The other Glasgow Conference

One of the pleasures of attending the annual Lib Dem conference is watching TV and comparing what you’ve experienced with the nightly reports. It’s not always clear that you’ve been at the same conference as the reporters and that’s as true this year as any other.

True I have heard two people with a real down on Nick Clegg, but I haven’t had any general sense of discontent with his leadership – or any general chat about which party we’d rather be in coalition with: Labour or Conservative. At least that was true until someone from the media offered me a yellow ball to put into their polling buckets, which I declined.

What I did enjoy today was two serious and thought provoking debates, because at a Lib Dem Conference we do have real debates where the outcome is not known in advance. Personally I was disappointed to see our stance on nuclear power reversed – I still can’t bring myself to back the creation of radioactive waste which will remain toxic for thousands of years – but I’m still proud to be in a party where the members decide the policy.

As interesting was the debate on controls of online pornography. I started with my own clear opinion – or was it a prejudice? – but listening to the views of many younger members of the party I became convinced that the solution of opt-out filters wasn’t actually a solution at all, and that we would do better to research the options carefully before coming up with a knee-jerk policy which might do more harm than good.

So whatever you see on the TV, in Glasgow one of the two parties in government is still debating hard about the world we want to see, and that the policies we want to put forward for the judgement of the British people. It beats watching from the stands.

A bad day at the office

There’s no point in beating about the bush. Today has been one of unrelenting bad news for Liberal Democrats. In this region we’ve not only lost control of Newcastle, but also lost some excellent councillors whose only mistake was to be on the wrong end of a political current which as individuals they were powerless to resist. There cam’t be a Lib Dem councillor in my position who isn’t relieved that they weren’t up for re-election this year, and I take my hat off to those who managed to stand against the tide.

The problem is I don’t know which disappoints me more; the Labour Party making unearned gains as though the electorate has forgotten how they felt about them just a year ago, forgotten why they turfed them out of
control at Newcastle Civic Centre, and forgotten the breath of fresh air that blew through the council when it changed hands after almost a century; or am I more aggrieved at the Tory Party making gains in some areas of the counrtry as though it had nothing to do with the pain that the country is going through as it tries to balance the books?

There’s no place for self-pity, though. We Liberal Demobrats chose to enter the coalition – and when I say “we” I include myself – because we believed it was the only viable course of action for both ourselves as a serious political party, and for our country, saddled with an ever increasing burden of debt. I thought it was right then. I still do, whatever the discomfort.

But those who think we are “finished” are wrong. I remember a similar bad day at the office after the Euro 2004 elections when we trailed in in fourth place behind UKIP. If the Britsh people think you’re due a kicking, they’ll give you a kicking. But when it gets to the next General Election they’ll weigh the situation up then, and make their judgement. That judgement will be more generous to us if they believe that we’ve stayed the course and fought a good fight – so that’s up to us.

For myself the battle is unchanged. I’m in local politics to do the best I can for local people, whether fighting individual cases or trying to voice their views at a deaf County Hall. And just as I know that local government (even the new Labour controlling group in Newcastle) will be better for having to re-learn their politics from a position of defeat, I’m convinced that the only thing that will change County Hall in Durham for the better will be a change of political control. The council will never reform itself from within. It will take a period of someone else in control; breaking old bad habits, shaking up stale thinking, introducing real ambition rather than the the sterile business of just manipulating power.

So, bad day at the office or not, my party needs to keep its self-belief, because self-belief and and iron determination will win the voters back soon enough. That’s politcs.

Westminster love-in

Pat Glass about Michael Gove: Evening Chronicle November 10th 2010

I have met with Michael Gove on a number of occasions since he became Secretary of State for Education in May of this year and have found him to be a charming man with a genuine desire to improve educational outcomes for all children.

Michael Gove about Pat Glass in the House of Commons: Hansard November 24th 2010

The hon. Lady has been an impressive lead Member for children’s services and education in the past, and she speaks with authority.

The question for the people of Consett is simply whether, in the face of this mutual admiration society, Consett will ever get the chance to have its opinions heard by either of the leading players in the Academy drama currently playing in Westminster.

A great night

Local Liberal Democrats gathered in force for their annual dinner, and were delighted to enjoy an evening with the new Lib Dem MP for Redcar Ian Swales.

Ian Swales MP

After we had all shared an excellent meal Ian talked for around 20 minutes about how the party in Redcar had set about dismantling a large Labour majority. He answered a wide range of questions about everything from tuition fees to what we were going to do about the fact that the average age of farmers in the UK is 65.

We enjoyed his down to earth style, his obvious genuineness, and his sense of humour. We also enjoyed getting together – so much of being a member of a political party is hard slog, and it’s good just to enjoy each other’s company sometimes.

The upbeat mood and the rising number of members contrasted with recent press reports that the Labour Party’s membership in the region has plummeted. Apparently the membership across the North East, once the heartland of Labour, is now less than a quarter of the size of its membership in London.

Shout it from the rooftops

I was sent an internal memo from the Labour Party recently, from our MP’s local office to a local Labour councillor. I suspect it was not intended to to make it into this blog!

The email was dated in August about the issue of the post-box in Blackhill. It’s a case I had been involved with much earlier in the year when I had been told about it and shown a petition signed by several hundred people. At that point the post-box had disappeared from the front of the Spar. I did some research which clarified that it had been removed because post was being damaged by people putting fast food into it, and the box was going to be re-sited across the road. I discussed the case with the Benfieldside councillors in whose ward the post-box originated and was pleased that it was a case of re-siting rather than removal.

Three things struck me about the memo, however.

The first was how out of touch the Labour party seemed to be. “We have not heard from anyone else on the matter”, the email says and proposes a street-surgery to find out if it really is an issue.

The second was the dismissive tone of the email which seemed to echo the view of the Post Office official who had been contacted: “they are lucky to have a box at all.”

Finally there was the reference to myself. “I am keen to avoid her going to Owen Temple who will shout it from the rooftops no matter how futile it may be to campaign ….”

You’ll already have worked out that the judgement in that line isn’t very sound – I had been aware of the issue for some time before the writer’s concern to keep me out of the loop – but it does show just how touchy the Labour Party is at the idea that anyone but themselves can take up issues or do anything locally.

They’ve got a lot to learn. From my point of view, I hope it stays that way.

New Generation?

I listened to Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. He made it sound as though the party he leads had been out of power for years rather than weeks; as though the “new generation” at its head were different from the people who lost the election weeks ago. You would never have guessed that he wrote the Labour Party’s election manifesto. You would never have guessed how consistently he voted against an investigation into the Iraq War, how consistently he voted to curtail indidual freedoms, or how vigorously he pursued the closure of post offices. You can find his voting record here

All this gives the lie to his claim that “The new generation of Labour is different. Different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics.”

What’s truly different in British politics over the last few months is that we have a coalition government which gives every impression of being committed to working together for the long haul back to economic recovery. Painful, unpleasant, necessary. And Liberal Democrats can see their party making a real diference in this coalition.

In just four and half months the government acted in the following areas of Liberal Democrat policy:

  • Ending imprisonment of children in immigration cases
  • Outlawing finger printing of children at school without parental permission
  • Restoring the pensions-earning link
  • Taking 900,000 low paid people out of income tax by raising the threshold for paying tax from April 2011
  • Making top earners pay 10% more capital gains tax
  • Increasing tax credits for the poorest
  • Putting £2.5 billion into child tax credits so that children of all backgrounds get a good start in life
  • Introducing a banking levy and an independent commission to look at breaking up the fat cat mega banks
  • Scrapping ID cards
  • Introducing a Referendum Bill for the Alternative Vote – fulfilling a Labour manifesto commitment!
  • Long awaited reform of the House of Lords
  • Introducing the pupil premium which will provide millions of pounds of extra funding for schools in County Durham

Labour Party leaders have spent the last few months urging Liberal Democrats to join them. Why on earth should we want to? Given the choice between making things happen in government and making things up like Labour’s “new generation,” there’s never been a better time to join the Liberal Democrats.

Reflecting on Conference

Conference was different this year from the moment I arrived. For starters, we couldn’t take the road to the hotel because it was blocked off by a police car, and there were masses of police and cars by the multi-storey car park. “That’s being in government,” I said to my wife. It took a little time for her to recognise what I meant .

There was no doubt about the new significance of a Lib Dem conference next morning as a phalanx of police crossed the dock to take up position round the Convention Centre. Getting in oneself was like going through airport security with identity checks and scanners.

Things had changed in the conference hall, too. There was real excitement as one “minister” after another was introduced to us, and equal satisfaction as they reeled off the elements of our election manifesto which are currently being put into place; raising of the income tax threshold, ending child detention, raising the level of tax on capital gains above the basic rate of income tax, removing the DNA of innocent people from the database, the promised introduction of the “pupil premium” for children from less privileged backgrounds, the ending of the ID card scheme.

But there was also unease and uncertainty about the cuts which are to come – not about the need to cut the deficit, but whether it can be achieved with fairness and without hitting the poorest worst.

There was unease about proposed cuts in housing benefit, about welfare to work proposals in a world where jobs are hard to get even for the most easily employable, about the disproportionate effects that cuts may have on regions like ours.

There was unease about how we would maintain our identity as a separate party, and how we would be seen in five years time.

The biggest effect on me, though, came in fringe events and close-up encounters with some of our new high-fliers. I was impressed by the genuine excitement and enthusiasm they felt at being able to put into effect some of the policies and principles they and the party have promoted for so long from the powerless position of opposition. I was struck by the genuine anger at the state of the country they were now seeking to help govern – the “shopping trolley dash” of the last government, and the current state of denial of our previous masters: “Problem? What problem”. I was even impressed as they spoke warmly of a real journey of debate and compromise with members of a political party which neither they nor I would have expected to have been our coalition partners.

The other thing I expect to stick in my mind was listening to excellent debates – feeling the ebb and flow of argument, and knowing that I had both the right and the duty to weigh those arguments before I cast my vote. One thing remains constant in a Lib Dem Conference – members will be driven by their own judgement, not by the leadership’s wishes. In or out of government, the membership is the conscience of the party.

As I drove a young friend back from the conference he told me he was feeling more motivated, more up for it. I felt the same.

Yellow Tories

This was the megaphone diplomacy (literally) employed by the Labour Party outside the Lib Dem Conference yesterday. I was greeted by their amplified cries as I left the conference centre and on my way back I decided to try to engage in debate with the group.

When I stopped to talk it was quickly clear that debate was the last thing on their minds. Slogans were all that was on offer.

There is a real debate to be had on policy. There are Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour Party members, each with reservations about some aspect of party policy. When to cut government spending and by how much are issues of judgement. So are which taxes to raise, and by how much. But simple slogans are no substitute for debate.

I’m here in Liverpool to clarify my thinking and my understanding. There is a really interesting debate going on, in the hall, in the fringe and in the bars and corridors. Mostly there’s acceptance that the coalition we are in is the only real way forward we, and the country, had. There’s a recognition of the need for responsibility and loyalty to that coalition. But there’s also a voyage of discovery going on about how Britain should “do coalition”. How parties should debate policy differences without being seen as hopelessly divided. How parties maintain independent policy development whilst working together for the term of a Parliament. 

There’s plenty of experience around about how you do coalition within parties. We saw it with Eurosceptics and others in the Conservative government, Brownites and Blairites in the Labour Party. But for two parties that fought an election on totally different manifestoes – now that’s a totally different project.

No doubt you’re getting the BBC, ITV or Sky analysis. I’ll do my best to give an honest reflection when I get back.

The one thing I can be sure of, however, is that chanting “yellow Tory” at me is unlikely to achieve its alleged purpose. That, apparently, was to convince me “There is an alternative. Join the Labour Party.”