A prime minister and chancellor said to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people.’   Party leaders rushing to publish details of their meetings with donors.  The main parties trashed by ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway in the Bradford by-election.  They’re at it again, aren’t they?  B****y politicians!

Well, that’s the common perception.

But who’d be a politician?  Everyone’s whipping boy (and girl) and ranking somewhere between pimps and estate agents in public perception of worth.

Who’d be a politician is an interesting question because given our party system, one answer is that damned few are qualified to even seek election, let alone achieve it.

The truth is the gene pool for our politicians is alarmingly small.

Back in 2009 the House of Commons library published some interesting statistics on political party membership.

In 2008, membership of the three largest UK-wide political parties was estimated to be

  • Conservative – 250,000
  • Labour – 166,000
  • Liberal Democrat – 60,000

In the same year, there were 46,147,877 people on the electoral roll in the UK (Source: ONS)

In other words, 1.03% of the electorate were members of the three main parties.

From that number, the parties need to find candidates for thousands of elected positions for the EU, UK, and Scottish parliaments, the Welsh assembly and for hundreds of local councils.

Consider also that most members of political parties will never be candidates for election.

Many won’t want to seek election.  Some may want to but would not get past their party’s selection procedure.

Let’s assume that the ‘non-candidates’ are 90% of a party’s membership.  It seems a reasonable figure although I have no evidence for it and would welcome better information if anyone has it.

These assumptions mean that the political ‘gene pool’ for the three main parties to seek electable candidates is no more than 47,600 people, or 0.103% of the UK electorate.

No wonder BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme today was able to find an Asian woman from Bradford whose interest as a candidate for election had been solicited at different times not only by Tories, Labour and LibDems but even by Respect, which is where we started with George Galloway (she turned them all down).

When we have it, we are neglectful of and indifferent to democracy.  What a contrast to countries where people yearn to be free and turn out in vast numbers, when they can, to vote.  A few years ago South Africa reminded us of this.  Today – literally – Burma fulfils the same role.


Pious expression please.  Deep meaningful gaze.  And all hail ordinary hardworking families.

Why shouldn’t you?

After all politicians use this meaningless cliché all the time.  No point in citing chapter and verse.  Most of them are up to it, most of  the time.

Why do they have to use this drivel?

What do they mean by ‘families’?  Mum and dad plus an average 2.2 children?  No other variations, perhaps just slightly unconventional, allowed?

What’s wrong with people who are not in families at all?

What’s so good about being ‘ordinary’?  Why only ordinary families?  Aren’t most families extraordinary in one way or another?

Again, do hard workers only come in families?  No hardworking singles around?  Are all families, no sorry all ordinary families, hardworking?

This is no more than a lazy sort of sucking up to people who are not daft enough to fall for it.

I say to you…oops, no, that’s another cliché a high proportion of the political class insist on using.

Rant over.  For the time.


There’s an old song lyric

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it


On that basis I guess you’d have to concede that Barack Obama is up there with the best.

Take a look (not the whole 1 hour and 5 minutes unless you’re a real enthusiast) at his 2012 State of the Union Address to Congress.

I guess most people in the UK saw the tiniest clip from his speech on the TV news last month.  What that wouldn’t have shown is his mastery of public communication – the words, the pace, the body language, the eye contact, the back-up facts on the related presentation, the ordinary Americans up there in the gallery as Michelle Obama’s guests – the works.

Of course it’s all geared towards this year’s presidential election.  But based on this performance, how could any sane citizen not rush to re-elect the man later this year?

Well, I guess the answer lies in who the Republicans eventually select to put up against him, not to mention how the US economy does over the next nine months or so.

But they say incumbent politicians lose elections, opponents don’t win them.  And on this performance you’d have to admit Obama’s got a damned good chance of serving a second term.

In none of this, you’ll notice, do I comment on the many facts favourable to Obama in his speech and the related presentation.  But hey, what do you expect, there’ll be plenty who do that and after all this is politics.

It’s good to know the spirit of compromise is alive and well in the town council that serves the attractive town of Bideford in North Devon (mission – the exciting to deliver the information you need about our decision making processes and support community participation in local democracy) supported by sundry national lobby groups with an axe to grind.

The issue that has occupied a good deal of the energy and time of the sixteen elected representatives of the good folk of Bideford is the earth-shattering question of whether their formal council meetings should start with a prayer or not.

This otherwise quaint custom became a matter of contention because a councillor who is an atheist objected to the routine blessing of the council’s deliberations by a man of the cloth (I’m not sure whether the body corporate of the council is advanced enough to admit a woman of the cloth).  He claimed to be ‘disadvantaged and embarrassed by the practice.’

The council have apparently discussed this burning topic three times without resolution and the upshot is that the National Secular Society has taken a case to the High Court in support of the councillor concerned.  To highlight the absurdity of the case the disadvantaged and embarrassed councillor is now an ex-councillor, presumably having resigned out of disgust or been rejected by his electors for the same reason.  Judgement in the case is currently reserved (lawyer speak for a decision is yet to be given).

On the BBC Today programme this week a spokesman for the NSS was countered by someone equally small-minded from the Christian Institute, so listeners could get a balanced view of this important issue.  For balanced read two lots of propaganda instead of one.

What better subject could there be for a rant as the HelpGov blog transforms itself into something a little more contentious and sheds the need to consider what potential clients think about it?

I think the rant’s already happened, but just to pile on the agony, doesn’t it make you despair?  Surely sixteen sensible adults could reach a compromise on something so fundamentally innocuous?

In the meantime the euro is collapsing, we seem to be creating a lost generation of unemployed young people, the world economy is probably moving into prolonged recession and the planet is arguably warming up to a point at which Bideford, for one, may well disappear under rising sea levels.

The only saving grace in the whole sorry tale is that town councils in England, while perhaps ‘supporting community participation in local democracy’ do…well not very much at all.  Their big brothers and sisters – the district, unitary and county councils are much more sensible.  I hope.

Chancellor George Osborne has just announced that the coalition government’s council tax freeze in England will be extended to 2012/13 and will include the devolved administrations providing they abide by the same rules that he has set English councils (Scotland has already ‘enjoyed’ a council tax freeze for several years funded by its SNP government).

Put simply, the chancellor’s rules are that if a council limits its annual spending increase to 2.5% and does not increase its council tax the government will provide additional funding to bridge the gap.

Of course 2.5% is below the rate of inflation so in real terms councils are being asked to spend less money each year.  But that’s another story.

A typical headline that greets these initiatives is Chancellor throws lifeline to hard-pressed council tax payers.  I’ve invented that one but you’ll be familiar with the style.

These ‘freezes’ are typically said, in today’s easy cliché, to be a win-win-win situation:

  • The government wins because it helps keep inflation down and gets the credit for helping people (invariably characterised as ordinary decent hard-working people) in hard times
  • The council wins because it shares the credit for keeping the tax down
  • The council tax payer obviously wins because their tax doesn’t go up.

The truth is slightly more complex.

Take a look at the statistics.

Assume for ease of calculation a council with a yearly spend of £1,000,000, 75% of whose spend is currently funded by central government.  The £1,000,000 is unrealistically low (think 10 or 100) but the 75% is not untypical.

If that council accepts the government’s offer of 2.5% extra money and doesn’t increase its council tax, this is what happens over five years:


Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5

Council spend






Additional spend funded by central government





Total central government funding






% funded by central government






In other words, the percentage of the council’s spending funded directly by central government creeps inexorably upward.

In the short term you might say ‘So what?’ and councillors certainly find it convenient not to have to raise the council tax.

But all concerned would do well to remember the old saying He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Scottish councils have already found this, with their council tax freeze linked to a concordat with the Scottish government that includes a single outcome agreement in which they and their local partners have to agree with the government how they will help deliver their national priorities.

A quick glance across the water to the Republic of Ireland gives a taste of what could eventually happen.  As Wikipedia (not always right but near enough on this occasion) puts it

Following the abolition of domestic property rates in the late 1970s, local councils have found it extremely difficult to raise money…[National government] is a significant source of funding at present…The dependence on Exchequer has led to charges that the Republic has an overly centralised system of local government…numerous studies…have recommended the reintroduction of some form of local taxation/charging regime, but these are generally seen as politically unacceptable.

To mix my metaphors, as the link between taxation and democratic representation is weakened councils will inevitably become more emasculated and increasingly the hand maiden of central government.

Not a good idea.

In my recent post on How to spot dodgy research about the public sector I mentioned publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions (OS) “to which I shall probably return”.  Well this is it – the return.

I’m uncharacteristically cross with myself because I’ve established a modest track record in commenting on stuff like this (see the footnote to the post mentioned above) but this is one I missed first time round.  Still, a reprise of what others have already said and a few additional comments are not out of order.

The first hit today on Google about this so-called “research” takes you to a press notice by the UK government department of communities and local government (DCLG) back on 17 June.  Headlined Shining a light on council spending could save up to £450 per household it’s worth quoting

…cutting edge analysis of council spending data by procurement experts Opera Solutions has revealed that greater transparency coupled with improved analysis is the key to unlocking massive savings by driving down costs…The report argues that Local Government, by adopting new processes and making better use of spending analysis, could replicate these kind of savings across a wide range of back office functions, with no impact on quality of service and reduce spending by up to £10 billion a year. 

And secretary of state Eric Pickles added approvingly

“Let there be no doubt whatsoever – today’s figures show that there is significant scope for councils to make taxpayers’ money work even harder. We’ve always said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the availability of financial data has helped identify numerous ways that councils can reduce expenditure while offering the same or better services to residents”

The nature of Opera Solutions’ cutting edge analysis was exposed by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian newspaper.  He said

Every now and then, the government will push a report that’s so assinine, and so thin, you have to check it’s not a spoof.

Goldacre went on to explain

The meat of it, the analysis, is presented in a single three-line table. Opera took the recently released local government spending data for three councils, and decided how much it reckoned could be saved by bulk purchasing.

[Opera Solutions] did its estimates on three areas: for energy bills (a £7m spend), and solicitors fees (£6m), it thought councils could save just 10%. The third category – mobile phone bills – were tiny in comparison (just £600,000) but here, and here alone, Opera reckons councils can save 20%, by getting people on better tariffs.

He then did a hatchet job on the whole, my word, sham.  I won’t steal his thunder but click through and read what he says.  It exemplifies precisely the ten infallible signs of dodgy research I posted recently.

Predictably, the Daily Mail had already waded in uncritically to condemn the alleged waste by “clueless councils”.  But others, like the PublicNet web site, acknowledged Opera Solutions’ work wasn’t all it seemed.  They admitted

Publicnet is among a number of media organisations that published this story in good faith.

And on the WhatDoTheyKnow web site you can find a number of items relating to Freedom of Information requests to the DCLG from one Edward Rudolf.  The DCLG seem to be finding excuses to not answer his questions but he has a keenly forensic approach to the subject and you can sense he’s not going to give up.  I don’t know him but more power to his elbow.

I’m not sure what I can add to all this but here are a few tit bits.

  • For a company seeking publicity about their work, Opera Solutions are remarkably coy about letting people see their “research”.  On their web site you’ll find you have to give your contact details to access what they optimistically call one of their White Papers.  Ironic in light of  Eric Pickles’ statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.  Somehow Ben Goldacre managed to open up access to the report on the OS web site so despite their coyness you can find the whole six page magnum opus here (but don’t hold your breath).
  • Also of passing interest on the OS web site is their characterisation of this PR-dressed-up-as-research as “Prepared for the Government of the United Kingdom”.  Sounds impressive doesn’t it?  I’ve prepared many things for the Government of the United Kingdom.  They never asked for them and, unlike the OS effort, I doubt if they took any notice of them.  Let’s hope Edward Rudolf’s FOI requests tease out whether this work was commissioned or unsolicited.
  • A general lesson for all of us from this unfinished saga is a reminder of how major parts of the media publish PR guff as news without engaging their brains to analyse the latest press release that suits their prejudices or fills a last minute space.

As I’ve said before, the sadness of this sort of stuff is that mud sticks.  Once again people without full access to the facts will find yet another reason to believe the public sector in general and local government in particular needs a good shaking up.

PS – this doesn’t purport to tell the whole story on this subject.  There is a lot more out there in cyberspace including a critique by local government lawyers of the OS publication, as well as a small admission by them that their claimed savings for local government were “extrapolated” [and some]

Regular readers will know I’ve criticised dodgy research about the public sector on a number of occasions*.  Recent publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions, to which I shall probably return [I did], prompts me to share the 10 infallible signs of dodgy research, of which there seems to be an increasing amount.

  1. It’s carried out by an organisation hoping to sell something
  2. It says it’s based on a sample of public agencies/government departments/local authorities/NHS bodies/managers but it doesn’t tell you anything about the sample – how many, how they were chosen or their characteristics
  3. Where data is quoted the source is vague or unstated
  4. The organisation concerned wants you to contact them via a PR company
  5. As much money seems to have gone into the presentation and production of the report as the content
  6. The organisation has little or no track record of working with or for the public sector, or indeed has shown no previous interest in the sector
  7. They also have little or no track record of working in the UK
  8. You can find a press release about the research but the only way to get a copy of the research itself is to give your details through a web site
  9. A parliamentarian sympathetic to the interests of the organisation concerned almost immediately takes up its cause uncritically, quoting the conclusions as if they were proven facts
  10. If whatever the research promises (savings, improved service, greater efficiency) looks too good to be true it is.

Have you got any tell-tale signs of dodgy research about the public sector you’d like to share?  Let us know.

* See for example: