What My Vote Achieved

…in the Lib Dem internal elections (of course!).
I won’t bore you with a full rundown of where all my prefs went, but my first prefs were allocated as follows:
Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay

Fed. Policy Comm.: Richard Flowers

Fed. Conference Comm.: Zoe O’Connell

International Relations Comm.: Nasser Butt

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss

 

And here is what my votes ended up supporting:

 

Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay elected

Fed. Policy Comm.: Gareth Epps elected

Fed. Conference Comm.: Justine McGuinness elected

International Relations Comm.: Gordon Lishman elected

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss elected

 

So, not quite what I most wanted, but thanks to STV I can point to someone on each of the committees, and say “I helped put them there.”

Which is pretty nifty.

Conference Accreditation: What do FE Candidates Think?

Jennie Rigg has been doing some great work recently, posing questions to candidates for FPC and FCC in the upcoming Lib Dem internal elections. In an effort to compliment her efforts, I wanted to plug one of the gaps which this has left, however. In the light of Jon Ball’s response to Jennie’s question on police accreditation for conference-goers, it seems that it might well be very relevant to know what candidates for FE think about the subject, as well as candidates for FCC.

I have therefore emailed (or failing that, tweeted) as many of the candidates as I could find contact details for, either from within their statements for the election to FE, or via a quick Google. I did not include those who have already been asked to give their views as part of their responses to Jennie, as a couple of people who are also standing for FCC have been. You can see the responses which I received below.

For the sake of transparency, here is the specific email they were responding to (except for the ones who replied to a tweet, which was necessarily shorter!):

Dear all,

I realise you possibly weren’t expecting to field many questions on this subject in the course of standing for FE, but since Federal Appeals Panel has (apparently) ruled that police accreditation for federal conference is an FE matter, not FCC, I’m afraid I’d like to ask you about it! Apologies if I’ve missed a previous pronouncement of yours on the subject.

Could you tell me what your position on accreditation is?

Many thanks,
Andy Hinton
(Voting Rep)

Robert Adamson:
-Has responded to Jennie here.

Qassim Afzal:
-Not emailed, since he will already have had the opportunity to respond to Jennie.

Elaine Bagshaw:
-Tweeted back:

It needs to be evidence-based and to date I haven’t seen any that’s justified the policy.

Prue Bray:

In an ideal world accreditation would not be necessary. However, we don’t have an ideal world, so it is necessary. It is not realistic to suppose we could have a conference without it, because we wouldn’t get insurance and the venues wouldn’t take us. If someone could prove that is not true it would be great. But I think if they could prove it, they would have done so already, given the amount of upset accreditation has caused.

There are some issues for people who for whatever reason have not always had the same identity (or indeed, to a lesser extent, for people who have lives which don’t fit having passports or national insurance numbers or stable addresses) At the moment, this is being dealt with by a fudge involving a couple of people reviewing applications on a case by case basis. It relies on individuals knowing that the fudge exists, and trusting it. That is not brilliant. If you have a better idea, I’d be prepared to listen.

I don’t like accreditation, but you can’t always have what you want. Any ideas for improving it?

Kristin Castle:
-No reply at this time.

Daisy Cooper:

In short, I’m opposed to conference accreditation. There is no evidence that accreditation makes people any safer. It is possible to enter Parliament, and major international events (such as the Olympics) and venues, with nothing more than an airport style security check at the door – something which we already have at conference.

Moreover, I think that the way the debate has been framed is unhelpful. There is a suggestion that insurance is not possible without accreditation, so no accreditation means no insurance.

I simply don’t believe this. If there are additional security concerns now that our party is in government, then there is a case for additional security measures, but these need not infringe upon our civil liberties. The insurance company could request additional scanners, increasing the distance between the scanners and the venue, and/or request additional security sweeps of the venue(s) in the preceding days of and during the conference itself. These kinds of measures would probably be more effective anyway!

Sean Davey:
-No reply at this time.

Jonathan Davies:

I have been a member of FFAC for the last four years, and so participated in FFAC’s decision to agree accreditation, which was then also agreed by FE.

FFAC did not call in this matter or seek to impose a decision on the Conference Committee. FFAC was told that whilst FCC considered that accreditation was unacceptable, FCC recognised given the potential issues for the party and the FFAC’s responsibility for financial issues, it was not a decision that FCC could take. A buck seemed to be being passed.

The Party has a duty to take reasonable care for the Health and Safety of its staff and the staff of many other organisations who attend conference. Faced with strong advice from the police that accreditation was a necessary precaution, I felt it would be very difficult, and in breach of the Party’s health and safety duties, not to accept that advice. Given the threat level to the high profile autumn conference, there’s an obvious strong security benefit in knowing the identity of everyone coming within the security cordon.

Ramesh Dewan:

All my Liberal values make me come out against accreditation, particularly because I am not aware of any evidence that tells me that accreditation makes us safer.

Sue Doughty:

My answer below is in a personal capacity.

The matter was referred to the Federal Finance and Administration Committee which is a sub committee of FE. Accordingly when they had reviewed the situation it then went to FE for acceptance.

I am already familiar with the requirements for visitors to government offices and indeed for meetings there now you need to be pre booked. This is based on an agreed security risk and I believe that as members of the government we have found ourselves in a position of accepting joint responsibility for our foreign policy even if it may not be our Lib Dem policy. I have also, in a professional capacity, visited the Labour party conference when they were in office and had to go through facial recognition. Given that I was representing an organisation campaigning on environmental issues my responsibility was to attend specific meetings in order to make the case with senior party members.

In Guildford I have strongly campaigned against the unnecessary collection of personal information, in particular children’s thumb prints used to authorise payments for school meals and library withdrawals.

I do believe that the party has a corporate responsibility to assess all risk to members attending conference – not only on a security basis, but the more usual risks – fire, health and safety etc and to ensure that we meet reasonable recommendations.

Regarding accreditation I am satisfied that although the police have access to the names of applicants for conference registration where a question has arisen about a particular individual, this has been referred to the party president and then enquiries are made locally to identify whether there is any supporting evidence which might be of concern. The final decision lies with the party and not with the police. In practice this is more likely to result in additional information being provided which supports the application going forward. Of course there are sometimes queries about change of name (for example an individual in a witness protection programme or escaping a violent past) or even gender which could be inconsistent with past information. The party has put in place separate procedures so that information provided is not held post registration.

I have not been able to ascertain how many, if any, people have been prevented from attending conference due to the accreditation process and of course would like to hear of any such cases from either people who have had their applications refused on the basis of security recommendations or who have had sufficient concerns that they have chosen not to apply for registration at conference. I am not aware of any.

In closing, I recognise that provision of such information is of deep concern to Liberal Democrats but as a member of the Federal Executive I also share a corporate responsibility for the safety and security of all members, staff and visitors. I feel that the arrangements at present are strong in terms of security, but the right balance has been made in leaving the final decision about individual registrations with the party and not with the police.

Neville Farmer:

In principle, I hate any “big brother” intrusion on the party but I’m also aware of the police concerns and think we must be realistic about finding a working compromise. I also believe that if we are to suffer this intrusion, it could be handled with more respect and less bureaucracy.

I accept the need for a level of accreditation but this should certainly not contravene our own Liberal Democrat principles as it clearly did there.It was clear at the Birmingham conference last year, that the police had gone far too far in its demands and the party had acquiesced too easily. Since then, things seem to have improved but I was very unhappy with the party’s responses to complaints at the time and I would seek to change that culture if elected.

There are a few lines in the sand that should not be crossed…

It is absolutely unacceptable for the police to hold onto data beyond the conference.

Gender change or name change should never be a cause of denial of access.

The parameters the police use to recommend denial of access should be seriously re-considered if they have not been already.

These parameters should be made clear to the membership, so they can decide whether they wish to be put through it or not.

Jock Gallagher:

I was a BBC journalist covering the Tory’s 1984 conference in Brighton.
I’m afraid, therefore, I have little hesitation in accepting the need for additional checks on all
those attending our conference.
My liberal instincts are, in this instance, over-taken by a concern for all those attending the conference.

Sarah Green:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sarah please let me know.

James Gurling:

I wasn’t aware of an FAP ruling on this issue – which is odd as I am also the FE rep on FCC. Perhaps Monday evening’s FE will shed some light on this matter – it is also a shame as I am a great supporter of the notion that FCC has responsibility for conference matters.

Whatever the case FE’s involvement in this matter came as a consequence of the profound financial risk that not having a conference, or being open to challenge after the fact, would have on the Party as a whole. In that regard the FE was certainly right to note the decision of the FFAC.

In true Lib Dem tradition, the very acceptable compromise arrived at by the Party President made sure the accreditation system as applied to both Tory and Labour conference goers was amended. This compromise ensured that there is review by Party appointees and made possible the exemption of certain categories of Lib Dem Party members from the accreditation process.

I voted for accreditation (with the caveats) in order to ensure conference registrations could start for Party members (commercial ones etc had already started) to minimise financial risk, with regard to police advice, safety of both guests and staff etc.

David Hall-Matthews:

On principle I believe that:
1) No-one outside the party should decide who comes to conference.
2) Those within the party who make decisions should be fully transparent about the decisions they make.
3) No-one should be obliged to reveal personal information unless it can be shown that there are security concerns.

Frank Hindle:

I don’t like the police accreditation requirement, but it is always difficult to ignore or go against police advice. I’m not currently on FE so haven’t seen the detailed reports that FE (presumably!) had before agreeing to police accreditation, but the explanation that the financial risks of not going along with accreditation are too great strikes me as plausible – for example, I don’t know exactly what the implications would be with the party’s insurance policies for conference, but I would think that our insurer’s would be very unhappy and at the very least hike up the premiums, and maybe refuse to insure. So, with regret, I think we are stuck with some sort of accreditation for now.

However, back in May when the FE agreed to accreditation for Brighton, I understand that there was a commitment to work with LGBT+ and others with particular concerns about accreditation. I don’t know how far this progressed and whether any exemption or alternative arrangements were implemented but I do think there should be some way of providing an alternative process for those with concerns about police accreditation. When looking at the impact of accreditation it is not enough to simply consider the number of conference reps where the police raised a concern, we also need to remember that the use of a police accreditation process may itself deter some members from even considering going to conference.

Not related to accreditation, but very relevant to party democracy, is the cost of going to conference, and I think more needs to be done to reduce this, and to enable a greater range of members to be involved in the party’s decision making.”

Antony Hook:
-No reply at this time.

Keith House:
-No reply at this time.

Susan Juned:
-No reply at this time.

Bill Le Breton:

Totally unnecessary and an illiberal intrusion on the workings of the Liberal Democrat ‘family’.

Happy to field any question you have.

I recall that Paddy always refused unnecessary security.

Caron Lindsay:

Briefly, I am totally opposed to accreditation which I think is both illiberal and unconstitutional.

There is no evidence accreditation would make anyone any safer & I believe that we would be able to obtain insurance.

As a member of the Federal Finance & Administration Committee (as Scottish party treasurer), I was the only person to vote against accreditation.

I could go on about this all day as I feel very strongly about it. However, I’ll give you the choice about whether you read more. This is a link to a blog post I wrote on the subject in April.

http://carons-musings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/conference-accreditation-rears-its.html

You may be interested to know that our Scottish conference has as many Cabinet ministers as the Federal event with no accreditation.

Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

Gordon Lishman:

The FAP ruling and the FE discussion both seem to have passed me by, which is odd given that I haven’t missed a meeting.

I think there is a reasonable case, in terms of security  and insurance cover, for enabling a check.  I think that the Party botched the process, including safeguards and overall control.

I try not to make pronouncements, but I’m happy to comment.

Lembit Opik:
-Tweeted back.

Joe Otten:

I believe the accreditation system is over the top for the party’s security requirements. It has been a significant obstacle for a number of people who are perfectly safe and entitled to attend. However I am not clear that this is a battle we can win.

There is a broader question here, that the police are used to being in the position that they can give ‘advice’ and the practical consequence of this is that the recipient of the advice has no choice. This is due to a combination of factors including insurance, and the policies of partner organisations – “we always follow police advice”.

This is more about people covering their backsides than getting the right security system for our conference.

Candy Piercy:

My position is that I voted in favour of accreditation because of the advice received by the FE accreditation was necessary in order to make sure conference could go ahead.

I was very much in favour of adopting additional safeguards that some individuals needed.

I believe the fundamental issue is that we have to make sure our conferences can go ahead successfully and safely.

I think it is now a good time to find out more about the background issues around conference accreditation and change/adjust this process depending on properly established facts.

If accreditation does prove necessary then we need to look again at how we can make sure that this is a fair process. If members are facing problems as a result of the accreditation process then we need to adapt it. Naturally LGBT (and any other relevant bodies) should be properly consulted about what needs to be done to safeguard individuals who may be put at risk by the process.

David Rendel:
-No reply at this time.

Jo Shaw:

My position, which I have had throughout, is that I want Conference to go ahead. The advice we have had from the police is that accreditation is needed for the autumn conference and we have also been told that if we refuse to comply with the police recommendations that might invalidate our insurance or mean that venues would refuse to host us. The police also require security checks to be made of all staff at conference venues, and all attendees who are not party members. It would seem deeply unfair if party members could claim special treatment (ie avoid accreditation) because of being members.

Of course this is deeply unsatisfactory, particularly because of the issues for some trans members who object to accreditation on grounds of personal safety. The measures that have been put in place for some trans members have not been enough and we need to do more to make sure members’ safety is not jeopardised through the accreditation process. However I am clear that I am not prepared to countenance Conference not going ahead, or exposing the party to levels of financial risk, and therefore I have accepted accreditation in the past.

The difficulty we face is the illogical arguments (unchanged) put forward by the police. Why is it we need accreditation for autumn, but not for spring, for example? As yet there does not seem to be any answer to this question from the police.

Adrian Smith:

Not having been on FCC or FE before, my experience of this has largely been from a distance.

You can correct me if I am wrong, but the situation as I understand it is that Autumn conference is subject to full Police accreditation whereas Spring is not, and the reason appears to be because the Home Office will meet the cost of doing so for Autumn but not spring.

The problem with full accreditation is that some delegates find it deeply invasive with regard to their sexuality and gender, and many others simply find it incompatible with liberal values.

In addition, GMP were not exactly a model of efficiency the first time round, though I gather it was better this time.

Have I got that right?

I’m not sure there is an easy solution, because I can understand the arguments for both sides – what I think is absolutely ludicrous is having one set of rules for one conference and one for another, and that I think needs to be addressed first – it arguably endangers Spring conference goers as it is.

Beyond that I would need to acquaint myself more fully with the facts of the problem, though I would always advocate taking a very tough line with the police and home office.

John Smithson:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for John please let me know.

Tom Stubbs:
-No reply at this time.

Martin Tod:

I haven’t been heavily involved in this issue, but one of the things that has surprised me about the whole discussion on accreditation is how anecdotal the evidence appears to be in support of the restrictions.

I can’t believe it would be that hard to:

Get the Police request in writing – and any rules, guidance or policy used to justify it
Get the specific reaction of the venue and/or the specific terms of booking – again – in writing
Get the specific reaction of our insurers (and possibly the venue’s insurers) – also in writing

Of course, it is vital that Conference goes ahead – we wouldn’t want to jeopardise it to prove a point – but creating extra bureaucracy and intruding on people’s privacy should not be done unless there is a really clear evidence base to show that such steps are necessary and proportionate. I’ve not seen such evidence to date.

Peter Tyzack:

I have seen things about ‘accreditation’, and have yet to really understand what this issue, in particular, is. It would be nice to be able to turn up at the conference doors, show your membership card and walk in, or even have the conference open to the public, but then reality has to kick in.  As the security guy said ‘the terrorist only has to get lucky once in order to wreak havoc, we have to remain vigilant at all times to stop them getting lucky’.

So my answer in relation to generic security, is that it must be realistic and proportionate, reasonable and workable.  It should be no more than the minimum that is needed to protect us from the perceived risk.
In amongst that are personal and individual sensitivities, which need to be accommodated.  But where those individuals form a small part of the whole their concerns should be dealt with on a personal case basis.

Whilst I know that concerns have been raised, perhaps I have been less bothered about understanding, simply because I have not had any problem myself, and have not been involved in having to make any decision about the matter.  We elected a committee to run the Conference and as Reps we should have faith in their ability to do so.  Yes, the FE take responsibility over FCC, and I would assume that they asked the relevant questions to satisfy themselves that security matters had been adequately dealt with.  But, as an ordinary Rep coming and going I have accepted the security regime, as it has evolved, as being what those, in a better position to know than me, felt to be appropriate.

Having been a PPC, and having been at events with Nick when his close protection team were in evidence, I have been quietly impressed by their discreet and coordinated efficiency.  The big expense of that provision is not for fun, nor to make Nick feel important.  The point is, that we are in Govt, and whilst our Leader and his fellow ministers are known to us as normal people, with whom we are able to work and have contact with, they are now public figures who can attract the wrong sort of attention, if not from terrorists or political extremists, from the lunatic who just wants his moment of infamy, or whatever he just wants.

The big difference comes, if you decide to elect me to the FE, what I do then.  In that event, I first want to know what my powers duty and remit are as a member of the FE(and, as an aside, to get the role more clearly defined than the woolly remit FE currently has!).  But when coming to make a decision about or to scrutinise the work being done by others on our behalf, I shall undertake to gain a full understanding of the issues and any opposing points of view before forming a judgement.

I give you that statement as a solemn undertaking, as that is how I act when taking on a new role… determine exactly what the job is, and then do it to the best of my ability.  ‘Wherever a decision is to be taken it must be taken objectively, on the basis of facts; where the facts are inadequate, go out for more information or consultation; where a choice is to be made, do so democratically; and throughout, remember on who’s behalf you serve.’

Thanks for your question, and for making me think it through.  If I am elected, please come back to me.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson:
-No reply at this time.

Erlend Watson:

I have a feeling that my answer will not win votes but I ought to reply.

Initially the FCC mishandled the accreditation issue most specifically over identity issues ( I note transgender and spouse battering as the main ones).

I believe those to be satisfactorily settled now even if trust remains weak.

On the issue of who has the final say it remains with the party.

So I think the current position more or less OK.

I do for the record think it is stupid for the FAP to have passed this to the FE. Any issue including policy could have financial implications. But the constitution says the FCC decides about conference so responsibility belongs there.

Chris White:

I believe it is a necessary step with more than adequate safeguards built in to protect those who might be discriminated against. We have a duty to those who are not party members at conference and the idea that a conference could take place without it does not bear even distant scrutiny.

I have spoken on this matter at conference.

Sir David Williams:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sir David please let me know.

Snooping Proposals

It’s not often that I feel actively obliged to blog about something nowadays. I turn up to conference and vote in the ways I think best, but for the most part, I don’t claim to know how best to navigate the challenges of coalition and apart from a few headline issues like the NHS I’ve been content to leave our ministers to get on with it. It’s not that I’ve been ardently in support of everything the government has done, but on the basis of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say…” I’ve mostly let them get on with it. After all, these are people who I was happy to campaign for before the election, and when they ask me to believe that behind closed doors they are still campaigning for the things our party believes in, I feel I owe them at least some benefit of the doubt.

But.

You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

But I am a liberal first and a Liberal second, and I don’t believe that benefit of the doubt is the same thing as blind faith. If it stops looking to me like our ministers and our leadership deserve the benefit of the doubt, I’m not just going to soldier on.

The recent news reports about potential new extensions of the (already pretty illiberal) RIPA surveillance powers were worrying, and I didn’t entirely share Simon McGrath’s apparent faith in the coalition government, but I took his point and waited to hear a response from the party, or some more details about what was actually proposed.

Today, as the party leadership’s own take on things emerges, I feel I have enough information to go on.

As many other very sensible and considerably more prestigious bloggers than myself have already made clear, this is not an issue like the NHS, where it might have been argued that our 2010 manifesto supported something a bit like the reforms being introduced if you squinted a bit. This is not an issue like tuition fees, where we had conceded before we even began by signing the coalition agreement. This is an issue which is at the core of our party’s beliefs, purports to be at the core of the coalition’s beliefs, and which has so far attracted a pretty unanimous response from all over the customary spectrum of opinion within the party.

I would like to put on record that I join them in condemning the proposals. The technical sleight-of-hand involved in claiming that the government is only interested in communications data, not content, with these proposals, has been covered well elsewhere (although I can’t remember where I read it right now, so no link, sorry – any links in the comments gratefully received). The idea that we weren’t all that keen on RIPA when it came in, but now apparently think it’s fine to want to extend the same system to other media, is absurd. The fact that the party is already lining up a carefully crafted “rebellion”, followed no doubt by suitable “safeguards”, to make a carefully drawn (but nonetheless phoney) distinction between content and communication data so that we can wheel out the “yes this is a bit evil, but not as evil as what Evil Labour tried to do” line is depressing.

This is surely a Red Line issue for the party. It certainly is for me. And let me make this absolutely clear: I have no intention of leaving this party any time soon. But if its parliamentarians and leaders look to me like they’ve forgotten what they went into politics for, I will have no hesitation in calling for them to leave it.

Please, folks. Show me you still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

#ldconf, the NHS Bill, and Where The Leadership Stands Now

This weekend has certainly been interesting. For the record, I’m relatively pleased with the outcome of the votes at conference on the NHS bill this weekend. It is one of a whole range of possibilities about what might have happened, and we don’t fully know what the fallout will be yet. No, technically, we have not given any particularly clear instruction to our parliamentarians on how to vote. And yes, technically, the amended form of “The Shirley Williams Motion” (ahem) says almost nothing of any consequence. But since conference has never been in the business of telling our parliamentarians how to vote, that’s probably OK. The act of deleting the clause which asked our parliamentarians to vote for the bill at 3rd reading seems to have sent the right message to the media.

Did Conference Achieve the Right Outcome?

In any case, what the best outcome for conference would have been is a rather complex question. It’s complex because there are a number of objectives which in an ideal world would all be achieved:

1. Kill the Health and Social Care (HSC) Bill.

2. …but leave open the possibility of implementing some of the uncontroversial elements of the plans, like joining up the delivery of health care, social care and public health.

3. Preserve the coalition government, and the goodwill of our coalition partners within it (tricky to reconcile with point 1!).

4. Preserve the sovereignty, democracy and credibility of conference as a policy-making body.

How best to achieve a balance between these objectives, and which ones are more important, is not a straightforward question. For instance, had we passed the motion calling for the withdrawal of the bill, only to find that it made not the slightest difference to the progress of the bill, conference (and by extension the party) would have been utterly emasculated. Had we passed the withdrawal motion and subsequently seen the withdrawal of the bill, I’d be pretty happy, but I would be concerned that the Tories would be on the lookout for some piece of Lib Dem-favoured policy which they could hole below the waterline in retaliation. As it is, we’ve stopped short of passing a (possibly unenforceable) motion calling on our peers and MPs to vote against the bill, but made it fairly clear, in the balance of speeches this morning and in the result of the vote, that we are really not comfortable with this bill and would rather it died. If the bill subsequently does die, the Tories can’t lay the blame squarely at our feet, but we have nevertheless contributed to the momentum of the anti-bill forces. Somehow I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this row yet. So, whilst I was willing to support the Withdrawal motion in the Emergency Motions Ballot, I don’t think it is by any means straightforwardly obvious that what happened today will not have better outcomes than that would have had.

The above may sound rather slippery, or seem to display a warped sense of priorities. How can I put the party and the stability of the government alongside protecting the NHS? I must be some kind of traitor, no? Well, if I believed much of the hyperbole about the effects of this bill, then yes, I’d agree, the reasoning I’ve laid out above would be disgraceful. But I have to say that although I don’t support the HSC Bill and want it dropped, I really don’t buy the idea that it’s going to lead to the end of a comprehensive, free NHS in the way that some of the anti-bill folks have been suggesting. Whilst good impartial information on this issue is scarce, from what I’ve been able to make out this is not a reasonable expectation to have of the effects of the bill. Nor do I think it will result in the wholesale privatisation of the NHS. I just don’t happen to think it’s a good enough revision of the model for running the NHS to justify the disruption which the re-organisation will cause.

 

What Is Actually Wrong With The HSC Bill?

I believe the use of private providers within the NHS can be destabilising to the viablity of NHS services, and that it has led to an ever more fragmented service for the last 10 years or more. I do not like the one-size-fits-all way that the “choice” – or competition, as it is more honestly known – agenda has been clumsily grafted onto the NHS, but we should not pretend that this bill introduces that agenda, or that without this bill that agenda would not continue to drive much of the way the NHS is run. What this bill does do, so far as I can see, is transfer who is doing the commissioning from PCTs to CCGs, and remove some brakes on Foundation Trusts’ involvement in the private sector. I’m not saying that isn’t problematic*, but at root the stuff I most dislike about the Lansley vision for the NHS is not actually new. Marketisation and competition has been the dominant idea behind NHS reform throughout Labour’s time in office. If those of us who are deeply uncomfortable with it don’t like it, we need a coherent vision of our own. Meanwhile, I am satisfied that my party’s representatives in the Lords have secured some valuable safeguards, such that in some ways this might be an improvement on the 2006 Act which Labour left us.

So what is the problem? The problem is, in other ways, it’s worse than the 2006 act, and in any case the reorganisation of the NHS is simply massively unhelpful at a time when the NHS is already under budgetary pressure. The problem is that the apparent safeguards about conflicts of interest for CCGs (and any private companies which they might look to enlist in support of their commissioning work) over the services they commission have barely scratched the surface. The problem is that setting tariffs which reflect the “clinical complexity” of work does not prevent “cherry-picking”, it merely quantifies it. The problem is that there are simply too many doubts about this bill, and too many people in the medical professions themselves who oppose it. It is not a very good idea, and it will not improve the NHS, in my estimation. There are just too many pitfalls.

But let’s be honest. It is not going to result in everyone having to get private medical insurance. It is not going to mean that the NHS is privatised. It is not a “US style” health system. And the people who are shrieking hysterically that it is all of these things are doing their case no favours. And since I don’t buy the apocalyptic visions of what will happen if the bill passes, I am prepared to entertain the possibility that it will pass, and I don’t think that every single other one of the objectives I listed above is worth sacrificing because we might – might – be able to stop it.

*”Problematic” might be the understatement of the year if it turns out that this shift does, in fact, lay the commissioning process open to all sorts of legal challenge by the private sector when they don’t like the outcome of a tendering process. This is one area in which I genuinely have no idea who is right, both because I have read contradictory advice from different respectable sources, but also because the HSC Bill is such a moving target, with many ammendments still only existing in potentia as undertakings by the government.

The State of the Party and of the Leadership

So, what of the way that the leadership behaved in this whole matter? Well, I think it’s pretty undeniable that the tactics of using Shirley Williams in the way they did displayed some serious desperation. The stony silences during the Q&A session with Cleggy during the questions about the NHS were telling, as was the fact that during his speech today he didn’t feel confident in trying to make us clap anything about the HSC bill stronger than thanking Shirley for her work on it. It is unfortunate that at a time when the shine was always going to be coming off Nick, as the party started to grow tired of the more unpalatable elements of coalition, he is having to use up extra capital with members (and make no mistake, that’s what he’s doing, burning through it at quite a rate at the moment) to sell something to us which wasn’t even in the coalition agreement, and which actually directly contradicts it (“no top-down reorganisations…” may be over-familiar by now, but it’s still worth remembering: this is a direct breach of the coalition agreement).

To see Clegg at conference nowadays, it’s pretty clear that he’s an increasingly remote figure in the party. That’s not to say he can’t recover, but I’m sure someone with the emotional intelligence that Nick has cannot have failed to notice that he is not trading from a position of strength at conference these days.

So what can the leadership do about the growing gulf with the wider membership of the party? Well, in the immediate terms of the HSC Bill, not much, other than hope that the Tories find the guts to kill a bill that many of them are clearly uneasy about, and which has been an unmitigated disaster for them in terms of re-toxifying their brand on the NHS. But in terms of preventing this from happening again, I think it’s worth considering how they can bring the party along with them on issues which fall outside of the coalition agreement. Let’s ignore for a moment that the HSC Bill contradicts the agreement, what if it was just a “matter arising” which is not adressed by the agreement? Currently the procedure, we are told, is that it goes to the “Coalition Committee”. For some issues, that’s fine. But I would argue that on an issue as large as reforming the NHS, they really should have moved to get conference on side before pressing ahead with the reforms, in the same way they did with the coalition agreement itself. This would, of course, have strengthened their hand in rejecting excessive Tory demands, on the grounds that they couldn’t get them past conference.

One could argue that the leadership tried to do just this with the original Burstow motion at conference last spring. However, that doesn’t quite hold water. Burstow’s motion being selected instead of the anti-bill motion it was competing with made it virtually impossible for conference to reject the bill outright. Since we’re not allowed to move wrecking ammendments at conference, as soon as Burstow’s motion was on the agenda we could do nothing stronger than reject his motion outright. That’s fine, but it wouldn’t have stopped anything, since doing so doesn’t say anything definitive – defeating a motion is the absence of a policy, not a decisive policy against. The likely outcome would have been that the government plowed on regardless. In the event, the people who were concerned about the bill went for a more constructive approach, moving an ammendment which listed the things they disliked about the HSC Bill (then White Paper). This attempt to be constructive has since been thrown back in their face; the fact that they didn’t delete the first sentence of Burstow’s motion (“conference welcomes much of [the white paper]“) has since been used to suggest that they were actually endorsing the Lansley plan, with a few quibbles. Yes, seriously.

Meanwhile, since conference doesn’t, by convention, discuss the same issue twice in two consecutive conferences, the fact that a motion had been discussed at the spring conference about the white paper meant that conference could not react to the bill as it became draft legislation by moving any motion at all at autumn conference – the attempt to suspend standing orders didn’t get the two thirds majority it needed. By the time this year’s spring conference rolled around it was almost too late to stop the bill, but nonetheless the leadership still clearly feared the embarassment of the withdrawal motion passing enough to go to the desperate lengths of wheeling out Shirley’s name, as I’ve already mentioned. In this light, the leadership’s (and FCC’s) behaviour at successive conferences looks less like an attempt to seek conference’s blessing for the bill in any meaningful way, and more like an attempt to prevent conference from making any decisive and timely call for the bill to be dropped.

The sad thing about this whole process is that it seems to have forgotten what we know about the strengths of our democratic structures. Repeatedly in David Laws’s book about the formation of the coalition, it is mentioned explicitly that the threat of having to get something past the membership strengthened our negotiating position. A strong, independent minded conference is one of the key buffers we have against Tory domination of the coalition. And yet for whatever reason, the leadership of this party seems to have been willing to actively frustrate members’ attempts to intervene in the case of the NHS bill. Ultimately, the result is that a bill which is now an albatross around the government’s neck has been allowed to progress past the point when it could have been quietly sidelined.

What could the leadership do about it? They could stop playing the kind of pathetic procedural games at conference which would make a student union trot blush.

Predictions for 2012

Not that they’re likely to display any dazzling powers of prediction, but…

1. The coalition will survive in tact, despite a few unhelpful interventions from prominent figures in the Lib Dem parliamentary party, and continued howls of frustration from the Tory right.

2. Chris Huhne will survive the fallout from the allegations about speeding in 2003, without having to resign, but will be substantially weakened.

3. Vince Cable will still be a member of the cabinet by the end of the year.

4. Ed Miliband will find that the disloyal mutterings from some of his frontbench colleagues become a serious problem. Ed Balls will not be unconnected to this!

5. Ken Clarke will be retired from the cabinet in a reshuffle that will see David Laws return to government.

6. Barack Obama will beat Ron Paul in the US Presidential Race, in a much closer result than many analysts predict when Paul is nominated.

7. The Euro will finish the year in a much stronger position than it started it.

8. UK economic growth will continue to be sluggish, but will not fall back into recession.

9. A major UK newspaper will close or merge with a rival.

10. The Higgs Boson will officially be declared to be discovered, and, rather boringly, the details will utterly fail to significantly challenge the Standard Model.

See you back here this time next year for the results!

11 for 2011: How Did I Do?

Well, another year has been and gone (any amazing late-breaking developments notwithstanding), so it’s time to look back at my success (or more likely otherwise) in predicting anything that was going to happen this year.

Here, then, are the predictions I made:

The coalition will survive through the year.

Correct. 1 point.

The “Yes” campaign will win the AV referendum.

Incorrect. Nul points.

Whilst the year will start with Michael Gove looking increasingly insecure in his position, it will ultimately be Andrew Lansley whose position is threatened most, after his ambitious and rapid set of NHS reforms inevitably come a cropper somewhere along the line.

Well, ultimately Lansley is still in post, but I think it’s fair to say that the general gist of this is right – at one point during the year, there was quite serious speculation about whether Lansley was secure in his job, because the NHS reforms had somewhat blown up in his face (with a little help from us, naturally). 1 point.

David Laws will return to government.

Not yet, alas, but there’s nothing blocking it any longer, after the Standards and Privileges committee made its ruling back in May, and Laws was given a week’s suspension from the house as a (somewhat heavy handed relative to those of many other less forgiveable expenses abusers) punishment. 0 points.

The decision on Murdoch’s attempt to take complete control of BSkyB will ultimately be to deny him his wish, having first undergone several months more investigation.

An awkward one, this. Ultimately Murdoch was more or less forced to withdraw the bid as a result of the phone hacking scandal, rather than as a result of deliberations about media plurality directly. Having said that, it seems that campaigners for media plurality have indeed had their hand strengthened by the results of this process. Half a point.

Lib Dem autumn conference will see attacks on the leadership, with councillors who lost their seats in May out for blood.

Well, not so much as you’d notice, really. Despite some none-too-subtle positioning by Mr. Farron, actual slagging off of the leadership was fairly muted at conference, much to the frustration of the media present. In part, this could be credited to Federal Conference Committee, who did much to selflessly draw the anger of conference-goers in their own direction. 0 points.

The economy will not suffer a double dip, although it will start the year sluggishly, and by the end of the year things will be looking up.

Well, the first half of this is certainly true of 2011, though whether the optimistic second half of the prediction could be said to be true is a bit more of a stretch, what with the eurozone crisis still very much unresolved as we head into 2012. Half a point.

Lib Dem leadership will contribute to progress on a legal vehicle at COP 17.

Well, whether the term “legal vehicle” could be said to be equivalent to an “agreed outcome with legal force”, I will leave to better legal minds than me, but I think it’s fair to say that European leadership, and within that Lib Dem leadership in the UK, has contributed to a positive (though sadly not positive enough, yet) outcome at COP 17. 1 point.

Alan Johnson will not be Shadow Chancellor by the end of the year.

True. Not 20 days into 2011, this not-too-surprising prediction came off nicely. 1 point.

The Independent will not be being published in its current form by the end of the year.

Not happened, unless you count a redesign with a spanky new masthead (which I don’t). 0 points.

House of Lords reform will not be scuppered by the House of Lords itself, and by the end of the year it will be fairly certain that elections for the House of Lords will take place within the next 10 years.

Well, the atmosphere of doom around this has somewhat subsided, and it certainly hasn’t been scuppered yet. Having said that, I don’t think I can really give this one – more work still to do! 0 points.

 

So, overall, I make that 5 points out of a possible 11.

Still about as accurate as flipping a coin then!

On The Conference Accreditation Motion #ldconf

Yes, yes, long time no blog. Sorry, no time to dwell on that.

So having sat through the debate this morning and watched with horror over 100 people put their hands up to vote for ammendment 1 (for all papers relating to this post, so you can read the motions and ammendments, go here; the motion is F9 on page 20 of the agenda, and the ammendments are on page 23 of conference extra, both available as pdfs at the above link), I thought I might as well write the speech that I should have put a speakers’ card in to make earlier today.

Basically, my problems with this come under three headings:

1. How is it making us safer?

Let’s assume for the moment that I’m a maniac and I’m looking for opportunities to do something nasty to people inside conference. On my way into conference, four different people check my pass to make sure I match my photo, my bag has been X-rayed and if necessary searched, and I have passed through a metal detector and if necessary frisked. I don’t object to this, I can see the use of it, and I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate FCC on significantly speeding up this process at this conference.

But I’m sorry, I just don’t get how, in addition to these basic physical checks, the fact that the police think that I’m the right sort of chap to be attending conference makes us any safer. Short of strangling someone with my bare hands, I don’t see what damage I could inflict on people inside the barriers even if I wanted to.

2. The argument that “it is still ultimately conference who decide” is flawed.

Andrew Wiseman (who, to his credit, has done more than he could have done to engage with the discontent over this, and is taking a disproportionate amount of flak for a decision that, with the honourable exception of Justine McGuinness, all of FCC should be held accountable for) told us yesterday that two people have been flagged by the police as recommended for being turned away from conference. Of these, one was over-ruled by the “three wise men” who apparently now speak for the party on these matters, and one wasn’t. Andrew told us that he couldn’t give us details, for confidentiality reasons, other than to say that the one who was turned away was a recently joined member, who the police had significant concerns about.

Now, since I don’t have the information, I’m going to have to speculate and make generalisations. But it seems to me that on this limited evidence, we can draw a couple of conclusions: Firstly, if the police try to bar you, you have a pretty good chance of being turned away, compared to if they don’t. And secondly, it seems likely that the most likely people to be turned away are new members, younger people or other new recruits, who don’t happen to have a friend in high places to put in a good word for them.

It seems likely that the people whose flagging will be over-ruled will be people of whom the three wise men can say “oh, that’s just Bill, he’s been coming for donkeys’ years, he’s harmless”. Which is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is, what happens to new members who are flagged. Nobody will vouch for them, since nobody knows them yet. We will create a closed shop, where the only people who can come to conference are longstanding Lib Dems, and nice folk with no questionable things in their records. As was eloquently argued this morning, conference will be all the poorer for the loss of those voices.

3. Some of the arguments being made in favour of accreditation are pretty weak.

Since we know that the same bind on FCC to follow police advice in order to secure their insurance was presumably in place during Sheffield (where, incidentally, the crowds outside the security zone were a damn sight more rowdy than they are in Brum), it is reasonable to assume that in Sheffield, the police didn’t insist on accreditation, even if they might have thought it was a good idea. So there are, presumably, conference venues where we could go where we wouldn’t be subject to this “requirement” from the police. To suggest, therefore, that critics of accreditation would rather have no conference at all is a contemptible piece of sophistry.

So was the argument I heard from one member of FCC today that the nature of some of the people outside the security barriers should be seen as a reason to want accreditation. Either this is supposed to imply that soon everyone who comes within a mile of conference should have to be vetted, or this is merely highlighting the limitations on the effectiveness of this kind of measure anyway. The saddest part of this is that some of the people arguing the FCC line didn’t even look much like they were convincing themselves.

Ultimately, then, I find it hard to conclude that the vetting system is anything other than a piece of security theatre, and a damaging one at that.

And don’t even get me started on the patronising bollocks from a couple of people today who denied the very existence of anyone who had stayed away from conference because they didn’t want to submit to the process. Those people deserved all the angry heckles they got today.

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