Thursday, 12 October 2017

My Thoughts on the Conservative Party Autumn Conference 2017 Policy Announcements: Policy Mediocrity Klaxon

I have to start this blogpost on a positive note, by focussing on PM May's keynote speech first. Because yes, for me, it was possibly the only speech at the Tory Conference that filled me with any kind of optimism.....for a future (a "British Dream") that centers itself on being modern and compassionate....a future that I believe does NOT have the current crop of senior Tory MPs at its helm. I would say I would have been surprised by all the Corbyn bashing, Momentum bashing, youth bashing (because according to the Tories, a young person is now anyone under the age of 45....super LOL), working class centre left wing bashing, working class centre bashing and the distinct lack of any rad policies with clout that will truly transform the lives of working class disabled young people like me (well the fact that the Tories don't even want to discuss the 60 recommendations made by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Report is a big giveaway that Tories don't really care much about disabled people who unfortunately find themselves unable to get a job or unable to work because of their condition) but to be perfectly honest, I wasn't.

 Unlike Labour's conference, where activists from across the party (Labour First, Progress, Momentum) genuinely waited with interest to hear Corbyn speak (regardless of their views as to Corbyn's future electability and/or policies RE renationalisation and Brexit),  the anticipation for PM May's speech was rather muted in comparison to the "buzz" that surrounded Bojo with the Barbarian Hair's speech in the conference venue in Manchester only the day before. PM May knew that a confident delivery of her keynote speech would be the best way of convincing the party faithful to remain loyal to her vision for Britain's future and to try and convince sceptical swing voters to listen to her vision and pay attention to the policy platform she offers. What transpired was a speech with a series of unfortunate events and blunders that even a political satirist  like Armando Iannucci or Aaron Sorkin couldn't have dreamt up. Yes, it really was that bad.

To PM May's credit, she had the courage and strength of her convictions to battle through the speech despite being plagued by a rather persistent cough, a ridiculously timed stunt by a comedian who, let's face it, is famous for dead-panned comedic timing (at least he didn't send a P45 addressed to her from THE Lord Buckethead demanding her Maidenhead seat to begin their maniacal conquest I suppose) and a hostile audience at home and in the conference hall who remain unconvinced that PM May's the person to lead the Tory party and the country going forward following the Brexit negotiations. Almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. PM May's new signage containing the predictable new slogan "Building a country that works for everyone"disintegrated whilst at the same time her vision was failing to cut through to swing voters such as myself.  Even the quip about  Chancellor Hammond handing out "something for free for once" after he gave her a cough sweet fell flat. But whatever you may think of PM May's policies (and I certainly have been extremely critical of the majority of them in the past and remain so), you cannot dehumanise her by  blaming her for elements of the speech that were beyond her control. There's no way she could have known for sure that her cough would be so persistent it would affect the tone and pitch of her voice. Yes there could have been actions PM May could have taken to try and relieve her symptoms but perhaps beforehand she had felt the cough wouldn't be such a disruptive factor. PM May could not have stopped the "comedian" getting through the extremely stringent security checks system and handing her the fake P45. PM May equally could not have stopped the signage falling apart. PM May battled on and managed to complete her speech despite all of these external factors and she should quite rightly be given credit for that. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" approach is one that I would have taken. It's what many of us who call ourselves determined people who are passionate about our own ideas and beliefs would have done. That's why I believe that critique of the speech should really focus on the policy announcements made, rather than focussing on signage malfunctions and Bojo P45 craziness. If Jeremy Corbyn had been the victim of such a disastrous set of events, I have no doubt that Fartage, Bojo et al would have immediately seized upon the incident as an opportunity to discredit him, calling him "incompetent" or "incapable" or mocking Labour security officials for failing to keep Corbyn safe. I wonder whether Corbyn would have been critiqued as much as PM May for wearing a Winston Churchill brooch on his lapel (would it have been an indication of him betraying his socialist values?) There was so much critique of PM May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet, not least from left-leaning commentators who accused May of lacking awareness of Kahlo's own political beliefs. Yes Kahlo was a staunch Communist who had an affair with Leon Trotsky and then decided to disown his political ideas because they were not radical enough and then went on to endorse Joseph Stalin's views towards the end of her life. Was PM May aware of such facts when she decided to wear the bracelet? Or did she wear the bracelet because she admired Kahlo's self-portraits and identified with her determination to fight passionately for a vision that she believed in?

I suppose Kahlo would have been horrified that a Conservative would have dared to use her image in such a public way. Yet the image and work of artists such as Kahlo have been through what Deborah Shaw calls "a process of cultural transformation and commodification" (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/theresa-may-frida-kahlo-bracelet-communism-trotsky-stalin-commodification-a7988146.html) to the extent that Kahlo has now become iconic for reasons beyond her political views. Shaw contends that "Kahlo has been transformed to make her less threatening to Western capitalist belief systems", so that art collectors and producers and buyers of merchandise such as the bracelet feel they can identify personally with their understanding of Kahlo's life story. Kahlo certainly did experience pain in her life as Shaw points out and perhaps that's the main reason why PM May identifies with Kahlo's oeuvre. Still, regardless of all that, PM May would still be allowed to wear the bracelet because we have the right to freedom of expression with certain limitations (e.g. it prescribed by law) as detailed in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (if only PM May would now stand up strongly for the HRA rather than try to undermine it I'd be a happy politico!) Equally, I expect that most of us are guilty of consuming some form of cultural commodification. I'm also pretty sure there is at least one artist, musician, poet or playwright who may have had different political views from ourselves; Aphra Behn for example, was a staunch Tory who supported King James II and disapproved of the Glorious Revolution and the Whigs who helped instigate it. That doesn't stop me from admiring her plays or praising her for being a sassy person who fought against convention to carve a reputation out for herself (ironically by erasing large elements of her past). There are Morrissey lovers who are Labour and Green supporters who abhore his UKIP sympathies and xenophobic views. If we attack someone for a bracelet they choose to wear because it's "unexpected", we may be conveniently forgetting our own hypocrisy. Do we always know absolutely everything we need to know about our hero/heroes' political views? Without having done massive research into their lives (e.g. close reading of their autobiography or biographies) we often only have a vague awareness of their political views and that's even if they choose to speak out or have spoken out on a topic/topics in the past. The personal may indeed be political these days but do we really advance political debate by minute analysis of perceived political symbols and slogans rather than analysing and debating in a political speech what really will have an impact on our lives and the lives of our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues- the policy platform? 

PM May's speech (and the conference as a whole) wasn't devoid of policy announcements but in my opinion they were sparse and I must say, a bit tame:
  • We now know that the Government intends to "build a country that works for everyone", including investing £2bn to build 25,000 new affordable council houses and affordable homes for rent by 2022 (5,000 a year) as a starting point for a new housing revolution. The typical subsidy has been determined at £80,000 to reach the figure of 25,000. Suffice to say that the plan won't do much to help; 1.2m families are waiting to be housed by councils. The National Housing Federation tried to put a positive spin on the announcement, saying that the investment announcement may unlock an extra £3bn in public and private investment  which may increase the number of homes built to between 50,000 and 60,000 but only if more public land is opened up for development. I agree with Labour; the Tories are offering to build a paltry amount of social housing (Labour pledged to build 100,000 new homes that were "genuinely affordable" in their first term in office) and it won't help many families in areas where rent prices are high. Lord Porter, Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has argued that current restrictions on council borrowing for council housing projects needs to be lifted in addition to keeping "100% of right-to-buy receipts to replace sold homes, certainty over future rents, powers to make sure developers build approved homes in a timely fashion, and adequately funded planning departments so that they can cover the cost of processing applications" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2017/oct/04/conservative-conference-2017-theresa-may-to-announce-council-house-building-programme-politics-live?page=with:block-59d4de9de4b00dc5a61c2652#liveblog-navigation). 
  • PM May announced an independent review into the Mental Health Act 1983 which will be chaired by Professor Simon Wessely (former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists). This review will examine how current use of the legislation (the document supplied the Department of Health accepts that there are concerns about "rising rates of detention", the fact that "detention may be used to detain rather than treat", "the disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnicities being detained" and "questions about the effectiveness of community treatment orders and difficulties in getting discharged" (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health-act-independent-review/terms-of-reference-independent-review-of-the-mental-health-act-1983). An interim report is expected to by delivered in early 2018 and the final report, with recommendations being released by autumn 2018). Centre for Mental Health has welcomed the announcement, but want the review to be extensive and "look at every aspect of the Act and explore not just the legislation but the context in which it is used" (https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/news/centre-for-mental-health-welcomes-independent-review-of-mental-health-act-announced-by-the-prime-minister-today). It's rather interesting to note that the Conservative manifesto pledged to scrap and replace the Mental Health Act 1983: "the party will reform laws to ensure those with mental illness are treated fairly and employers fulfil their responsibilities effectively and will introduce a new Mental Health Bill putting parity of esteem at the heart of treatment" (p57) so I wonder if the review is the first step in this process or designed to pacify those in the party who want more information before scrapping the Mental Health Act. Mind had asked for a review of the Act before the manifesto commitment was made because they said that a rise in detentions "could be a sign of growing pressure on mental health services" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39832997). 
  • PM May, channeling Corbyn's policy (or perhaps in response to the excellent Daily Mirror campaign) on organ donations, announced that everyone will automatically become an organ donor unless they join the opt-out register in order to help the more than 5,000 people on the organ transplant waiting list (this is known as a presumed consent system). As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, as a Christian I believe that organ donation is one way of performing a selfless act of compassion and I haven't heard from many people who would want to sign the opt-out register. It's good to see at least a level of consensus on such an important issue and demonstrates that PM May's speech did have a good policy announcement in it, even if it wasn't an original one. 
  • PM May declared that free schools will continue to be built under her Government, repeating her election promise to built 100 new free schools a year. PM May said that this wasn't an "ideological decision" but the National Education Union disagreed, saying that the free schools policy "is highly centralised, unaccountable, bureaucratic and ultimately ineffective" (https://www.fenews.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14802:national-education-union-comment-on-increase-in-new-free-schools&catid=14:sector-news&Itemid=880). The Free Schools policy has not delivered the number of secondary school places needed (125,000 children face missing out on a place by 2022/23) and 19 free schools have closed since the programme began. Equally the proportion of free schools rated as Good or Outstanding by Ofsted is lower than in state schools (85% versus 89%) and the rate of schools that have been deemed "Inadequate" by Ofsted is at 4%, double the state school rate (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/governments-manipulation-data-free-schools-shameless). 
Some words and phrases in the speech were surprising coming from a Conservative; for example, PM May called the NHS "the very essence of our solidarity in the United Kingdom". Solidarity isn't a word that you often hear a Tory minister, let alone the PM, say. It sounds too "comradey" or "leftie" for some. It rather adds to the irony that PM May claimed it was the Tories who have invested the most in the NHS and upheld its principles "through more years in government than any other". Yet it was the Tories who helped pushed through the ill thought out Health and Social Care Act 2012, it's the Tories who are starving NHS trusts of funding which is leading to some of them ending up in special financial measures (such as my local United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust) and Clinical Commissioning Groups closing down successful Walk-In-Centres such as the one in Lincoln under the guise of "efficiency savings" and "fairness". It is the Tories who scrapped the nursing bursaries, imposed an unwanted change in Junior Doctors' contracts and imposed the freeze and then the 1% pay cap on health professionals believing that they were necessary to reduce and then eliminate the deficit; latest figures suggest the deficit is at £5.7bn in August, down 18% on August 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/21/uk-budget-deficit-philip-hammond-gdp-august but we are nowhere near getting the defecit down to 0). PM May may thank NHS professionals for their dedication but she has done very little to improve the lives of nurses in my local area; so much so one of them decided to run for parliamentary office and eventually became our constituency MP, Karen Lee.

Policies announced at the Tory Autumn Conference:

The problems of relatability and of a bold (dare I say radical) policy platform dogged this Tory Conference. It seemed as if the speeches were geared more towards trying to placate the party faithful rather than to appeal to the additional voters the Tories desperately need to get on board if they are to have any chance of regaining marginal seats such as Lincoln at the next general election.
Here's some of the key policies that I took notice of:

Education:
A review has been announced into "university funding and student financing" but in the meantime plans to raise student fees have been scrapped and instead the maximum amount chargeable has been  frozen for the 2018/19 academic year. The income threshold for student loan repayments will be raised from £21,000 to £25,000, which will apparently save some students on average £360 a year. The student loan reimbursement pilot scheme for science and modern foreign language teachers in the early years of their career in areas of the country where there is a chronic shortage (such as the North East) could provide some incentive for MFL graduates in particular to consider a career in teaching and it's estimated that a teacher in the 5th year of the scheme would save £540 (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/here-policies-announced-conservative-conference-13702320) but the Government really needs to start promoting the value of students learning a MFL in a post-Brexit world. The Government also wants to increase the recruitment of maths teachers and have announced that they would pay maths graduates a £20,000 lump-sum when they become a teacher and a £5,000 retention payment in the 3rd and 5th year of teaching. Finally, schools who find it difficult to recruit and retain teachers would be able to access a £30m fund focussed on providing the money needed for Continuing Professional Development training.

I'd have much rather have seen a commitment to freezing or reducing interest rates on student loan debt for ALL students or have seen a crystal clear commitment to reintroducing university maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them with the cost of books, equipment, clothing and rent but perhaps this will be announced in next month's Budget (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/maintenance-grants-government-uturn-bring-back-poorer-students-education-justine-greening-university-a7981976.html) Time will tell.

Housing:
£10bn will be invested in the Help to Buy Scheme (where you only need a 5% deposit to access a mortgage for a newly built home because the Government provides a low-interest equity loan which is 40% of the value of the home in London and 20% elsewhere) which will help an estimated 135,000 people to get on the property ladder. Liam Halligan in The Sun has already attacked this policy, stating that Help to Buy helps "stoke up demand" without addressing supply issues, only really benefits unscrupulous housing developers and is also "very difficult to access", meaning that young people are forced to pay a higher rent in high-demand areas. Halligan rightly argues that more social housing needs to be built to meet the growing demand: "If the UK is to build the 250,000 new homes needed each year, that needs to include 50,000 to 100,000 units of social housing, required each year".

With regards to tenants, the Tories will require every landlord to be part of an ombudsman redress scheme, designed to give tenants access to an effective conflict-resolution mechanism. As programmes such as "The Week The Landlords Moved In" and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords" have demonstrated, landlords do need to make sure they are fulfilling their legal obligations so that the housing stock they provide is fit for human habitation and allow tenants to challenge fees. A mechanism may make it easier for tenants to complain but what would actually happen if landlords failed to fulfill their duty? What types of penalties would be provided? I think a Tenant's Charter would bring in additional legal protection that is necessary to protect tenants from having to put up with slum conditions.  The incentives for landlords to offer longer tenancies (Javid says that they will be at least 12 months) to me seems a bit of a bribe. I'd rather see 5 year tenancies introduced as standard, as has been suggested by Labour.

Letting agents should have been regulated years ago so it's good to see the Tories commit to requiring agencies to have appropriately qualified and experienced staff and ensuring there is some form of professional oversight, as there is in professions such as Accountancy and the Law.

Health:
It's positive to see that more than 5,000 new training places on nurses training courses each year will be created and allowing health service assistants to train as nurses through a 4 year apprenticeship scheme also sounds like a good idea in theory but will sadly not address current shortages (there are 40,000 vacant nursing positions already according to the Royal College of Nursing). I'd have liked to have seen nursing training bursaries reinstated for those enrolling on undergraduate courses.  Introducing flexible working arrangements is a no-brainer in 2017 and allowing existing nurses the opportunity to pick up extra shifts will help reduce some agency costs in the short-term. Allowing staff first-refusal on homes built in affordable housing schemes located near the hospital which are built on NHS land which is sold for development also sounds sensible. However, NHS professionals who are living in expensive private rental accommodation and who rely on foodbanks to get the food to give them the energy to carry out their duties competently desperately need a substantial increase in basic pay now so I believe it isn't good enough that the Tories are not prepared to scrap the cap now, provide a small increase as a gesture of goodwill and then implement fully the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies.

The Armed Forces:
Sir Michael Fallon has suggested that Britain should increase the amount of GDP spent on defence beyond the 2% NATO target in order to address "growing threats from terrorism and states such as North Korea and Russia" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/03/britain-should-raise-nato-2-defence-spending-target-says-michael/). The Tories have already committed to increasing the budget ahead of inflation on an annual basis and I could see an argument for increasing spending if it went towards cyber security but personally speaking I do not believe we should waste money on a ballistic missile system (I remain highly sceptical that we would face attack ourselves from North Korea and we should be focussing on strengthening the diplomatic response anyways) or be wasting money on replacing all 4 Trident submarines (I would like to see the nuclear submarine fleet cut by 50% down to 2). In terms of actual funding policy announcements, Fallon told the Conservative conference that £1bn will be pumped into the Royal Navy to invest in maintenance contracts for vessels including the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are fit for purpose so they spend more at sea post-Brexit. Well the Tories have always seen themselves as "global leaders in defence" and the policy goes down well with the base and if it helps to safeguard jobs, then it's a policy that will be beneficial regardless of whether Brexit actually ends up happening or not.

I have no issue with the expansion of cadet units in state schools.  I can understand the desire to give more state school students the chance to participate in activities that will help build their confidence and allow them to develop vital interpersonal skills (Fallon says the Government aims to establish 500 cadet units by 2020...http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/michael-fallon-cadet-unit-expansion-state-schools-uk-defence-secretary-social-mobility-conservative-a7980046.html). It's also good that the £50m of funding is coming from the Libor fine.

Making all positions available in the Armed Forces to women is a long-overdue decision but a welcome one; demonstrating a commitment to true equality of opportunity that we should all get behind regardless of political affiliation.

The Environment: 
Michael Gove announced that the maximum sentence for the most vile acts of animal cruelty will be increased from six months to five years; charities such as the RSPCA have been calling for tougher sentences for years and it is good to see the Government finally listen to them.
The Government are also looking to bring in a reward deposit return scheme for drinks bottles, with the working group charged with examining the proposal expected to report back early next year. I agree that such a policy would encourage people to recycle and reduce the amount of plastic in our seas and oceans.

Further Thoughts: 
I would be wary of dismissing the Tory conference in Manchester as an unmitigated PR disaster. Among some elements of the party, there is a defiant, forward-looking attitude persisting with a desire for a "successful Brexit" determining their optimism.  There are some Tory members who are not fussed by the idea of leaving the EU without a deal; for them Britain would thrive and weather any economic storm immediately following such an exit. Many of those members are turning towards fringe Brexiteer figures for answers; Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset may have some reprehensible (at best old-fashioned) views on abortion and equal marriage (he doesn't speak for all Catholics or indeed all Christians in Britain btw) but to his "Moggmentum" fan club, he's seen as a credible leadership candidate. 600 people queued up on Monday 2nd October to hear him speak about the future of the UK post-Brexit. Not only did Mogg not disappoint the attendees with regards to bigging up the Brexit process (he compared the significance of Brexit with Magna Carta, the Burgesses entering Parliament, the Great Reform Act 1832, the Bill of Rights 1689 and the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and Crecy and repeated his "we should give no more money to the EU" line), Mogg also decided to openly praise the activists for coming up with credible ideas and bemoaned the current party, structure, stating that MPs treat party activists "appallingly" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/04/moggmentum-behind-jacob-rees-mogg-stirs-activists-tory-conservative-party-conference). By identifying so markedly with the base, Mogg is suring up his support should an opportunity arise for a ministerial position. Mogg's current and potential influence should not be underestimated by activists on the left or indeed, in the centre; he offers his sycophants a vision steeped in hope, one which they feel they desperately need to sustain their passion for social as well as fiscal "Classic" Conservative values. That includes the values that I'd rather see consigned to the dustbin of history such as telling women they can't have free access to abortions without abortion being seen as a crime. I completely agree the British Medical Association that all criminal sanctions related with the procedure should be abolished; abortion is a medical issue, not a criminal one (https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2017/june/doctors-back-decriminalisation-of-abortion). I suspect the Moggster and his fan club disagree with moi on that one.

It's perfectly acceptable (in fact it's preferable) to be optimistic and to hope for a better future for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation. But the Tories cannot ignore the true extent of the massive structural issues that exist in the UK that have gotten worse under their watch, based on the dubious premise that Brexit will somehow help reduce or even resolve the majority of those issues within a few years following the conclusion of the process. Take for example the UK's productivity issue. Productivity levels have fallen for the second quarter in a row; the Office for National Statistics recorded a 0.1%  fall in the output per hour per worker between April and June which comes directly after a 0.5% decrease between January and March. We still produce as much per person as we did in the last quarter of 2007. According to the Financial Times, "UK workers produced 15.1% less per hour than workers in other G7 countries" in 2016 (https://www.ft.com/content/1c57dcb0-aa89-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97). This is extremely disappointing and indicates that Tory economic policy and the Industrial Strategy has failed to have the desired effect. Equally the UK has a huge productivity gap between the service and manufacturing sectors; service output per hour grew by 2.2% but manufacturing output per hour fell by 1.3% despite an increase in overall hours worked. Whilst the economy has grown (thanks to workers deciding that any job is worse than no job and being prepared to work long hours for minimal pay increases), the productivity issue needs to be addressed so that economic performance can improve further and the wages of young people, struggling to afford their rent, food and other life essentials can be raised without causing a huge inflation rise. Will the targeted £23bn worth of investment in infrastructure, research and housing already announced make a difference? Is it enough? More crucially: what effect will leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union have on productivity growth levels?

The key issue that I feel has to be addressed urgently is housing. The Tory policies implemented between 2010 and 2017 have done little to help abate the crisis. Housing associations and private developers are only building 40,000 homes currently; that's less than the more than 50,000 homes built in 2011 and 2012 during the Coalition years (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/04/how-did-the-crisis-in-uk-social-housing-happen). According to Saville Research, in Lincoln, the average annual income needed to buy a 1,000 square foot home is £30,000; in London it's 68,000. Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 are spending more than 1/3 of their income after tax on rent or mortgage payments. It was only 5-10% back when my Dad was growing up in the 1960's. That's before you even talk about home ownership. The problem is that I don't aspire necessarily to owning my own home, I want a home in the future (when I eventually have to move out of my parents which is probably not going to happen till I hit the big 40 at this point) that is secure, fit for human habitation and has an affordable monthly rent. The Tories still seem to be obsessed with home ownership at the expense of private renters because of their focus on the Help to Buy scheme. Equally social rented housing  construction numbers have reduced from 36,000 in 2010/11 to 3,000 in 2011/12 (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rob-warm/theresa-may-housing_b_18190624.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-politics&ir=UK+Politics) which a pitiful amount really. That being said, there have been changes made to the rent that can be set by housing associations from 2020 (a new rent formula) which apparently will increase the number of social homes built. These are small baby steps policy wise when what's needed for Generation Renters is a bolder, more radical policy platform with strong protections built in for tenants, such as rent controls and end to social cleansing in the name of gentrification. You know where those policy announcements have been made? That's right....by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech in Brighton.

Even if you're no fan of Corbyn's policies, take the advice of Larry Elliott. Elliot has suggested that a housing market crash may be on the way due to the severe mismatch between supply and demand and those households who have gained a mortgage through the Help-To-Buy scheme may find it difficult to make the monthly loan interest repayments if the Bank of England interest rate increases because their disposable income has already been squeezed as a result of stagnant wage growth. The median house price in England in 2016 was "7.72 times average earnings", with the figure being 12.88 times average earnings in London. Those whose incomes fall in the bottom 25% in London now expect to pay "13.52 times their average earnings for a property in the cheapest 25% bracket"(https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/08/the-uk-housing-markets-perfect-storm-and-five-steps-to-avoid-it). These figures are truly shocking and bold policy decisions need to be taken to prevent this Elliot argues that the Help-To-Buy should be scrapped, changes made to the council tax system and to land banking regulations and increasing supply  e.g. "identifying large sites abutting urban areas and acquiring them at a modest premium to the value of their existing use". Elliot also believes that the Bank of England should raise interest rates using a "kid glove approach" designed to help to "engineer a gradual fall in real (inflation adjusted) house prices".

Then there is the undeniable feeling that people who find themselves in strained circumstances through no fault of their own are not being supported adequately by this Government.; PM May's reluctance to order a review into the Universal Credit rollout to address the 6 week waiting period demonstrates her continued adherence to an austerity agenda that is hurting the most vulnerable in society. A Guardian reader, Mhari talked about how her first payment amount was incorrect and overdue and even when £250 was issued to her, it turns out that it was issued in error and she has to pay that back. Mhari is now at a point where she feels she is "existing" and wrote that if she "had two doors in front of her marked life and death", she'd "walk through the death door in a heartbeat". The UC changes are literally damaging people's mental health to the point where they are deciding they'd rather be dead than alive (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/08/i-cant-even-charge-my-wheelchair-the-impact-of-universal-credit-delays). UC is meant to "make work pay" whilst at the same time safeguarding disabled people from poverty and despair. 2.5m families will be on average £2,100 worse off as a result of the UC changes. Shame on the Government for pushing on with this ill-thought out UC rollout.

Conclusion:
Home truths time. The fact is, PM May and Tory frontbenchers, voters need real Jam today, not Jam tomorrow (i.e. significant investment which may require an increase in Government borrowing for a short period). We're not going to tackle structural issues such as the productivity puzzle or the Housing Crisis unless we have a party of Government that is prepared to deliver a radical, progressive vision for our country which is backed up by bold but clear and deliverable policies that can work regardless of whether Brexit actually happens in the form being moulded by Double D and his motley Brexiteer crew. I am not exactly Corbyn's biggest fan when it seems he is advocating for a Brexit which involves leaving the Single Market and Customs Union post the transitional deal or renationalisation max but I appreciate his progressive views on domestic policy. I'm much closer to the Lib Dems with their proposals for a referendum on the terms of the deal along with calls for mandatory sprinkler systems, annual checks by fire service personnel on buildings above 4 storeys and making fire evacuation drills mandatory in all buildings over 10 storeys "at times of peak occupancy by the end of June 2018". PM May never once mentioned such measures in her speech and yet tenants have been asking for such measures in the hope of improving fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire and such requests have been made by people across the country, across racial, gender, age and yes, even Brexit outlook/voter divides. You see a desire for demonstrable progress is one which transcends such barriers. Yet the vision that has been outlined by PM May and her ministers is one of continuity, one of "Keep Calm and Carry On", a rose-tinted vision that is ultimately unsustainable.

If PM May and her cabinet do not devise more radical policies to address the housing crisis, to help the  most vulnerable in our society whilst at the same time enabling social mobility and a spirit of aspiration, I have no doubt that some independently minded swing voters will have no choice to vote for a party that offers at least an exciting, radical vision and a set of bold domestic policies....a party like the Lib Dems, the Greens or Labour.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My thoughts on the Labour Autumn Conference 2017: Jeremy Corbyn's Keynote Speech

Success in politics in my opinion should boil down to three key elements. Firstly, a successful politician has a genuine, passionate desire to change society for the better, whether that be at a local level as a ward councillor or at a national level as an MP and whether that be as a member of a political party or as an independent. Secondly, a successful politician has at least a handful of ideas that they have analysed meticulously to determine that there is a reasonable of implementing those ideas should they find themselves elected into office (or they can at least advocate for when in opposition). Finally and most significantly in my view, a successful politician manages to engage with a diverse section of the electorate and imbue them with a sense of confidence and hope. I don't think it can be said of Jeremy Corbyn that he lacks any of these three elements (he has the third one in abundance). Listening to Corbyn's keynote speech on BBC Parliament I couldn't help but notice the strength of passion that he inspires in the majority of Labour party delegates; they genuinely believe that Labour, under Corbyn's leadership, can deliver the policies that will lift the spirit and improve the living and working conditions of the majority of UK residents. The slogan "For The Many, Not The Few" is far from meaningless for the Corbyn Crowd. I'm not someone who could be deemed a socialist and I certainly do not fashion myself out to be a socialist but even I cannot deny that the confident and positive spirit of the Labour party currently didn't have at least some impact on my voting decision back in the general election of June 2017 (although I must confess that I voted Labour to oust the Tory Super Brexicheerleader Karl McCartney and take the smug grin off his expenses guzzling face). So I listened to Corbyn's speech with much interest, so I could see what extra policies Labour will offer to voters should an snap general election be called before the Spring 2018 Conference (highly unlikely but you know the old adage, "fail to prepare, prepare to fail" still rings true regardless of the political party).

The picture that Corbyn paints of "Broken Britain" is a dispiriting one but sadly it is the reality for millions of people. The Conservative government who seem to have dedicated themselves to achieving Brexit "at any cost" and the in-fighting that has ensued following the weakening of PM May's position as a result of the General Election has meant that there have been few bold policy announcements. We need to address structural concerns, especially those relating to Housing and the delivery of sustainable and exceptional public services. The fact that PM May remains so stubbornly opposed to lifting of the 1% public sector pay cap, deciding to only do so for Prison and Police Officers has made her and the Tories deeply unpopular amongst entry level public service workers, many of whom are young or who have returned to work following a career break, injury or having overcome/learned to cope with mental health issues.  As Corbyn noted in his speech: "20,000 police officers......and 11,000 firefighters" have lost their jobs since 2010, NHS waiting lists have been lengthened and homelessness has doubled, all under the Tories watch and all resulting from an ill-thought out anti-austerity agenda that penalises those who are the most vulnerable in our society whilst at the same time providing tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires who neither needed them or really asked for them. Whilst political parties do need to craft business-friendly policies (and I think that Labour needs to promote their business policies such as creating Regional Development and National Investment Banks to help encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship based on sustainability) there has to be sufficient balance; I still remain unconvinced that the Tory decision to slash Corporation Tax down to 17% by 2020 was the right decision to make back in 2016. Yes Britain must appear "competitive" so that business owners feel satisfied enough to want to expand their business and then offer jobs and apprenticeships but will the Corporation Tax cut really encourage more businesses to trade or invest in the UK, even post-Brexit?
Perhaps a Labour take on the Industrial Strategy where an Industrial Strategy will be created for each region as well as the establishment of Regional Development Banks will help to rebalance the economy; as Rebecca Long-Bailey pointed out in her speech, "40% of our economic output comes from London and the South East" currently and that means "we are the most regionally imbalanced economy in Europe". This has happened under the Tories' watch and yet they are deemed the party of economic competence. #SuperLOL.

Corbyn is right to ask for closer examination of automation to make sure that benefits of automation are "publicly managed- to share the benefits" so they can be "the gateway for a settlement between work and leisure". Corbyn also mentioned in his speech the need for investment in retraining and foster a sense of pride in lifelong learning so that we can respond to the challenges that we will face as a result of increased automation. Finally, Corbyn highlighted the 2017 manifesto commitment that Labour would establish a £250bn National Transformation Fund which will allow homes to be built as well as improving transport, energy and digital infrastructure. If only the mainstream media wanted to spend more time speaking to Ms Long-Bailey about such policies rather than bashing Corbyn based on antiquated stereotypes about socialism and denigrating all Momentum members?

Speaking of the mainstream media (MSM) outlets...Corbyn's criticism was rather scathing.
Yes Corbyn's statements reminded me a bit of Trump's speeches in the sense that like Trump, Corbyn has detected a genuine level of distrust in certain sections of the electorate of the MSM because they feel that they have been reporting in a biased manner. Research released back in January 2017 (The Edelman Trust Barometer) found that 53% of respondents did not trust the Government or Media and 59% "trusted search engines as an information tool rather than traditional news editors" (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/distrust-government-business-media-ngos-lack-of-trust-report-2017-trust-barometer-edelman-a7529261.html). I tend to use Google to research and follow-up on news stories I've heard via social media or on BBC News but there are many who believe that the BBC has rescinded its objectivity and become a "Tory mouthpiece". You only have to follow the Newsnight and BBC Question Time Twitter handles to see such expressions of distrust (from the right as well as the left I might add) on a daily/weekly basis.  Corbyn said that the MSM including The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph ran a smear campaign against him and Labour which was orchestrated in order to please "their tax exile owners". Referring to The Daily Fail, Corbyn declared that "never had so many trees died in vain" as a result of the paper dedicating 11 pages to trash his campaign. Perhaps the era of the newspaper's opinion reporting dominating political thought is coming to an end; social media has democratized politicking to a large extent and I can't help but contend that having a plethora of tweeters and bloggers to refer to on political issues is a good development because it allows people from a range of social backgrounds and with a wide range of life experiences to have their say. However, I'm not entirely sure that waging battle against media bias on the right would win Corbyn many extra voters (who may usually vote Conservative but like bold policy platforms) and it certainly won't get the likes of Daily Fail or Breitbart Brainfart to change their minds about him. The only way Corbyn will do that is to continue developing his policy platform, including talking about the need for and benefits of a plurality of media whilst defending freedom of the press.

A key theme in the speech concerned the need for Labour to help "protect democracy". Corbyn identified two threats: "the emergence of an authoritarian nationalism that is intolerant and belligerent" and allowing "big decisions to be left to the elite". Corbyn understands that politicians can't expect to win voters to their cause just by lavishing 15 seconds of attention on them come election time. Instead, there has to be more of a conscious effort to listen to those who are trying to use their voice to fight social injustices and raise awareness of difficult issues. This includes social workers, sexual health workers and young people "especially working class young women" who were not believed when they disclosed to local police officers that they had been sexually and/or physically and/or emotionally abused. Increasing public accountability and encouraging further transparency from our public services is important but equally "making sure that everybody's voice is heard no matter who they are or what their background". If you are a young working class disabled person who has faced cuts to your disability benefits which has meant you can no longer afford to enjoy a decent standard of living because you have to make a choice between putting money in the electricity meter for two days or buying two days worth of food, you should be listened to by those who lead extremely comfortable lives. Then perhaps they may understand why Tory policy has been so incredibly damaging and why the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) needs to be incorporated into law and the 60 recommendations of the Report produced by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (including ensuring that mainstream schools provide "real inclusion" for disabled children which is required by Article 24 of the CRPD rather than increasing the number of segregated special schools and ensuring that disabled people have the funds and resources they need to live independently at home) and the Lords Select Committee report enacted as soon as possible. It's not right that disabled people are being "totally neglected" by this Government. And I want the next Government to do something concrete and radical about this neglect.

I was really impressed that Corbyn demonstrated true compassion and respect towards Grenfell Tower fire survivors in the speech, including praising the Grenfell Action Group who tried to warn their former landlords, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that a "catastrophic event" may occur because of their "ineptitude and incompetence" and mentioning the poem by Ben Okri, written just after the Grenfell Tower fire. Corbyn is right when he says that "a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background". 120,000 children are homeless. Almost one million people who are renting their home "are in immediate danger of being made homeless as a result of the housing benefit cap" according to data recently released from Shelter (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/07/hammond-benefit-cap-homelessness-budget-housing). Action needs to be taken to prevent those renters from being evicted through no fault of their own. That means scrapping the housing benefit cap and reducing the time taken to receive housing benefit payments when claimants go onto Universal Credit (UC). A 6 week wait for benefits is too long. An advance payment may not be enough to cover the rent. Processing time needs to be reduced by half. To do that, the administrative system needs to be reviewed for effectiveness. The UC rollout should be halted whilst that review is undertaken. Yet PM May doesn't seem to care. There's no indication that UC will be reviewed let alone halted. Shame on her and shame on her Government.

Homes need to be safe, secure and fit for human habitation. I welcome the fact that Labour will be undertaking a review into its social housing policy: "We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action to next year's conference". Corbyn recognised the need to bring in housing regulation that will protect tenants in the future by bringing in rent controls and ensure that all tenants will be rehoused locally during the estate regeneration process. Tenants will also get a say on whether a regeneration project will go ahead (through a ballot) and must be given a home on the same site. Now of course some housing developers would be angry at such a policy (especially the ones who hope to be an exorbitant profit from the regeneration scheme) but we need to ensure that the number of affordable housing within an area does not drop further. Rent controls may sound draconian to some but have been successfully used in a number of cities, including Dublin, which introduced a 4% limit on the annual increase in rent in October 2016. I could see an issue of confidence occurring amongst developers and landlords if the rent control allowed for a freeze on prices across the board but a rent cap on increases is sensible and an example of a bold policy that puts the basic need for tenants to have a safe, secure, habitable home over the need for housing developers and landlords to make a profit. There should also continue to be a commitment to providing tenants in the private rental sector and social housing sector with access to longer, more secure tenancies.

I thought Corbyn recommiting Labour to a policy to tax undeveloped land held by developers for too long (landbanking) and to give councils the power to compulsorily purchase that land back was an interesting one, provided that the money raised from such tax would be put back directly into local council amenity services such as rubbish collections or the running of swimming pools, that the price paid for the land was fair to the taxpayer and that housing developments would commence within 6 months of the land having been repurchased.

Another great policy announced by Corbyn (that's now been adopted by Theresa May and the Tory Government) is to change the organ donation law in England (it was already changed in Wales in 2015) so that people are presumed to consent to having their organs donated after death unless they sign an opt-out register. For me as a Lutheran Christian, I believe that organ donation is one of the most selfless act of compassion a person can perform which follows in Jesus' vein. As Matthew 7:12 states: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law". The Lutheran Church passed a resolution in 1984 which stated that "donation contributes to the well-being of humanity and can be an expression of sacrificial love for a neighbour in need" (http://www.donorrecovery.org/learn/religion-and-organ-donation/). There will be some of course who are afraid to donate because it may affect their own health or because they think they can be cryogenically frozen and then come back when death has been eradicated but I feel that the opt-out rate will be extremely low and that means there will be a greater number of organs made available on the transplant list.

I also believe that our foreign policy must be one with human rights and compassion at its heart. Corbyn was quite right to call out Aung San Sui Kyi for not taking action to help aid the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and completely agree with his plea for her to "allow the UN and international aid agencies" entry into the state to help alleviate their suffering. We need to stop the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia so they cannot use weapons made in this country in Yemen and the UK does need to support the establishment of a new state of Palestine as a way of trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a condemnation of illegal settlements and discrimination against Palestinians as well as maintaining a friendly relationship with Israel and fighting against the rise of Anti-Semitism in the UK and abroad. There are those who wish Corbyn had been clearer about the need to fight Anti-Semitism in his speech but it was good that Corbyn did state there needed to be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse in the Labour Party: "Yes we will disagree, but there can never be any excuse for any abuse of anybody".

Brexit:

There remains (unfortunately) one policy area where it seems I may disagree with Corbyn to an extent; that is (quite predictably) Brexit. Let's start with the positives. I agree with Corbyn's critique of the Tory negotiating team (I too have started to see them as "hopelessly inept" and "posturing for personal advantage" rather than acting in the national interest). I am grateful for a change in direction regarding the nature of the transitional deal; it makes perfect sense to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union whilst British businesses and organisations prepare for trading outside the Single Market and Customs Union as that's what PM May and her Brexshiteers want to happen but it seems PM May is now willing to accept a "status quo" transitional deal to avoid a cliffedge situation economically which she suggests should be for 2 years whereas Corbyn doesn't specify the length of time necessary. I am pleased that Corbyn has reiterated his plea for PM May to guarantee the rights of ALL 3.2 million EU citizens living in the UK including the right to stay and work here. I agree with Corbyn that the UK should not become a bargain basement "low wage", deregulated tax haven for millionaires and billionaires.

That being said, I remain unconvinced by the suggestion being put forward by Lexiteers that Britain's future remains brighter without membership of the EU- that a progressive Brexit is needed to implement a new Industrial Strategy. I've seen no comprehensive evidence provided by the Leave side to back up such a claim. I can sympathise with the need for a bold Industrial Strategy and yes, I can understand the desire to ensure that if Brexit happens, any funds that are saved as a result of no longer being a member of the EU should be spent on improving the lives of ordinary people- it's akin to all other Corbynite promises. I am sure that there would be an attempt by Labour to ensure that employers respected the rights of migrant workers post-Brexit and take action to stop undercutting of pay and any pandering to racism or xenophobia. Yet I really am not convinced by the arguments that have been advanced by Lexiteers that leaving the EU can be a progressive dream. The comment Corbyn made that Labour is "the only party that brings together Leave and Remain voters" is an extremely bold one to make. Whilst it is true that Labour did manage to secure votes from both Leave and Remain voters back in June, I can say from my own experience that my final decision to vote for Labour was predominantly because of anti-austerity policies and a fear of an implementation of a
Tory Hard Brexit and the hope that there may have been a more significant change in direction regarding Brexit rather than voting for a "progressive Brexit". I'd personally love to see Labour throw its weight behind a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal as is currently being offered by the Lib Dems and the Greens, with 16 and 17 year olds, EU citizens resident in the UK and British citizens resident overseas all getting a chance to have their very important say. As I have previously pointed out, a recent Survation poll found that 52% of respondents now favour the possibility of participating in such a referendum, which is up from 50% two months beforehand. Labour should certainly be monitoring such polls to see whether support increases beyond the 55-60% mark and then consider making an adjustment to their Brexit policy as a result of a demonstrable change in opinion.

It appears that Labour will not back a referendum under any circumstances and instead will rely on Sir Keir Starmer's tests for the Brexit deal to decide whether to accept or reject it. As of yet I am still unsure of what Labour would do in the event of MPs rejecting the Brexit deal; this may be because Labour MPs may be so afraid of the UK leaving without any deal that they will accept the Tory one being offered on the table. I certainly don't agree with PM May's assertion that "no deal is better than a bad deal" but I am equally uncomfortable with Labour MPs potentially waving a deal through and then hoping they get a chance to try and amend the deal prior to the end of the transitional deal by winning a snap election in early 2019. For me, when it comes down to a choice of whether to deliver a deal based on some vague Brexit notion of  "true Parliamentary sovereignty to control immigration" or safeguarding import and export opportunities within the Single Market by remaining permanently in the Single Market, the choice is very clear. I'd love to see Corbyn in the future actively on a policy to remain and reform the Single Market and Customs Union or perhaps, even more controversially, recommending to the British people that we remain in the EU following a positive result from a referendum on the terms of the deal.

It's certainly true that Remain voters such as myself have to be prepared for the possibility of the Tories implementing an Extreme Brexit (with trade based on World Trade Organisation rules) as a result of failing to secure a satisfactory deal from the EU. Should such an event occur, it's probable to assume that I'll be voting based on which party can prevent the country's structural problems from becoming any worse rather than voting on a "progressive Brexit vision".

Conclusion: 

One of the most controversial comments made by Corbyn in the speech was that he believed that mainstream political opinion was shifting away from the centre ground  towards an acceptance of a Labour form of socialism rather than Labour having moved towards the centre ground. I ran a Twitter poll on this (not that scientific I know) but the results demonstrated how stark the divide is: when asked "Do you agree with Corbyn that Labour is now the mainstream in British politics?" 46% agreed, 45% disagreed and 4% were not sure. 46% is not really a decisive figure by any means and I think indicates to me that Corbyn still has work to do to convince voters that Labour's bold policy platform will be truly "for the many and not the few". I myself, as of yet, remain undecided as to how I would vote if a snap general election were called in the next few months. I may have voted Labour back in June but I can't say that I agree with the entirety of Labour's policy platform and I still wonder whether some of the policies are truly deliverable. I can understand a move towards renationalisation of the railways but I don't think all political energy and public money should be expended on chasing total renationalisation of all public utilities. The Government certainly won't be able to renationalise the majority of utilities services within a 5 year period, let alone renationalise the majority of railway networks. I completely agree with the reinstatement of university maintenance grants, training bursaries for nurses and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for sixth form and further education college students. It'd be amazing to abolish tuition fees in their entirety and make college courses free to all students regardless of their age or the type of course being studied but is such a policy truly deliverable over one 5 year term? Many voters want to see an end to PFI contracts but is it truly possible to pay off the existing debt within one 5 year term without borrowing vast sums of money to do it? I think Labour needs to prioritise and make clear which policies can be delivered within the first 5 year term of a Labour Government, drawing upon existing policy to do it. This could include banning fracking, reinstating EMA, university maintenance grants and nursing bursaries, lifting the 1% public pay cap, beginning the renationalisation process for the railways, introducing a Child Health Strategy and increasing the number of rural bus services. In terms of Labour's Brexit approach, if Labour moved towards permanent membership of the Single Market and Customs Union (perhaps as members of the European Economic Area and signatories of the European Free Trade Agreement) I may be more swayed to vote Labour. But then again, surely the best option for us would be to be able to help reform the Single Market and Customs Union and in order to do that, we would need a seat at the EU table, which means retaining membership of the EU. Corbyn has demonstrated no desire for that to happen and continues to use language akin to PM May about "unimpeded access" to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Whatever you may think of Jezza Corbyn, as a person, as a political figure and as a leader of a movement (well some believe he's only the leader of Momentum Labour Party members but actually Momentum members are individuals who decided to support Corbyn during and as a result of following his leadership campaign and not all of them have yet joined the Labour party and Momentum is not yet affiliated), Corbyn has injected a sense of energy into the Labour Party. He's imbued most Labour Party members with a sense of hope for a brighter future. There's an argument still to be had as to whether the future should be one completely outside the EU and there's still a level of disagreement over how deliverable some of the key policies on the platform would be, not least concerning renationalisation of public utilities and taking back ownership of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts and staff by bringing them back "in-house", with "shareholders compensated in the form of government bonds, exchanged for shares" (https://www.ft.com/content/0161cc52-a1e9-11e7-9e4f-7f5e6a7c98a2). I think Corbyn is sensible to state that Labour wouldn't sign any more PFI contracts but the cost of the compensation offered remains unclear (although the Nuffield Trust estimates it could be as high as £50bn).

Corbyn has the vision and a snazzy set of policies that will help address some of the UK's key issues. Now he has to continue to demonstrate economic competence by ensuring he keeps highlighting why borrowing to invest and slightly higher taxes on businesses is needed to help all regions of the UK and how Labour's existing policy platform will benefit rural voters. Labour only managed to win 30 out of 199 rural constituencies in the 2017 General Election. Whilst speaking out against foxhunting, promising to ban fracking and giving more powers and resources to local planning authorities are all good policies, Labour has to talk more about tackling rural crime, encouraging local authorities to keep streetlights on in villages and hamlets and about their radical policy to change funding formulas and business rate schemes to ensure rural local authorities get the help they need to maintain efficient public services. Labour mentioned in their manifesto that they will be "rural proofing" their laws, policies and programmes when they get into power yet this was not mentioned once by Corbyn in any of the national election debates. Labour mentioned in their manifesto they would require utility companies to "return roads to a condition no worse than when they started digging". Such a policy would be broadly popular with Lincolnshire constituents who want to see further investment in transport infrastructure which will ensure that pot holes etc are fixed long-term rather than just for a few months. If Labour shadow ministers and MPs can gear their conversations towards rural issues when interviewed, they will be able to promote such policies and may start convincing rural voters that Corbyn and Labour want to live up to their slogan. If Labour is going to be the "party of the many, not the few" and build on their electoral success, it's time to take account of rural voters with Corbyn visiting rural constituencies, taking an interest in rural tourism and farming and uniting the whole of the country through the ambitious policy platform. Then perhaps, Corbyn can say that his party is truly the political mainstream in the UK.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

My thoughts on the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2017:

Autumn conference season has started! #Yay! Let it rain down policy love! It's the time of the year when different party factions come together to bang their policy drums and try and convince delegates to support their ideas over the rival faction's ideas. First up, the Lib Dems' Autumn conference, which this year was held in the sunny southern seaside resort of Bournemouth, perhaps a rather interesting choice of venue given that Bournemouth voted to Leave the EU with a 9% majority (50,453 votes for Leave against 41,473 votes for Remain: https://www.bournemouth.gov.uk/ElectoralRegister/Elections/eu-referendum/eu-referendum-results.aspx). That aside, the conference seemed to me (watching certain speeches and motions from the comfort of my black and slightly worn out leather sofa) to be generally positive and conducted with progressive policy ideas being put forward throughout. Most mainstream media coverage predictably focussed on Brexit policy; after all the Lib Dems are unashamedly the self-proclaimed party of Remain voters but there was a lot more policy debated than just those related to Brexit issues. A number of motions were passed related to the recruitment and retention of teachers, safe housing standards and the welfare of armed forces personnel and veterans that deserves at least some attention and in my opinion, some praise. So before I go on to talk about my views RE Sir Vince Cable's speech and his references to Brexit, I do think it's fruitful to highlight some of the motions that have been passed by Lib Dem members at the Autumn Conference, bearing in mind that the policy substance contained within the motions does go on to form new Lib Dem policies and re-shape existing ones within the platform:
  •  F4: Learning to Communicate in English: This states that the Government should create a national ESOL strategy in England, with more collaboration between ESOL partners locally and an ESOL national champion appointed. The motion point to the fact that Government funding for ESOL courses has fallen by 60% in real terms between 2009 and 2016 and enrolment in state-funded ESOL courses has fallen by 43%. Also, each local authority should be required to publish a "Language Needs Assessment", that sets out the need for ESOL provision in their area, with state funded schools working with LAs to develop the LNA. Lib Dems believe that asylum seekers and refugees should have access to a minimum of 6 month's free ESOL from the moment they apply for asylum or at least the moment where they are granted asylum and are working in England so they reach the basic standard of English needed to "access the support they need". 
  • F16: Armed Forces Personnel: Recruitment, Retention and Welfare: The Lib Dems want to see a lifting of the 1% pay cap for the Armed Forces, along with "an urgent review into the recruitment of technical specialists across the Armed Forces" so they can help create new initiatives designed to increase recruitment. The Lib Dems also want to include a Veterans box on Census returns, a review into the Career Transition Partnership so that free further or higher education can be provided to all those veterans who served for at least 12 years and more access to mental health services for veterans. 
  • F21: Safe Building Standards: This motion commits the Lib Dems to vote for implementation of recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The Lib Dems also want to see fire safety measures implemented in all social and privately rented homes; this includes annual checks carried out by fire service personnel on all tall  buildings (above 4 storeys) in the UK and making fire evacuation drills mandatory in all buildings over 10 storeys "at times of peak occupancy by the end of June 2018". Electrical safety tests should be conducted in all social and privately rented homes. There are also calls for "a complete review of building regulations, especially in relation to cladding and sprinklers".
  • F23: Implementation of Universal Credit: The Lib Dems want to see changes made to the Universal Credit system, including the removal of the 7 day waiting period, ensuring that every claimant on UC are aware they can claim an Advance Payment whilst they wait for their first payment, introducing an online booking system for appointments with the Job Centre and changing the way UC is paid by allowing claimants to decide how they would like it to be paid. Lib Dems have reiterated the need for an end to the freeze on working-age benefits and reversing cuts to the Work Allowance so UC claimants can earn more before their benefits are cut.
  • F24: Defeating Terrorism, Protecting Liberties: This motion argues for a new approach to tackling terrorism, with the Prevent strategy being replaced with a new "Engage" strategy, which is inclusive and supporting grassroots community groups to take the lead in "tackling the dangers of violent extremism". The Lib Dems also want to see the Government scrap proposals to regulate the internet, believing that internet connection records should not be collected universally (is it right that the Government should be able to collect and store every web pages accessed in the UK for 12 months?) and instead want to introduce a Digital Bill of Rights that will enhance confidentiality and data protection in accordance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation. The Lib Dems also want to make sure that the Commission on Counter-Extremism is truly independent and that the UK remains a member of Europol and continue to take part in the European Arrest Warrant programme.  
  • F26: Employment in the 21st Century: Policies put forward in this motion include introducing a "dependent contractor" type of employment status that would be between employment and self-employment (recommended in the Taylor Review), bringing in new legal tests to determine employment status-e.g. looking at the amount of employer control over basic hours or income, ensuring that HMRC and employment tribunals enforce employment rights and changing the burden of proof requirement so that it is the employer, not the individual who has to prove the individual wasn't eligible for their employment right based on their employment status. The Lib Dems also want to see financial products created that can be used by those not in traditional forms of employment, an extension of Universal Credit's "Minimum Income Floor" requirement from 12 to 24 months to allow businesses to establish themselves and any hours  not guaranteed through the contract to have a higher minimum wage rate, set by the Low Pay Commission.  
  • F28: Encouraging Companies to be Responsible Corporate Citizens: This motion acknowledges the public appetite for companies to be more transparent, more accountable for their failings and more diverse in their make-up. Policies put forward include requiring any UK public limited company and private companies with more than 200 employees to have 1 employee representative on their board, who is given the same legal duties and responsibilities of other directors, creation of stakeholder advisory panels and a rebalancing of the Companies Act 2006 so that directors think about the long-term future of the company, "including a duty of care of the common good". The Lib Dems also want to see "an explicit "public interest" test when considering approvals for takeovers of large or strategically significant companies by overseas-based owners" and a strengthening of existing laws regarding "criminal responsibility for harm arising from a blameworthy corporate failure" so companies are fined appropriately.
  • F31A: Emergency Motion: UK Government Treatment of Disabled People: The Lib Dems contend that the Government have failed in their duty to protect disabled people in the UK as they are being denied rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), pointing out that the Government has not listened to recommendations made by the UN CRPD committee, the House of Lords Select Committee, the UKIM and reports that have been submitted by disability organisations. The Lib Dems would incorporate the UN CRPD into domestic law, strengthening the current Equality Act so that all disabled people  are empowered to challenge all forms of discrimination and prejudice. The Lib Dems want to see the Government review their policy platform and report back to Parliament within 12 months, demonstrating how they are adapting their policies to adhere to recommendations made in the UN CRPD report and the Lords Select Committee report. 
  • F31B: Emergency Motion: Recruitment and Retention of Teachers With the figures from UCAS showing that the number of graduates who had started teacher training courses in England had fallen by 10% compared with last year, the Lib Dems believe that the Government needs to commission an urgent review to help identify the key factors that have lead to a decline in graduates wanting to enter teaching, as well as continuing to campaign to scrap the 1% pay cap and cuts to frontline state school and college budgets. The Lib Dems believe that the Government should work more closely with higher education providers and organisations such as Teach First to help fill teacher training places with high quality graduates, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and the Arts. The Lib Dems want to see the Government working with Ofsted to reform the school inspection programme, with inspectors examining teachers average workload and staff recruitment and retention rates in order to get school senior management to take action to improve the wellbeing of teaching staff if they are failing to meet minimum standards. The Lib Dems believe that all teachers should be entitled to fully funded Continuing Professional Development opportunities. The Lib Dems are also campaigning for the creation of a Royal College of Teachers "to oversee the delivery of CPD opportunities and awarding Qualified Teacher Status". 
  • F32: Protecting Small Businesses: The Lib Dems want to introduce a "Pub Cap" which would see business rate increases for all public houses, restaurants, hotels and cafes limited to 12.5% in England as part of a review into the Business Rate system. 
  • F34: Gun and Knife Crime: The Lib Dems argue that tackling gun and knife crime needs to be a major priority for the Conservative Minority Government, police forces and community groups; there was a 13-14% increase in gun crime in 2016 according to the Office For National Statistics. This motions calls for closer collaboration between police forces and faith organisations to engage with young people to reduce gun and knife crime, funding community groups and grassroots charities such as Redthread and Growing Against Violence (GAV) as well as creating mentoring schemes and conflict resolution and mediation training for all students before they leave full-time education. The Lib Dems believe that amnesties should be created on a regular basis so that people are encouraged to hand over their guns and knives in a safe and secure manner. The Lib Dems also want more funding for local police forces so that they can recruit more Police Community Support Officers who can decide how to use Stop and Search Powers more appropriately.
Cable's keynote speech and Brexit: 
It's true that the Lib Dems have crafted themselves as the only party that is committed to delivering an #ExitFromBrexit. Such a bold disavowal of the Brexit project may attract voters who strongly backed Remain during the EU Referendum last year and despair at seeing some Labour members and MPs and most Conservative members and MPs advocating for a process that appears to have a flawed and dangerous outcome for the UK's economic prosperity and socio-cultural fabric from the outset. For Remain voters and for those Leave voters (no matter how small the percentage might happen to be) who are disillusioned with the process, they now clearly have the chance to vote for a centrist party that undeniably aims to advocate for them.

Sir Vince Cable said in his keynote speech on Wednesday 20th September (https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/09/vince-cables-conference-speech-full-text/) that the Lib Dems are not calling for a second referendum on Brexit (what Cable calls "the product of a fraudulent and frivolous campaign led by two groups of silly public schoolboys...reliving their dormitory days"- very sassy Vince) but calling "for a first referendum on the facts". Cable states that UK voters "have a right to change their mind", calling Brexiteers who oppose this idea "masochists" who "believe in the slogan of dictators everywhere: "one person, one vote, once". The Lib Dem's Opposing Brexit motion makes it clear that 16 and 17 year olds, EU Citizens resident in the UK and British Citizens who are resident overseas should be able to vote in this referendum who I thought should have had a say in the initial referendum, since the decision to Brexit affects their lives just as much as mine and those who were eligible to vote.

Cable was right to suggest to PM May to "take the issue of European nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU out of the (Brexit) negotiations" by declaring the "Right To Stay" right now; it's ridiculous that nothing has yet been 100% agreed and such an agreement would generate some goodwill with our EU neighbours.

Cable was also quite scathing of Jeremy Corbyn's attitude towards Brexit: "If Jeremy Corbyn sits on the fence any longer, he is in danger of being sliced up the middle by the serrated edge". #Ouchie. I have to say that Labour's position has certainly appeared at times as if it's all over the shop but it might be because Corbyn doesn't want to do any irreputable damage to his coalition base of support that he's built up; if Corbyn comes out as anti-Brexit (I'd crack open a bottle of Prosecco myself if he did), it is suggested that pro-Brexit voters in the North would vote Tory in their droves based on wanting to ensure that the Brexit process is completed but if Corbyn comes out as a super Hard Brexit-lover akin to PM May, he'll lose the confidence of Remain voters in marginal constituencies such as Lincoln who are worried about the impact that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union entirely would have on the economy. It's almost as if Corbyn may become a victim of his own success in the end; he will have to disappoint one group of hardline referendum voters in the end but it's remains unclear which group it will be.

Cable made an appeal for the Lib Dems to work with Remain supporters in other parties on a cross-party basis, declaring them the "political adults" in the Brexit debate. As an independent who voted Labour at the last election and was also a strong Remain supporter, I can see the merits of working cross-party to try and convince Jeremy Corbyn to decide to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union and remain a full member of organisations such as EURATOM (and re-join the treaty negotiations currently taking place) but slyly calling Leave voters in other parties not political adults (i.e. political kidults) is probably not going to do anything to endear Cable to them as potential Prime Minister material.

Naturally Cable has received blowback from a variety of Brexiteers and commentators/opinion columnists alike for the comments made in his speech. Rachel Cunliff, comment and features editor at City AM, argues that despite concerns business owners have over "access to the Single Market, regulatory barriers, skills shortages and the precarious state of EU citizens (working in the UK)" , they do not want a second referendum on Brexit or indeed a first referendum on the terms of the deal because business owners are looking now for certainty "over regulations, trade tariffs, visas and law" (http://www.cityam.com/272333/business-does-not-want-second-eu-vote-whatever-vince-cable). To them, Brexit has been settled. Now it's important to mention that there are no stats given in Cunliff's opinion editorial that backs up that claim but the Institute of Directors did call on all UK political parties to not advocate for a second referendum, with Allie Renson, head of EU and trade policy stating that time spent on getting a transitional deal and free trade agreement in place would be wasted if a second referendum result showed a clear rejection of the Brexit deal. Generally, stats from polling surveys do indicate little support for a second referendum currently. What The EU Thinks, a non-partisan website mentions a Survation poll that stated that 36% of respondents want a 2nd referendum but 55% were opposed (http://whatukthinks.org/eu/has-the-election-seen-a-change-in-attitudes-towards-brexit/). However, when a question was asked about the possibility of a referendum after the terms of the Brexit deal is known, 46% supported the idea and 47% opposed it. Much more evenly balanced (http://whatukthinks.org/eu/has-the-election-seen-a-change-in-attitudes-towards-brexit/). Also relevant to note is recent reporting from the Federation of Small Businesses which states that its small business confidence index has fallen from +15 in the second quarter of 2017 to just +1 in the third quarter. 70% of small businesses have reported a rise in operating costs compared to the second quarter of 2016 with payroll costs, rent and taxation all increasing. 1 out of 8 entrepreneurs also said they expect to downsize, close or sell their business (https://www.ft.com/content/5b209b54-9c82-11e7-8cd4-932067fbf946?segmentid=acee4131-99c2-09d3-a635-873e61754ec6).  However, exporters remain optimistic, with 39% reporting an increase in online sales. It's not all doom and gloom but if small business performance and confidence does not improve as we get closer to the Brexit deal being completed, there may be increasing calls from small business owners for a referendum on the terms of the deal.

Cunliff goes on in her article to contend that Cable cannot be a leader for Remain voters and a leader for business because being a leader for Remain voters would end up expending his political capital. Instead Cunliff wants to see Cable listen to business leaders and develop "a new industrial strategy and smart, practical approaches to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship"(forgetting that it was the Lib Dems who helped "launch and pursue" the initial Industrial Strategy whilst in Coalition with the Tories. There are plenty of Lib Dem voters who are business owners who may disagree that seeking an #ExitFromBrexit and being pro-business are mutually exclusive. Regardless of your view on Brexit, there is always room in the political arena for sensible business-focussed policies and the fact that the Lib Dems have been working on some has been evidenced by the passed conference motions F28 and F34 that I have referenced above. Perhaps it was fair to Cunliff to suggest that no new industrial strategy was presented at the conference but I have no doubt that there are Lib Dem members and MPs who are helping to craft such an industrial strategy in the event that another election be called before or just after the negotiated Brexit deal is brought to Parliament and is rejected (there is still the possibility that a Brexit deal may be rejected by Labour MPs, if it fails to meet the tests set out by Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary for Exiting the EU). Besides which, you don't actually have to be a supporter of Brexit to take an interest in developing future trading policies or look at improving transparency, accountability and diversity in corporate boardrooms.

Paris Gourtsoyannis argues in his article in The Scotsman (http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/paris-gourtsoyannis-lib-dems-go-looking-for-lost-voters-1-4563696) that actually not all Lib Dem MPs agree entirely with Cable's Brexit approach. Jo Swinson, for example, stated that an #ExitFromBrexit through a referendum approach may not be possible and that activists need to support a Soft Brexit approach with a long transition deal, with the hope that the UK then reenters the EU at a later date. Alistair Carmichael highlights the pressing need for an in-depth national conversation on the merits of EU membership so that there was at least a chance of a clear majority of voters deciding against the Tory crafted Brexit deal in a future referendum. Some grassroots Lib Dem campaigners are frustrated with a limp Brexit approach, with one member notably calling for Article 50 to be reversed in an attempt to reassert parliamentary democracy. Hmm.

Brexshit Brexshit Brexshit I cry in my head. Luckily, Sir Vince didn't just mention Brexit in his speech. There was his sassy reference to the "Giant Tweeter" Donnie Drumpf who Cable says should have his official state visit cancelled. There was an announcement that the Lib Dems would look to establish a new life-long learning fund, that would be paid for via a tax on wealth, for people to spend when and how they wanted, with the aim of learning new skills that would help their chances of career progression and allow them to diversify to improve their income. Cable also wants the party to explore replacing tuition fees paid upfront with a graduate tax. There was a firm promise to tackle the housing shortage, with a desire to impose "fierce tax penalties" on foreign investors who only buy houses for investment purposes (which probably would appeal to some Brexiteers) and also a tax on second homes (including holiday homes) in rural areas; Cable said that the Lib Dems "must end the stranglehold of oligarchs and speculators in the housing market". Cable also advocated for the lifting of the ban on councils borrowing to build new social  housing. In addition to these policies, Cable reiterated existing policy on NHS and Social Care funding, stating that he still supports increasing the rate of income tax by 1p in the £1  as well as reducing the voting age to 16 and create a fully elected House of Lords. That's good news to voters who argue that there is no need for hereditary peers and Church of England Bishops to have an automatic place to influence political decisions. When other Christian denominations and other religious groups are not represented solely on the basis of religion in the House of Lords, why should we hold onto archaic traditions that seem anti-democratic in the 21st century? 

One can certainly detect a defiantly positive mood amongst some delegates in the Lib Dem party at the moment. Cable's keynote speech was bold, sassy and demonstrated a keen desire to improve the fortunes of the party. Yet it is true to say that the Lib Dems still have more to do to regain the trust of voters, especially amongst students, graduates and business leaders who would be inclined to vote for their policies. I believe that policy announcements on protecting and improving the rights of disabled people, improving the recruitment and retention rate of teachers and tapping into the importance of funded lifelong learning will attract some voters who value the importance of education and training and are passionate about holding the Government to account for their failure to reform their policies towards disabled people but whether such policies are enough to encourage Labour or bright blue remain Tory voters in marginal Tory-Lib Dem constituencies such as Richmond Park (0.04% swing needed) and St Ives (0.30% swing needed) remains to be seen. Fife North East, with only 2 votes between the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party is certainly one battleground constituency worth watching at the next general election where maybe such policies as announced at this autumn conference and subsequent ones could make all the difference.

Lesley Riddoch in her The Scotsman opinion ed offers a glimmer of hope for Lib Dems who want to see the Tories defeated at the next election. Riddoch states quite openly that the party may struggle to appeal to voters looking for radical solutions to inequality alone but if they carried out "bold joint action with Labour to combat inequality", it could be a "real game-changer" (http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/lesley-riddoch-lib-dems-may-have-something-to-offer-after-all-1-4562856). Positive cross-party collaboration on a variety of issues, not just Brexit could be an ideal way forward and I know from experience following the political scene in Lincoln that Lib Dems, Labour, Greens (and sometimes Tories too) can share ideas and work together for the common good; for example, Lincoln's Green Party candidate for the 2017 election, Dr Ben Loryman recently created a petition which calls for rural GPs to be put on the shortage list (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/200523) and Caroline Kenyon, the Lib Dem candidate for Lincoln signed and retweeted the petition on Twitter so that others could get involved with the petition. A great example of cross-party collaboration at a local level and a spirit we need to see more of in the UK.

The Lib Dem conference itself seems to have divided opinion. Most conference delegates left believing that substantive policy motions had been passed that would help to attract new voters to the party whilst commentators seem to have focussed on the party's anti-Brexit position without talking about much else. Whilst it's true that support for a referendum on the terms of the deal will not happen without the support of the majority of Labour MPs, at least it's out there on the table as an option. Whether the keynote speech has improved or hurt Cable's chances of expanding the Lib Dems' support base remains to be seen but Cable has started a conversation that certain Brexiteers do not want voters to focus on, with the main question being: "should voters have the final say on the deal and have the option to reject and remain in the EU as opposed to leaving without a deal and relying on World Trade Organisation terms?" Time will tell whether we see huge changes in public opinion.

On a lighter note, I have to say I was well jel of the EU themed berets that were popping up all over the place; if someone can start an Ebay store selling them I'd very much appreciate it!