The Liberal Democrat conference: life outside the bubble

The “Westminster bubble” is a useful expression.  It refers to an ecosystem of politicians, journalists, think tankers and numerous hangers on based Westminster who have there own version of reality.  The Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, which ended yesterday was firmly outside that bubble.  Lib Dem conferences tend to inhabit their own bubble, of course.  But after two years of appalling local election results, the complacency that characterises that bubble world was largely absent.  Liberal Democrats are coming to terms pragmatically with a very uncomfortable reality.

Westminster bubble types expected the party to be obsessed, as they are, with the leadership, and mobilising to ditch Nick Clegg, whose personal ratings with the public at large are miserable.  But that was not so; the party maintained admirable cohesion on the matter.  It’s not that members don’t think that Mr Clegg’s standing is problem, but they recognise that there are no easy solutions and that public agitation would be unhelpful.  The whole issue has in effect been outsourced to the parliamentary party, who were making no attempt to stir things up.

For me that party’s mood is best caught by three debates.  On Tuesday on local pay in the public sector and the Justice and Security Bill, and yesterday on housing.  On local pay (sometimes wrongly referred to as regional pay, which would be a non-starter as we do not have recognisable regional economies) the party resisted attempts by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to abolish national pay agreements and let local bodies, including hospitals, schools and local governments, to set their own pay rates.  The interesting thing about this is that localism, delegating responsibility to local authority level, at least, is supposed to be a key part of the party’s ideology.  But the party’s politicians and activists are acutely aware of the fear felt by many in their communities that this would simply mean lower pay, which would not be compensated for by a private sector revival.  Local pay does not have to mean lower pay, and often doesn’t – but it is an understandable fear, since, after all, that is why Mr Osborne supports it.  For me though, principle trumped pragmatism and I was one of a small number of people who voted for the motion.  I hold the deeply unfashionable view that the purpose of national pay agreements is for the Treasury to hold public sector pay down, not keep it at artificially high levels, and that unions only go along with it because it gives their national leaders a raison d’etre.  And as for national pay being simpler, any idea of that has been shaken by the encyclopedic size and complexity of the national agreement on teachers’ pay that occasionally lands on my desk.  Still, the party’s mood was a reflection of the feelings in their communities, and not the theoretical arguments so characteristic of the Westminster bubble.  The concluding speech by John Pugh, Southport’s MP, was a ruthless and effective hatchet job, in which people like me were characterised as having a fetish for markets against all evidence and reason.  I am trying to work out how to get revenge.

Funnily enough, though, on the Justice and Security Bill it was the pragmatists that were drowned out.  At issue was the possibility of allowing secret evidence in cases of national security, where, for example, intelligence sources might be compromised.  No matter the impressive unity of parliamentarians to support this idea, the party emphatically rejected this attack on natural justice.  There were a number of stirring speeches including many from people like London’s MEP Sarah Ludford, who are usually rather disappointing public speakers.  On an issue that is not widely talked about on doorsteps, the party allowed itself the luxury of the moral high ground.

And then there was housing.  There is a clear feeling in the party that housing should be a top priority.  More homes should be built; developers resisting the supply of affordable homes, while sitting on “land banks” of property with planning permission, should be faced up to; private sector lettings should be regulated more strongly.  Once again the debate was characterised stories from the front line; this was one topic in which the principled and pragmatic converged – but the voice of local communities came through the loudest.   Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the parliamentary party, another speaker who usually disappoints, delivered a barnstormer in favour of the motion.

The strongest set-piece speech that I saw came from Sharon Bowles, an MEP who delivered a powerful attack on critics of the EU and business leaders who were keeping quiet instead of speaking out.  She got a standing ovation.  So did new minister Jo Swinson, though her speech was nothing very special – it was the person they were applauding (mind you she delivered an excellent speech in the conference rally on Saturday night).

I missed Mr Clegg’s speech – though I’m not really a fan of the leader’s speech since Paddy Ashdown.  From reports it sounded as if he struck more or less the right tone.  I don’t think his attempt to portray the party as a natural one of government was all that wise.  There is a tendency for Westminster bubble types to assume that things will carry on as they are – but it is most unlikely that the Lib Dems will be in government after the next general election.  It all gives the impression that he enjoys being in government too much.  Still, he is right that government is what the party should aspire to, rather than being a constant party of protest.  And if the party can survive the next few years, then a return to government is very much on the cards.

Plan B

One of the reasons why I suspect Labour will win the next general election here in the UK is that they are showing impressive discipline. This was on show yesterday at a fringe meeting at which both John Cruddas and Andrew Adonis spoke, alongside Jo Swinson and Menzies Campbell. Amid warm words there was a disciplined message about the urgent need for “Plan B” to rescue the economy. Neither is close to the centre of power in Labour, but both were impressively on message. How are Lib Dems responding?

The Labour narrative is this. The Coalition’s economic plan, if it was ever valid, has now clearly failed. It is time for something else, unless you are an evil Tory who simply wants to use the crisis to dismantle the state and don’t care at all for the less well off. It helps them that quite a few, even most, respectable economists support something like this point of view. This allows many to portray Nick Clegg in particular as economically illiterate. These feelings are quite widespread in the Lib Dems – hence the Labour pressure. How are the Lib Dem leadership responding? With equally impressive discipline at this week’s conference.

At several points, and from several different members of the parliamentary party we got a consistent message, but one that had clearly been crafted for the occasion. The economic plan, they said, was always flexible, and it is responding to the changed economic circumstances by putting off the target date for eliminating the deficit by two years. This sounds to be an ingenious way to make a virtue out of necessity. I don’t remember anybody touting flexibility last year – except, to be fair, for Chris Huhne, the former energy secretary who does not appear to be here in Brighton. And so far that discipline is holding. The party overwhelming backed a supportive motion on the economy this morning, rejecting a wrecking amendment from Plan B supporters. The message was helped by lots of warm words and promises about investment in housing and infrastructure.

As readers of this blog will know, I don’t think that the government’s economic policy has failed, but that expectations of how quickly growth would return were too high. And I don’t think that Mr Clegg is economically illiterate, though I have some doubts about George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor. Far too many economists are basing their views on aggregate statistics, without asking deeper questions about how the economy has been evolving, in a sort of imperial arrogance worthy of Russian Tsars. More on that another time.

The Lib Dems struggle with education policy

Saturday was education day at the Lib Dem conference. Education is dear to the hearts of most Lib Dems, but the party struggles to come up with a clear party line beyond the important policy of Pupil Premium, where state funding of schools is uplifted for those with poorer pupils. This drift was on show yesterday.

There were two motions, one on early years and the other on schools. Both came over as  worthy but wishy washy wish lists, with a rather nanny state tendency on show. The most contentious point on the early years motion was support for increasing professionalisation of nursery and childminding provision. This all feels a bit New Labour and not particularly liberal. The idea that this might be a source of jobs for non graduates doesn’t seem to have taken hold, which is a pity. It would be nice to think that more jobs would be available to single mothers who have had a disadvantaged start in life. But the focus seems be on pushing graduates into those roles.

There was more contention around the schools motion. There is a body of activists who are upset by the way the party has been handling education policy in government, with very little consultation of the party at large, and seemingly tagging along to a Tory agenda. This boiled over a bit with the recently proposed reform to the GCSE exams, which was presented to the world as the result of negotiations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But work done by activists on the subject was ignored. The motion was not about this issue, but there was an attempt to spatula it in, rejected by the Conference Committee, which caused tempers to fray.

The motion itself was the usual worthy fare. An amendment on governance was passed which sought to ensure that no interest group had a majority on state school boards…something which would be an issue for faith schools and sponsored academies. It also had some nanny state stuff about training governors. Interestingly the conference also passed an amendment rejecting the proposal to abolish mandatory external tests at the end of children’s primary school careers – SATS. This clearly took the motion’s movers quite by surprise, and showed that the conference was taking bit of trouble over the policies it was passing. I supported this amendment, as a school governor I find these tests invaluable as a means of holding the school to account.

But it would be nice if the party could develop something more radical and interesting, to contrast with the emerging Tory/Labour consensus. This will require some strong leadership. David Laws, the new education minister, is the man who should provide it. But though he is widely respected, he does not seem to be good with the gruelling process of consultation and bringing the activists on side. We shall see.

What do they really mean? Conference euphemisms

I love the Lib Dem conference, which starts next Saturday in Brighton.  But sometimes I tire of the antics of those getting up to make speeches in the conference hall.  There are several sources of my irritation.  One is speakers who take part only to talk about some hobbyhorse issue, taking no other interest in the issue at hand.  Another is speakers who seem to genuinely think they are radical, challenging politicians, but who in fact oppose anything controversial.  And then there are the self-congratulatory, who simply can’t see how the party and its deliberations look from the outside.

So to get these irritations out of my ststem, I have produced the following table of pet hates from the conference floor:

The Olympics and Hillsborough: two faces of the public sector

Brendan Barber, the outgoing General Secretary of Britian’s Trade Union Congress, called for “an Olympic approach to the economy“.  He was, of course, only one of many politicians and others trying to use the example of London’s success in putting on the 2012 Games to try and make a wider point.   He said that it showed that “the market does not always deliver”.  In this I think he was referring to both the fact that the games were a government sponsored grand project, and the spectacular failure of one of the private contractors, G4S, to deliver security staff.

Well I did not hear his speech, or even read it – relying on radio and press reports.  What comes over is a mixture of the coherent and nonsense.  The coherent part was the idea that an economy lacking in aggregate demand could do with some grand infrastructure projects to keep people employed and deliver future benefits.  Many people across the political spectrum agree with that, although personally I am on the sceptical side.  The nonsense bit was the idealisation of the public sector and suspicion of anything that smacks of private initiative and enterprise.  He precise words may well not have done this: “the market does not always deliver” is not the same as saying that “the public sector always delivers and market never does.”  But that is no doubt what his TUC audience heard, judging by what some people were saying.  The ideas of many trade unionists are not so much inspired by Maynard Keynes as Leonid Brezhnev.  Unlike in America, though, the public are more sympathetic to such notions than they ought to be.

To see why we have the terrible example of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989.  Today a report has been released vindicating criticisms of the authorities long made by families of the victims; the Prime Minister was forced to make an apology.  The authorities, mainly the Police, not only made misjudgements that caused the disaster, but their handling of things made it worse by delaying medical help.  And to cap it all they systematically covered up the truth and put about mis-information to try and divert the blame.  It has take 23 years to get this far.

What is my point?  It isn’t that the public sector is any more likely than the private sector to perpetrate the sort of mistakes that led to and exacerbated this tragedy.  Far from it.  It is that it is so much harder to hold the public sector to account.  They are integrated into the system that is meant to secure justice; they can pull strings, call in political favours, and work the system so that the truth does not come out.  For every Hillsborough that eventually does come to light, think of the hundreds of lesser tragedies where the authorities manage to thwart the victims.

Compare that to the private sector.  At the Olympics retribution was swift and brutal for G4S, publicly humiliated in days (while their public commissioners who seemed asleep on the job just kept their heads down).  Or to take something a bit more comparable: BP’s Mexican Gulf disaster last year.  BP faced the full weight of the US political and judicial system, forcing a rapid response and compensation payments.

Hillsborough was a long time ago.  I would like to think that standards of public accountability have improved since then.  But we still get procurement disasters in the Ministry of Defence, bad hospitals getting away sub-standard services, state schools in many parts of the country not trying hard enough to raise standards among less well-off communities.  And even the Olympics – compare the cost to original budget!  Not to mention their reliance on armies of unpaid volunteers.

Scepticism of the private sector and open markets is understandable – but we need to get things into perspective.  We have too easily forgotten what happened to the Communist systems in Europe.  All those expressions of goodwill and the promotion of the public good soon get buried in a culture of passing the buck.