David Puttnam retires from the House of Lords – and stepped down with a powerful speech for the Shirley Williams Memorial Lecture on the dangers to democracy.

You can read the speech at He had already written this before news of the shocking murder of Sir David Amess MP – only five years after the murder of Jo Cox MP.

This is not normal. These are not normal times.

And yet the indifference to all that has happened over the past five years that comes from too many high-profile decision-making political and media figures is all the more striking. It’s as if they have all been switched onto an autopilot because that is all they know. Here was one recent example:

On 12 October 2021 a joint Committee of Parliament published a Lessons Learnt report on Covid-19. You can read it here. It is damning. And yet the Government sent out a minister who does not specialise in any of the subjects up for debate to appear before the broadcast media to act as the media punchbag and repeat an agreed line to take. During my civil service days I was privy to more than a few occasions where we had to provide media briefing for ministers, including lines to take, things to concede on if pushed, and red lines on which no quarter would be given. So when Mr Barclay appeared before the media, he and his advisers will have agreed upon a strategy that involved refusing to apologise for anything. Which is becoming a predictable behaviour for an administration that looks for someone else to blame for its own failings.

But at least Mr Barclay showed up. His boss, the Prime Minister suspiciously went on holiday just before the report was released (something which Downing Street would have been aware of for a long time in advance) so was out of the country when the report was published.

…making it even harder for anyone to hold him to account. But then remember how he avoided an interview with Andrew Neil before the 2019 general election? Or his deliberate refusal to release the Intelligence & Security Committee’s report before that election? (Something that would have materially affected the result because it relates to national security – but in the end was released in the midst of the biggest pandemic the country had seen in over a century, so has since been forgotten about).

Above – and we see this with the shambles of how the Conservative Government is leaving the European Union – to the extent that other countries no longer trust the British Government.

Above – Emily Thornberry MP – Shadow International Trade Secretary, absolutely furious at the behaviour of ministers.

When Ms Thornberry was in Cambridge back in 2017 I asked her about a similar issue – the lack of contingency planning for a Leave vote, something the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee described as an act of gross negligence.

Above – Emily Thornberry with Cambridge Labour on Mill Road in April 2017.

Just over three years before the next general election has to be held…

…How much more damage can this administration do before any opposition figure begins to look like a Prime Minister-in-waiting, or any political party/movement looks like a government-in-waiting?

The latest shambles is the huge concerns from the sponsors of the Glasgow Climate Conference where some very prominent brands have slammed the organising. And this was supposed to be Johnson’s triumphal showpiece. As the former Green Party candidate for Cambridge in 2015, Dr Rupert Read has consistently said recently – and repeatedly, the Glasgow summit will fail.

Just as our supply chains are breaking down, so are our systems of governance

From every foreseen problem related to leaving the EU that has come to fruition, it’s as if every policy response from ministers has been designed to fail – so they can blame someone else. The temporary visas for freight drivers being an example. The only practical example I’ve seen of late to get more people into the industry is from Mayor Dr Nik Johnson who has put funding into free courses for potential HGV drivers.

Things go from bad to worse for our schools and hospitals – both of which have new Secretaries of State, but again I don’t see the urgency from ministers, I don’t see the actions that professionals on the ground have been calling out for, and yet we see the rising infection rates and hospitalisation rates.

And the Labour Party’s response to all of this? Implosion and infighting – judging by the £2million the party has spent on legal fees since the pandemic broke and the present leader was elected.

“Johanna Baxter, a member of the ruling national executive committee from the party’s pro-Keir Starmer wing, said costs used to be just 10% of that figure ,about £200,000 a year”

The Guardian, 26 Sept 2021.

Our systems and structures of national politics means that with so few MPs, The Greens and the Liberal Democrats hardly feature in the public’s mindset. The 1m additional votes that the Liberal Democrats got did not convert into any extra seats as they were all spread too thin across the country to make a difference. The Green Party experienced a similar thing in the 2015 general election when their national vote went up from 265,247 in 2010 (when Caroline Lucas won the first Green Party seat in Parliament in my old stomping ground of Brighton Pavilion) to over 1.1million in 2015 – but not gaining any additional seats. This is one of the reasons why I like the concept of the Supplementary Vote System that the London Assembly uses. As well as constituency seats there are London-wide seats that are calculated on a proportional system and help reduce the extremities that can be caused by First Past The Post. With that additional system, all votes count, so there’s a greater incentive for voters to turn out even if they live in a safe constituency seat.

It’s not just national systems that are broken, it’s our local ones too.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a local newspaper that covers a story of a locally-based high-tech firm making their fortune in Cambridge while in the same newspaper we read of Addenbrooke’s struggling or schools facing the lowest per-pupil funding in the country. But our system of local government has been broken for years – and yet the last time there was a major attempt to overhaul it was in the 1960s/70s

…which is why I went and bought an original copy of the Royal Commission Report on the study that was supposed to inform Labour’s proposals for such an overhaul – ones that were only partially followed through by Edward Health’s Government, giving us broadly what we have today. The most important bit is Volume 1 – which I have digitised for everyone to read here. It is radical and ground-breaking, and essential reading for anyone in local government and who is thinking about standing for election.

In the meantime, brace yourselves for a difficult winter.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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