Arriving at Portcullis House, I managed to blink as the security people took a picture to hang round my neck. I staggered, bewildered into the atrium, looking around for people who looked like bloggers. I got it right first go – well, the elephant was a dead giveaway – and we loitered until joined by more bloggers. Lady Mark was already ensconced on the other side of the glass barriers – the glass is greener on the other side – and then who should we spot, but Vince. Much waving ensued, and he came and let us through into the special area for special people. Since there were a lot of us, he went and got us a room to use instead of his office (quite disappointing – no opportunity to verify this Mind Maps business!).
And so, sitting comfortably and suitably donuted, we began.
Alix kick off, asking whether we’re heading for an overhaul of our tax policy, perhaps after seeing hints of such a move picked up over the weekend by some in the MSM. Vince’s answer was basically political speak for “yes, it will be changing”: the aims will remain the same, but “the details of how we do it will have to change over time”. He reiterated that we are committed to a 4p cut in income tax “or the equivalent”, and mentioned allowances as one such potential avenue of equivalency.
Jo, meanwhile, wanted to know about diversity and equality and stuff, and Vince’s role on the Diversity Engagement Group, asking what the next steps are, and whether issues like these were going to end up on the back burner because of the recession. Vince felt that these priorities wouldn’t be changed by hard times, and, whilst seeming to concede perhaps that there wasn’t as obvious a “next step” on wimmin, he hoped that BME candidates might stand to do very well under the party’s stated strategy of attacking the soft underbelly of Labour support in northern cities, etc.
Jennie was next round the table, and asked about Vince’s interest in bees. Vince explained that, as part of the normal business of being known around one’s constituency, he had been invited along to the apiary at the end of his road, for an open day. It was there that he had his ear bent about Colony Collapse Disorder and the surrounding issues, and with this ringing in his ears, he went back to parliament and asked Gordon Brown a question about it in committee. The response was so derisory and uninterested as to make Vince a whole lot more bothered about it than he would otherwise have been, it seems. Brown implied that it was exactly the sort of daft issue that gets Lib Dems going, and was a waste of serious people’s time. It was this scientific illiteracy – a common theme for many bloggers, not least Jennie – that convinced Vince that pressure was required to help ministers do the right thing, and since then a cross-party campaign has grown around the issue.
Mark’s question was about the civil service, and whether the party was seen as “Civil Service friendly”, following Vince’s criticism last conference of some public sector bonuses. Vince felt it was important not to differentiate between the public and private sectors, and that practices that were criticised in one sector would therefore be criticised in the other. Vince was aware, of course, that his comments about the number of civil servants on over £100,000 had annoyed some of our councillors, and he expressed some sympathy for the lower ranks of the civil service, but he’s sticking to his guns. He was rather keen on the term “public sector aristocracy”, and pointed out that it wasn’t so much just the wages, as the triple-whammy of wages, job security and pensions that put many in the civil service in such a privileged position. For Vince, it’s about attacking privilege, and it extends from the private sector, to civil servants, and to MPs, who he also singled out as unusually shielded from the economic weather.
Mary asked how the government’s habit of offloading the dirty business of taxation onto local government could be fixed, and about the unfairness of central government’s funding of local government currently. Vince’s response was that there is always lobbying on the formula that works out funding to local authorities. Although generally quite good, he believes, the formula tends to fall down at the extreme ends of the income scale. Essentially, local government needs a stronger local tax base, and Lib Dem policy would do this, for instance by making business rates local.
Next up it was my turn. Looking at my scribbled notes made earlier in the day, I plumped for a more outward looking question, for variety’s sake, and asked about Gordon Brown’s alleged interest in international regulatory frameworks. Was he likely to achieve anything useful from making the issue a focus of the G20? Vince’s reply was closer to the Tory line than I expected, calling Brown’s focus on this as a solution “a cop out”, to avoid responsibility for his mistakes; of course, now comes the bit where it deviates from the Tories: Vince can spell out what he means by that. Brown had, after all, allowed finance to become far too large a part of our economy, and failed to implement the Basel rules in the UK as well as other countries, like Spain and Canada, did it; here the rules acted pro-cyclically in the housing market.
Vince rounded off this answer with a quick mention of his forthcoming book, The Storm. Subtitled “The world economic crisis and what it means”, it will likely cover the answers to my question and a great many more besides. So I will leave part one of my write up here, to allow you to go off and pre-order it!