy} and its allies (New Centre, Valoisien Radical Party, various right of centre parties) are credited with 35% of the vote in the first round, before the Parti Socialiste {Hollande's Party} and its allies (Radical Left Party, Republican and Citizens Movement, various left), who obtain 31%. The Front National {Le Pen} (15%), is behind them, ahead of the Left Front (8%), Europe Ecology-Greens (6%) and the extreme left (1.5%)."

While these figures give more support to the parties of the right - the expectation is that in the second round - when only the two leading candidates are on the ballot - because the Right is divided (The Front national will not pick up some of the votes given by centre-right voters) - Hollande should get a majority - but it may be a small one.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Recess Announcements

Back to the UK - the Government has let it be known that its 'Pasty Tax' and the 'Caravan tax' will be dropped. While the House of Lords is still sitting - it rises tonight, the House of Commons is in recess.

I wonder whether Ministers will get a reprimand when they return? The Speaker (in line with previous Speakers - but a lot more vigorously) has stressed that the House of Commons should be the place where Ministers announce policy (and policy changes). This is to allow MPs to question - hold to account - the Government. This is important!

While the legislative process in the US Congress can be likened to a game of American Football (I’ll be developing this analogy in future posts) – Parliament is more like a game of soccer– faster flowing, with less emphasis (less, not none!) on strategy and tactics to move the bill forward or halt its progress. But it is like putting an enthusiastic under-11 team against Manchester United. The Government control ‘the ball’ most of the time – and usually the most the opposition or backbenchers can do is kick the ball for a few moments – before the relentless onward march of the Government.
Any thoughts on these analogies?

Monday 28 May 2012


When I flew into Washington DC last month, instead of using Dulles (the international airport, which I did fly out from on my return), I flew into National Airport. It has been renamed after President Reagan, but I know – and respect the views of – many of my friends who, on principle, refuse to call it after a President who was disliked as much as he was loved.

The airport is really convenient for the city. It is on the blue and yellow metro lines – and is only a short distance from the Capital (3 miles away). On my 25 mile walk from Mount Vernon to the Senate last year, we walked on the Mount Vernon Trail through the grounds of the airport. Many members of Congress use the airport to travel between Washington and their home districts.

Construction began in 1940, after President Roosevelt made a recess appropriation of $15 million to build a new Airport by reallocating funds from other purposes. Some of the original buildings can still be seen. (The terminal itself is modern).

Information about the airport can be found here.

Sunday 27 May 2012

NOT a bank holiday weekend

Normally today would be be the middle of a long weekend. The last Monday in May is traditionally the Late Spring Bank Holiday (it used to be the Whit Monday holiday), but not this year. Next weekend is a super-long weekend – with this holiday shunted back a week (Monday 4th June) and an additional holiday for the Diamond Jubilee (Tuesday 5th June).

However, it is still a day off work (well I will be doing some more marking) – and this afternoon the Milton Keynes City Pathfinders will be playing in Emerson Valley. They are the local American Football team, and whenever I can I go over to see them play. If you are able to get to the Emerson Valley Sports fields (off Bowland Drive, MK4 2DN) – for 2-30, it would be great to see you. It should be an entertaining afternoon. If you want a short introduction to the game of American football, press this link.

Saturday 26 May 2012


I commented in yesterday’s post that I despised PMQs (Prime Minister’s Question time in the House of Commons). Don’t get me wrong – it can be tremendous fun. TV doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere – which can be electric. If you ever get the chance to see it in person – do go. But tremendous fun is praise for entertainment. Sadly, it’s the only coverage of Parliament that many people see – and it can be quite off-putting. It is of limited value for scrutiny. I fear that it has helped to lower Parliament in the eyes of the public.

Prime Ministers put a lot of effort into preparing for PMQs. They have extensive briefings – and both “do their homework” (reading the written briefings – preparing to answer what ever is likely to be thrown at them), and practice with colleagues (at what Americans would call murder boards). In any event, the parliamentary experienced on the way up is sufficient to make Prime Minister’s experienced at dealing with difficult questions.

There can be key “soundbites” – and the weekly battle between a Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition is closely analysed – and success at the dispatch box can have important electoral repercussions. However, imho (I’m getting better at the shorthand used in internet communications), more heat than light is generated, and a heavy price is paid for MP’s “fun”.

Friday 25 May 2012

While I'm Working

I sometimes prefer to work in silence. This is particularly useful when when I am researching and writing. At other times I need to listen to music. One of the advantages of modern computers is that is possible to work on the computer – whilst also using the machine to play a CD or listen to internet radio. I’ve grown to enjoy French (language) music – which I have done since the mid 1980s as a way of improving my language skills. My favourite internet station is ChanteFrance (which is almost completely music – and plays a wide range of ‘pop music’). I also listen occasionally to Radio France London (which has a higher proportion of talk).

When not listening to French music – I will avail myself of the wonderful services provided by C-SPAN. I subscribe to the podcasts of “Washington Today” (which I tend to listen to when walking). At the computer I listen to (and watch sometimes) live broadcasts from the House of Representatives (C-SPAN 1) and sometimes the Senate (C-SPAN 2). I will also watch specific programmes – either because they have advertised on the C-SPAN website or I have discovered them through a search in the C-SPAN archive).

I may occasionally watch a broadcast from Westminster (though NOT PMQs – which I despise).

[David's other blog is - The Furzton Blog]

Thursday 24 May 2012

The Passage of Power

On 26th March I posted about the forthcoming publication of Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power" (original post accessible here). Well my copy has arrived at my home in Furzton, Milton Keynes. It was well worth the wait. Like the previous three volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson - it is both scholarly (excellent details of the sources used) and enthralling. Caro has a style (and his subject, a Life) which means it is difficult to put the book down.

This volume covers the period from Johnson's run for the presidential nomination in 1960 (and his uncharacteristic slow start - Caro explains well this unusual behaviour by LBJ) to the State of the Union address given in January 1964. Caro notes the latter as the end of the transition period between Kennedy's assassination and LBJ making the presidency his own.

Although I have quite a heavy workload at the moment - with OU marking; writing up my Ph.D; and planning for the future - I will be giving time every day to reading this superb book.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

From PBS Newshour Politics


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce figures to be a big player in the 2012 fundraising arms race, with plans to spend in excess of $50 million and by targeting specific congressional races. As far as how that money will be spent, most questions remain unanswered, NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns reports.

"We don't disclose where we get our money and we don't tell people how much we spend," Chamber President Tom Donohue told reporters Monday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

In April, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, participating in "electioneering communications" must disclose their donors. As a tax-exempt group, the Chamber of Commerce was not previously mandated to disclose its contributors.

"[Disclosure] is all about intimidation...they want to be able to intimidate people to not put their money into the electoral process," Donohue said. "We will have a vigorous...election program. These cases do not change that."

Donohue said it is in the chamber's best interest to avoid disclosure, because he knows a half-dozen "well-known business people" who were "fundamentally attacked" by the Obama campaign for their contributions to Republican groups.

The Chamber of Commerce spent $33 million in the 2010 midterm elections and is on pace to blow past that quickly. According to the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, Bruce Josten, the chamber began spending for this cycle last November, the earliest it has ever ramped up.

Chamber officials said the group is ready to take some members of Congress to task for votes seen as unfriendly to the business community on the transportation bill and the Export Import Bank reauthorization. They said the group plans to spread its endorsements like "peanut butter," but the money will flow to the most competitive, chamber-friendly candidates.

"We endorse lots and lots of people, that doesn't mean we're going to spend any money on them. We're going to put the money in the races that are up for grabs," Donohue said.

"It's not just ads, which everybody fixates on, there is a lot of activity on the ground," Josten said.

The Washington Post has a related story Tuesday, looking at a fight that "has been unfolding this spring at annual corporate meetings, where shareholders are mounting an intensifying effort to push companies to disclose the money they spend on lobbying and political campaigns."

Increasing Turnout?

This written question (and answer) was published today

Nick de Bois: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister what steps he plans to take to encourage a higher turnout at (a) general and (b) local elections; and if he will make a statement. [108222]

Mr Harper: The Government is committed to encouraging democratic participation by all sections of society, and through its programme of political and constitutional reform, it is seeking to re-engage individuals and their communities in the political process.

For example the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill currently before Parliament includes a number of provisions to improve the elections process, which will support the participation of overseas and service voters in UK elections and facilitate online registration.

Increasing democratic engagement is not solely the responsibility of Government. Electoral registration officers appointed by, but independent of, local authorities have a duty to encourage participation in the electoral process and the Electoral Commission promotes public awareness of registration. Parliamentarians and elected officials from each of the political parties must also provide people with compelling reasons to vote.

Sadly, the bill will have the opposite effect. It seems to be high on the agenda of right wing parties to erect new barriers to voting. This is seriously concerning to those of us who believe that democracy means that everyone can vote. In practice it is the poor and the young who end up being excluded because of these measures. Am I a little cynical of the motives of those making voting more difficult? Well yes, from experience - when I was a parliamentary candidate - the Tories in my constituency targeted older postal voters in Labour areas - frighteneing them with stories of postal vote fraud. I learned of this while canvassing. The efforts were so successful that many Labour-friendly voters were intending not to use their postal vote. Yet at the same time my opponents were actively signing up known Tory voters for postal votes!

French Legislative Elections

Now that the Presidential Election has concluded, the next national elections in France are for the Assemblee nationale, one of the two house of the French parlement. (The Senat is the other - which has indirect elections).

Details of the circonscriptions (UK- constituencies; US - Districts) can be found on the Assemble nationale website. For the first time there are specific circonscriptions for French nationals living abroad (Scottish Parliament and Weslsh National Assembly please note!). There are eleven of these circonscriptions - the USA is in 1st & the UK in the 3rd.

I subscribe to "Le petit journal" - a daily email (and webpage) for French ex-pats. There are a number of local editions. There is also a page dedicated to the elections, with an emphasis on the candidates for the "Francais etablis hors de France". It can be accessed here.

Monday 21 May 2012

Recess Appointments

The President of the US makes appointments with the "advice and consent of the Senate. Traditionally, that has involved making an announcement and the Senate confirming (with or without confirmation hearings). The Constitution specifically allows "recess appointments". This power has been used exttensively in recent years, because the Senate has taken to holding up, almost as standard practice, confirmations. (I recommend that you take at look at Mann & Ornstein's ""It's Even Worse Than It Looks" (" the process became acute when Republican majorities in the Senate during the Clinton presidency blocked not just liberals but moderate nominees for judicial posts. Democrats applied it in turn, albeit less aggressively, during the Bush presidency. But the process ratcheted up again with President Obama...", the "process is thoroughly broken. Beyond the use of filibusters, we have had the expanded exercise of individual holds to kill nominations, not simply delay them for a period of time"

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has recently published a paper on Frequently Asked Questions about recess appointments. You can access it here

Saturday 19 May 2012

More disturbing news

Again from Politico

Michael Hastings, who wrote the Rolling Stone piece that got Stan McChrystal fired, posts on the Manhattan-based website BuzzFeed about an under-the-radar push to remove restrictions on the government targeting our own citizens with propaganda: "An amendment to the defense authorization bill would 'strike the current ban on domestic dissemination' of propaganda material produced by the State Department and the Pentagon, according to the summary of the law at the House Rules Committee's official website. The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts-the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987-that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government's misinformation campaigns."

Friday 18 May 2012

I've always been a big fan of the US Constitution - and the US Congress - yet today I am thoroughly ashamed of the House of Representatives.

This story in CQ Roll Call's Daily Briefing is what has upset me:

The House voted this morning that all terrorism suspects — even American citizens captured on American soil — should be subject to indefinite detention without any trial, either in a military tribunal or a federal court.

A solid majority was in favor of abrogating constitutional rights in this essentially unprecedented way — a clear sign that anxiety about the terrorist threat remains a more pressing political force a decade after Sept. 11 than the need to protect the voters’ civil rights. The 238-182 vote rejected the impassioned arguments from both of the libertarian ends of the ideological spectrum, in which both liberal Democrats and tea party GOP conservatives warned that current law already gives the government way too much power to enter people’s homes, arrest them and hold them indefinitely — and that the defense authorization bill the House is on the cusp of passing would make matters worse. These lawmakers note that, under the bill, American citizens could be jailed indefinitely for even a one-time contribution to a humanitarian group that’s later linked to terrorism.

The vote turned back an amendment by the top Armed Services Democrat, Adam Smith of Washington, to strip out much of the language on detainees that Republicans had added to the bill; he and Republican Justin Amash of Michigan pressed ahead with their efforts even though, late last night, the handwriting for their defeat went on the wall when the House voted (with a 78-vote spread) that detainee trials should as always be held in Guantánamo Bay and never in the United States.
Today's photo is of the monument erected by the American Bar Association at Runnymede - the site of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

Thursday 17 May 2012


In a corner of what was once the Lobby of the House of Commons, in St Stephen’s Hall – some flowers have been placed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the assassination of Spencer Perceval. He was the only British Prime Minister to have been murdered. He was also unusual in that at the time of his death he was also Chancellor of the Exchequer; Leader of the House of commons; and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

John Bellingham had visited the Strangers’ Gallery in the House a number of times in the preceding days, even asking a journalist to identify various members of the government. The murder took place on Monday 11th May 1812. He had spent the afternoon with his landlady and her son in a museum in St James (close to Chatham House). They had walked to Sidney’s Alley near Leicester Square – then, alone, he walked down to the Palace of Westminster, and joined the crowd standing in the lobby, standing by the closed part of the double doors. When the Prime Minister entered the lobby on his way into the chamber Bellingham took his right hand out of an enlarged inside pocket of his coat – stretched out his arm, bringing the barrel of a pistol up to Percival’s chest – and fatally shot the Prime Minister.

While the murder shocked the politicians – it was met with jubilant celebrations . Bellingham was even held in the Palace of Westminster until after midnight, by which time the crowds had been cleared. He taken to Newgate Prrison; tried on the Friday; and hanged the following Monday morning.

Over the last few hours I read "Why Spencer Percival had to die" by Andro Linklater - it is compelling reading, and I thoroughly recommend it. The background - both personal and political - is dealt with in depth, and some interesting theories put forward.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

In contrast with this blog - which deals with global matters - I have recently started a local blog called "The Furzton Blog" - about the estate in Milton Keynes where I live. Wherever you are, you are welcome to visit the blog at http://furztonmk.blogspot.co.uk/

Tuesday 15 May 2012


Last week I attended a fascinating talk on the war of 1812. Professor Alan S Taylor from the University of California at Davis, spoke of this often forgotten war. Certainly in the UK, little attention was given to it. (We were more concerned with Napoleon on the European Continent). We were reminded that it was the US who declared war. The war was mainly fought in the zone between Detroit and Montreal. [Though the Battle of New Orleans is perhaps better known to history – and those who listened to and remember Lonnie Donegan].

Professor Taylor stressed how much this war – fought mainly on the boundary between Canada and the United States – resembled a civil war. In particular many of the soldiers on both sides were Irish – some were refugees who had fled to the US – others were voluntary (and involuntary) members of the British forces.

Also, many of the settlers in Upper Canada had, mainly for economic reasons – though some for political – come from the United States.

A very interesting evening – and I’ll be adding Professor Taylor’s book to my wish list (to read after I’ve completed the doctorate).

Monday 14 May 2012

On Richard Lugar and Political movement

This post appeared on the Blog "The Monkey Cage" (if you aren't a subscriber yet - why not? It has some very useful information on it - and will in future have information about Elections useful for both scholars and observers of Elections)

In all the coverage of Senator Richard Lugar’s crushing 20-point loss at the hands of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Republican Senate primary reporters can agree on one thing. Lugar is a “moderate.” Similarly, in a recent post Nate Silver lists the many Republican Senate “moderates” who have left office, voluntarily or otherwise, in recent years. Moderation in the GOP ain’t what it used to be; one of those Silver listed was Rick Santorum.

Lugar’s career is a striking illustration of how the definition of “moderate” has changed as the GOP has marched rightward. When Lugar entered the Senate in the 95th Congress (1977-1978) his first dimension DW-NOMINATE score was .348. By this measure the Indiana Senator was to the right of center in the GOP Conference, being the 16th most conservative of the 38 Republicans in the Senate.

The freshman Lugar was to the right not only of elderly liberal Republicans who generally voted with Democrats like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case (both of whom would soon lose primaries to conservatives), but also of Republicans like Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Hatfield was something of a Christian pacifist, pro-life and against wars, big Pentagon budgets and the death penalty. Packwood was strongly pro-choice. Both Oregonians had mixed records on economic issues, pleasing neither business nor labor consistently. Lugar was also to the right of both the Senate Minority Leader, Howard Baker, his whip Ted Stevens and even Bob Dole, whom President Ford had picked to replace Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller as his running-mate in the 1976 Presidential race in order to appease the conservative wing of the GOP.

Conservatives are wary of Republicans who linger in Washington,fearing they will attend one too many “Georgetown cocktail parties” and gradually sell out in order to win “strange new respect” from the pundit class. For sure, the pundits loved Lugar, but has he changed over the years? Not that much. Throughout his career Lugar has gotten very low ratings from organized labor and environmental groups and high marks from business lobbies.

Lugar has generally voted anti-abortion and, once the issue got on the agenda, anti-gay rights, opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell despite polls showing the public favored that move. Lugar supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. He opposed the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform. He voted to put Robert Bork and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Lugar voted for the Gulf War, the death penalty, oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refugee and removing President Clinton from office.

It is true that by the same measure Lugar’s D1 NOMINATE score dropped from .348 in his first Congress, to .241 in the last one, but moving his score ten points does not change his ranking within the Republican Conference very much in either Congress. Yet because of turnover in the conference during his tenure Lugar was the seventh most liberal Republican in the last Congress. Over the years new cohorts of GOP Senators have been more conservative than their elders, so Lugar’s position in political space has changed even though his stands mostly have not.

Of course Lugar has broken with conservatives on several issues over the years from the Dream Act to the Brady Bill. He led a bipartisan move to override President Reagan’s veto of sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986. But Lugar was hardly alone then. It was a GOP Senate that overrode Reagan’s veto. At that time Lugar was not a fringe figure in the GOP and it took a good deal more to be pushed outside the Republican tent than it does now.

More important than any particular vote, Lugar’s interest in working across the aisle is badly out of step with the mood of today’s GOP. As that party has become more conservative smaller and smaller deviations from the party line have become dangerous. For a long time being pro-choice was a litmus test which journalists used to determine who was a “moderate” Republican. Well, Lugar is not pro-choice. But if he voted for Alito and Bork (unlike several GOP Senators including Packwood, Specter and John Warner), Lugar also voted for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, a fact that angered some pro-life activists despite his many years of 100% National Right to Life Committee Ratings, his votes against abortion funding and support of a Constitutional Amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. Voting for a President’s Supreme Court nominees, especially those who would not radically alter the ideological balance of the Court, used to be standard practice, as Jonathan Chait notes, and Lugar’s votes for Sotomayor and Kagan reflected that custom, but those days are gone.
 There are other factors that explain the wide margin of Lugar’s defeat including his advanced age, his rusty campaigning skills after decades of easy wins and his ill-advised failure to maintain a residence in the state he represented for nearly two generations. Yet more importantly, Lugar’s experience is proof that in politics you can move by standing still.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Dysfunctional Politics (2)

I didn’t say much in Thursday’s post about the break down of politics in the UK. But the problem is there too.

Each year the Hansard Society publishes the result of a survey – and a detailed analysis – about public engagement. I have almost the complete series at home. The latest one is the most disturbing one of the series. It raises a number of questions about the level of interest and faith that people have in the functioning of British democracy. I would encourage you to download the report – and reflect upon what needs to be done.

Thursday 10 May 2012


The link to the video from Brookings was working when I posted the article below. It appears not to be working now. I will email Brookings.

Dysfunctional Politics (1)

“Politics isn’t working” – not exactly an original thought (in fact throughout history it’s a frequently made complaint), but there is a general feeling that something is wrong. And in the four geographical areas covered by this blog, the complaints are frequent and urgent. In the video below, Mann & Ornstein talk about their latest book (which I think is an important and high quality book – and should be read by anyone with an interest in the functioning (or sadly dysfunctioning) of democracy). It’s about Congress – but the disease described can be recognised elsewhere. For example – in France, Hollande was elected last Sunday – before the evening was out a UMP Mayor had expressed her view that he lacked legitimacy. http://www.ouest-france.fr/actu/actuDet_-Une-maire-UMP-demande-l-annulation-de-l-election-presidentielle_39382-2075433_actu.Htm In the British elections turnout again dropped. What is wrong? And what is to be done about it? Washminster will look at this matter in coming posts, in the meantime, this video has some food for thought

America’s Dysfunctional Politics: Why Now? What Can We Do About It?

Archived Webcast:

View more details on Brookings.edu

Thursday 3 May 2012

Local elections: 11 reasons why they matter

From an excellent "public service announcement" (a news item on the BBC News website this week).

Pondering whether or not to head down to the polling station in England, Scotland and Wales on Thursday to vote for your local councillor or mayor? Here are eleven reasons why the result of the elections could make a difference to you:

1) Unhappy with your council tax bill? Local councils decide how much you pay. The average council tax bill for a band D property in England in 2011-12 was £1,439, it was £1,162 in Wales, and in Scotland, £1,149. Council tax levels in England and Scotland were frozen or reduced that year and the UK government's been enticing English councils to freeze the rate again by making £805m available for those which limit rises to 2.5% - but ultimately, it's a decision for the local authority.

2) Councils spend a lot of your money - local government spending amounts to about 25% of all public spending in the UK. The largest slice of budgets goes on education, followed by social services - much of which is spent on elderly care - and the police - as well as council staff. In Wales, local government is one of the biggest employers. Local authorities also run library services - often at the forefront of local campaigns against spending cuts - and are responsible for about 50% of social housing across England and Wales, the rest being run by housing associations.

3) But they're having to make do with less cash - and who is in power will determine where savings are made. Councils get money from a variety of pots - but central government funding is being cut each year and, in England, will fall by 26% overall in real terms in the four years to 2014-15 - with a knock-on effect on grants to Scotland and Wales. In this climate, some authorities are trying to reduce their bills by handing over services they used to provide to private companies. Do you feel strongly about whether elderly care should be provided by the council or at arm's length by the private sector? Would rubbish collection be more efficient if it was done by a profit-making refuse company? Your vote could help determine how much say you have over local services in future.

4) Small things that bug you are probably the responsibility of the local authority. Potholes for example - 1.7m of which were apparently repaired in England and Wales last year - usually fall to the council to sort out. Local authorities build, manage and maintain about 96% of roads in England and 95% of roads in Wales. When budgets are tight, road maintenance is the sort of thing which might be getting squeezed. Councils are also generally responsible for parking regulation and enforcement - often controversial.

5) The ballot box is not just the place to have your say on the quality (or otherwise) of local services. It's also where you decide who the person will be on the other end of the telephone if you need to be re-housed or appeal to get your child into the school you wanted. If you're unhappy about the school your child has been allocated, or you live in overcrowded housing, your local councillor should be the person to help.

6) What your area will look like in ten years' time - or sooner - is to some extent determined by the local authority. County, metropolitan and unitary authorities are responsible for strategic planning, such as where housing and industry should be built. Metropolitan, district and unitary authorities also rule on planning applications. From your neighbour's loft conversion to new supermarkets and housing - the council has a say.

7) Even if you care little for local councillors - there's another poll going on this year. Do you want an elected mayor? Or do you vehemently not want an elected mayor? Referendums are taking place in ten English cities on the issue - if there's a big Yes vote, elections will take place in November. Meanwhile in Doncaster, which has had an elected mayor since 2002, there'll be a referendum on whether voters want to keep one. Liverpool and Salford are skipping the referendum stage altogether and going straight to holding their first mayoral elections.

8) Meanwhile in London, the first English city to get an elected mayor in 2000, incumbent Conservative Boris Johnson is squaring up against the man he unseated in 2008 - Labour's Ken Livingstone - and former London police chief Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems, among others. There are no council elections in the English capital this year, barring by-elections, but seats are up for grabs on the London Assembly, which scrutinises the mayor.

9) County councils and unitary authorities in England are also getting new powers over public health, and money to improve it, from April 2013. They can set their own priorities - so will be able to decide whether more money should go to anti-smoking services, obesity initiatives or programmes aimed at tackling alcoholism. They'll work with local doctors and NHS officials on buying in services but will also be taking health into account when making decisions about things like transport and leisure policies. The NHS says local political leadership "will be critical in ensuring public health receives the focus it needs" - that's where voters come in.

10) Quite aside from what it means to you - the results in local elections will be used, however accurately, to draw conclusions about the state of the parties nationally. With the next general election three years away, local elections will be the most widespread test of public opinion about the state of the coalition, Labour, the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. A party's poor performance at a local level can give the national HQ the jitters. Last year it was the Lib Dems who took a battering, prompting talk from Nick Clegg of more "muscular liberalism".

11) When politicians argue that they are answerable at the ballot box - this is what they're talking about. It's the only chance you'll get this year to make your voice heard. While voting is not compulsory in the UK as it is in Australia, it is seen as a civic duty and one that should not be taken for granted. Equal voting rights for men and women in the UK have only been around since 1928, following a long campaign for female suffrage.

Wednesday 2 May 2012


Yesterday the record breaking two-year session (a session normally lasts only one year - an excellent arrangement which has worked for years, and is useful for Parliament to have some leverage over the Government - a reason why Kings who abused the power over the length of sessions and Parliaments took criticism in our Past. The first session of a new Parliament is usually longer than normal - a may election will usually bring an extension to the following November - but TWO YEARS!!!) - came, finally to an end.

This is the quaint little ceremony which achieved that. I was watching from the gallery.

If you experience any problems viewing this press here.