Tuesday, September 30, 2008


When Does ‘Local’ Mean ‘National’?

In the bizarre dictionaries of those centralising, micro-managing, decision-grabbing, purse-string-pulling, power-hungry, choice-stealing control freak twins, the SNP and the Tories. And when both are reacting against the bossiest centralised Westminster Government since the Second World War, that’s quite an achievement. No-one likes the Council Tax; it was cobbled together in a hurry to get the Tories out of their great big Poll Tax pit, sweetened by a great big wodge of central money, and bears little relation to ability to pay or even to house prices… But dictating ‘local’ decisions from Holyrood or Westminster isn’t the way to fix it.

How the Council Tax Started

I’m old enough to remember when the Tories devised the Council Tax; it felt like a hasty bodge-up then to get them to the next election, an unfair, unlovely hybrid staggered in whopping great bands based on decades-old valuations, and was clearly never meant to last – it’s just that, after the Tories’ brilliant idea of the Poll Tax, neither they nor Labour have dared touch local taxation (except to tell elected local councils what to do with it). There are only two reasons the Council Tax worked at all to begin with. First, it wasn’t the Poll Tax, so everyone was bound to breathe a sigh of relief. And second, it was subsidised by a massive injection of central government money to keep the bills artificially low, thanks to that great (if only by comparison to George Osborne) Conservative Chancellor Norman ‘Yoghurt Pot’ Lamont.

The immediately obvious problem with this at the time was that it was paid for by raising VAT – I remember it well, as the effect was to send the standard price of a video (locked for years at the psychologically important rate of £9.99) through the £10 barrier, after which prices pretty much kept going up. Gee, thanks, Norman. The problem with it that still bedevils local government nearly two decades later is that that meant a huge shift of the local government tax base from locally decided and raised money to centrally decided and raised money. Incredibly, only about a quarter of the money spent by local government across the UK is raised locally. That means that central government has huge power to decide which local councils get what money, with both Conservatives and Labour at Westminster funnelling cash to their own areas so that Labour and Tory councils respectively – and, of course, all those many areas that vote Liberal Democrat and get stiffed for the bill both ways – have to raise Council Tax disproportionately or cut services. And, of course, because the vast majority of what local authorities spend is dictated by central government grant, any extra spending by local councils decided by local people in local elections needs a heavily disproportionate tax increase to make much difference. So local decision-making has been made increasingly meaningless.

What Are the Different Parties’ Answers?

The Labour Government, of course, have capped the amount councils can raise taxes – while raising taxes uncountable times nationally, of course, but why behave yourself when you can boss someone else around to look prudent instead – and increasingly made the ‘local’ decisions nationally by dictating exactly what money must be spent where.

On the opposite end of the liberal-authoritarian scale, equally predictably, the Liberal Democrats have a better answer. We’ve long said that we would scrap the council tax in favour of a local income tax, based on ability to pay; return the setting of local business taxation to local councils from central government; and, in the long term, alter the balance further so that local government raises more of its own money and less comes at the whim of Westminster (but that bit’s a little scary, so we don’t talk about it much).

So, that’s the party you’d expect to boss everyone around and have every bit of power prised from their cold dead hands sorted, and the one that you’d expect to be in favour of decentralisation and of decisions actually (imagine!) being made by the people they affect.

The SNP Answer: Abolish Local Government

The other two parties with a significant say on local taxation are more interesting. No, that’s a bit of a euphemism; they’ve both been all over the place, but both – after using the rhetoric of decentralisation – have come down heavily in favour of even more central control than Labour. The SNP Government at Holyrood have a plan that, on the face of it, sounds like a good thing: scrapping the Council Tax in favour of a local income tax of 3p in the pound. Gosh, isn’t that what the Liberal Democrats have been saying? And, hurrah, the unfair Council Tax scrapped in favour of a local tax based on ability to pay (all sorts of odd people have seen the light on that one). But, hang on… There’s something a bit strange, there. How does the central Scottish government know what rate the local councils are going to choose?


The SNP Government at Holyrood is going to decide the ‘local’ rate for the whole of Scotland. So they’re combating the Tories’ and Labour’s authoritarian, centralised, local government-neutering approach where local government decides a mere 25% or so of its own money by enforcing a system where local people vote to decide a much-improved 0%. Er, some mistake, surely?
“Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

Alex’s Adventures in Wonderland
With the SNP not having a majority in the Scottish Parliament, they’ve apparently been in negotiations with the Scottish Liberal Democrats for support over the policy. Unsurprisingly, we like the ‘ability to pay’ part, but aren’t too keen on the ‘local government losing its last measly remaining power to decide anything at all’ part. I’ve not heard how this is going for a wee while, but I hope it’s the SNP that are giving ground, and not us; if ever there was a better example of the truism that not everything that’s given the same name necessarily has the same effect, it’s when a “local” income tax is decided in its entirety by Alex Salmond’s central government.
“When I use a word,” Alex Numpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Alex Numpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alex Through the Looking Glass
Come on, Tavish – don’t start your Leadership by laying a wreath of tax forms on Scottish local decision-making!

The Tory Answer: Um… Er… Um… Do As I Say, Not As I Do

That leaves the Tories, who invented the Council Tax and were the most centralising government in living memory (until Labour came along), but who since they lost power at Westminster have taken to saying that the answer to the Labour Government’s removal of power from local government is greater decentralisation. At least, that was what they were saying until – as Joe points out – a week ago. Now, as they become increasingly smug at the idea of getting their hands on all that lovely power again, they strangely no longer feel like letting anyone else have a say. In the good news, they’re less extreme authoritarians than the SNP. In the bad news, George Osborne’s idea of fiscal probity by central government is to… Tell local government it needs to tighten its belt.

The job of Chancellor of the Exchequer is really quite a big and complicated one, but it has its limits. It’s in charge of the Treasury for the UK Government, and controls central government spending in particular across England, following devolution. You’d have thought that was quite enough to do, and Mr Osborne’s never come across as conspicuously competent to do it. Well, we’re all in the middle of a massive economic crisis, and he had to come up with something to establish himself as both daring and statesmanlike (blimey).

At the Liberal Democrat Conference a fortnight ago, the answer was that out of the six hundred billion pounds the Labour Government spends each year, at the very least a tiny fraction could be spent better, so central government should cut some of the spending it’s rubbish at and either spend it more wisely itself or give it back to ordinary people in tax cuts so they can spend it as they think wisely. Central government, then, shouldn’t tell anyone what to do with their money on top of what it’s already demanding, and should get its own house in order instead.

The Tories have a very different approach.

Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has looked at the six hundred billion pounds he’ll be personally responsible for… And can’t cope. It might not be enough, he says. He’s announced he won’t rule out tax rises by central government, because, you know, sums are hard and power is fun. So, crikey, what can he say to sound like he wants to keep taxes down (which he won’t guarantee) and sound like he’s being careful with our money (which he’s not very good at)? Ah – of course. Announce that he’s getting someone else to do it!

Yesterday, Mr Osborne didn’t think that central government, once he gets his sticky fingers on it, could be run any better than the Labour Government. He might run it worse, and have to put up taxes. But local government – pressured for efficiency targets for decades by Tory and Labour Governments that have never once applied such strictures to themselves – oh, that’s an easy bottomless target for savings, isn’t it? So, if local councils can keep their Council Tax increases to 2.5% - no easy job when inflation’s running to 5% - he’s said he’ll give a 2.5% subsidy from central government to freeze Council Tax at no rise at all.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this proposal. First of all, it’s that Mr Osborne wants one of the biggest, most difficult, most responsible jobs in British public service, but is afraid of it because it’s too big for him and wants to pass the difficult responsibilities onto someone else. If a Chancellor wanted to freeze taxes, they could say they’d freeze the central government’s tax take. But Mr Osborne thinks that would be much too hard and, besides, it would mean he couldn’t have the power to raise all that lovely money. So he tells someone else to do it instead. As Vince Cable said yesterday, this is just “passing the buck to local councils,” and it’ll mean the councils that can’t cut their budgets enough – either because they’ve already been very efficient, and now need to raise their spending with inflation, or because they’re in poorer areas where more of their spending is vital, or because they don’t get as much central government grant as other councils – will end up with continuing Council Tax rises, while other councils that need extra money less will be given, er, extra money… Which means that, for those councils, even less of the money they spend will be raised locally, leaving local people with even less meaningful decision-making and local government even more under the control of central government. Council Tax was a regressive tax that didn’t reflect your ability to pay when the Tories invented it; under Mr Osborne’s plans, the Tories want to keep it that way, but (just as they did when they invented it) they want to throw a fat subsidy at it for a couple of years to sweeten the pill and get local government further under their thumb.

And of course Mr Osborne’s headline-grabbing promise that “Tories pledge council tax freeze” is one that he can’t deliver on, but which he can blame someone else for not delivering – as opposed to making a promise from within the six hundred billion pounds (or more) that he wants to control and would be personally held to account on. Because making a promise about the job he wants to do, making himself fit the standards he wants to order everyone else to obey… That would just be too hard.

Here’s a thought, Mr Osborne – if being Chancellor seems like it’d be too hard for you, have you ever considered that you might not be up to the job?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Friday, September 26, 2008


The Avengers – Too Many Christmas Trees

Have you noticed The Avengers is back on, late on Friday nights on BBC4? If not, consider this a Christmas present. A Christmas present? Well, it’s September, so what could be more natural than shops stuffed with Advent Calendars and stockings full of chocolate, and The Avengers’ Christmas special showing at 12.40 in the morning? And it’s (forgive me) a cracker, too, plunging Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg into a Dickensian nightmare that’s one of the very best of the series. What’s in Steed’s Christmas stocking? Is he really losing his mind? Is telepathy real? Tune in and find out.
Steed hangs up his stocking – Emma asks for more
Richard’s inordinately fond of the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, with Gillian Anderson riddled with accidie and pitted against Charles Dance’s extraordinarily monstrous Mr Tulkinghorn. We’ve just finished watching it again on DVD, and were so impressed that not only have I started reading the novel (three hundred pages in, only seven hundred to go, and a note to the editors: if you’re going to stick 46 footnotes in a 7-page chapter, how about sticking them at the foot of the page rather than a thousand pages to the back so your reader has to flick so often they go quite mad?), but we’ve made a start on the 1985 adaptation with, goodness me, Diana Rigg. So far it’s being stolen by Denholm Elliott as Mr Jarndyce, but however good Diana’s Lady Dedlock turns out, it’ll be very difficult for her to beat her outstanding turn in The Avengers’ exploration of Dickensiana. And it’s not just Diana Rigg’s Dickens role coming a couple of decades ahead that gives Too Many Christmas Trees that special boost: A Christmas Carol is, of course, one of many stories that get a sly reference in the script, but if you’ve seen the Alastair Sim film from a couple of decades earlier, why, there’s young Patrick Macnee, and also Mervyn Johns, who’s cast as this story’s version of the friendly, effusive typical Dickens benefactor…

Before the details and the spoilers, why’s Too Many Christmas Trees especially worth watching? Three things stand out for this eerie corrective to Christmas. The two leads are really on top form, with Diana Rigg fabulously determined as Mrs Peel carries much of the story while Steed is cracking up; Patrick Macnee ranges from light, to madly jolly, to positively haunted in a superb performance. It’s one of darkest, most atmospheric Avengers stories, tensely directed and – in the Hall of Great Expectations – giving one of the most sinister moments of the whole series. But though a ghostly midnight tale, it’s not a downbeat story; it’s also very funny, with the tension often arising from the humour and particularly thanks to Steed and Emma’s relationship here being at its wittiest, warmest and strongest. Oh, and right from the opening moments, it boasts some smashingly stylised hallucinations that you really shouldn’t show to anyone who still believes in Santa.

More to follow next week. Harrumble!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008


Meltdown on Wall Street; Smackdown for the White House?

I felt guilty in the run-up to Liberal Democrat Conference for writing nothing about the Democrat and Republican Conventions, despite watching way too many of their speeches – the good, the bad, and Tom Ridge. Hopefully you’ve kept up to date by reading Paul Walter’s outstanding US elections coverage (832 posts in September alone). My impression’s that the Democrats had a successful Convention but, hamstrung by having no idea how to tackle Sarah Palin, have faltered since. Now bad news may be good news for them as life continues to imitate art and, particularly, the climax of The West Wing.

If you followed that brilliant but patchy series – two stunning years that were among the best TV ever made, descending into something slower and more banal before recovering for a tense final year and a half in a close race for the White House – you’ll remember just how those last few months went with an eerie feeling of déjà vu. The Democrats finishing a long and fractious primary contest by picking the youthful, gifted candidate with a message of change, the first non-white Presidential nominee in US history, teamed with a much older Washington insider as his running mate; the Republicans picking an older, veteran senator perceived as more moderate than most of his party, but teamed with a youthful, more exciting theocrat to keep the religious maniacs in his party on side… Well, now there seems to be more.

The other week, when President Bush announced the largest nationalisation in the history of the world - $75 trillion, and without even proper control to safeguard the huge cheques from taxpayers underwriting it – I wondered just what there was left for Republicans to vote for, other than hating the Democrats and hoping Sarah Palin will become President and announce the Rapture. After eight years of racking up a deficit so vast that it’s almost incomprehensible, George W Bush doubled it at a stroke to bail out the ‘free market’ (not that I think much of the Democrats’ current anti-free-trade platform either, but at least President Clinton paid off the national credit card). Last night Naomi Klein, a talking head on Newsnight, described the Bush economic approach as “Socialism for the rich”. So Republicans screaming shrilly about Barack Obama and “socialised medicine” somehow sound like very small change indeed. When the polls were turning in favour of John McCain, I wondered if President Bush had already decided the Democrat candidate was going to win and was finding the biggest conceivable way to trash the place and stiff President Obama for the bill.

So how does this relate to that West Wing ‘story’ (spoilers follow, though I don’t say who wins). Seeing Wall Street in meltdown this week, with one after another of the world’s biggest investment banks collapsing and the American economy imploding, I can’t help thinking that this is one of those defining moments in an election period – and that it can’t be good news for the Republican Party, both the party of big (or, in the case of America, even bigger) money and the party currently in the White House. In The West Wing, the Republican candidate had been pulling ahead in the polls until a nuclear power plant in his state, one he’d been tied to over many years, suddenly went into meltdown. Overnight, the Democrats’ Matt Santos came back into contention in an instantly neck-and-neck race. Once again, it looks like the story of real life’s running in tandem, as financial meltdown makes US voters sit back and wonder about the Republicans as a safe pair of hands.

Lib Dem Conference / West Wing Studio 60 crossover / life imitating art moment: on Tuesday morning, Richard and I found ourselves pedeconferencing with Matt and Danny…

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Conference, Getting Home, Rubbish News and Great Sausages

We’re home from Conference, and utterly knackered, especially poor Richard who did the driving. Among the things we learned today: there’s apparently a standard point at which Liberal Democrat bladders hit the danger mark. At least, that’s what we assumed when we drove into a particular service station off the M3 and saw two prominent Lib Dem bloggers in front of us. And an MP to one side. And a member of party staff to the other. And some Liberal Youth in the café. And… You get the picture. It was like the conference reconvening to dash for the loos.

While driving back to London, we caught up with one of Big Finish’s intriguing Sapphire & Steel series, Perfect Day. Not bad, though not the best of them, but worth it for the eerie sense of people away at the sea, caught in a time bubble of 14th September where every day’s the same. Anyone would think we’d been caught in some time bubble by the sea for the last few days that blurred into each other and probably involved the 14th of September…

We’ve watched the news coverage of Nick’s excellent speech, with a microscope, then turned to watch some of the exquisite misery of Bleak House instead. Despite getting improbably teary-eyed for the Dedlocks, it was cheerier than watching the BBC pretend we didn’t exist or – in the case of PM – giving us a fraction the coverage of the dodgy pips this morning. I might write more about the speech when I’m more awake but, in short, it was brilliantly delivered and clearly addressed more to the country than the audience. That means that while I enjoyed the Andrex Puppy, for any ordinary voters lucky enough to have channel-hopped onto Nick by accident, his passion about helping his and other children will probably have won them over. Daft idea to robo-call a quarter of a million voters tonight, though. Even if it’s a good idea, which I find unlikely, why announce it today and dilute your rare – very rare, looking at the smidgeon of coverage – bite of publicity? Why not announce it and do it tomorrow, and get an extra day’s worth (for what that’s worth) rather than overwrite your speech news with ‘Clegg’s cold call cock-up’? Sigh.

Meanwhile, as I type Robert Peston is saying it’s good news that two big banks are amalgamating into an even bigger one. Brilliant, BBC Economics guru; because big banks are completely safe and, should they go under, in no way imperil the economy or suck up squillions in public money to keep them upright, which is what’s known as the discipline of the free market. Well done, Mr Peston, for taking that infallible lesson from this week in particular and the last year in general. Pillock. It would be madness, of course, to suggest that the solution might lie in lots of little banks that help the consumer with competition and are much more difficult for big-money privateers to circle like sharks, rather than dumping competition laws and rigging the system to create more gigantic targets with ‘kick me’ on their share prices.

Random observations from the week include the excellent pair of bloggers whom I now can’t think of as anything other than Jay and Silent Bob, so many lovely people being cheery, upbeat and huggy, and that the plush Bournemouth Conference Hotel we were staying in looked terribly posh in some bits, but in the strange extension perched on top where we were found, the floors were uneven – not inspiring confidence, though suggesting several houses taken over, knocked together and an extra floor stuck across the roofs – and the narrow, snaking yellow-wallpapered corridor looked like a set from a 1970s sit-com. Specially fond memories: the facecloths that kept mysteriously vanishing from our room when the hotel pixie cleaned it; the pricey but very tasty dinner last night; the hotel internet connection hosted in Germany that gave us Blogger and Google in Deutsch and wouldn’t let us listen to BBC7 on the iPlayer; the fabulous breakfasts that saw me given no knife three days running, raising the worry that Mr Brown might have intervened to prevent a surge of cutlery crime among Lib Dems or that they’d been stolen by members of his own party and were to be found in Mr Brown’s back. Still, I had a knife this morning, and to celebrate piled my plate with Legotastic construction skill in order to make full use of it. The Blessed Leader greeted me over the breakfast selection with “Blimey, have you got enough there? I’ve never seen that much on a plate.” Sorry, Nick, but while I may be several years and about as many stone past being a Liberal youth, old buffet habits die hard.

Besides, they were really good sausages.

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…Which goes to show that sausages are more popular than speeches, taxes and analysis. Or, alternatively, that this was one of the top five links that Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated got stuck on for a week ;-)

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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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Friday, September 05, 2008


Why George Osborne Shouldn’t Be Chancellor, No 3,981

With the thrill-a-minute entertainment of the US Presidential Conventions finished, what is there to do with your nights? Fortunately, if you’ve got into the insomniac habit, tonight’s episode of The Avengers at 12.20 on BBC4 is particularly fine. Dial a Deadly Number is a tale of rich people and murder, with stand-out scenes including Steed trying to blow Mrs Peel’s cover just for the sheer hell of it and two terribly memorable duels, both involving wine.

Alternatively, if you’re tired of wit and charm but not of rich, unpleasant people, at 11pm there’s George Osborne on Radio 4’s Great Lives. No, don’t worry; he’s not nominating himself, nor his mate Dave. In fact, he’s gone to great lengths to pick a choice – typically for the current Tory leadership – that can’t possibly offend any focus groups, lying as it does over five hundred years in the past. Imagine my satisfaction, then, when not only does his choice of a ‘Great Life’ give me yet another reason to dislike Mr Osborne but it cleverly makes him sound even less palatable as Chancellor of the Exchequer than you’d previously thought.

A Complete Forkwit

George Osborne’s historical hero is King Henry VII, the 211th-in-line usurper with one of the bloodiest records of slaughtering the (many) heirs with better claims to the throne of any English (and Welsh) king. I’ve registered my dislike of him before. However, Mr Osborne and Great Lives host Matthew Parris are both unaccountably big fans, though that doesn’t stop Mr Parris from occasionally leaning in and asking embarrassing questions. Laugh as Mr Osborne praises Morton’s Fork, then gets asked if that’s how he’d behave as Chancellor and suddenly becomes very prissily defensive, because he’s too dim to have thought anyone would make the connection. Goggle as he claims that Henry VII tripled the national tax take purely through expanding the economy, and that ruthless enforcement and the Morton’s Fork he’d already brought up to salivate over had nothing to do with it. Tory Shadowy Chancellor in favour of tripling taxes: you heard it here first. Putting together the words ‘tax’ and ‘cuts’ in Tudor times usually meant beheading; Henry was very much in favour of what you might call ‘raking in the proceeds of growth’.

Still, unusually brave of him. Even The Tudors didn’t think they could get away with making that murderous, rapacious git a hero. Time to switch on the telly for some more unlikely historical shagging…

Apologies for recent lack of blogging; have knackered my arm again. Ho hum.

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