Posts Tagged ‘Lib Dems’

A thank you note

Friday 24 September 2010

I don’t normally do blogs of a personal nature, but a word of thanks is called for. I absent-mindedly left my (work) netbook in the security tent at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool on Tuesday evening. After some enquiries, it turned out that the Lib Dem conference staff had found it and taken it back to their Cowley Street HQ.

Cowley Street is about twenty minutes from where I live on my bike. Liverpool is not. So I’m very grateful to the Lib Dem staff for taking it back – and to responding very swiftly and efficiently to my query. Lost property is hardly a core activity for a political party.

Big thanks to Emma, Sophie and Sonia at Lib Dem HQ for their help, and also thanks to Lorraine and Jason at the ACC Liverpool for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

P.S. Amusingly, the message board at Cowley Street reads more like the coat pegs at an old English public school. Next to signs under sliding covers indicating ‘in’ and ‘out’ are the names in last name and first initial format – including ‘Clegg N’ and ‘Alexander A’ (who is still listed as working in the leader’s office, despite having stopped being his chief of staff some time ago.


Lib Dem conference: could it reform the OBR?

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Yesterday’s Lib Dem conference rebellion over free schools and academies – apparently regarded by the media as the major headache for Nick Clegg – is unlikely to stop Michael Gove and the Department for Education in their tracks. Academies and free schools will continue to be rolled out in some shape or form, even if not as fast as the government likes.

However, the result of today’s conference vote over “ensuring fairness in a time of austerity” could – with an emphasis on could – affect the workings of the Office of Budget Responsibility. Critics in the past have said the OBR, supposed to be an independent scrutineer of the Treasury’s fiscal policy, isn’t independent enough.

The motion in its final form says that the OBR, a Conservative rather than a Lib Dem brainchild, should be “genuinely independent of government by having its committee appointed directly by Parliament” and have its remit expanded “to include assessing the socio-economic impact of Treasury policy, as stipulated in the Equality Act 2010.” In other words, make sure that cuts don’t discriminate against women, minorities etc.

I understand – and the Lib Dem press office has yet to respond to this – that Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander (whom I have already reported as having intervened in the motion before conference) asked for the bit about Parliament appointing the OBR head to be cut out. Which rather suggests that the motion is not considered a dead letter in Cowley Street.

The motion might be just hot air were it not for three factors:

1) Lib Dem conference motions feed into party policy – not the same as coalition policy, of course, but still policy that the party is meant to press for

2) There is a movement on the left wing of the Lib Dems to see this motion through (which may or may not be effective enough to actually achieve that), and

3) Legislation setting out the OBR’s structure and terms of reference in statute is on its way to Parliament.

(from Tribune blog)

Is Danny Alexander trying to stamp on a pesky motion?

Sunday 19 September 2010

On BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend today, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was asked if he would “feel bound” by the decisions of his party’s conference. Under party rules, Lib Dem conference decisions are fed into the party’s manifesto.

His reply was pretty close to a no:

“What we’re doing is what the party agreed back in May, which is to deliver on that coalition agreement. So that’s what we have to do and that’s where I will take my source of authority from, if you like, and of course the party conference debates are important but they don’t necessarily make policy for the government”

While it’s understandable that Alexander wants to underline the importance of sticking to the coalition agreement in the face of Lib Dem jitters about getting into bed with the Tories, it may also be that he wants to head off attempts to enforce a tricky motion calling on the government to be more progressive in its cuts to public spending. It’s a motion whose wording he’s already intervened in, as I reported here last month.

The motion, which will be debated on Tuesday, calls on the coalition to:

“continue to work to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not disproportionately affected by the government’s austerity measures and to ensure that the wealth and inequality gap does not widen.”

and to:

“Insist that Liberal Democrat ministers are given the freedom and resources to commission research to fully assess the viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth – including land values.”

Some might argue that this contradicts George Osborne’s slashing of welfare budgets, and it seems unlikely that he would smile on plans to increase taxation on wealth beyond the still-in-place 50p top tax rate.

Alexander’s announcement of a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion also looks like a way of assuaging those who want to see more redistribution of wealth from the wealthy (e.g. billionaire non-doms) to the poor.

Constituency boundary changes: the case against

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Last night’s Commons debate on the Government’s plans to reduce the number of MPs, redraw constituencies and introduce a referendum on the alternative vote – all in one bill – was a lively event. But it didn’t bring out all the details of what this constitutional shake-up might mean.

For that, you could do worse than pore over a confidential Labour Party document on the boundary changes, put together to brief the parliamentary party. Although it’s obviously been written to highlight what Labour sees as the negative effects, the arguments made are backed by evidence and can be objectively assessed.

And it makes for interesting reading. In summary:

  • In order to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, constituencies will be redrawn so that the number of registered voters in each one is within 5 per cent of a new quota – predicted to be about 75,800 people
  • All other considerations, e.g. landscape, accessibility, shape, are secondary to the quota
  • Three seats are exempted from the rules. Two are Lib Dem (one is Charles Kennedy’s seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber) and the other is SNP-held. All are in the Scottish Highlands, where the much lower population density would mean otherwise many constituencies would disappear in giant new ones
  • Because there are (according to the Electoral Commission in 2005) 3.5 million unregistered voters in mainly urban areas, and Labour’s strongholds are in inner cities, a redraw on the basis of current electoral roles will (the briefing believes) leave Labour constituencies with more people eligible to vote than Conservative ones

So far it sounds like Labour will be worst off. But hang on.

  • Lib Dem constituencies tend to be more dispersed than Labour or Tory ones which are clumped together. This means  – especially in marginals – they are surrounded by hostile voters
  • So when Lib Dem constituencies are enlarged or incorporated into others, MPs in marginals which aren’t abolished outright risk having their small majorities swamped by Labour/Tory voters – especially if there is a swing, even a small one, against Lib Dems at the next election

On this analysis, Annette Brooke, Lib Dem MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole, should worry. She is defending a majority of 269, has less than 65,000 voters and is entirely surrounded by safe Tory seats.

  • On a worst-case scenario (for the Lib Dems), the briefing estimates they could lose over half their seats at the next election.

Highly subjective of course. But there seems little doubt that redrawing constituency boundaries won’t help the Lib Dems. How many of their MPs are mindful of this as they vote for the bill? And will it come up at their conference in just over a week’s time?

More in Tribune this week.

(from Tribune blog)

Danny Alexander and the Lib Dem motion

Saturday 14 August 2010

Those of you who haven’t got their hands on a copy of Tribune this week, or who looked at the website and found some stories missing (slight technical hitch I believe) may be unaware of some developments in the run-up to the Lib Dem annual conference in Liverpool next month.

As I reported for Tribune this week – and as has been reported elsewhere – there are two motions which particularly challenge the direction of the government: one which criticises academy schools and totally rubbishes free schools as “wasting precious resources”, and one which calls on the coalition to:

“continue to work to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not disproportionately affected by the government’s austerity measures and to ensure that the wealth and inequality gap does not widen.”

A nice way of warning them off doing anything regressive in the autumn spending review, due a few weeks later. The motion also calls for conference to:

“Insist that Liberal Democrat ministers are given the freedom and resources to commission research to fully assess the viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth – including land values.”

What hasn’t been reported elsewhere is that when Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander saw the motion, he picked up the phone to the party policy office, who then got on the line to James Graham, the motion’s proposer. Graham isn’t just anyone: he’s a former member of the party’s federal executive and the secretary, website manager and press officer of the Social Liberal Forum, a group on the left of the party.

Graham says that after an “amicable” discussion, he agreed to insert an extra clause praising the coalition for preparing to make the Office of Budget Responsibility more independent – but did not take out any of the bits warning them not to beggar the poor. Look at the motion: it doesn’t praise all the budget, jut the bits it thinks are Lib Dem.

These sorts of motions could cause pro-coalition Lib Dem ministers a headache, because a) they don’t look confrontational and so are less likely to be opposed by the party chiefs; and b) once a motion is passed, it stands a fighting chance of getting in the party’s manifesto. Party rules require the federal policy committee to base policy on motions agreed at annual conference.

Public sector cuts: a view from the north-east

Wednesday 16 June 2010

I spoke earlier this week to Simon Henig, leader of the Labour-led Durham County Council, which is shouldering £16.5 million in budget cuts following last week’s announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government of £1.166 billion in cuts to grants for local councils. In addition to the £51.3 million he says the council was already having to find in efficiency savings. Only a bit of Mr Henig would fit into my piece for Tribune this week, so here he is in full.

Mr Henig began by complaining that most of the £16.5 million had been hidden from last week’s announcement. (Indeed, the table found on the DCLG website only gave a figure of something over £6 million for Durham’s cuts.) “You had to be very forensic to find all the detail”, he said. The government figure, he says, does not include cuts in capital funding inc. road maintenance, road transport, road safety – which are in a separate table – or abolitions of specific grants. “I got hold of it [the table] by getting someone in the House of Commons to get it for me”.

“I don’t think it’s a very good start for a government that was always at the previous government for burying detail – this goes beyond anything of the last government’s . We would hope for greater transparency; we’re having to put online every transaction over £500. They can’t even do the same for reductions of millions of pounds.”

He noted that 24 out of 28 local authorities which have the biggest percentage cuts are in northern regions, and nine out of 12 northeastern regions are present. “There’s a very clear north-south divide. Some of those grants are there in response to deprivation and kick-starting economies.”

He drew attention to the Local Economic Growth Initiative, which encourages people to start their own businesses. “To be frank, you don’t need that money to start that scheme in Surrey.” And referring to Nick Clegg’s promise to protect vulnerable areas like the north-east, he said: “I think questions will have to be asked about quite what influence the Liberal Democrats are having on these decisions.”

“If that spending review in the autumn repeats these patterns, that’s going to lead to some negative consequences. All sorts of things have been put in place to counter deprivation. If those are taken away, that recreates a gaping wound that was created in the 1980s, throughout all the northern regions.

One of the ‘area based grants’ to be cut covers Connexions, which gives careers advice to young people on leaving school. “It’s not money off schools but a very important service”. Also young offenders rehabilitation will be affected. “Those are important programmes. It’s also working together with the police with youth offending teams, which are going to be reduced significantly.” Road maintenance and safety programmes will be hit too.

“My greatest fear isn’t on any of these cuts. My greatest fear is the spending review in the autumn. I’ve heard sort of 20 per cent bandied about by a number of different sources. If that is added to by any change in the formulae, the prospect for the whole of the north is very worrying.”

Finally, on local government pay and pensions (also covered in Tribune this week) he said: “I think it’s about to be taken out of our hands completely. I sympathise with Unison, the vast majority of whose members are not gold-plated people and need to be treated equally. This year my suspicion is it’s about to be taken out of our hands altogether. They’ve certainly talked about a public sector pay freeze.” Mr Henig was not against further reform to public sector pensions though, and suggested some sort of commission would be a good thing.

“There does appear to have been an upward pressure [on the cost of public sector pensions]. The argument here is over whether that’s temporary factors or something more permanent.”

DCLG had not responded to a question about the effect of the cuts on the north-east at the time of publication.

(from Tribune blog)

Mr Demos joins the ‘Con-Dems’

Friday 11 June 2010

Not too many raised eyebrows at the headquarters of non-aligned think-tank Demos at the news that their director Richard Reeves is to join Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg next month as a special adviser on £85,000 a year (a bit of a pay cut from his current job).

After all, Reeves was, I am told, seldom off the phone to Clegg, and is thought to have dined with David Cameron’s head of strategy Steve Hilton* on a regular basis.

But why is he doing it? Does a career in frontline politics beckon, perhaps – will he follow the path of so many SpAds and become a parliamentary candidate? For now, Reeves is working on political strategy – which may (or many not) have something to do with ensuring that Simon Hughes, the newly elected Lib Dem deputy leader regarded as somewhat to the left of Clegg, doesn’t become a liabiltiy to the coalition government.

*now one of David Cameron’s 18 special advisers, on £5000 a year more than Reeves

Where did the Lib Dems go wrong?

Friday 7 May 2010

I’ve not been able to get through to any Lib Dems since the bad news for them started to seep out. Yes, they made impressive gains in some places, defying national swing, but last night was a disappointing night: Lembit Opik knocked out in Montgomeryshire on a big swing of over 13 per cent, Julia Goldsworthy falling in Camborne and Redruth, and Susan Kramer losing Richmond Park to the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith. A bad shock after all those predictions of over 100 seats in the last few days.

When I took the temperature outside the National Liberal Club shortly after one am on Friday morning (it was freezing cold, by the way) I was told the crowd within – led by party president Baroness (Ros) Scott – was “cynical” about the exit poll predicting a couple of seat losses for the Lib Dems. What about all those opinion polls, I heard. But still it was clear that the night wasn’t going quite as hoped.

One view from within the club is that the desire to “do something different” in Nick Clegg’s words led the rebel vote to be split among several small parties, and the Lib Dems didn’t do enough to harvest those votes. It was even suggested that the large numbers of people turned away at the polling stations had an effect – many of them were young, and the Lib Dems think they’ve seized a lot of support among young people, not just recently but since Clegg became leader.

Another view, put about in the media, is that the Lib Dems’ policies on Europe and immigration (offering regularisation of undocumented migrants, or an amnesty as some would say) turned people against them. Certainly the only Lib Dem policy point I heard someone mention when I canvassed opinion in the target seat of Watford (still undeclared as I write), it was someone calling Clegg “too pro-Europe”.

I doubt the shambolic scenes at some polling stations could have had *that* much effect, though. But in any case, Clegg’s position is safe however poor his party’s showing, as it looks like he could be getting an important phone call soon…

(from the Tribune blog)

Nick Clegg disappoints the Xbox 360 vote

Wednesday 28 April 2010

When I read Nick Clegg’s interview in the Evening Standard on Monday, my eyes leapt to the end of the piece. Sam Leith writes of the Lib Dem battlebus:

“Inside it’s very plush and new: comfy sofas of pale leather; flat-screen tellies. The snacks are appropriately austere: a bowl of fruit and a big basket of individual pots of jam. There’s Molton Brown liquid handwash at the sink. Copies of two magazines: Harper’s Bazaar and Food and Travel. On the table is the controller for an Xbox 360.”

Could it be true? Could Clegg be the first leader of a political party to play Microsoft’s best-selling Xbox 360 games console, titles for which include the equally best-selling (and mildly controversial) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

As an Xbox gamer myself, I couldn’t resist asking. But no. Nick Clegg’s spokesman says: “I can confirm that he doesn’t play Xbox. It just came with the bus.” Some journalists have played football games on it, he added.

Maybe it’s just as well. Some prople have reported adverse reactions to using Xboxes of the sort that would not become a potential Westminster kingmaker.

If Clegg ever gets the urge to have a go, the Tribune office recommends Tropico 3, Halo 3 and, of course, Modern Warfare 2.

(from the Tribune blog)

Shadow cabinet minister: Lib Dem-Tory coalition “extremely improbable”

Tuesday 27 April 2010

On the campaign trail in Watford yesterday I bumped into Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve, who was out helping their candidate Richard Harrington in his bid to topple incumbent and junior minister Claire Ward (notional majority: 1,151).
Asked about the weekend’s newspaper headlines, which report Nick Clegg as saying he would back the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, Grieve all but rubbished the idea:”I think a coalition is extremely improbable”, adding: “On the face of it, the most likely outcome of voting Liberal is to shore up the Government, not us.”
None of this means that discussions between the parties on a coalition are not underway, but Grieve doesn’t sound very keen on cosying up to Nick Clegg and his policies, does he? It raises an interesting question which I’m totally unable to answer: we’ve heard a lot about Labour cabinet views on working with the Lib Dems, but what about the Shadow Cabinet?
Meanwhile, as The Guardian reported yesterday, Clegg has re-finessed his position by saying that we would be prepared to work with Labour as well (but not Brown).

(from the Tribune blog)