Monday, September 19, 2011

#ldconf Sunday: In which we discovered we weren't married to the Tories, just sharing a flat with them, or something

Danny tells conference we should aim for £12.5K income tax allowance
Sarah tells conference the Pupil Premium is to double
Vince tells conference that excessive high pay should be tackled
Danny (again) tells conference that the richest will be made to pay their tax
And Tim even tells conference that we're not married to the Tories

All in all it's a bit like the old days, lots of agreement about the things the Lib Dems would like to see happen to make our country a better, fairer place.

The difference is that now the Lib Dems making these announcements are Ministers and our policies are already being enacted.

Cutting taxes for ordinary workers

Danny Alexander's keynote speech, and his later interview with Andrew Neil, which was entertaining to watch, set out what I think will be the single most important policy for the party at the next election.

Though not agreed as party policy yet (as Danny himself was quick to point out), a proposal that the income tax allowance should rise to the income level of someone working full time on the Minimum Wage has been floated as a Lib Dem aspiration for the next Parliament.

This policy if both right in principle and smart politics for the party. 

It is right because it targets the most help to those on the lowest earnings, increases the incentive to work and simplifies and reduced the cost of running the tax system.

It is smart politics because by the time of the next election the rise in the allowance to £10K will almost certainly be our most visible success and will demonstrate our belief in fairness, that we have delivered on our manifesto and that we were able to win on major policies in the coalition.  Pledging to go further will therefore have credibility and will provide a very strong positive reason for people to back us again.

Personally I'd like us to go much further on tax: combining income tax and NI at all levels; simplifying the rates; shifting the overall burden further from those on median and lower incomes to higher incomes; and further removing complications to the system.

More cash for poorest pupils

Similarly Sarah Teather's announcement that the funding for the Pupil Premium - the extra cash given to schools to support children from poor households - is to double, is a big win for the Lib Dems in coalition, and a policy that will steadily sink in as the Parliament progresses.

In my view the amount of money being spent so far has been enough to make a start, but against the backdrop of a tight overall funding settlement hasn't really taken off yet.  This announcement takes us further in the right direction and, again, will be something we can build on next time.

We're not married to the Tories, it's more of a flat-share, or something

Without wanting to extend the metaphor (that way madness lies) it was good to hear my mate Tim Farron's strong, passionate and very funny speech.

Although pretty much every Lib Dem conference rep understands the nature of a coalition government for one term of office, it is worth our President setting it out so clearly for a wider audience.

Tim is hugely popular in the party and hearing him set out the clear differences between us and the Tories was refreshing and motivating.  It is the speech everyone was talking about in the bars last night.

Accreditation concerns

As has been widely reported conference reps backed a motion critical of the accreditation process adopted for this conference.  There were concerns about who would have access to data, who had final say on attendance and some important issues around how transgender reps were treated by the process.

I think there is acceptance that security needs to be tighter now that we are in government, but reps thought the way it was done this year was excessive.

My own take on this is that a large part of the problem has been presentational.  As Mark Pack pointed out recently the party could have communicated much more effectively with reps about the process.  I for one don't like being told that I have been accredited by the Police, rather than by the party, and I hope the lessons have been learned for next year.

It is, however, interesting that we have been criticised for discussing these issues in open at our conference by critics for other parties, and Labour in particular.  This is because, as Lib Dems, we actually care about civil liberties, that security measures are proportionate and that our conferences are open and inclusive.  I appreciate that Labour forgot about any similar concerns decades ago.

The drugs debate

Conference also passed a very intelligent drugs policy, with a lot less furore than I remember around a similar debate back in 1994 when the then LDYS proposed something similar.  One of the highlights of that conference for me was my redesign of the party logo for the LDYS conference flyers by adding a nice fat spliff hanging out of libby bird's mouth ;-)

And finally ...

The most enjoyable part of conference for me is meeting up with people I have made friends with during the years I have been involved with the party.  I won't list all of them but yesterday I think I bumped into people I've worked with at just about every stage of my career in the party, including Arnie Gibbons, who I helped get elected to Leicester City Council back in 1989, a group including Tim Prater, Simon Foster, Colin Penning and Richard Gadsden during an impromptu LDYS reunion, many of my former Campaigns Dept colleagues including the now very important Shaun Roberts, and I also managed to meet a couple of recent twitter/blogger people that I've exchanged messages with but never met face to face.

Lib Dems are generally a lovely, friendly and diverse bunch and it's invigorating to be spending a few days with them.

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