Monday, September 15, 2008

 

Is the Labour Government 100% Right? Only 97% Right? Or Maybe A Lot More Wrong? Want To Change It… Why Not Make It Happen?

Well, it happened. The hall was packed for the entire debate – which is pretty gobsmacking in itself – and a hundred people tried to speak for today's keynote Make It Happen debate on the Liberal Democrats' Vision and Values. I'm glad I didn't get round to putting a card in; I'd only have been frustrated, and instead, I could sit with several particularly nice people and just watch and applaud (and make the odd bitchy comment). It was one of the finest conference debates for many years, with several superb speeches and a new form of Lib Dem bingo as each side tried to get in as many iterations of their favourite buzz-words as they could.

I appear to have made sixteen pages of notes in my little notepad – though, as with MPs' interviews over the weekend, with the slight disadvantage that the more detailed my notes, the more my arm hurts and the more delayed my write-up's going to be. However, I wanted to dash in with some of the debate highlights (later: stuff that. Obviously, being me, I've done the whole thing)

What Was the Debate About?

The first thing to note is that Make It Happen covers the full vision of our approach to politics: giving people more power, more fairness and more freedom across health, education, the economy, the environment and every other major area of life, all in more approachable language than we usually manage when talking to ourselves. The second is that the entire debate was about a small subset of our tax proposals, what many people arguing against them today called twenty words out of four thousand. The issue that caused the biggest row on the FPC (I was booed) got… Not a single word in the debate.

Some of you might think this was a little odd.

The reason it happened is fairly simple, though. Most of the policies in Make It Happen have been Lib Dem policies for a while: we've researched them; we've debated them; we've got comfortable with them. With all of those, this paper is about telling our story to other people reading it. But those twenty words are new. They've not been debated before, and they still have quite a lot of work to be done on them.
"If there's money to spare, we won't simply spend it. We're looking for ways to cut Britain's overall tax burden, so ordinary families have more of their money to help themselves. Our tax cuts will be fair. We'll change the tax and benefits system to make sure it helps ordinary people not the rich."
Some of you may have noticed that, however you cut them, that's more than twenty words. But perish the thought that anyone wanted to take anything out of context to say it was being really right-wing and helping fat cats. The biggest problem with today's debate is that both sides argued the other was being disingenuous, and both were right. The proposal to lower the overall tax burden is new, a radical change to Lib Dem policy (of specific tax rises in the 1990s and strict fiscal neutrality in the 2000s)… And it was slipped into the final draft of Make It Happen, and only debated by the Federal Policy Committee because I raised it after doing that nerdy thing I do of actually reading different drafts and comparing them line by line. And what we discussed, what the paper says, what the newspapers say through various contradictory bits of spin, and what the motion says (about this? Not a sausage) are all very different things. So, for those critics using this line of attack, they were right.

The trouble is, their amendment was even more mealy-mouthed and opaque. Most of the amendment pulled out things that were already in the paper, creating a sugary mix of parenthood and apple pie in order than no-one could possibly vote against such nice things. Buried deep in its own verbiage were two key, and contentious, points: that tax cuts can't be any part of reducing inequality, which in a country where the top 20% of earners pay a smaller share of their earnings in tax than the lowest 20% of earners do is a lie, and a stupid one at that; and that of course we could still consider tax cuts, good heavens yes, but only after paying for many other commitments, with a large list prefaced by the words "including in particular". In other words, the list wasn't exclusive, but merely the tip of the iceberg of a much longer list of everything else in the world (quite literally, as it includes solving climate change) that should come before tax cuts. Despite weasel words to the contrary, it clearly meant that we would never get to tax cuts, though it was afraid that saying so honestly would lose them votes. When its proposers included not one but two former Liberal Democrat Directors of Policy, who literally used to do this sort of thing for a living, it's impossible not to believe that when they attacked the proposals in the paper for being "unspecified" while putting forward an amendment that was even more "unspecified," they knew exactly what they were doing. The charitable way of describing this way of doing politics might be 'a bit cheeky'.

So, those were the battle lines.

Here, For Me, Were the Highlights of the Battle:

Danny Alexander (motion, MP, Chair of Manifesto Working Group) saying that his granddad taught him to speak by repeating over his cradle, "I am a member of the Liberal Party," and took him delivering leaflets before he started school. Then pointing out that the reason for the policy change was, as some might have noticed, that the economy has changed rather a lot in the last year, so we should tackle inequality by giving additional tax cuts to those who need it most. A sober and fluent speech.

Paul Holmes (amendment, MP, former housing spokesperson) saying that he was a tax-cutter who agreed with 99% of the paper and thought Nick Clegg did great work… But that he'd be a "Tory Twin" in favour of slashing NHS funding, tuition fees and defence if we voted to support the Leader on this. But no pressure. A bit of a barn-stormer.

Richard Grayson (amendment, former Director of Policy) arguing that the amendment had been misrepresented, while he misrepresented the paper, so he'd read it out (which he didn't). A good speech, though, and one of the two that absolutely crystallised the debate: "We need to go much further than this," he said of current government spending, and so
"Money can be better spent in better ways than tax cuts,"
he argued, making an impressive list of his own policy priorities:
"But think of what that money can be spent on."
Graham Watson (motion, Leader of Liberal etc Group of MEPs in the European Parliament) made the other speech that, for me, crystallised the two sides. In reply to what I'd characterise as Richard Grayson's 'We could spend the money on all these wonderful things!' I'd characterise Graham as saying, 'But it's not our money!' The first really powerfully delivered speech on the motion side, Graham staked a claim for Liberals through the ages being prudent with money:
"Never have the British people paid so much in tax when they have so little to spare. They don't need politicians scrabbling around looking for new ways to spend their money."
Special prize for Vince mentions by raising his transformation from mild-mannered economist to superhero, rescuing the economy from a blazing building.

The very lovely Roger Roberts (amendment, Lords) gave a barnstorming speech for social justice and against the need for anyone to lose face. I've known Roger for many years, and in spring this year discussed our first conferences; mine was here in Bournemouth, in 1991. His was in 1953, and at the 1954 Liberal Assembly in Llandudno he talked to an old gentleman in a wheelchair, through his ear trumpet, who'd been a minister in Asquith's Cabinet. So, two degrees of separation to a Liberal Government!

Tom McNally (motion, Lib Dem Leader in the Lords) put a case for tax and socially just tax cuts in a civil society, but finished on a slightly tortuous metaphor based around a joke about a farmer and his prize bullock, which he linked to not
"giving Vince a standing ovation before lunch and kicking away the plank under him afterwards"
. The intent was to make conference realise they couldn't have fun all the time; the effect was to suggest he was taking a lot of bull.

There will be more of this later, but I'm afraid I simply can't type any more just now. In the meantime, here's something I prepared earlier.

Lib Dem Tax Bingo: if in favour of the motion as it stood, from the very first speech (Danny Alexander), you should mention Vince Cable and say that every vote against meant a little part of Vince died; if in favour of the amendment, from the very first speech (Paul Holmes), you should mention schools, hospitals, body armour for our boys and that changing the Labour Government's spending – which they've doubled since they came to power – by 3% meant a return to tiny, tiny babies dying in Dickensian slums; in either camp, you should mention (in rising order of frequency) Gladstone, Asquith, Keynes and, today's runaway scorecard favourite for both sides, Lloyd George. Each of these housey-housey calls was more a call to the emotions than anything so paltry as logic.

16th September Update: My arm's rested and rubbed, I've done some of my thrilling physio exercises, and it's a bit less painful this morning… So where was I?

Elaine Bagshaw (motion, Chair of Liberal Youth) took conference aback by making the debate personal – she's 22 and, like many others in the generation Labour has betrayed, has £16,000 of student debts and
"can't even see the bottom rung of the housing ladder, let alone get a grip of it."
This offers a different way of doing things, away from choosing between the "no choice at all between Labour and Tory," or thinking public spending can be a black hole and fix everything (I'm not sure if that metaphor was quite so mixed before I jotted it down). An impressive speech; I remember similarly making a conference sit up a few years ago when we debate a big shift in pensions policy and I asked for a less generous one that wouldn't have gone bankrupt by the time I came to need it.

I should have finished at this point last night, really, as – turning over a page – I see that next up when I stopped (Elaine) was the half-way set of interventions from the floor. With a hundred cards in from people hoping to speak but only time for sixteen speakers to be called (I read an excellent speech from a superb Cornish candidate who wasn't called, for example, and I understand several MPs were disappointed), while the chair of the debate tries hard to balance the content of speeches from the platform you can also take pot luck and queue to make an intervention from the floor – with a strict time limit of just one minute. This debate being as oversubscribed as it was, even the places in that queue were full before the debate started.

So who stood out there? Jeremy Hargreaves, quoting Keynes that when the facts change, he changes his mind, and what do you do; Arnie Gibbons passionately accusing one side of empty promises, probably the 'motion' side but rather more applicable to the mealy-mouthed amendment; Jo Swinson MP giving a typically to the point intervention about the rising cost of living hitting her constituents badly, and that we can't afford to write a blank cheque to solve everything first (one of the few people, I think, who grasped exactly how infinite-ended the amendment was); Meral Ece calling for a boost to social mobility through tax cuts for the poorest, demanding to know why the lowest wage earners pay tax at all (hear, hear); David Hall-Matthews making a good case for funding reskilling in a recession, but losing it when he viewed £20 billion of hard-to-find savings as just a pot for his own pet idea; Matthew Sowemimo pointedly asking why the paper didn't specify who the beneficiaries of the tax cuts would be, and so putting his finger on one of the key weaknesses of the 'motion' side (I've had that debate before, and will do again); and, unusually, a Pembrokeshire candidate whose name I didn't catch addressing not the tax bit of the paper – possibly the only one – but praising the proposal to cut the number of MPs by 150.

Back to the main speeches, and Duncan Brack (amendment, former Director of Policy) made a case against the tax cuts on grounds of "process, politics and principle". Duncan's a good speaker and lays out a good logical structure, which is always impressive; despite that, this speech was one of the most intellectually disingenuous of the debate. He criticised the way this crucial policy shift was done without detail and with the aid of spin, saying conference should take the decision and the leadership was playing fast and loose with it – all quite rightly.
"Whatever you think of the basic idea, this is not a sensible way of making policy,"
and he laid into the new direction for being "unspecified". But, Duncan, your amendment is even more unclear and an even worse way of making policy, and its speeches – including your own – far more 'spun'. So how about checking the log in your own eye, eh? If both sides had been more open, I'd have been happier, but it really did take the cake that the proposers (and, I suspect, authors) of an amendment deliberately designed to mislead thought they could get away with posing as the honest brokers.

Vince Cable (motion, MP, Deputy Leader, Treasury Spokesperson, conference but thankfully not Alistair darling) went for the jugular; tax cuts are not at the expense of fighting inequality – because, despite all his tax rises, Brown hasn't managed it. He's created a machine that takes in money from the low-paid, then churns it back out again if you can get through the forms, the phonelines, the engaged signal, the helpline that can't help, the overpayments that you couldn't know about because it's all so complicated, and when the bailiffs are at the door, you don't thank the Labour Government for marginally reducing the coefficient of inequality, you just say
"Please, would you give us a bit more freedom to spend a bit more of the money that we've earned?"
Spot on, Vince. The Kafaesque nightmare of tax credits so Gordon Brown can choose who's the 'deserving poor' is a scandal; a tax cut to the same people would be fairer, simpler and far less degrading. Answering Duncan, he said that not all the details were in place yet, because he was asking conference for a change in direction and the economy's changing daily – but once we know where it's going, he can produce detailed costings before the General Election. If Richard Grayson and Graham Watson presented the nub of the debate, Vince's speech was the point where it unexpectedly caught fire.

Richard Younger-Ross (amendment, MP) had the misfortune of following Vince, so started with a joke on Tory economic policy: what's the difference between that and a black hole? Scientists have found some evidence black holes exist. The rest of his speech, talking up gains in seats and reeling off extra priorities for spending, saying none of his constituents want tax cuts, was populist without being very popular.

Tim Farron (motion, MP) gave perhaps the best speech I've seen from him since Student Lib Dem conferences of many years ago, and matched Vince as a star of the debate.
"These proposals are about the redistribution of wealth from the super-rich to the less well off. It's an insult to the intelligence to say you can't cut tax and reduce inequality – the Tories want tax cuts to the rich, while ours are to lift people from poverty."
Second-best line:
"We seek not just to fight poverty, but to win that fight!"
Labour attacked our tax plans in the late '90s; then they raised the same money themselves. But then, Tim reminded us, they increased taxes 80 more times past what we'd planned, from £300 billion in 1997 to £600 billion today, spent not just on schools and hospitals but on PFIs, quangos, daft IT schemes… Is it really "more socially Liberal to fund a new cold war arms race?" Following Richard Younger-Ross, Tim raised him his black hole and looked into a time warp:
"Don't keep fighting the 1997 General Election, but start fighting the 2010 Election."
Like Duncan, Tim made a naked appeal to conference's worries about being taken for granted in probably the best line of the day:
"I feel slightly awkward not being part of the awkward squad."
Chris Huhne (motion, MP, Home Affairs Spokesperson) gave a forceful speech and the last of the main debate, pointing us back to the 2002 public services commission (chaired by a Mr Chris Huhne, no relation) in which the party decided on reform rather than just spending – yet there's still been massive growth in public spending in the six years since. In real terms, adjusting for inflation, it's up 46% since 1997; education's up 67%; health's up 89%. So with spending still not achieving everything we want despite the massive rises, and with record costs of living, isn't it socially just to help ends meet? Most effectively, he put us in the context of where we are. If he was a Swedish Liberal, he said, looking at huge state spending, he'd want to reduce it; an American Liberal would want to raise it. So British Liberals shouldn't stick to some imaginary totem of problems past, but face the evidence and apply our values to the world as we find it. It's not a shift to the right to cut tax for the lowest-paid and reject the Tory tax cut proposals for the top 6% richest people in the country.

Evan Harris (amendment, MP, Science Spokesperson) summed up for the amendment. Evan's bright, funny, and a good speaker, but if I was on his side, I'd want him to open up a debate rather than close it. His wit and passion's good to get people listening to his case at the start. Every time I've seen him summate, though, he's done his cause more harm than good. I've done a lot of summating speeches. They weren't as funny as Evan's (and sometimes I've had to reply to him), but I think I've got a better idea of what they should do than he has. I mention as many people as I can from the debate – refuting the arguments of people on the other side, and praising all the wonderful speeches on my own side to not just sway people from voting for the opposition, but feel good about voting for my own case. Evan didn't do either of those things, but took the piss, swinging between self-deprecation and bitter barbs because he'd lost. He started off with the already agreed tax cuts through the green tax switch:
"We already have fair tax plans. Isn't that enough?"
Hmm. I'm not sure 'we've given you a bit already, you ungrateful sods!' is a great pitch to the middle.
"That was agreed last year, in my last defeat."
So, Evan, you're still sore at losing last time, you tell conference off for that, and then you admit you've already lost this time. Great pitch. Still, he ploughed on, picking up Tom McNally's bullocks and joking about putting Nick Clegg out to stud – funny, but unwise at this point – and again attacking the other side for briefing the press and not trusting the party. Just as he was entirely straightforwardly saying he completely agreed with tax cuts, goodness me, yes ('Over my dead body. Bastards'). He mocked Vince's ballroom dancing. Conference pursed their lips. He argued to keep the message simple – his best point, and one he should have listened to. So did he finish on it? No. He sideswiped at Nick Clegg for not being consistent. There was a hiss. Top tip: summating for your side is about getting people on your side. Not self-indulgent preening martyrdom.

Simon Hughes (motion, MP, outgoing Party President) summed up the debate for the motion. I winced as he repeatedly instructed the conference that he was speaking in the name of the Federal Policy Committee; would he out-Evan Evan and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? But no. Despite that wobble, Simon gave a good speech, and struck exactly the right tone for a summation – conciliatory, reaching out to doubters, putting across the principle and constantly referring to other speakers, giving (unlike Evan) the impression that he'd listened to the debate and wanted to address the concerns from it. His two key gambits were that
"The core purpose of our party is to create a fair society"
with this helping us do it, and that this paper isn't the final word but – as Make It Happen itself explicitly says – a basis for further debate and for developing the Manifesto. Why is it so difficult to make ends meet, he asked? We'll cut taxes for ordinary people, but most people don't know yet that they'd be better off with us than under Labour or the Tories. So we need to repeat it, and to look for further savings, looking for £20 billion to redirect. This is not the Tory Twin, said Simon, zeroing in on possibly the biggest underlying fear of those leaning towards the amendment: 'We don't want to be the Tories'. It's very simple – the Tories want cuts in inheritance tax for the very richest. We want tax cuts for the poorest. Addressing Richard Grayson, he said bluntly that reducing taxes for those at the bottom is reducing inequality. Yes, people respected us when public services were starved of money for wanting increased spending then; but times have changed, and we must change with them – and this is just the direction of change, not making all our decisions today. We must tell the people we're on their side, finished Simon, again repeating that this isn't committing us now, but leaving us the room to discuss, to adapt, to be relevant. After St Augustine, the Reverend Hughes prayed with us, 'Make It Happen – but not just yet'.

It's difficult not to conclude that Simon regarded the vote as a fifty-fifty tie and muddied the waters a bit to try and bring over those last few waverers that might make all the difference; while Evan decided, 'Sod it, I've lost, I'm going to have a wank'. Which was the more successful tactic for persuading people to vote, do you think? Unsurprisingly, a completely packed Conference hall voted by something between two to one and three to one to reject the amendment and back the plans to look for spare money for potential tax cuts.

Did It Happen For Me? And What Happens Next?

The thing that irritated me with the clumsy moral blackmail tried by several of the speeches for the clumsy, contradictory amendment was that a lot of it was mutually contradictory. When it was suggested the redirected money from the Labour Government's current spending plans go to our different public spending priorities, that was claimed to be a huge and necessary victory for social justice (as it would be). But when it was suggested the same cuts to current spending might go to tax cuts… Well, then, that would be Tory slashing of our every vital public service. It didn't seem to occur to several of the speakers on the amendment's side that the evil right-wing tax cuts and the blissful panacea of new spending were each to be funded by the same cuts from what Labour's doing now when they argued that moving the money to one place would wreck public services, but moving it to the other would be the promised land.

I've got this question for you. Do you think the Labour Government is 100% right? Would even a Labour Minister dare to claim that much? Or only 97% right, perhaps? Or do they get a lot more wrong? As far as I'm concerned, the Labour Government's a lot more than just 3% wrong. Any Liberal Democrats who think it's slashing public services to the bone if we manage to spend 3p in every pound differently or 3p in every pound less are free to campaign on 'Let's change one-fiftieth or less of what the Labour Party does' – but, to me, that sounds a lot more like what David Cameron and the policy-free Tories are saying than anyone who actually wants to change anything.

Actually, I'd prefer us to find rather more than 3% to change, and find enough for really striking tax cuts not through lopping the headline rate of income tax but through raising thresholds, so the lowest earners pay no tax at all. What these tax cuts should be is of course the big argument still to be had in the Liberal Democrats. But that's for another article.

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Comments:
A few points come out from that.

1) This is the second time there has been a key debate with an amendement being proposed to essentially a leadership motion. Trident was the other.

On both occasions the amendment has been flawed, in part to try to avoid making any disagreements into a big row. That has however enabled the leadership to win by exposing the flaws in the amendment .

2) Strategically it's not wise to have Evan summating as he's now pretty closely associated with a losing cause.

3) The main platform speakers were heavily dominated by office holders. The only people no in that category were Richard Grayson (and he's an Ex head of policy and leader's speechwriter!) and Mike Taylor. There could have been some balance of grassroots members rather than them using the "second class" route of interventions.

4) What does it say about Nick that he is dependent on Vince to get his agenda through conference.
 
Hmm. Just this once, Hywel, I find myself disagreeing on quite a lot of your points.

1) What's wrong with a key debate arising out of a motion agreed by the FPC that conference elected and the Leader that the party elected versus an amendment from a self-selected bunch of MPs and former apparatchiks? Seems a fair democratic test to me (and just to put your "leadership motion" into perspective). This and Trident are hardly the only two – there have been a great many over the years.

You're quite wrong, though, to try and spin that the "leadership" only won because of a "flawed" amendment. Yes, the leadership won, as did all the very many other people with the same views; yes, the amendment was flawed. But it's a bit post hoc ergo propter hoc and something of a reductio ad absurdum to base one on the other (Richard, isn't there a proper dictionary in the hotel? This blasted Latin-English phrasebook is driving me mad).

Two simple disproofs: first, while you can say 'this one thing won it' in a close vote (such as the one on Trident you've picked out), this wasn't a close vote but at least a two-to-one majority in a packed hall. I suspect a lot of people hadn't made up their minds on going in, and I've heard from lots of different people that a different speech turned them, so it really wasn't just any one factor, but the debate as a whole. And second, when you say "the leadership [won] by exposing the flaws in the amendment," were you watching the same debate I was? I believe I exposed two whacking great flaws in the amendment in my piece above, but those two flaws were hardly mentioned in the debate. The 'side' that concentrated on flaws was surely the pro-amendment speakers, who repeatedly attacked the drafting, the paper, the motion and the process. And, as I said above, they were pretty much right. It didn't do them any good, though; the debate didn't turn around the drafting flaws at all, but on the general direction of the two approaches.

2) You're right, though, that it was a bad move to have Evan summate, though not because he has "lost cause" 'baggage' – just because, though in general he's an excellent speaker, he's rotten at summating. He only preaches to his own side, and doesn't sound like he's listened to the debate. If Evan had given a passionate and funny proposing speech, and Paul had battered away at the speeches for the motion in a summation, they'd have done much better. But, as with your first point, it's striking that you try to find excuses for the amendment losing so heavily, as if the debate was in some way a cheat. The amendment's proposers handed out lots of leaflets, while I didn't see any from the people who wanted tax cuts for the poorest; was that 'cheating'? No. Each side just did some things better than the other.

3) You're right, as well, about the great and good speaking. I'd have liked to see a much better balance (particularly if I'd put in a card!). On the other hand, I didn't mention Mike's speech above because I didn't think it was very good, and a lot of people I've spoken admired the debate precisely because it was 'senior' people and 'heavy hitters' – both because most of them can be relied on to give very strong speeches, and because it showed the party wasn't afraid to have a serious debate. I'd be interested to see just how many speaker's cards went in from women, though…

4) And finally… "What does it say about Nick that he is dependent on Vince to get his agenda through conference." Well, it says that Vince spoke shows that the Leader and Treasury Spokesperson agree and work together on tax policy – a radical idea, I know – and, er, in what way was what you claimed true? As I said above, the majority in the hall was so large that it's just dumb to say the vote was decided by any one thing – even St Vince. Call me old-fashioned, but with so many senior people in the party speaking on the issue, and plenty that different people have told me swung it (I've heard from different people since the debate that the best speech which made up their minds for them was Paul, Simon, Roger, Elaine, Tom, Tim, Vince, and even Evan), rather than saying 'the Leader cheated because people agreed with him!' I feel quite pleased that the party's not a one-man band.
 
I wasn't being particularly defensive - my issues weren't as much with the amendment as with the vagueness of the paper - which probably more merited a reference back than anything.

I think you underestimate the Vince factor - conference seemed particularly besotted with him. It wasn't just his speech - the interesting thing was the references by others eg Lord McNally to passing the motion to support Vince (as opposed to Nick)
 
Thanks for this post; it goes at least a little way towards explaining something I found incomprehensible during the debate, namely why the movers didn't accept an amendment that, as far as I could see, said exactly what Vince had said only a few hours earlier and Nick had said the day before. Because I couldn't see the difference between what Nick and Vince had told us and what the amendment was saying, I kept wondering what the hidden agenda was. Still, even with this post, I'm not convinced. I take your point that the list of priorities was partly unspecified, but given that the motion's supporters were saying they needed flexibility, I don't find that persuasive. The point about not using tax cuts to reduce inequality still doesn't seem to me to be a fair reflection of the amendment as it was printed in my Daily Announcements. I feel, both in this debate and in others, that people were often reacting to the history in their heads rather than the words on the page; maybe being a lawyer has made me overly literalistic, but I'd always rather focus on getting the words on the page right, and in this case I think a literal reading of the words of the amendment would have allowed the leadership to do exactly what they say they want to do (which I support) and made it easier for us to reassure the public that we will fix the things that Labour and the Tories have broken in their public services.
 
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