Tag Archives: Lib Dems

No Thanks

Like many, if not most, Lib Dems I strongly support the lowering of the voting age to 16. The arguments for doing so are many and powerful, and hardly need to be repeated here. Suffice to say, I cannot understand how it is justifiable to allow 16 and 17 year olds to marry, drive, join the army and pay taxes, yet deny them any say on how the country is governed.

So you might have expected me to be overjoyed by the news that the voting age for the Scottish independence referendum will indeed be 16. But I’m not. It’s not that I’ve had a sudden change of heart, or that I think Scottish 16 and 17 year olds shouldn’t be able to participate in such a historic vote. My problem lies with the means of achieving it. If we want to change the voting age we should do it properly; making a case for it in public and changing the law, not by some grubby backroom deal between the SNP and the UK government.

Besides, what is the point of having votes at 16 in a single poll (and one that will include such a small percentage of the UK’s population at that)? The only case I have seen put forward, that the independence referendum will have especially important consequences for future generations, is little short of laughable. What referendum, or indeed election, isn’t about the future? Wasn’t the AV referendum about just that? What about a future referendum on EU membership? It is frankly nonsensical to suggest that this pick and mix approach to the voting age is real progress, rather than mere political chicanery.

If we want change we should get it properly, not by succumbing to Alex Salmond’s intrigues.


What Lib Dems have done for Norfolk

I don’t often write these kinds of self-congratulatory posts, but Norfolk Lib Dems have been going through a tough time recently.  Not only did we lose a by-election in Lakenham, but two of our county councillors have defected to the Conservatives (not much of a loss in either case, but two less Lib Dems anyhow). So, I thought I would write a quick piece on what good Lib Dems are doing for people across the county.

The most obvious example of a Lib Dem policy carried into government, and now helping to make a real difference is the pupil premium. This year over 16,000 of the poorest Norfolk pupils will receive a total £7.6 million to help with their education. To give just one example, Great Yarmouth High School, which serves one of the most deprived districts in the county, will get £157,380 for this year alone.

Another key area where Lib Dems have been able to have a big impact is on the local economy, especially important with the low growth and demand that is dominating our economy. In October Nick Clegg announced a £10.4 million grant through the Regional Growth Fund for Lotus Engineering, a local company based in Hethel, near Norwich. They hope to build a second factory and car assembly  line, which could create 1200 jobs over five years.

And, of course, local Lib Dems are still leading opposition to the King’s Lynn incinerator that nobody wants, nobody needs and nobody can afford. It might not all be plain sailing, but at least Lib Dems, in government and locally, are making a real difference for the people of Norfolk.

The truth about Lib Dems and an EU referendum

Since it was announced that there will be a debate in the House of Commons on whether to have an in/out referendum on the EU on 27th October many commentators have been suggesting that such a poll was a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. As our MPs are likely to vote against a referendum, they say, this will mean once again we’ve lied to the electorate, broken our pledges and so on. There is only one slight problem with this; it’s completely untrue.

The Lib Dem manifesto states clearly that;

“The European Union has evolved signifi cantly since the last public vote
on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain
committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs
up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”

In other words, the commitment is only to hold a referendum if, and when, a new treaty is signed by Britain in relation to the European Union that makes a significant change to the powers and responsibilities that it has. And far from breaking this pledge, we’ve enshrined it in law. The European Union Bill, currently progressing through parliament, will ensure that any shift of power from the British government to the EU will first have to be be mandated by a popular referendum.

But not only does this episode show how badly the Lib Dem’s position on Europe have been portrayed by the media, but it also points a wider problem that we face as a party. People, even those actively involved in politics or the media do not understand our manifesto or what we stand for, not just on the EU, but on a whole spread of issues. Understandably, this makes accusations of breaking manifesto pledges and forgetting the electorate all the easier for our political opponents to make, and for the public to believe. To change it we need to build up once again the sense of what Lib Dems stand for and believe in. We’ve made a good start by putting more distance between us and the Tories ideologically, but we must continue, or we’ll simply run into these kind of obstacles again and again.

What Lib Dems should be saying on the economy

It has always been the temptation for Lib Dems, especially when in opposition, to ignore the big issues of the day in favour of time-worn favourites; the environment, electoral reform and civil liberties. To a certain extent that has had to change now we’re in government, but the perception remains. Too often it seems to the public that the Tories are running the economy by themselves, while we tinker with whatever scraps they throw us. If we want to become a serious party of government we must change this image and show that we are having a major influence on the government’s economic policy. Now offers the perfect time to do so, with new ideas needed to maintain austerity and yet promote growth at the same time. Lib Dems can provide those ideas and turn ourselves into a party with real economic credibility, but only if we take the right decisions.

Firstly, we must continue to support the government’s deficit reduction target, simply because to do otherwise would be both political and economic suicide. But now the first round of cuts have done their job, with confidence restored in the markets and the foundations for future fiscal discipline in place, the focus must return to trying to force some growth out of the economy. To do so Lib Dems should advocate that between £7-12bn is invested back into key drivers of economic growth; enough that it would provide a real boost to production, but not enough to endanger the deficit reduction programme. However, this money should not be wasted on huge infrastructure projects that have dubious economic gains, cost a great deal of money and rarely benefit anyone but big business. Instead we should aim for more liberal schemes that provide advantages to all and revolve around key growth industries. For instance, a big investment in broadband availability, especially in rural areas, could open up a whole new market to thousands of SMEs, allow consumers to more readily access a whole raft of online companies and generally take the shackles off an industry that shows phenomenal potential for the future. The same goes for renewable energy, which is taking off properly for the first time in many parts of Britain, but still requires large amount of capital and infrastructure investment to succeed, which the government could help to provide. In fact the list of growing sectors that could really benefit from a relatively small amount of government support goes on and on, and besides any of these focused projects would almost certainly drive growth faster than the old-fashioned ideas of building spectacular bridges or motorways. We would be crazy not to push for such simple, but effective idea.

Lib Dems also need to keep pressing for increased lending to businesses, especially SMEs. The current measures, implemented by Project Merlin, are clearly not working well enough and the banks are still reluctant to lend to anything other than a totally safe bet. The time seems to have come, therefore, for the government to provide loans direct to companies. There are a number of ways this could be achieved, but the two most likely would be the Bank of England using a complicated technique to increase lending to businesses instead of quantitative easing, or through the founding of some form of government bank or agency to dispense loans. Either method would undoubtedly give a great boast to ambitious start-ups and growing companies who want to expand their business, and in so doing drive some growth into the economy. Over the long-term it would even help reduce the deficit, as the initial outlay would be more than payed back through interest repayments. All in all it would a very sensible, business-friendly way to grow the economy, and one that Lib Dems should support.

As a party we must also enure that the financial crisis is dealt with in concert by countries around the world, in the best Lib Dem traditions of internationalism. In particular we must ensure that Britain does not draw away from the negotiations on the future of the Eurozone. We may not be part of the Euro, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be affected if it collapses, and we should make sure that we do all we can to support our European neighbours and guide them down the correct path. Similarly, we should make absolutely sure that the eurosceptic Conservatives do not weaken our relationship with the EU. Now, more than any other time we should value and protect the billions of pounds generated by our trade with Europe that would not be possible, or at least, not as profitable, without the benefits of the European Union. Lib Dems in government should also work to sign more trade deals with countries around the world to create as much overseas business as possible for British companies, not less as many Tories might want. And finally, we must ensure that populist protectionism does not, as seen over issues such as Bombardier, does not damage the principles of free trade that add so much to the British economy, both at home and abroad. In short, these are all traditional Lib Dem aims and ideas, but also ones that will help the economy in these desperate times, and so we must fight to protect them.

In the same light, Lib Dems must attempt to reverse the government’s policies on immigration that are doing a great deal of damage to Britain’s chances of experiencing economic growth in the near future.It is now widely accepted that the long term economic advantages from migration more than outweigh the short term social costs from increased use of health and education services. When the economy is struggling to grow at all it  seems crazy therefore for the government to carry on its draconian cap on skilled migrants from outside the EU, especially when companies are complaining that there is a shortage of just these kinds of professionals.Furthermore, we need to show that migrations can be an economic success to convince a sceptical public  that our social policies are correct. Once again, Lib Dems must champion something that Tories fear to for the greater economic good of the country.

Lib Dems must also push for reform of the tax system. In particular, we should call on the government to accelerate plans to increase the income tax threshold, and to bring it up to the level of £12,500, the amount earned by someone working full-time on the minimum wage.  This would not only be fairer, but drive consumer spending (and therefore growth) organically, from the bottom up, as opposed to through the unsustainable expenditure of the wealthy. The big question of course is how to pay for it. In truth there are a number of ways. Lib Dems have been pushing for some time for a Mansion Tax, or something similar, to be introduced, which would more than cover the cost, as would some form of the Financial Transactions Tax (variously known as an FTT, Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax) proposed by the European Commission this week, as long as it was implemented across all of the major economies, including America. At the same time we must keep the pressure on George Osborne to keep the 50p tax rate. Not only does such a stance play well politically, but it is also the right thing to do morally and economically. However, the boldest reform that we should lobby for is the abolition of the personal allowance. Why, you might ask? Because, to take one example, because of the personal allowance in absolute terms the Lib Dem policy on raising the income tax threshold (and thereby the personal allowance) would benefit people on the highest rate substantially more than those on the lowest. It would be far more progressive, and simpler, to reduce tax rates, but make people pay tax on all of their income. With these initiatives we could make a big difference to the economy, through relatively minor changes to the tax system.

Finally, we need to make sure that the banking system is truly reformed and not just tweaked, as no doubt George Osborne would prefer. The Vicker’s reforms are a start and we must make sure that they are implemented as soon as possible, especially with British banks’ exposure to Greek and European debt, but we also need to go further, particularly on increasing the number of banks and the competition between them. Until that happens we will always have banks that are “too big to fail” and have to be bailed out by taxpayers. Personally, I would also favour a full split between investment and retail banking, but many think that Vickers goes far enough in proposing a firewall between the two. Whichever way, with the Tories reluctant we must make sure that these reforms are passed into law, to ensure the safety of our financial system in the years to come.

Not all of these ideas would become law due to Conservative opposition, but if the Lib Dems were to take these ideas, promote them, build them into a kind of mid-term economic manifesto and get at least some of them passed into law we can be sure of two things. Firstly, that they would help put some growth in the economy and probably set us on the road to a full recovery, and secondly that our economic credibility as a party would be, if not quite complete, then certainly a lot more secure. If we decided not to, on the other hand, we would probably be doomed electorally as puppets of the Tories and growth would be damaged, if it existed at all. With such rewards on offer, and such risks to avoid, it would be foolish not take the chance.

Did Norfolk County Council break its constitution?

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, you can read the full story of what happened yesterday on my last blog. Basically, the Lib Dems walked out of full council at County Hall because of the disgraceful conduct of the meeting, and the way they were not allowed to reply to a closure motion on their own motion or ask points of order. However, Norfolk County Council appears to believe that this was all constitutional and that nothing was wrong with the meeting. Having looked through the constitution I have to disagree. As far as I can see yesterday’s meeting was a serious breach of the constitution. I lay out why below.

  • In yesterday’s meeting the Chair refused to take points of order from Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors. However, Appendix 9 12.12 of the NCC constitution states;

“A member may raise a point of order at any time. The chairman will hear them immediately.”

  • Paul Morse, the Lib Dem group leader and proposer of the original motion was only allowed to get a few sentences into his introduction before he was interrupted by the closure motion, but Appendix 9 12.4 is clear that;

“Speeches must be directed to the question under discussion or to a personal explanation or point of order. No speech may exceed 5 minutes without the consent of the chairman”

  • Furthermore, the closure motion was introduced before Cllr. Morse had finished his speech, despite the fact that Appendix 9 12.11 a) says that;

“A member may move, without comment, the following motions at the end of a speech of another member”

  • Once the closure motion was put Cllr. Morse was not even allowed a right of reply, even though Appendix 9 12.11 b) states that;

“If a motion to proceed to next business is seconded and the chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed, he or she will give the mover of the original motion a right of reply and then put the procedural motion to the vote.”

That’s four points where I believe that the Norfolk County Council constitution was breached. How can the decisions the council took be legitimate when they were so profoundly against the constitution? They can’t and that’s why I hope as many people as possible will make formal objections to NCC, asking for the decision to be struck down and the motion heard again.  This is no way to run a county, and the people of Norfolk must hold their representatives to account.

Drama at Norfolk County Council

As many of you will already have heard today was Norfolk County Council’s full council meeting, which every member can attend. Up for debate was a motion tabled by Paul Morse, the leader of the Lib Dem group at County Hall, which called for an independent investigation into the process that led to the procurement of the King’s Lynn incinerator. The text of the motion is here;

“This Council is concerned that the behaviour of the
Council Leader and Cabinet Members within the decision
making process for the award of the contract to build an
incinerator at Saddlebow is bringing Norfolk County Council
into disrepute, and has not met the standards of open &
transparent decision making expected by the people of
Norfolk. In particular, though not exclusively, this Council is
concerned about proceedings at the March 7th Cabinet, the
impact of any decisions made at the Conservative Group
Meeting three days earlier and any pressure exerted
upon members of Cabinet Scrutiny Committee.

This Council therefore instructs the Chief Executive to initiate a
full, public and independent investigation by an appropriately
qualified independent body into the behaviour of the Council
Leader and the Cabinet in this entire process. Should this
investigation establish that at any point the Council Leader or
any Cabinet Member misled the public or Councillors or that
they did not act in accord with the Constitution, they
should relinquish their position with immediate effect.”

There was some debate about the wording, but all the opposition groups and most anti-incinerator campaigners agreed with the intent. However, no one really expected it to be passed because of the huge Conservative majority (38 seats).

What actually happened, though, was quite a shock. The debate on the motion started with the whole cabinet and Janet Murphy, the leader’s wife, declaring a prejudicial interest as they were implicated in the motion, or related to someone who was. David White, the chief executive (not strangely Victoria MacNeill, the head of law) then gave his legal opinion that the debate should not go ahead because it would damage NCC’s defence against the ongoing judicial review. As we will see below that claim is largely nonsense.

However, what came next was a real surprise. Roger Smith, a loyal Tory backbencher put forward a closure motion, which would mean that the Lib Dems’ motion would be ignored, and the council would move on to the next item on the agenda, even though the motion hadn’t been introduced by Paul Morse! This was immediately pointed out by George Nobbs, the Labour group leader, forcing the Chair, Shelagh Hutson, to reluctantly allow Morse to talk, but only if he introduced the motion and didn’t speak in support of it, a rather impossible task.

He had only just started speaking, explaining how Norfolk County Council’s defence in the judicial review couldn’t possibly be compromised by the debate or an independent investigation, as long as the people concerned had told the truth and continued to do so, when the chief executive advised the Chair that the closure motion meant that Paul Morse wasn’t even allowed to speak for the five minutes the constitution allowed.

About this time councillors from Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens started trying to put points of order to the Chair, but after the first few these were declined. Everyone I’ve spoken to, including current councillors,  said it was almost unprecedented in local government for a Chair not to take a point of order. John Dobson, one of the few Conservatives to openly oppose the incinerator pointed out that Paul Morse had the right to reply to the closure motion according to the constitution, but the chief executive said this was not the case and that it was at the Chair’s discretion whether there should be a debate on the closure motion, or not. At this point it is probably worth mentioning that it was Dobson who is often credited with writing the current Norfolk County Council constitution. Cllr. Hutson decided that a democratic debate was not needed and moved to a vote.

All the Lib Dems in the chamber then walked out in protest at the conduct of the whole meeting, joined by Andrew Boswell, the Green Party Environment and Waste Spokesmen. The public started slow handclapping. By this point the meeting was in chaos; the opposition kept calling for points of order, the Tories were heckling back and the debate was being controlled by whoever had the loudest voice, not the Chair. The vote still went ahead, and without the Lib Dems, the Conservatives won an easy victory. The public proceeded to walk out. Many Labour and Green councillors only stayed because they had to debate the next items.

In short, it was a disgraceful meeting. Members weren’t even allowed to debate a motion on whether they should debate another motion on whether to hold an inquiry! It would certainly appear that the provisions of the constitution were breached several times, and the general behaviour of Conservative councillors was despicable. Yet again we see Norfolk County Council refusing to engage in democratic debate simply because it may be embarrassing for his party. We can only hope that somebody takes notice of the flagrant abuses of power and authority we are now seeing, and holds them to account for their actions.

Why are Lib Dems in government?

This may seem like a question that’s been posed, and answered many times before, but unfortunately it still hasn’t got through to the vast majority of the British public. Too many people hold the view espoused by Kerry McCarthy, the Labour MP for Bristol East, who tweeted this morning;

“Petulant response from Lib Dems to my criticism of Toynbee article just proves how much they’re in denial about their role as enablers.”

In other words, the whole Lib Dem party are weak, getting nothing done and propping up the Torie. This is, of course, largely nonsense, even if we have at times been too quiet in promoting what we believe in. At the moment Labour’s constant attacks, such as this one, are having a massive effect on voter’s attitudes, so the whole party needs to be spreading the word about why we are government in and what we are achieving.

That has to start with explaining the position of the three parties immediately after the election. A coalition with Labour would never have worked, quite simply because neither they nor the Lib Dems had enough seats, and a rainbow coalition would have always been a disaster. Lib Dems were left with two choices then; to carry on pottering away in opposition, allowing a a minority Tory government to push through their right-wing agenda, or to grab the chance, enter government and prove to the British public that they can make a difference in public office. It is also worth remembering that Britain was experiencing a period of instability, both political and financial. A tottering minority government could have only made this worse, while the coalition provided a strong majority in the Commons and reassured markets and analysts.

While there was no real question as to whether the Lib Dems should enter into coalition with the Conservatives, it has become rather popular among Labour supporters to criticise government policy, saying it is Tory dominated, and that the Lib Dems have had no impact. Once again, such statements are wildly incorrect. I’m not going to go through everything we’ve achieved in government, but William Summer’s excellent site http://www.whatthehellhavethelibdemsdone.com/ does if you’re interested. You only have to look at the Pupil Premium, the raising of the income tax threshold and the moves to an elected House of Lords to see what impact we are making.

Of course, it’s not all been as good as this. Lib Dems have had to support policies that we don’t agree with (most obviously tuition fee rises) and compromised on some we do. But even here we are making government policy more liberal. We ensured that the earnings threshold for student loans was raised along with tuition fees. When we became concerned about the Health and Social Care Bill, it was modified so it was at least more acceptable. The list of occasions were we have taken a Conservative policy we don’t agree with, compromised, worked together and made it better goes on and on. One only has to look at the ranks of Tories chewing at the bit to scrap the 50p tax rate, or Cameron’s desired response to the riots to see why the Lib Dems are doing such a good job reining in the right-wing tendencies of Conservative cabinet ministers and backbenchers.

And it’s not just Lib Dems saying so. For once I was forced to agree with Nadine Dorries when she said at Prime Minister’s Questions last week,

“Mr Speaker, the Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this parliament, and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health, many issues, immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister think it’s about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss”

Which is exactly why the Liberal Democrats must be in government and must continue to influence government policy. It won’t all be rosy, but we have an unprecedented chance to change the future of this country and change people’s lives for the better. That is why we should not be ashamed about being in power, but go and explain to the electorate the why we are and what we are doing. We should admit that we haven’t done everything right, but we should also say what our reasons are, and how we are going to make up for them. If we don’t do that we will be heading for certain defeat in 2015. We should be proud of what we’ve done, and not be disconcerted by what we have not.