Saturday, September 25, 2010

Trades Unions elect new Labour Leader

In our party we choose our party leader by a ballot of party members in which each member has one vote of equal value.

The Labour Party have just elected their new Leader in a system which gives some members several votes, and which allows Trades Union members who are not Labour Party members to have a third of the votes, and which allows those Trades Unions to promote a particualr candidate in the ballot mailing.

So they now have a Leader who has the support of neither the members nor the MPs.

No wonder they don't support Fairer Votes!

Blood, Sweat and Tears: What really happens at Federal Policy Committee

Two years ago I stood for election to the party's Federal Policy Committee (FPC). My primary reason for standing was that I wanted to help make sure that we did not ditch certain key policies from our General Election manifesto, and that I wanted to help ensure that the Manifesto was an effective campaigning document as well as a sound policy one.

There was a little bit of trepidation in this move, as I've never really been that excited about the detail of policy, although I think it's fair to say that I ended up fitting in reasonably well.

Top committees

I had previously been a member of two top committees.

Back when I worked for the Lib Dem Youth & Students (LDYS) I was a member of the first incarnation of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC) under the very effective chairmanship of Matthew Taylor MP. This brought together representatives from the MPs, Campaigns, ALDC and LDYS to plan themed campaigning across the party and was, I felt, generally successful. I am still very proud of the LDYS campaign packs that came out of this process and the successful way in which LDYS campaigning complemented that of the national party.

A few years later I was elected to the Federal Executive (FE) with the aim of improving the party's approach to budgeting and improving support for and coordination of training. I achieved some of this, but found the Executive to be a more frustrating affair, and that it didn't really seem to know what its role was.

I was delighted to be elected to the FPC, coming third on first preferences behind the significantly more experienced and highly intelligent Duncan Brack and the somewhat more famous than me Claire Rayner. I interpreted this as a reflection of the strong stance I had taken on maintaining the party's opposition to Tuition Fees in my FPC manifesto.

Having enjoyed the two years, and particularly having some input into the manifesto, I have decided to not restand, largely because I don't realistically have the time to do it properly (and I don't like taking on jobs I haven't got the time to do).

Do stand and vote

I would encourage anyone who wants to to stand (although there is not long left!) and would generally encourage voting reps to take the election seriously. The rest of this posting aims to give you some idea of why the FPC is important.

So what is it really like on FPC?

Well, it's mainly as mundane as you would probably expect it to be. Most of the time was spent commissioning policy working groups to draft policy papers, reviewing those papers, rewriting bits and pieces and sometimes choosing between policy options that the working groups came up with.

Probably 90% of the time was spent on this.

But the other 10% turned out to be a) quite exciting and b) quite important.

Unlike my experience of the FE, FPC certainly does know its role, and takes that role very seriously. On the FPC each person has one vote and each vote is equal, whether you are the Party Leader or a humble elected member like myself.

In general there is a lot of genuine consensus, but where there is a disagreement the majority rules. There is no fear at all about disagreeing with the Leader or senior spokespeople.

Boo, hiss

I'm not going to tell you about which individual voted which way on what (boo, hiss, I hear you shout), because if committee members went round doing that it would seriously damage the ability of the FPC to function. But I can say a bit about some of the key issues we discussed, some of which came out in a rather public way!

The biggest bust up was over Tuition Fees. Party policy was clearly in opposition to them, and that policy had been a major and successful plank of our 2005 manifesto. But several senior members of the committee did not believe that the policy was sustainable. In the run up to last year's conference various public statements were made by senior figures which suggested that we were going to ditch the policy, or at least that it would not be a funded policy in the manifesto.

To say that there was a bit of a reaction to this would be an understatement!

Within days a draft motion had been circulated between FPC members to go to conference to set the record straight. A large majority supported it. (Technically I think it was an amendment to our own pre-manifesto motion) This was unheard of and made it obvious that the FPC was at odds with the leadership.

During conference a letter to the papers was drafted and circulated, and a very large majority of FPC signed it. This letter set out very clearly that we were committed to existing policy and that we expected the policy to remain in the manifesto.

There was also a bit of a to do about the proposal from Vince Cable for a Mansion Tax.

The following FPC meeting was, shall we say, quite interesting.

Because of the strength of the FPC a solution had to be found, and I put forward the view that we needed to find a way of keeping the policy commitment whilst ensuring that the figures stacked up. Various negotiations went on and we eventually worked out the phased funding approach that ended up in the final manifesto.

Other key issues

Other key issues that the FPC had significant influence over were schools policy (rejecting something quite similar to the Free Schools policy currently being implemented), health policy and Council Tax.

On this latter issue there was a very exciting row at one meeting.

Again the majority of the FPC strongly backed standing party policy that we should replace the (highly unfair) Council Tax with a (fair and simple) Local Income Tax.

However several senior figures, particularly those who had struggled to explain the policy at the previous election, made an attempt to drop/water down/replace the commitment.

It is fair to say that the resulting discussion got a little heated, and that the ensuing 'debate' was not carried out on the usual restrained basis, but everyone eventually calmed down and some progress was made.

Once again it was the strength of the majority view that prevailed, after some careful negotiation around the precise wording, with some wording that I proposed eventually being adopted.


And this links to my final point. As an individual member of FPC you do get the chance to have a direct influence on policy, and on the manifesto. In the same way that Slartibartfast was very proud of his fjords, I am extremely proud of some of the wording of the bits about abolishing the Council Tax and investing in Shipyards.

Throughout the process, and whilst not always agreeing with them on some key policies, my liking and respect for both Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander steadily grew, and the same goes for the incredibly hard-working Vice-Chairs Jeremy Hargreaves and Richard Grayson.

So, with apologies that I haven't named names, or told you which Shadow Cabinet member behaved in a way my children would get a good telling off for, I hope that you will be convinced that the FPC fulfils an important role, and doesn't shy away from asserting its view when necessary.

If you are thinking of standing, and are someone who knows their own views and will stand up for them, please stand.

If you a voting representative, please vote.

And if you are a member of FPC, please forgive me any indiscretions in this article and the very best of luck with the important job you do for our party.

That Was The Conference That Was

I always enjoy party conference and my 24th Autumn Conference, and the party's first in Government, was no exception.

Apart from the higher level of security it was little different to others on the face of it, although the mood was definitely a little different.

Lib Dem Conference goers have got used, over the years, to the media coverage of our conferences bearing little relation to what those of us there experienced. If anything I would say there was less of that this time.


Journalists may have to come to Liverpool expecting bust ups and for the leadership to be given a hard time, but in general that didn't happen and their reporting was more subdued.

I thought the article by Andrew Sparrow in the Guardian - 'Lib Dem Conference: 10 things I've learned' - summed the change in attitude up well.

I think it also reflected the steady change in mood of party activists too. A week ago many didn't really know what to expect. There are very real concerns about the impact of the coalition, and particularly the coming cuts, and party conference might have been the place that concern would turn to anger.

In fact the opposite happened. Nick Clegg and other leading figures rightly acknowledged the concerns, encouraged a feeling that we were all part of a team that would face the problems together, and moved on to set out the very real achievements we have already made in government.

Mingling freely

Nick, Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State mingled freely (and as usual) with party members around the fringes and in the bars, and spoke freely and frankly about how things are going.

From a personal perspective it was great to see people I have known for 20 years or more chatting about what it is like to be a Minister and what they are starting to achieve. For example I had a long chat with Jeremy Browne, who I have known since we were fighting NUS elections together, about the life of a Minister and how hard he is working to continue to serve his constituents (something Jeremy does exceptionally well). It was also good to chat to (the greatly underrated) Danny Alexander about his onerous responsibilities and his expectations about what was to come.

Where this conference differed from previous ones was that there was a much more serious tone to a lot of the debate and discussion.

No longer are the Lib Dems discussing policy in the abstract, but policy that might be implemented by the Government, or at least feed in to its thinking.

No stifling

It was also very positive to see that there has been no attempt to stifle debate. The leadership clearly disagreed with the motion about Free Schools and Academies, but did so by joining the debate. There was no attempt to stifle dissent, and no return of the kind of stroppiness we would have seen back in Paddy's day.

The other factor that I think played a big part in settling people's nerves was the strong promotion of the the Fairer Votes Referendum. From the rally last Saturday onwards the party promoted the importance of the referendum, an issue which broadly unites the party and gives people a very positive reason to get out there and campaign.

Humble organiser

For me it was a quiet conference. Being back in the role of a humble Constituency Organiser my time was largely my own. I helped run one training session, and had a couple of meetings to attend, but apart from those spent more time in debates and chatting to folk than for many years.

It was great to have time to sit down and talk to people rather than the hurried hello in passing that I had got used to in my years as a Campaigns Officer. It was also great to socialise with many of my former colleagues and, in particular, to finally get to see the hilarious Will Howells perform at one of the local Comedy Clubs.

All in all this conference did the job it needed to do. We left with a sense that while Nick and our ministerial team are set on their coalition course, they do understand the concerns of members and activists. We also left with a long list of genuinely liberal achievements which have been made, are being made and will be made soon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I'm Backing Tim Farron for Party President

The role of Party President is a flexible one. There are some things the President has to do, like chairing the Federal Executive, but most of the roll is down to how whoever is elected to the post wants to play it.

Ros Scott has done a good job, and was the right person for the last two years.

My reasons for deciding to support Tim Farron are based on my view of what kind of President the party is going to need over the next two years, which will be very different from the last.

We are very likely to face a difficult few years as a party. Even if our decisions to join the coalition and prioritise cutting the deficit are proven to be right in the long run there will be a few hard years before it becomes clear.

And it is not going to be easy for a party which has developed its collective skills as a campaigning opposition party to adapt to the role of a party of government.

During this period it is vitally important that we have a Party President who can keep morale up, keep the troops rallied and communicate our distinctiveness through the media.

My experience of Tim is that he has the skills needed to be that kind of President in spades.

I've known Tim since we were both involved in the National Union of Students. We were both Presidents of our respective Students' Unions (him Newcastle 91-92, me Leicester 92-93), and we attended several NUS Conferences together where it is fair to say that being a vocal Liberal Democrat was something of a novelty and often drew an excitable, noisy and negative response from a largely left-wing audience.

Even back then Tim was a passionate and engaging speaker, and to this day I always look forward to hearing Tim speak. His speech to the fairer votes rally on Saturday was no exception, despite his lack of preparation time.

Some people rightly question whether or not an MP should take the role of President.

My view is that it depends on the individual and the circumstances.

During the last Parliament Tim turned a wafer thin majority into a massive one. He did this while having a key role in the Parliamentary Party.

I am certain that he is more than capable of combining the role of a backbench MP with that of President and wouldn't support him if I had any doubts about this.

And I also know that when Tim says that he will be supportive of Nick and his role, whilst also being a critical friend of the coalition, that he understands the distinction between these two things and will do both of them well.

Finally I know that Tim's is a liberal through and through, and that he has given his heart and soul to campaigning for our party. During the next few years it is going to be hard work on the ground and Tim had been there and done that. He will lead from the front and enthuse members and activists wherever he goes.

So please vote for Tim Farron to be our next Party President.

The other three declared candidates are also great candidates, each in their different ways. It is great thing that our party's democracy is such that such a diverse field can stand and campaign.

I would like to put a plug in for the pledge bank supporting Jennie Rigg. Jennie does not have a huge income and if she wins will need support to get by. No-one should feel unable to put themselves forward because of financial worries so, if you are able, and regardless of who you are supporting, please consider making the pledge to support her.

How the coalition is affecting local results

As readers of Lib Dem Voice will know (and there seem to be a lot of you, from the numbers who've already mentioned our victory on Thursday to me at conference) we have just celebrated the third of three local by-election victories in the Oxford West & Abingdon (OxWAb) constituency since May.

Sadly all three by-elections were caused by the deaths of long-standing, effective and hard-working local councillors, Audrey Tamplin, John Wyse and Pat Hobby, each of whom I had helped elect originally and each of whom I had a lot of respect for.

Following our loss of Evan's seat in the General Election there was a real danger (as the party has seen in other places) that our local seats would start to fall like dominoes as a result.

But the activists in OxWAb are, I'm pleased to say, made of sterner stuff. Within a few days of the General Election our Abingdon team were back out on the streets canvassing and delivering for a Town Council seat in Dunmore ward, one of a minority of wards in the constituency that has seen some Conservative representation in recent years.

We selected the excellent Julia Bricknell who had fought and won the same ward in a district council by-election a year ago, and she worked her socks off. I'd like to say we fought an excellent but it was actually a fairly straightforward one. We had a good, local candidate, a positive record of working for the town and a good local issue around the need for a full interchange on the A34 at Lodge Hill.

And the coalition, which was being formed during the period of the campaign? A fair few people mentioned it, some negatively and some positively. A very small number, typically of previous tactical supporters, said they wouldn't vote for us a as a result, but a few others gave us credit for making a difficult decision and went with us a result.

But the over-riding message is that nearly everybody said nothing about the coalition at all and wanted to talk about local issues in the town.

We held the seat with very little change from previously.

The day after polling day in Dunmore was the nominations deadline for a Cherwell District by-election in Kidlington North, at the other end of the constituency. This seat had been held for 12 years by the indefatigable John Wyse who had originally been elected in an election with the slogan 'Vote Wyse-ly' (see what we did there?) and who had built up a formidable reputation over his years as a councillor.

If we were to lose ground to the Tories in OxWAb, Kidlington North would likely be one of the first places to go.

We selected a keen young candidate in Alaric Rose who proved to be a real find. A local resident, he got out on the doorsteps and personally spoke to hundreds of residents. The Kidlington team, augmented by help from across the constituency and beyond, worked very hard and secured another victory.

As far as the coalition was concerned it was much the same as in Dunmore. A small number of people against, some of whom said they would not vote for us as a result, but many others pro, and an overall sense that in a local election the work our Kidlington team have been doing to improve the village is far more important than what is going on in Westminster.

Kidlington was different to the two Abingdon by-elections in that Labour did run and active campaign, with leaflets attacking the coalition. They also had a big team out on polling day, including several helpers from Oxford East. It didn't seem to make much difference and they still trailed in a poor third.

And finally (and, to be honest, the novelty of by-elections was starting to wear off at this point) we faced out third by-election in Abingdon Northcourt.

We were very lucky to persuade one of our long-standing local deliverers, Helen Pighills, to stand. The campaign got off to a slower start - it was mid-August and most of the electorate and quite a few of our key activists were away. I even managed a lovely week in Somerset myself.

We got a couple of leaflets out and from the Bank Holiday the campaign started motoring. Helen canvassed regularly, and the Abingdon team once again trooped out to help her.

And the coalition - well, sorry to disappoint those of you looking for doom and gloom, but it was exactly the same as the previous two by-elections. As soon as folk knew it was a town council by-election they wanted to talk about the town. And once again the combination of a very good local candidate, our positive record of improving Abingdon, and highlighting the Conservative run County Council's failures, was enough to deliver us a 3% swing from the Tories.

Once again a few people raised the coalition and/or the coming cuts, but it was only a small number, and those who wouldn't vote for us as a result were even fewer.

So as far as our campaigning through to next May is concerned I think there are a few useful lessons (and none of them new ones!):
  • Keep it local. In local elections the voters are primarily concerned about local issues and our local record.
  • Work hard. In each of the three by-elections we delivered more leaflets and knocked on more doors than the opposition.
  • Keep it simple. In each by-election we stuck to a small number of simple messages promoting our strong candidate, our positive local record, pointing out the Tory County's failures and squeezing the Labour and Green vote throughout.
To any experienced Lib Dem campaigner this will be neither news nor rocket science. But in the face of the media criticism the coalition is facing it is worth reinforcing.

Those of us who remember campaigning in the post-merger 1988-1991 period know that we can win seats and councils at local level even in the face of dire national poll ratings (we were at about 4% in the polls when I helped us win control of Oadby & Wigston in one of those years!).

But we will only win where we put in the work on the ground. Anyone who thinks that it will be as easy this time round, or that they can rely on our national success, is deluding themselves. Whenever you have started your campaigns previously, start earlier. However many leaflets you have delivered previously, deliver more. And however many doors you have knocked on previously, knock on more.

Good luck!

Protecting our distinctiveness

After two days at party conference it has been very interesting to listen to the views of Lib Dem activists about the coalition, its policies and the implications.

There is overwhelming agreement that going into the coalition was the only game in town.

There is a lot of recognition that on a number of key issues, particularly civil liberties and the environment, we have already made great strides and there is more to come.

And there has been jubilation that there is to be a referendum on a fairer voting system next May - an issue which has brought many of us into the party over the decades and which Lib Dem activists will relish the chance to campaign on.

Where there is disagreement is about how the party maintains its distinctiveness whilst at the same time playing its proper role in Government.

There is no simple answer to this, although there are a whole range of opinions.

Evan Harris, writing on the Guardian website, argues that we need to be ready to set out which things the coalition did that we agreed with and which we didn't. I can see what Evan is getting at, but there is an inherent danger with this approach that it will make us look weak (why did you let it go through if you opposed it) and duplicitous (why did you support it at the time and tell us you don't now).

At the other end of the spectrum are those senior figures who tell us that we should simply trust the leadership and not attack Tory policies at all because we wouldn't like it if they attacked ours. This view is, frankly, barking. In an event there has been too much experience of 'trusting the leader' only to find out later that he had been seeing someone behind our back.

Nick's line is a bit more nuanced. He sensibly points out that he would be laughed out of court if he turned up to introduce some new policy to the media while at the same time pointing out that he and the Lib Dems disagree with it.

At the same time he and others are strongly encouraging us to campaign very hard for a YES vote in the referendum, and describing it as our opportunity to have an all out battle with the Tories.

On the face of it this is a bit of a contradiction, but I think it actually points in the direction we should head in.

Amongst many activists there is a further concern.

There are several areas where we have clearly compromised, or where the Tory approach appears to be dominant, that coincide with known differences of emphasis within our party. The coalition's policy of 'Free Schools' is one such area. There was a lot of debate within our party about the approach to schools, and some support from the party leadership for a policy similar to the coalition's policy. This view was rejected by the Federal Policy Committee and by Conference, yet is now Government policy.

So what approach should we take?

In broad terms I think Nick is basically right. It is in our interest, and the interest of the country, for the coalition Government to look united, particularly in its approach to the economy. We have a direct interest in demonstrating that we can govern in a responsible way and, in so doing, that coalition government is nothing to be feared.

We can also choose which elements of the government's agenda we particularly want to highlight, and claim credit for having achieved things which were in our manifesto.

But we can also choose some ground on which we agree to disagree with the Tories. In some cases the coalition agreement sets out quite openly where these differences of opinion exists: on changing the voting system, tuition fees and Trident.

In my view the public will be quite happy to see the two parties disagreeing on a limited number of issues, particularly if we can be seen to do so in a mature manner.

The harder part may be the run up to the next election.

At that point we will, I hope, want to set out our own distinctive set of policies for the 2015-20 parliament.

I can't see how we can, at that point, suddenly disown large parts of what the coalition government has implemented.

We will have to write a manifesto setting out how we will take Britain forward from that point and set out a distinctive platform based on our principles. The emphasis will need to be on what happens next, and not on criticising what has gone before.

We will need to highlight those things we are most proud of in the coalition's record but I can't see that we go on the attack against things that we have helped implement.

The reality of coalition government is that there are a lot of areas where a genuine consensus can be found, quite a few where a compromise is made between two positions, and a few where one side has to concede to the other.

If we are to demonstrate that coalition government can work, something that is vital to our future, then we should not be frightened of being honest it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conference 24

I arrived in sunny Liverpool last night for what will be my 24th Autumn Party Conference.

I suspect it could be one of the more interesting ones!

No doubt the media, as ever, will be full of stories about how the party is about to go down the plughole, but in the 24 years I've seen them say that it hasn't happened yet!

I hope we will see the party start to assert itself. In my view we need to put a bit more emphasis on what our policies are and what we stand for, rather than appear to fully support everything the coalition decides.

I do think the public will give us credit for having taken the decision to go into the coalition, but I also think they will respect us even more if we are honest about some of the compromises we are having to make.

Anyway - I'm off to train folk now, so I'll see you later.