Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Lib Dem Conference On TV: Watching Where the Money Goes

I’m usually busy at Liberal Democrat Conferences. Writing speeches – sometimes even getting called to make them. Writing chunks of policy – sometimes even proposing them. Not writing a blog looking at the telly, while policies I’ve had nothing to do with are debated without my vote or voice. One I’m in two minds over. One I’m proud of. One taking baby steps but going nowhere near far enough. One that’s OK but should’ve been inspiring. One that’s unjust, unaffordable and unworkable. And the big picture: the very few places where my party puts any money where its mouth is.

As my health has gone further downhill, in conference after conference I’ve made fewer speeches and attended fewer debates than I did five years ago, or ten, or twenty. It’s just a bit of a shock to go from steadily decreasing participation and days when I often have to stay in a hotel room rather than in the conference hall to zilch. Hopefully Richard and I will be back next year, more engaged once we’re married (though it’ll be much more expensive for me just as my low income’s been eradicated, thanks to government policies I can’t say I support).

But there is one advantage to watching this Glasgow Conference on TV. I would be sitting in the hall fired up and wondering if I’ll be called to make my speech, listening to dreary meandering mumbles with nothing to say even if they could deliver it, where the only message is ‘My view on this crucial national issue is incoherent but involves a mind-bogglingly dull special plea for my own little local area’ – and it’s not just the MPs, some of the ordinary members are just as bad. I would be thinking hard at the sodding chair of the session, ‘It’s one thing not to call me to make the brilliant speech I’ve crafted so carefully, but calling these ones instead is just insulting.’

At home, I don’t feel the urge to write a speech, I don’t have to worry if I can make it to the hall, and above all, I can record the debates and watch most of them with my finger on the fast-forward button!

In my breaks from Lib Dem Conference, I’ve also been watching Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet, starring Tom Baker and written by Douglas Adams. This brilliant story, is I have to admit, better viewing than pretty much any Agenda item bar the Presentation On Same-Sex Marriage, and its second episode was first broadcast on this night back in 1978. At the time, part of it was a satire about the idea of an “economic miracle” for which no-one has to pay. It also turns out (spoilers) that behind the exponentially increasing devouring of the resources of whole worlds is someone very old to whom no demand is ever enough.

So what’s been happening back at the Conference? You can read all the papers here, and catch many of the debates via the BBC. But here’s why some debates particularly caught my attention…

“One Member, One Vote”

I’m torn on this one. If party membership hadn’t been hollowed out, I’d be wary that these proposals sound like they’re about equality but actually even more heavily in favour of time-rich, money-rich people who happen to live close to the seaside (or, in this case, to Glasgow). The equivalent of electoral reform for the UK being to propose one person, one vote – as long as you can all pay a large registration fee to crowd into the same one polling station. In Glasgow. Or, discarding the party’s current constituency-based representative democracy model, like reforming the House of Commons by saying any UK citizen can turn up and vote there, as long as they can afford to pay to register and pay to stay in London. And I wasn’t totally convinced by the argument that our shrunken membership makes it less likely people will turn up to swing the votes, which seems like an argument that we should completely change the structures just to get no more people turn up anyway. That the proposals themselves were a badly-drafted mess from a Federal Executive that has been record-breakingly navel-gazing and incompetent in its faits accompli this year didn’t help.

And yet… I’ve had times when I’ve been to conference without being an elected conference representative with a vote too, and it’s even more frustrating than being a conference representative who’s not at conference as I am today. The amendments stopped the constitution being turned into incoherence. And the arguments on the OMOV side were simply far better, with too many of those against resorting to pathetic ad hominem attacks.

Watching from home, though, if every member is to get a vote not just if they attend conference but for the major party committees, the small changes in making conference easier to follow over the past few years need to accelerate mightily. During conferences, the party website must have a one-click ‘What is happening right now’ solution rather than a many-click ‘Somewhere here you can work it out’ puzzle box. The back-projections and the chairs of sessions need to give the site address several times during each debate and explain what’s going on in each vote, not just to make it clear to conference-goers rushing about, but to those more members we’re told will be freshly engaged and watching after OMOV. Announcing at the end what the votes have actually decided, rather than just reading out a list of numbers and letters, would help the TV watchers too.

In a spirit of helpfulness, here’s one I prepared earlier: Making It Easier To Follow Liberal Democrat Conference.

Towards Safer Sex Work

Twenty years ago, I was newly elected to the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee – the body that decides on the major policy proposals that go to Conference. I was the youngest person on it by more than ten years, the only out LGBT person on it (putting into perspective today’s debates over reducing ‘diversity’ to only one tick-box quota), and – the unique thing about me that most mattered to me and which made the difference on the Committee – by the reckoning both of those meaning it approvingly and those meaning it critically the most unfilteredly ideologically Liberal. One of the first policy papers that that year’s FPC discussed had something done to it that I can’t remember any other paper save election manifestos. Election manifestos come back several times for FPC debate because there’s so much in them and we need to get them right. This paper was sent away for redrafting not once but twice because it was simply too Liberal for the FPC. I can’t remember any other than wasn’t just redrafted a bit in committee, as was the norm, but rejected in total and sent away to be rewritten from top to bottom (possibly not the best words), then once we saw it again, told it was still too interesting and needed to be completely redrafted yet again.

The neutered and regulation-heavy paper that was eventually permitted to creep into Conference was titled “Confronting Prostitution”. I bear some responsibility for that overly confrontational language: I was the one who pointed out to the FPC that the title “Tackling Prostitution” might be open to ribald remarks and we should get our tackle out.

It wasn’t a bad paper. It advanced us well ahead of the other parties. But I always looked at it with disappointment, because the policy working group had followed its remit, followed the evidence, and followed Liberalism in drafting a civil liberties paper that the FPC gutted stage by stage until it was about ‘getting them off the streets’. When the first draft came to FPC, it was the only policy paper that was ever so unpopular that just one solitary FPC member supported it as it stood. You will not be surprised to read that it was not the only time in which I was in a minority of one, but it was the most significant.

So I was very proud to watch all of Saturday afternoon’s debate, to see how far we’ve come. I particularly recommend you read Sarah Brown’s speech, but I was really pleased at how sensible and Liberal the overwhelming majority of the speakers – and the votes – were, including protecting sex workers both from exploitation and from the state, rejecting the idea of reintroducing ID Cards but just for sex workers, and setting out the principle that informed, consenting sex should simply be legal and is nobody else’s business (even if it’s a business). Well done, Conference! I just hope now that the next FPC will not be as timid about the forthcoming policy paper as its predecessor two decades ago. So if you have a vote, vote for the candidates with some Liberal ideas rather than just a CV on their manifesto.

Doing What Works To Cut Crime

I liked this policy paper – it sets out a practical, evidence-based approach to cutting crime. But its piecemeal nature means it looks more like a compilation than a coherent whole. So I welcome the commitment to crime prevention. And civil liberties. And evidence-based baby-step liberalisation of our useless, gangster-boosting drug laws. And to the interests of victims.

But a bigger question that the paper doesn’t ask is that if we want fewer victims, what about the victimless? What about ‘crimes’ that are not about protecting any victim but only about the state victimising people that aren’t hurting anyone else? Because it’s not only criminals who attack you that can be bullies. The state can, too. And if you want to prevent crime, expand freedom, cut the ground from under gangsters and have fewer victims, then setting out the principle that ‘victimless crimes’ should simply not be crimes at all is something I’d like to see as the keystone of our next crime paper when it looks at evidence for how to implement that.

The Liberal Democrat 2014 Pre-Manifesto – A Stronger Economy and A Fairer Society

I wrote a little about this yesterday, looking at the Introduction and how that’s changed and improved on previous attempts – though it lacks a short, stirring rallying call of What the Liberal Democrats Stand For.

The whole thing’s pretty good. And I particularly liked Duncan Brack’s closing peroration in the debate (Duncan, if you’re reading, please send me your speech and I’ll print some of it in a Liberal Monday). I have to admit, though, save the much-purloined policy to further raise the personal allowance for the lower-paid, I’m a bit hard-pressed to remember a ‘wow’ policy. That suggests that its narrative isn’t all that thrilling. And then at the last minute, someone came along and diluted the best bit.

I might have been tempted to vote against it for the drafting amendment announced this morning: the problem with an amendment that’s accepted into the text at the last minute is that no-one gets to debate it or speak against it. Several years ago, there was a crappy Guardianista fad for “wellbeing”, a meaningless top-down political concept like a New Labour zombie. The Lib Dems made the great mistake of deciding it was the biggest of big ideas, with almost zero enthusiasm, and since then have sheepishly never mentioned it again because it’s a load of rubbish. Until this policy motion, when some utter fool wanted to add it and the bigger fools on the FPC let them. Worse, it means that the motion as passed says that the one big thing we’re really about is “above all to empower every person to realise their potential” – oh, and also “wellbeing”! Which is crud. It’s not one task. It’s two. It means the inspiring, Liberal, bottom-up idea that we are about enabling everyone to decide their own life is now knitting together with top-down Blairite mulch about how we should decide what’s good for people. As no-one mentioned it in the debate, proving yet again how pathetically uninspiring the idea is, my advice is just to pretend it isn’t there.

But at least the Pre-Manifesto remembered to talk quite a bit about the deficit, and didn’t pretend you can fix it while bringing in no new tax revenue at all and giving massive handouts to the wealthiest.

Did We Forget About the Deficit After All? The Big Four Spending Commitments

The Pre-Manifesto was very tough on the deficit this morning. Then there was a huge splurge this afternoon.

I’m not against huge splurges (no, titter ye not). But the Liberal Democrats have carefully costed our Manifestos for more than two decades to only promise what we can afford, even in the good times when the money was rolling in (though less than the Labour Government pretended). Now the money’s not just tight but gone, it’s all the more obvious where the few extra bits are going – while everything else gets slashed.

These four spending commitments are massive. And everything else will have to suffer.

I remember in 2001 – in what Labour told us were the boom years – I put out a really good leaflet across the constituency for which I was standing for election. ‘Follow the money’, I thought, and so this was all about the two biggest spending commitments in our 2001 Manifesto. On one side, a picture of me with local kids, with details of our proposals for children and education and how we’d pay for them. On the other, a picture of me with local pensioners, with details of our proposals for old people and pensions and how we’d pay for them.

I thought this was a great idea until a working person without kids told me angrily, “So you’re offering me nothing, then. I just have to pay for it all.” That should have occurred to me: I was a working person without kids. But though we’d said in our 1997 Manifesto that we’d raise the personal allowance for the low-paid, by 2001 we’d dropped that from our priorities to give a massive bung to pensioners. And back then that didn’t even include the earnings link and ‘triple lock’.

Today we have even less money. We’ve restored the policy of cutting taxes for low-earners – and made it a reality for millions despite the Tories wanting a tax cut for dead millionaires instead and Labour opposing it because they want government hand-outs only to the people they say deserve it rather than letting all the low-paid keep their own money. But that wasn’t a choice between generations. Something for children; something for working people; something for pensioners; now something for the NHS for everyone.

I just don’t think this can hold – because four massive commitments of extra cash is too many without squeezing everything else until it pops. And one of those four is not like the others. Only one has had no hard choices at all – just constant rises.

Age Ready Britain

Back when I was healthy enough to stand for elections, I went through an assessment to see if I was politically fit to be a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate. I passed with flying colours, and can still remember my going all Churchill to the assessor role-playing an anti-asylum-seeker voter on the doorstep (as well as remembering that I’d only use the word “refugee”). One of the parts of the approval process of which I most approved in turn was the point where you had to prove you had a Liberal brain by identifying a party policy that you disagreed with and explaining why. I think at the time it was something about well-meaningly bossing young people about – a “wellbeing” policy, if you will – and, if I thought today about which I considered our most wrong policy, I would quite happily blast that Blairite twaddle of a “wellbeing” paper out of existence. But as it’s already been wiped from everyone’s memory through its very blandness, I would answer that the policy I most disagree with is one that has been made even more disagreeable today.

Our policy on pensions is generous, warm-hearted, well-meaning and attractive.

It’s a shame that it’s completely out of touch with reality.

This morning, the Liberal Democrats voted for a Pre-Manifesto that constantly repeats that it is all about “the next generation” and uses that as a primary argument for reducing the massive deficit between what the government spends and the money it has – that we must spend less now rather than saddle ever-increasing debts onto the next generation.

This afternoon, the Liberal Democrats voted for our biggest spending commitment not only to remain humungous increases for pensioners when every single other group in society is suffering cuts, but to put that vast and ever-increasing cost into law so that it can never be changed.

Completely unworkable.

The first time I ever spoke on what might be called the party ‘establishment’ side, after many years of being the radical outsider, was sometime roughly around the year 2000. It was in a debate on pensions that saw the unlikely bedfellows of young people, the party Leadership and elderly members of the House of Lords on one side, with middle-aged Parliamentary candidates on the other. The Parliamentary candidates wanted to restore the link between earnings and pensions because it was very popular. The rest of us said that it was a mistake to make that a principle because we could afford it today – as we then thought, not realising that even in the boom years the Labour Government was already running an unaffordable budget deficit – because there would come the twin pressures of an ageing population and a less rosy economy, and then we’d be stuck with a policy that wasn’t affordable. I can’t remember precisely my age, but I can remember my speech’s opening line that got people’s attention (and got a few boos):
“Conference, I’m twenty-eight. And I want a pensions policy that doesn’t make me pay through the nose and then go bankrupt before I get anywhere near claiming it.”
Back then, sense won the day. Somehow, between then and now, as the nation has got older and the economy has gone down the toilet, as the side that won back then have been proved right, we’ve gone ahead and gone for the unreal option anyway.

A ‘triple lock’ on pensions ratchets up without end, so that whatever happens to wages, or inflation, or the nation’s finances, however children or working people or people on benefits or services or anything else under the sun suffer, one group alone will forever get more and more money even as that group gets bigger and bigger.

We promised it at the last Election. We were wrong.

We’ve delivered it in government. We were wrong.

Today, we’ve proposed locking it into legislation so that every other group, every other service, every other dire need must always by law be subordinate to pensioners not just not contributing much to the cuts, not just staying still, but getting more, more, more while everyone and everything else gets less, less, less. We are stupidly, impossibly wrong.

With today’s pressure on the public finances, this is not merely utterly unworkable but utterly unjust.

I argued for pensions increases and other spending to help pensioners back in 2001. I meant it. It was the right thing to do when we could (seemingly) afford it. I didn’t argue for massive age discrimination and a huge and ever-increasing transfer of wealth from the current generation and the next generation to pensioners who will never be all in this together even when we can afford none of it. Because I’m an idealist, not a complete fantasist.

The Party Leadership and speakers in the debate today told the brave souls who stood up against this dangerous absurdity that they were wrong to say that ever-increasing numbers of pensioners getting a never-ending increase above the country’s wealth was unaffordable, because we just don’t understand the numbers. They didn’t say what the numbers were. Because… Because… Because… It’s magic! Government spending is still way above the money it takes. Everything and everyone else is struggling to keep their heads above water. The benefits bill is being slashed and people having their benefits cut or cruelly taken away altogether – the one exception being the vast majority of the benefits bill, the vast majority of benefits claimants, all of whom get much more than any other benefits recipients. They are the pensioners. But pouring extra cash into by far the biggest chunk of the benefits budget is “affordable”, we were told, and we just don’t understand if we say the emperor has no money to get clothes.

How stupid do they think we are?

One MP replied to criticism – from the unlikely bedfellows of Liberal Reform and a leading member of the Social Liberal Forum – by saying that we shouldn’t turn this into a fight between the generations. Well, that’s exactly what you do say when you’re the victor enjoying all the spoils, but not when you’re the side left bleeding and looted. Behind the scenes, they spin something else: not that it’s right, but that “pensioners vote”, so we need to throw money at them even if we have to mortgage the next generation’s future by borrowing half of it and mug the current working generation for the rest.

Ever wondered why the Tories so readily went along with a massive bung to pensioners – and took the credit? Maybe some of it was that when they got into power Mr Cameron still wanted to detoxify them and saw pensions as a totem that they were now the Nice Party to one group, at least. Before they rediscovered their taste for celebrating kicking the poor in the nuts. But why, do you think, were the Tories so happy to increase pensions while they slash and bash every other benefits claimant? It’s not rocket science, is it? Yes, “pensioners vote”. Pensioners vote Tory. Our most unrealistically expensive policy has been to make everyone else suffer, infamously cutting at our own core voters, to give a massive advantage to the Conservative core vote. For which the Conservatives get all the credit and we see our vote, as it always is, weaker the older the voting demographic gets.


There are several good ideas in the Age Ready Britain Paper. There’s also the biggest infection of any policy paper this Conference of, yes, more twaddle about patronising “wellbeing” again, which is just a neon light for me to say that if I had been at Conference I would have urged the other Liberal Democrats to hurl it out and shred it, and start considering fiscal reality, fairness and the next generation’s future.

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