Monday, October 25, 2010

Report: South East Liberal Democrats Regional Conference - Eastbourne

On Saturday I found myself in Eastbourne at the South East Lib Dems Regional Conference. In the recent election campaign, this was our main target seat in the south east – I received numerous emails saying ‘never mind your constituency, come and help out in Eastbourne’ or words to that effect – but the campaign was a success and now Eastbourne joins Lewes next door with a Lib Dem MP.

The conference was sold out weeks in advance and took place in a school a few miles from Eastbourne – lots of signs saying ‘always walk on the left’ did give some cause for comment.

After a drive where the sat nav took me round several motorways, I was in the main hall in time for the opening address where the new MP, Stephen Lloyd, welcomed us all and told us how he is settling in.

He made a good point that amongst the Tories there was a group of 30 or so who could fit John Major's description of the ’loony’ element. This is a group on the extreme right, look-after-the-rich, hate-the-poor, hate-foreigners, privatise-the-NHS, abolish-all-benefits etc – you get the picture. If the Tories had won the election with a small majority, this group would have controlled the agenda, like when John Major was given a hard time. Instead, people are saying thank god the Lib Dems are there to keep these guys on the fringes (for now!)

Chris Fox, the Chief Executive, took over, pointing out the difficulties we now face (not least the loss of £2m state grant) and how we could face the future. Having received numerous emails from him, it was good to see him in person and learn more about the party's approach.

At which stage, I sneaked off to the first training session, that of the new website to be launched soon. Our local party doesn’t use the web site very well and I am keen to get it going, as well as Facebook, Twitter etc to build up a dialogue and communications.

One ploughman's lunch later, I was back in the main centre to see Vince Cable – the hall was packed for this session. I had been concerned about Vince recently, as on television, such as Question Time, he had given me the impression of not enjoying government very much. However here he fully returned to form – putting in a bullish performance and rallying the party well. On business policy and the banks I felt he was spot on. But I still disagreed with the tuition fees decision, although he made an admirable defence which won some people over.

Back to training to hear about the new ‘Winning Teams’ initiative – an idea to encourage every local party (not just those in target seats) with training and mentoring to develop further. I got some ideas to take to our next executive meeting.

Then our deputy leader, Simon Hughes, arrived and spoke optimistically for the future. I've a lot of time for Simon and he too spoke well and raised spirits. He also made a very valid point - that we can't keep blaming Labour for the deficit - it was partly Labour's actions over the years but also the world recession and the behaviour of the banks. He praised Gordon Brown for his quick actions at the time of the banking crisis.

This is a fair argument, and I have said how I would like to co-operate further with the local Labour party to try to get the Tories out of power in the council. Unfortunately Labour have decided to concentrate all their fire on us - reading their blog you wouldn't believe the Conservatives exist - so there's not much prospects there.

There was some audience participation  – Simon asked us (1) should our MPs back Vince Cable and vote for the Browne Report, (2) should they go by the coalition agreement and abstain or (3) should they honour the pledge to the NUS and vote against the Browne report? The vote was almost exactly split three ways - which is typically Liberal! (I voted for option 3).

As well as the various events and training, there were stalls from local parties fund raising and leafleting, both the candidates for Party President gave hustings which, unfortunately, I couldn’t fit in, and Lib Dem Image was there with their merchandise.

Finally, after the debate on tuition fees, I decided to call it a day and see how the sat nav was going to take me back home. The direct route from Eastbourne up to north Kent, with hardly an A-road in sight, was an interesting experience.

Overall, an interesting day which flew by. There’s only so much you can do in one day but hopefully next year I can make it to either the spring conference in Sheffield or the main conference in Birmingham. A lot will have happened by then!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We've lost The Generation Game - but can the next contestants win?

On a day where cuts are the topic being talked about, I thought I would reflect on an issue which others have taken up – that of how the ‘baby boomers’ – those that were born in the 40s and 50s – have squandered the resources of the nation through the Thatcher-Major-Blair years – and as a result are probably the first generation to actually make life much more difficult for the next.

This first came to mind when I was reading the memoirs of John Simpson, the BBC reporter. After leaving university in the mid-60s, he married his girlfriend, purchased a house in Regents Park (Regents Park!!) and had the choice of three job offers (three!!), one of which was from the BBC which he accepted. He was only 22 years old!

Had he left university now, he would have had debts of up to £20,000, would have been very unlikely to be able to afford to buy a property – never mind anywhere in London – and as for three job offers, well, after 20 applications, you might get an interview.

In case you think this is a special example, my parents decided to buy a property in the mid-60s and decided on East Anglia as prices were reasonable and it was a nice area. Indeed they got a bungalow just outside Norwich where us kids were all to be born. I asked my Dad how many jobs did he apply for before being successful? One, he told me. So they were able to purchase a good property, near good schools, in a good area, be confident of getting a job – and they were not yet 27!

What is it like now?

- Students leave university with high debts (which are set to increase further) which could take them up to twenty years to pay off.
- Getting a job is a long and difficult process – and, as they say, there’s no such thing as job security. The days of settling down and waiting for your carriage clock are long gone.
- Getting onto the property ladder is even more difficult, forcing many to borrow beyond their means or give up the idea of buying forever.
- Pensions? Forget it – if you’re under 40 you’ll work till you drop. Unless you can afford a big chunk of savings to put aside (after you’ve spent money on all the above, that is) then you can forget about getting a pension sufficient to retire on.
- The environment is ruined – but then those over 60 are not worried as they won’t be around when the worse effects hit.
- Hospitals are falling to pieces while politicians blame each other.
- Education standards have fallen due to lack of investment and competing ideologies. Have you seen the questions on kids shows in the 1950s/60s?
- The economy goes through boom and bust cycles with regular recessions to keep us all on our toes and making long term financial planning almost impossible.

My niece is four years old. By 2030, she will have left university (if she can afford to go) and be making her way in the wide world. By 2050, she may have a family and teenage children. What sort of world will she grow into? When she looks at the state of the country in 2050 and remembers the previous generations, what will she and her contemporaries think of us?

The only plus point our parents are leaving behind is the lack of war. We won’t have the threat of invasion or have to live through a total war environment although terrorism and cyber-crime are of course now major threats.

But it’s all right to grumble – what can we do about it? How can our generation repair the mistakes of the last? This is the topic that has been written about again and again. Will we ever return to the days of a stable economy, free education for the most gifted, full employment, mass property ownership, job security, a protected environment, and secure pensions?

That is the challenge to all politicians present and future. The question is – will we meet it?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuition fees - a way ahead?

The Liberal Democrat blogosphere has been overheating with the anger felt at the tuition fees announcement – and quite rightly so.

During the campaign, many parliamentary candidates, including myself and all our MPs, signed a pledge to the National Union of Students not to increase tuition fees. Indeed in an earlier entry about the coalition agreement, I expressed concern that there was not enough about tuition fees – being allowed to abstain was insufficient.

Labour introduced fees and bankrupted the country, the Tories are happy to see bigger fees to make it easier for rich kids to get in, and yet Liberal Democrats will get the blame! Such is politics! But it is fair to say that our party has not done enough and we have let many of our supporters down.

Anyone who is prepared to work hard enough should be entitled to a university education. I myself had some happy years studying at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For most people it is their first experience of living away from home, giving a feeling of independence and teaching you self-discipline and responsibility – as well as the chance to meet fellow students from around the country, develop a great social life, and study a subject you enjoy.

The year before I started university, the then Thatcher government removed the right of students to claim housing benefit and introduced the poll tax. Neither went down well. We had no fees, of course, and a modest grant which could be topped up by reasonable loans.

But if I were a student now I would certainly be having second thoughts. Having a degree, a large debt of up to £40,000 and no job – all at the age of 22 is not attractive. And of course in the subsequent years many graduates then get married, have kids and a mortgage, and face an entire livelihood on debt. And, as is often said, you can’t live on debt.

If university attendances were decided by ability rather than finance, then the best minds would develop in topics such as law, medicine and science which would be of the benefit of society as a whole. However if only those from well-off families could go to university then not only would standards decline but it would be waste of some of our best minds and, as we Lib Dems like to say, it is not fair.

So what should we do?

Firstly, I would hope as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible vote against the government. There’s enough Lib Dems as part of the government to join the Tories (who will of course happily vote for higher fees) and get it through but at least the point would be made.

Secondly, we should recommit our party to the principle of abolishing tuition fees. We have not been able to do so because we did not win enough votes but we should indicate it remains a principle to phase them out in the medium term.

Thirdly, as many Lib Dem candidates and members as possible should publicly make it clear they stand alongside the students and join the campaign against tuition fees for the sake of our universities and education standards.

Fourthly, the party should set up a policy committee to establish how the funding could take place for this commitment so that in 2015 we can come forward with costed proposals and a timetable.

These are just some ideas, and there will no doubt be many more which will arise. But we have to hold up our hands and admit we have let young people and their families down. We must work out how we can regain that trust.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When the Going Gets Tough 2 - Feedback

My earlier blog entry on defectors and deserters got my biggest readership so far (thanks to all) and I have received some comments and feedback from various sources.

To re-cap, I was critical of two of our former Councillors who, because of the coalition, have decided not to continue the fight against the Tory giant, but to leave. This weakens our local party and so ironically helps the local Tories. I would have thought this point would have been obvious but alas no.

When Conservatives are unhappy with their party, they secretly plot and conspire.
When Labour people are unhappy with their party, they openly plot and conspire.
When Liberal Democrats are unhappy with their party, they run to the hills.
Internal debate is good and healthy - but people leaving doesn't help anyone.

So what have been the comments?

‘Liberal Democrats are afraid of power – that’s why they join the Liberal Democrats.’

This charge has been levelled at us for many years – mainly because people thought we’d never get any power. We have shared power in Scotland and Wales and control or share control of numerous councils but of course no-one thought we’d get in the UK government. Had we refused to even talk to other parties, the charge of being scared of power would be given more credence.

Power does bring unpopularity – and unpopularity requires strong wills and stomachs. But some do indeed prefer the cleanliness of opposition to the responsibility of power. Maybe this process will weed out the weaklings and toughen up the party for the long run.

‘I did not join the Liberal Democrats to see a Conservative government.’

Nor me. I didn’t want a Labour government either. But both those two parties got more votes than we did. The bottom line is – if we want a Liberal Democrat government, and get more Liberal Democrat policies, then we have got to get more votes. Leaving the party is not going to help.

‘The deserters probably don’t have the stomach to knock on doors to defend government policy.’

There are many parts of Lib Dem policy in the coalition agreement. Of course we didn’t want 20% VAT nor the free schools nonsense – but we’re not defending them. We can knock on a door and proudly defend raising the tax threshold, linking pensions to earnings, getting rid of ID cards and, hopefully, moving towards a fairer voting system.

‘The Liberal Democrats will be wiped out at the next election and we will be back to two party politics.’

It’s amazing how much time has gone into discussing the result of the next election. BBC’s Question Time seems obsessed with this topic. I don’t remember discussing the 2010 election in 2005 – and we would all have got it wrong anyway.

If a week is a long time in politics then five years is an epic. At the next election, the Liberal Democrats will produce a manifesto for the future term – as will the other parties – and then people can make a choice. We cannot possibly forecast what will happen between now and then.

‘I disapprove of this ‘lust’ for power.’

More than one person has said to me about our ‘grab’ or ‘lust’ for power as if it is a bad thing. I’m sure none of us went into politics to stay in opposition forever. Isn’t having the power to change things the point of all political parties?

‘They [referring to the two ex-councillors] will probably return next year when they feel it's time for a bit of work, but first they'll enjoy some time free from the tedium of meetings, doorsteps and the cold weather of autumn.’

I hope they do but there is much to do in the meantime such as campaigning on local issues, fund raising and a membership drive. Help with this would have been appreciated.

‘Once the Tories have got what they want, they will end the coalition and call an election.’

Obviously either party can end the coalition at any time so we can’t predict this. The Tories are famously ruthless dumping their leaders Thatcher and Duncan-Smith (and nearly Major) when the going got tough. If Cameron is also overthrown then all bets are off.

But what are Liberal Democrats supposed to do about this? For the moment, we should just do our best to form a stable government to get through the financial crisis. We can’t possibly predict the future plots and machinations of the Conservative party.

‘As there was no definite result, we should have immediately had a second election.’

And what if it was another hung parliament? Do we have a third election and keep going until someone gets a majority? Or should our politicians grow up and work together as they do in European countries with coalition governments?

As for the Liberal Democrats – we have no money. Labour have far greater resources than us and the Tory resources dwarf everyone. Lib Dems raise money, not through businesses and unions, but via quiz nights and boot sales. We always reach the overdraft limit at elections and then gradually pay it back over the next few years.

So with leaderless Labour in disarray, and Liberal Democrats having no money, only the Conservatives would have the resources and ability to campaign – and they would win comfortably.

‘We should have made a coalition with Labour to keep the Tories out.’

If I had a pound for every time I have heard this. Firstly, we had promised to talk to the party with the greater mandate. The voters are the kingmakers not us. Second, did we want to keep Gordon Brown in power? If not, we would be propping up another unelected Labour Prime Minister. Thirdly, are we saying we will only form coalitions with Labour - which will reduce our bargaining power in future?

But most importantly, Labour and ourselves combine 315 seats. Even with Sinn Fein’s non-participation it is still short of a majority and dependent day-to-day on the votes of the Northern Irish MPs and the Nationalists. Such a coalition would have been very fragile and would not survive the unpopularity that the cuts will bring. Far from keeping the Tories out, this scenario would have strengthened them to win with a landslide in 2011.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What was the Greatest Battle of the Second World War?

Tonight I went to the Imperial War Museum (of which I am a Friend) to attend a debate amongst three historians ‘what was the greatest battle of the second world war?’

Stalingrad, I hear you cry. No, Kursk, says someone else. What about Midway, says another?

OK, say the organisers, there’s a word missing. Which was the greatest BRITISH battle of the second world war? And the choice is Battle of Britain, El Alamein or the D-Day landings.

Controversy straight away. Is D-Day a ‘British’ battle? There were a lot of Americans and Canadians there. And if you could ask Winston Churchill, he would have said that the Battle of the Atlantic was the most important – it was the one that gave him the most sleepless nights. To be fair, this point was raised, but no-one thought of Kohima – an overlooked but very important battle, certainly the greatest British battle in the Far East. But I digress, on to the debate.

The Battle of Britain has been in all our minds recently. The argument was that had we lost it, then there would have been no El Alamein or D-Day. We were literally fighting over our own territory where the price was high. At the end, this was my own choice. It must have been frightening to be living at the time – when a ruthless and powerful enemy had conquered all Europe and was only just across the channel, wanting to enslave you, while you had to go to work and get on with normal life. The responsibility on the RAF pilots must have been immense.

The argument against was that Hitler never wanted to invade Britain. Had the Battle of Britain been lost, the war would not yet have been over – Germany would have had to mount a seaborne invasion which took the Allies over two years to organise. Hitler's heart was never in invading Britain. He might have chosen to enforce a peace settlement, disarmed Britain, and then turned everyone round to march East. We know this now, of course, but at the time the British people didn’t.

The argument for El Alamein was that it was the first time the Brits stopped retreating - a major turning point. British forces took on the German army in a major battle and defeated them for the first time. Had the battle been lost, it would have put the North African campaign back a year. It was argued that victory at El Alamein had persuaded the Vichy French forces to go easy on the American landing in north west Africa whereas British defeat and they might have resisted further.

My own view: the German forces were at the end of their supply lines, Rommel was home on sick leave – had Alamein failed then there would have been another go a few months later. And the American landings would still have been successful.

The argument for D-Day took the, in my view, rather ludicrous line that had D-Day failed we would all be speaking Russian! Without the Allied landings, the Red Army would just keep on marching westwards to the channel and then hop across to Dover.

My objections were that with Berlin falling and Hitler dead, wouldn’t the Germans in west Europe dash off home and then the Allies could liberate France? And, by D-Day the Allies were halfway up Italy and preparing to invade southern France – which was not as well fortified as the north. Might we not have invaded Germany from a different direction? I raised this point and it was dismissed rather discourteously I felt. The Germans would hold onto the Alps, I was told. Even with Russians occupying Berlin? And if D-Day failed, what would we be doing with the troops over there – might we not have another go or at least wheel them round to the south?

The vote at the end was Battle of Britain 31, D-Day 28, El Alamein 3 so I was on the winning team – which doesn’t happen very often. But an interesting evening, some nice sandwiches and wine, and a debate which will of course go on.