Random Thoughts 11: Conference round-up edition

I’ve been working through my list of things to follow up on after last weeks trip to Birmingham for the Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference, including writing up various blog posts. To speed things up a bit I thought I’d use this edition of ‘Random Thoughts’ to round-up all those things from conference that I want to note but that don’t really deserve a blog post of their own.

Consultative sessions

Given I was traveling down on the Saturday morning I missed the three consultative sessions. I made up for that a bit by writing my response to the local government finance paper on the train. But there was also the ‘what went wrong?’ session on the May 2011 elections that I missed.

Perhaps missing it was just as well as Alex Wilcock in previewing it describes it as”perhaps the most depressing talking shop ever put on a Lib Dem Agenda”. Alex’s post on how we should ‘Never Mention “STV” Again‘ is worth a read.

Elections to the House of Lords

After arriving at my hotel on the Saturday my first priority was the debate on elections to the House of Lords. Due to getting caught in a rainstorm and then slightly lost alongside one of Birmingham’s many canals I missed nearly all of the debate. I got into the hall just in time to see Mark Pack give the final speech. But I was in time to vote in support of the motion.

Missing the debate was a shame because I didn’t get to see the excellent speech by former Liberal Democrat leader Ming Campbell who in a strongly worded statement directly addressed those recalcitrant Lib Dem peers and demanded that they “do their duty” and support Lords reform. However, I was able to catch up with the speech on YouTube:

I have written more about the background to this here. The motion as passed by conference is available here.

You can support the campaign for House of Lords reform by signing up to the Facebook page Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform and by taking part in the official Parliamentary consultation.

Music Education

I went to a fascinating fringe on the Monday lunchtime that looked at higher education and the music industry. Organised by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and the Association of British Orchestras it had a first class range of speakers including Simon Hughes MP, the Government’s Advocate for Access to Higher Education.

We heard from Darren Henley, the Managing Director of Classic FM, who has just completed an independent review of music education for the government. I’ve learnt that this is a crucial moment for music education. The government are due to publish the National Plan for Music Education this autumn. They have also committed £82.5 million for music education in schools up to April 2012, but funding beyond this date is uncertain.

The meeting also heard from Louise Teboul of Common Purpose who had some interesting things to say about creating spaces that help to stimulate creativity. Talking of creative spaces, I was also impressed with the CBSO Centre itself.

Reforms to internal election regulations

Due to adverse circumstances I was unable to be in the hall early on Wednesday morning as I had hoped to be to vote on the rule changes to relax the restrictions on campaigning in internal party elections. I support these changes and have written about them here. However, I am pleased to report that they were voted through without opposition. This is good news for the health of the Party’s internal democracy.

Nick Clegg’s Speech

The closing act of conference is of course the Leader’s big set piece speech. Overall I thought it was extremely good. I had issues with one or two aspects of it but those aside it was probably the best speech I have heard from Nick.

In other news

Finally a few things outside of conference that I wanted to briefly mention:

Local, Social, Digital fringe meeting

One of the best fringe meetings I attended during last weeks Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham was the Local, Social, Digital fringe that looked at the role that social media can play in engaging citizens and communities in democracy. This was held on the Sunday lunch time and included Julian Huppert MP, Mark Pack, and Cllr Daisy Benson as the key speakers. However, this was a very participatory fringe with lively discussions between those present.

As an occasional skeptic of the current emphasis that many place on the role of social media I was pleased that the points made in the discussions were realistic and based on practical experience. Social media is an important political tool and one that is growing in value – but it needs to be used correctly and with an appreciation of its limits.

You can find out more about the meeting from these links:

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this fringe and the quality of the discussion made me rather wish that it could have gone on a bit longer. The video below will give you a flavour of the meeting. In it you can see me listening intently to Emma Maier from the Local Government Chronicle who was also one of the speakers.

The return of the poster boy for Lib Dem misery

One of the things that people were ‘kindly’ reminding me of during my time at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham last week was my experience of becoming a poster boy for Lib Dem misery following this May’s elections. Something which I have written about here and here.

Thanks guys for the support!

This wasn’t helped by the Daily Politics using the footage in its review of the year for the Lib Dems on the Wednesday before the Leader’s speech.

I think my prediction that “when anyone at the BBC wants some stock footage of a Lib Dem looking miserable it will be that picture of me looking at my phone” may becoming far too true.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

RNIB “A stitch in time saves nine”

Without doubt by far the best exhibition stand at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham last week was the one from the RNIB. They had created with great imagination and attention to detail a little old fashioned haberdashery shop. It was so realistic that at first I had mistook it for a real shop and was tempted browse and buy some yarn!

The attention to detail was carried through to the publicity material they were handing out. I was given a leaflet the cover of which had been designed in the style of an old knitting pattern with a rather familiar looking model!

The stand was there to promote their “A stitch in time saves nine” campaign. The serious point of this is that they say that “at least 50% of sight loss in the UK is avoidable if detected and treated early enough”. The failure to detect problems and carry out early intervention comes at a great cost, not only to the people who suffer with sight problems, but in resources to the NHS. So they are asking for greater investment in public health measures around sight loss.

For local government they want eye health to be recognised as a public health need in JSNAs and Health & Wellbeing Strategies. And for national government to include a specific indicator on eye health in the new NHS performance framework.

I thought their argument was persuasive and fits neatly with the emphasis on a shift to health prevention measures that the Liberal Democrats have long championed.

The Lib Dems are “determined and purposeful” – me on WinkBall

While I was at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham last week I was asked to do a quick Vox Pop by WinkBall.com which you can see below. I think I sound remarkably “on message”!

What I got from the Liberal Democrat Conference

Looking back over my preview of this year’s Liberal Democrat Autumn Federal Conference held in Birmingham I am quite pleased to see that my week mostly went to plan. I did miss a few of the debates in the hall that I had intended to be at, but I went to some extra fringe meetings that I hadn’t planned for.

I will try to sum up the big picture political stuff that came out of conference in another post, but on a personal level it was a very positive and cathartic experience. It is no secret that having lost my council seat in May I’ve been having to adjust to my new circumstances. In truth this has meant that I have done very little political activity over the summer. So I had wondered, aside from catching up with old friends and making new ones, whether there was much purpose in my attendance at conference this year. In the end it turned out to be just the thing I needed. While May 5th may have halted my political career in local government, it was last week that really marked the start of my new direction.

So I have taken away from Birmingham lots of positive energy, lots of new ideas, some interesting things to blog about, some new connections, new friends, and a few things to read. Unfortunately the other thing I got from conference was I rather nasty cold which more or less knocked me out for two days and meant that I am only now writing up and following up on the week. So there is more to follow in a bit.

Love Luton Campaign Fringe at the Liberal Democrat Conference

Last night I went to the fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham organised by the Love Luton Campaign, the campaign behind Luton’s bid to get city status for the town. Conference attendees got the chance to hear about Luton’s diversity (or as the organisers had it “DiverCity”) and to be entertained by a steel band, carnival dancers, and an asian dance performance. The event was hosted by Lord Qurban Hussain and we had a speech of appreciation from Andrew Stunell MP the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Communities and Local Government department.

I thought that Andrew was a little surprised by the colourful carnival dancers. They are not the usual sight at a Liberal Democrat conference! The fringe certainly made an impact and I think those attending enjoyed the experience. I hope that they went away with a little bit of a different perspective on Luton.

Here are some photos of the event:

Margaret Moran in court

As I previewed a while ago disgraced former Luton South MP Margaret Moran appeared in front of City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court today to face 21 charges of fraud and forgery related to her for parliamentary expenses.

She is next due to appear at Southwark Crown Court on October 28. There has been no indication whether she will plead guilty or innocent when she does so.

Here are some press reports:

My response to the Local Government Finance Policy consultation

I’ve written most of this post on the train down to Birmingham for the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference. The timing of my travel meant that I missed this morning’s consultative sessions, in particular the one on the local government finance. So this is my written response to the local government finance consultation paper instead. Posted online via the free wi-fi in the ICC.

Over all this is a pretty soundly based attempt at practical steps towards the kind of funding arrangments for local government that Liberal Democrats have long argued for. The broad thrust of the paper should be strongly sported.

The paper proposes that local taxes should be based on a ‘four pillar’ approach of income tax, property tax, fees & charges and specific local taxes. I will take each pillar in turn.

Local income tax

The paper contains proposals for what is essentially an interim step towards the fully flexible local income tax that Liberal Democrats have long argued for. This involves directly allocating a share of income tax receipts to local government on a formula basis. Given that the political realities make moving to a full blown LIT in one go unrealistic I see this as a very sensible and welcome move.

However, it also introduces the idea that this formula would have a component based on the workplace as well as the residence. The idea is that areas that are centres of employment, and have to provide services and infrastructure to support those employment activities, where a high proportion of the workers live in another local authority do not lose out. It equalises revenue between areas with a residential or non-residential profile.

I think this idea is an attractive one but I would be concerned about public reaction. I am not sure how people would feel about paying income tax to an area where they do not live. I wouldn’t want public opposition to a “workplace tax” to scupper the more general goal of a more localised tax system.

Property Tax

I welcome the strengthening of the party’s commitment to land value taxation that this paper represents. I wouldn’t pretend to any great expertise in this area so I will refrain from commenting on the detail. However, I do have two general comments to make.

Firstly, I think it is really important when developing proposals for taxes on land and property to understand and carefully consider the impact of such proposals on the planning system. The interaction between such taxes and land use is complex and have the potential to be either hugely beneficial or damaging. Inevitably together they result in a policy choice about how we what our communities to develop, so we had better understand what we are doing before we start.

Secondly, there is the politics around a “mansion tax”. I have no objections to a mansion tax in principle. However, far more important is getting consensus around the idea of a move to some form of land value taxation. If a row about the introduction of a mansion tax is going to get in the way of that then, whatever the merits of the scheme itself, it is best avoided.

Fees & Charges

The idea that local authorities should be free to set fees and charges for the services it provides as it sees fit should be uncontroversial for anyone who is a true advocate of localism. I would argue for the maximum possible discretion to be given to councils.

Other Local Taxes

Again, I would support councils having the ability to develop new and innovative ways to raise revenues making use of the particular characteristics of their area. Shaping the funding of local services so that it fits with the nature of that locality has the potential to both improve the effectiveness of those services and place them on a more sustainable footing.

However, in developing this aspect of our policy I would like to see more concrete examples of how this would work in practice. The examples in the paper are too vague to use to judge the implications of this move.

The equalisation system

As the paper says; “Given the significant differences in local area revenue-raising opportunity, especially with regard to need, there is the need to have a clear and stable equalisation system to shift resources from the wealthiest to the neediest areas.” This is crucial to getting any form of local government finance to both work properly and have public support. Again, without claiming any great amount of expertise in this area, the system proposed in the paper seems to make sense to me.

The key characteristics any such system should have however are simplicity and transparency. The funding formulas that currently exist are so complex that even the most experienced local government finance officers struggle to get there heads around them. This makes it almost impossible for local politicians to engage in any meaningful debate around funding issues. Any new system should be no more complex than that required for a reasonably engaged member of the general public to understand it.

Central government funding

This is an area of the paper where I would like to see us go further. We need to see a shift to a situation where the majority of revenue received by local government is in effect “raised” locally. We also need to see a situation where local government has near total discretion on how to spend that revenue. The great barrier to creating this situation is central government. It has to be forced to let go.

While recognising that central government does need to retain some ability to provide specific funding streams to local government, we have to be very careful how we construct that relationship. The desire of different government departments to fund specific projects and areas of work is understandable. Yet the way in which this is done often is corrosive of local discretion and accountability. I would like to suggest the policy proposal that we implement a ban on any government department funding local government outside of a funding framework jointly agreed between the Local Government Association, DCLG, and the Treasury. In this way we can hopefully be able to police those funding arrangements to ensure that account is properly taken of localism.

Democracy: the missing element

Finally, I wanted to mention an aspect that is not talked about in the paper but that I believe to be a vital element of a working system of local government finance. That is how it directly impacts on the health of local democracy. Many, if not most voters, believe that what their local council spends is raised from what they pay in Council Tax. It might have something to do with the name. Yet despite the frequency of politicians campaigning on Council Tax levels at local election time, the truth is that this is a very small proportion of how local government is funded.

You don’t have to be a student of the American Revolution to recognise the important link between taxation and representation. Yet for local government across the UK that link is effectively broken. While I doubt that many Liberal Democrats would disagree with this point, I believe it is important that any proposals for reform of local government finance is clear about it’s connection with the health of local democracy. So we should make sure in any policy we propose how it would a) make local government finance understandable to the voter and b) capable of being influenced by the voter via the democratic process.

This blog come 94th in the top 100 Lib Dem blogs

Top 100 Lib Dem BlogI was somewhat surprised, although very pleased, to learn today that this blog has been awarded 94th place in Total Politics magazine’s list of the top 100 Lib Dem blogs 2011.

While I occasionally have had posts chosen for Lib Dem Voice’s Golden Dozen, this is the first time I’ve had an award like this. I get a snazzy badge as well. Thank you to the folks at Total Politics and those that voted etc.

Should I aim for the top 50 next year?!

The proposed new Luton South constituency

On Monday 12 September the Boundary Commission for England released it’s proposed changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries for Bedfordshire.

The proposed new constituency of Luton South would be made up of the following council wards (all within Luton Borough):

  • Barnfield
  • Biscot
  • Crawley
  • Dallow
  • Farley
  • High Town
  • Round Green
  • Saints
  • South
  • Stopsley
  • Wigmore

Having looked again at this I will stand by my initial reaction to the proposed new Luton South constituency. If implemented these changes would make Luton South a safer Labour seat. Although it would remain competitive for all three main parties. The Conservatives do lose out though and it becomes harder for them to catch Labour. The Liberal Democrats get a modest boost.

The figures below show the actual result in 2010, the Guardian’s best guess of what the result would have been in 2010 on the new boundaries, and the average vote in each ward in the new constituency at the 2011 local elections. The local election figures were calculated by me and so I apologise if they contain any errors.

The old Luton South (vote at the 2010 General Election):

  • Labour 14,725
  • Conservative 12,396
  • Lib Dem 9,567

The new Luton South (figures from the Guardian DataBlog):

  • Labour 18,325
  • Conservative 14,532
  • Lib Dem 9,977

The new Luton South 2011 local elections (average vote in wards in new boundaries):

  • Labour 13,538
  • Conservative 6,383
  • Lib Dem 8,999

The proposed new Luton North and Dunstable constituency

On Monday 12 September the Boundary Commission for England released it’s proposed changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries for Bedfordshire.

The proposed new constituency of Luton North and Dunstable would be made up of the following council wards:

From Central Bedfordshire:

  • Dunstable Downs
  • Icknield
  • Northfields
  • Watling

From Luton:

  • Bramingham
  • Challney
  • Icknield
  • Leagrave
  • Lewsey
  • Limbury
  • Northwell
  • Sundon Park

Initially I wasn’t sure what to make of a Luton North and Dunstable constituency. Now, having looked at the numbers, the conclusion is pretty clear. If implemented these changes would mean that the proposed new seat would be a highly marginal contest between the Conservatives and Labour.

The figures below show the actual result in 2010, the Guardian’s best guess of what the result would have been in 2010 on the new boundaries, and the average vote in each ward in the new constituency at the 2011 local elections. The local election figures were calculated by me and so I apologise if they contain any errors.

The old Luton North (vote at the 2010 General Election):

  • Labour 21,192
  • Conservative 13,672
  • Lib Dem 4,784

The new Luton North and Dunstable (figures from the Guardian DataBlog):

  • Labour 20,325
  • Conservative 20,246
  • Lib Dem 7,358

The new Luton North and Dunstable 2011 local elections (average vote in wards in new boundaries):

  • Labour 12,455
  • Conservative 11,328
  • Lib Dem 3,441

Note that the Liberal Democrats didn’t stand candidates in some of the wards in the 2011 election so their local election figure is to some extent artificially deflated.

Previewing the Liberal Democrat Conference: my week ahead

We are only a couple of days away from the start of the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, this year to be held in Birmingham. So I have been busy leafing through the agenda, juggling my schedule, and deciding on my plans for several days of wall to wall Lib Dem style politics.

This is what my conference looks like so far.

Saturday

I won’t be getting to Birmingham until after lunch on Saturday so I will be missing the three consultative sessions in the morning. Which is a shame because in some ways they will be three of the more important topics discussed at conference. Getting local government finance right during this time of austerity is a challenge which has a huge impact on how people experience public services on the ground and therefore on how they perceive the government. Plus there are the implications for tax policy. The mid-term review will set the agenda for the latter part of the term of the coalition government. Finally understanding what happened in the most recent set of local elections, why we did so badly, and learning lessons from it is crucial to help the party adjust it’s campaigning for the next four years. All three of these will be discussed while I am on my way up.

But I should be there in time for the debate on elections to the House of Lords so I can give my support to the motion. This is a more important debate than it may first appear. Conference needs to send a clear signal to those Liberal Democrat peers that have gone oddly wobbly on this issue of what the party at large expects them to do. I have written more about the background to this here.

The following debate on the Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments will be an important one also. I am expecting some passion to be displayed in the speeches on this one.

The evening may start with me going along to the conference rally although that may depend on who I have run into by that time. But after 20:15 you will find me joining my regional colleagues at the East of England reception. Then it is on to one of the highlights of conference. Yes it is this years Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards. I hoping for some entertaining acceptance speeches from the grateful recipients of a BOTY.

Sunday

Sunday seems to have become training day for me. I’ve marked off a few training courses that seem useful and so will hopefully be learning some new stuff. Regrettably that will mean I am likely to miss the fireworks in the Accreditation for Party Conference debate at 09:00 and the jokes in Sarah Teather MP’s speech at 11:15.

I will be feeding my inner geek at lunchtime as I will be going to the Local, Social, Digital fringe to find out the latest about what happens when social media meets politics. This does mean I will miss out on seeing what happens when Hollywood meets Lib Demmery as I will miss the Social Liberal Forum and Hacked Off Campaign fringe on phone hacking and privacy attended by actor Hugh Grant.

Hopefully, I will be finished with the training in time to vote in the debate on drugs which starts at 16:40.

I am slightly overwhelmed with the choice of fringe events for Sunday evening. I’m also noticing there seems to be a choice of buffet. Although I think “the Demos Grill” might be a poor choice if you are after a kebab. There are some excellent speakers on offer also. Although disappointingly the Chief Executive of the CIA turns out to be someone from the Chemical Industries Association. I think it might be Philip Blond from ResPublica at 18:15 and Will Hutton from the Work Foundation at 20:00.

Finally, I expect to end the evening at the Local Government Reception which is usually entertaining.

Monday

I will be spending Monday morning mostly in the main hall. The key debate will be on the policy development agenda policy paper Facing the Future. This is the party thinking ahead to the next manifesto and I expect looking for themes for the mid-term review. I am not expecting much excitement. Indeed these sorts of debates can often by quite predictable. But I will be looking to see if I can detect the trends that the party most wants our policy to follow and to judge whether I agree with them or not.

The choice of lunchtime fringe is again a very wide one. Those who missed Hugh Grant the day before and are after a bit of star power can choose from the Olympics’ Seb Coe and TV’s Quentin Wilson. Although you don’t get Feargal Sharkey until Tuesday. The Guardian Debate has a good line up including Paddy Ashdown so that might be worth a go.

In the afternoon I will probably be in the hall for the Q&A with Nick Clegg and the debate on the digital economy.

There is the temptation to spend much of Monday evening in a good pub with proper beer. However, there are two fringe meetings that I have in the diary. Unfortunately they are both at the same time. I would like to be at the Liberal Democrat History Group meeting where Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams will be helping to launch a new history of Liberal politics in Britain. However, I feel rather obliged to be at the Love Luton Campaign meeting which I’ve written about here.

Tuesday

I’m trying to keep Tuesday mostly free so I have some space to arrange to meet up with people. Networking, plotting and gossiping. I also think I will spend part of Tuesday having a proper look around the various conference stands. It might also be the opportunity to see some of the sights of Birmingham.

However, I will be back in the main hall for the Quality of Life debate at 15:50 and then for the Community Politics debate at 17:20. This last one is the debate I am most interested in this conference and the only one I am considering putting in a card to speak in. Although I might not be saying what you would expect me to say. I hope to write a bit more about this later.

Tuesday evening may or may not end with songs at the traditional Glee Club depending on what mood I am in.

Wednesday

I am going to attempt an early start on Wednesday morning and get in the hall for 9:00 for the debate on internal election regulations. I do appreciate how nerdy that makes me sound! But it is something I have written about before so I want to be there to make my vote count.

After that there are a couple of interesting foreign policy sessions that I may stay in the hall for, but I tend to take things easy on the Wednesday morning of conference. However, we do have the addition of the controversial debate on the NHS reforms just before lunch. This has potential to be a good old fashioned conference versus the leadership ding dong. But we will see. Then of course there is the leader’s speech. This will be a challenging one for Nick Clegg to make so I will be fascinated to see what the themes will be.

Conference for me will then come to a close with my traditional leisurely late lunch before heading home.

Why Clement Freud would be smiling at the boundary review

I have probably spent far too much time looking at parliamentary boundaries over the last few days. I have been trying hard to get my head around the Boundary Commission’s proposals and their implications – and I haven’t even got beyond the East of England region yet. However, I have come across one proposed change that I reckon would get the approval of a much loved former Liberal MP.

The late Sir Clement Freud famously won the Isle of Ely by-election in 1973 and went on to represent that part of North East Cambridgeshire until 1987.

Under these new proposals it turns out that the City of Ely is to be combined with the Suffolk town of Newmarket to create the new Newmarket and Ely seat. A seat that would therefore contain the whole of Newmarket Racecourse.

Given that Sir Clement was a passionate follower of horse racing and an enthusiastic gambler I suspect that this new seat would have suited him down to the ground. I reckon he would be smiling at the prospect. Well, maybe not smiling. Possibly raising a lugubrious eyebrow above a dead pan face, but nevertheless, he’d be pleased.

Luton at the Liberal Democrat Conference

I was somewhat surprised when planning my diary for this years Liberal Democrat conference, being held in Birmingham, to find that one of the fringe meetings is to be dedicated to Luton.

The Love Luton Campaign, the campaign behind Luton’s bid to get city status for the town, has arranged a meeting on the Monday evening (19 September) which they have called “Celebrating DiverCity”. The event will be hosted by my good friend Lord Hussain and will feature performers from the carnival and the mela. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP is also down to be present.

This is the first time I am aware of that a specifically Luton event has been held at a party conference. I am all for promoting the town and celebrating the extraordindary richness of our diverse community. The event does sound like fun. Yet, I have to honest and say that I do have reservations about the bid for city status and I am not entirely sure that holding this sort of event is the most effective form of lobbying that can be undertaken on behalf of it. However, I will be going along to the meeting and am prepared to have my doubts confounded. I will report back on this blog!

The Love Luton Campaign: Celebrating DiverCity will be held in the Sonata Room of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Brimingham at 20:00 on Monday 19 September.