Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

#ldconf Monday (2): In which I am inspired by those I was asked to inspire

The most enjoyable part of Monday for me was away from the conference itself.

An old friend and colleague, Simon Foster, is now a Politics Lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College, and he had asked me to go and speak to his A2 Politics group about Liberalism.

This term the group are learning about the main political ideologies, so the arrival of the Liberal Democrat conference in the city has enabled many of his students to get some hands on experience of a political party.

Not being in any way academic myself, I was a little unsure of where to start.  I ended up deciding to talk about how I had become involved in politics (25 years ago I would have been sitting in my A Level Politics class!), how I worked out I was a Liberal, what Liberalism means to me and how that links with some of the issues the Liberal Democrats have been discussing this week.

Simon gave me a lift over to the College and blimey it's impressive.  I took my A Levels at the then Sir William Turners Sixth Form College in Redcar which had about 160 students in each f its two years.  It was tiny and was recently closed and demolished after merging with the bigger local FE College.

Birmingham Met is on an entirely different scale. The Matthew Boulton campus (which used to be a college in its own right) seemed to be as big as a small university.

By coincidence the College were also about to receive a visit from (Baroness) Margaret Sharp, Lib Dem peer and education policy expert, which did mean that coffee and buns had been laid on.  I got to talk with a diverse group of youngsters who were waiting for her about the courses they were doing and their aspirations for the future.

I then got taken up to Simon's classroom and watched the first part of the lesson which was about the main principles of Liberalism, a nice lead in to what I had in mind to say.

It was immediately clear that Simon's students were a bright bunch, as well as a real mix, and they were very engaged in the discussion.  It also struck me that whatever some people might say about exam standards they group were working at a higher level than I remember from my A Level course 25 years ago.

I then got up and did my bit.  I talked about how I had first got interested in politics when I did my A Levels and that the first politician I went to hear speak was Shirley Williams, then MP.  This was obviously the moment when Baroness Sharp was going to turn up on her tour of the College which she then did.  The consequence of this was that she had to sit an listen to me explaining Liberal ideology for ten minutes, which is a bit of a role reversal!

She and her entourage left, and I went on to link Liberal theory with some of the issues we have been dealing with as a party:  relating the ID Cards issue back to Mill, the pupil premium to positive liberty etc.

Most of the session was then left for discussion and it was, for me, a joy to take part in.  The standard of debate was high, and we tackled some difficult issues.  A question was raised about the limits of free speech. I posed the example of the insulting cartoon of The Prophet Muhammed which were published in Denmark in 2005 and how it related to Mill's harm principle.

We also discussed Lib Dem education policy (tuition fees and EMAs were both high on their minds) and how different people have come to different conclusions about spending priorities and how that might relate back to Liberal principles.

Most of Simon's students were already applying for University but I was keen to end the session by encouraging them on that path.  I talked a little about my personal experience, coming from a background where University wasn't the common option, and what a life-enhancing experience University had been for me.  I'm glad to say that they all seemed to be keen on applying and several chatted about where they were hoping to go and what they hoped to do.

I cannot express how impressed I was with the level of debate and the eloquence of the students and felt quite inspired by the whole experience.  They were great kids and I hope they go on to fulfil their ambitions.

#ldconf Monday: In which the veterans demonstrated their resilience

Why Paddy, Lynne, Vince and Tim are so resilient

Those of us who got involved in the party around the time of merger will have had a lot of sympathy with Paddy's recollection of the period we registered as an asterix in the opinion polls.

I joined the Liberal Party in 1987 and became active as the parties were merging and remember keeping track of opinion polls in which we bumped along at 4% or so, competing with the continuing SDP and the Greens.  As Paddy pointed out there was one month when the pollsters couldn't find even enough supporters for us to get a score at all.

I remember several NUS conferences in the few years following where a small Lib Dem grouping which included Tim Farron, Jeremy Browne and several other now veteran party campaigners when the national party was, frankly, seen as a joke.  I also remember organising a couple of visits by Paddy to Leicester as part of the party's strategy to get anyone to notice that he and the party actually existed.

The first set of elections I was heavily involved with was the 1989 County Council elections in Leicester.  Although we gained the East Knighton County Council seat (Bob Pritchard) and one of the City Council seats in a by-election (Arnie Gibbons), the results across the country were pretty dire.

We regained some of our credibility by holding our own in several rounds of local elections and then by avoiding a complete disaster in the 1992 General Election. Not long afterwards I remember going to speak at a Haringey Lib Dems AGM, attended by Lynne Featherstone amongst others, at a point when the Lib Dems had not even one councillor in that borough.

We had a few by-election successes which got us taken a bit more seriously (for which my noble friend Chris Rennard deserves much of the credit) but it wasn't really until the 1997 General Election got going that we really found our feet.

And that explains why so many of our party's leaders and activists, much to the surprise of many in the media, are far from depsondent.

Those of us who slogged through that tough ten years from after the '87 election through to our breakthrough in '97 don't see a temporary dip in the polls 18 months into Government as something to be gloomy about. 

If anything it is encouraging that the polls seem to be showing a slight upturn already given the economic situation and the tough decisions that have had to be taken.

Our activists are a pretty resilient bunch, and the response to the difficult year we've just had will be to redouble our campaigning efforts and re-engage with the communities we seek to represent. We are acheiving a lot, and by the next general election we will, as always, come out fighting.

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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

#ldconf Saturday: In which both sides lose an argument

A somewhat shaky start to Lib Dem Conference saw conference reps deliver defeat to both sides in an argument about whether we should debate the current NHS Bill at this conference.

A bad result for the Federal Conference Committee (FCC) (in this instance a proxy for the leadership) as a clear majority of those voting made it clear that they want a proper debate on the Bill.

But also a bad result for those calling for the debate, as they demonstrated that they don't have quite the strength they need to force the issue.

The debate was also marred by some of the protaganists on both sides who on one side accused the FCC of 'Toryfying' our conference, and on the other accused the 'rebels' of acting like 'Militant'. 

As someone who has tried to deliver conference speeches with a crowd of Militants shouting at me on more than one occasion I can tell you that the Social Liberal Forum are as far from 'Militant' as Slayer are from having a Christmas No. 1.

For me this argument raises a wider question:  Have we adjusted the way we do things in response to being in Government?

The answer appears to be a resounding 'NO'.

The main arguments put against debating the NHS Bill were all about how we have a tradition of not debating policy on the same issue when it has been debated at a recent conference.

Well that was fine when we were in opposition, and when most of our policy debates were about deciding policy for the next General Election manifesto, but we're not in that position any more.

We are now part of a government, and playing a part in framing legislation.  It is vital, particularly where government policy goes well beyond both the coalition agreement and party policy, that our conference is given a say on issues of the day.

It is also the case that many of our members and activists are somewhere between unconvinced and downright hostile to quite a few things the government is doing.  And in our party it is hugely important that we have the opportunity to vent our concerns in an open and honest way.

It is also important that we take the opportunity to demonstrate to the wider public that we are fighting our corner within the coalition and that our position is not the same as the Tories'.

Any sense that debate within the party is being stifled, particularly on a key issue like the NHS, and we will simply start to lose people.

I don't know whether or not the FCC have had a proper discussion about these issues, or what conclusions they have come to if they have, but there is little evidence of it from the debate earlier today.

In Other News:

The mood is positive but more serious than a year ago.  The we were coming to terms with being in government but celebrating the fact that we were.  Now, and after a tough set of elections and the referendum, we are coming to terms with the downside.

Nice to see so many familiar faces though.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Boundary Changes: Take Corporal Jones' advice

So, the initial draft Boundary Commission proposals for England have been published and we've had 24 hours of comment before even the first proper analysis has been produced.

Thanks to the Guardian (who, to be fair, pointed out clearly that their methodology was simplistic) we've seen figures flying around showing that, amongst other things, the Lib Dems have been 'shafted'.

Well, hold on a minute.

Firstly, the Guardian's methodology is seriously flawed.  They have simply shared out the constituency votes from each constituency last time in proportion to how many electors have moved.  Any good Lib Dem knows that the level of support varies enormously between wards in a constituency, let alone between them.

So any comments based on those figures should simply be ignored.

Secondly, any good Lib Dem knows that by campaigning in our held and target seats we significantly increase our share of the vote and squeeze the third and other party vote.  So any ward from a neighbouring Con/Lab seat, or a Lab/Lib Dem or Con/Lib Dem seat that we don't fight hard, will inevitably bring the numbers down.  That means that any Lib Dem seat other than one that starts with a huge majority that is taking on new wards will look like a loss.

Thirdly, even when you look at the Gaurdian figures you can see that many of the seats we wouldn't have won on their figures are, in fact, highly marginal.  Look at the proposals across Cornwall, Somerset or SW London.  We win some and lose some on the Gaurdian's figures, but several of the others would be very good targets.

Another big reason to not get too exercised at this point is that these are very much first draft proposals.  And some of them are, frankly, barking mad.  There is a proposed 'Mersey Banks' seat that includes wards either side of the Mersey where there is not bridge.  Chances of that surviving the consultation? Pretty low IMHO.

But the even bigger reason why we shouldn't get too het up about these proposals is that they will, at most, have a small impact on our success or failure next time.  Our national performance as a party and the strength and tactics of our local campaigns in the new winnable seats will have far, far more impact on the results than the boundary changes themselves.

Whatever the eventual boundaries tun out to be, the biggest risk is that we focus far too much of our time and energy on the boundaries process, and not enough on preparing for campaigning on the new boundaries.

What we do need to do now, at national, regional and local level, is look at how we can support the campaigns in the seats that change, but are still winnable.  That may mean making a decision to start doing some initial campaign development work in wards that might join winnable seats now, or it might mean preparing the campaign plan so that it is ready to roll as soon as we know the new boundaries.  Either way it is just as important that we work on the campaigning now as it is that we work on the Boundary Commission proposals.