Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2014: Labour and the Lib Dems: possible partners?

Labour and the Lib Dems: possible partners?

Partner: Fabian Society

Sunday 5th October 2014

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, opened the event by rendering Labour and the Liberal Democrats by the shared appellation of ‘political progressives’. Lamb argued for the Lib Dems as unequivocally unique yet ‘openly pluralist’. Drawing from his role as Minister of State for the Department of Health, Lamb applauded triumphs of the coalition in improving care for the vulnerable. Lamb subsequently concluded by emphasizing the importance of cross-party collaboration for securing liberal objectives in the future. 

Labour MP for Glasgow North Ann McKechin responded by blaming the supposed schism of Centrist Social Democrats from the Orange Book Liberals as confusing popular opinion of the Lib Dems. McKechin rendered the Liberal agenda as comprising a series of hollow promises, regarding their failure to secure electoral and parliamentary reform as reasons for their ailing popularity in Scotland. 

Dr Julie Smith of Cambridge University, who will soon become a Liberal Democrat Working Peer in the House of Lords, questioned the possibility, desirability and likelihood of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Judging by 2010, improbability no longer suggests impossibility. Yet she appealed to the unequivocal divergence of Labour from the unwavering Liberal concern for civil liberties. It was Labour, she argued to rapturous applause, who called for ID cards and 90 days detention without trial. Thus neither Labour nor the Tories comprised a ‘perfect partner’ for the Liberal Democrats. Only after May 2015 should the Lib Dems enter into cross-party negotiation, if and when appropriate. 

Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West Tom Greatrex quashed the feeble acceptance of coalition as inescapable. Labour would do all in their power to secure a clear majority in May 2015. Greatrex nonetheless surpassed his fellow speakers by demarcating a ‘shared agenda’ of Labour and the Lib Dems in several areas, namely decarbonisation of the electricity supply and preservation of the Human Rights Act from Chris Grayling’s damaging endeavours. Scope for collaborative progress may also be gleaned from the shared desire for progressive taxation and enduring membership in the EU. Greatrex concluded by rendering collaboration as, if nothing else, a necessary bulwark against ‘the march towards the right-wing nationalist agenda’.  

Responding to concerns regarding the ‘arrogance’ of Labour in West Scotland voiced by a member of the audience, Norman Lamb argued rather for the lethargy of Scottish Labour as a by-product of their intrinsic assurance of a ‘right to rule’. Lamb argued Labour was incapable of preserving public services against the sting of austerity; once the money ‘dried up,’ so did Labour prowess. Lamb nonetheless rendered the Lib Dem Weltanschauung as ‘pluralistic, not tribal’ and subsequently suggested his party would collaborate if necessary. 

The German model was advocated by one member of the audience as worthy of emulation. Such was quashed by Julie Smith on the grounds that a Labour-Conservative alliance, akin to that binding the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party in Germany, was – barring a Third World War – an improbable fantasy. 

The panel converged in their general reluctance regarding a Lib-Lab coalition; nonetheless all agreed in accepting potential for cross-party collaboration if and when necessary. 

By Kati Richardson

Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2014: Is intergenerational conflict the next battleground?

Is intergenerational conflict the next battleground?

Partner: Social Liberal Forum

Saturday 4th October 2014

Speakers: 

  • Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director, Age UK 
  • Paul Burstow MP
  • Josh Dixon, Youth Coordinator, Social Liberal Forum
  • Tom Papworth, Associate Director, CentreForum
  • Naomi Smith, Chair, Social Liberal Forum (Chair)

Paul Burstow MP opened the discussion, stressing the fundamental changes that an ageing population will bring to our economy. He said delayed entry and exit to the labour market is one of the biggest challenges that must be met. Citing recommendations from the Ageing Society paper, Paul then argued care for the elderly needs to be thought of in the same way as child care: as part of the infrastructure of our economy. 

Paul emphasised unequal wealth distributions within, not just between generations, as well as housing shortages as issues that Parties must address. Increasing the stock of housing for the older people, he argued, would have a big affect on the whole market by freeing up some homes for younger generations. But first, those aged 85+ must aspire to and feel comfortable moving house.

Caroline Abrahams followed, echoing Paul’s comments by asserting there is more inequality within generations than between them. Having split her career between working with children and the elderly, Caroline had a unique perspective to offer. She argued that intergenerational conflict does not exist in the minds of young people, but stressed the life chances of some young people have taken a dip. Shortages in good quality jobs for young people, she contended, could have a lasting impact on their future prospects. 

Turning to older generations, Caroline argued that whilst they cannot be held responsible for the plight of the young, they are not shouldering their fair share of current public spending cuts. However, she noted that overcoming this problem risks penalising older people on low incomes, as retirees have difficulty increasing their income, and means tested benefits reach only a fraction of those they are intended for. 

Josh Dixon then offered a ‘youth perspective’ on the debate. Focusing on three policy areas that need to be addressed by Political Parties, he began by discussing youth employment, emphasising part time work, second jobs and zero hours contract as common features. He praised the expansion of apprenticeships, but remained critical of the low statutory minimum wage for such work. 

Moving on to housing, Josh stressed the need for increased house building, and observed that sadly, young people no longer have aspirations to own their own homes. Finishing with Higher Education, he expressed concern that under the current financing system, a significant proportion of the population will be saddled with a huge amount of debt. Josh concluded by remarking that intergenerational conflict will be the next battleground only if young people come forward, speak out and make it the next battleground.

Tom Papworth ended the panel discussion by arguing that intergenerational fairness is a real, but frequently misunderstood notion. The term “generations”, he posited, is used to lump people together to make rhetorical points, whilst “fairness” can mean any number of things. To provide clarity, Tom defined intergenerational unfairness as “acting in a manner that can cause legitimate envy in future generations”, of which resource depletion and climate change are good examples.

Public policy, Tom argued, is particularly susceptible to intergenerational unfairness because of both the nature of pay-as-you-go systems and the state’s unique ability to enable people (and whole cohorts) to “inherit” debt. Tom concluded by echoing previous remarks that inequities are as great – often greater – within generations as they are between generations.

By India Keable-Elliott

Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2014: How to win a European referendum

How to win a European referendum

Supported by British Influence

Saturday 4th October 2014

  • Stephen Tall (chair)
  • Prof John Curtice
  • Craig Harrow, Better Together
  • Prof Dame Helen Wallace
  • Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury

This fringe event examined the possibility of a European referendum, especially in light of the Scottish referendum. Stephen Tall began by arguing that jobs and immigration will be central issues when discussing the UK’s role in the EU, and warned that the media will be more divided than over Scottish independence. 

Craig Harrow highlighted the importance of the question itself, noting the negative connotations of a campaign entitled “No”, unlike the positive imagery of “Yes”, such as in the Scottish referendum. In terms of campaign mechanics, he emphasised securing funding early and directing the campaign’s efforts towards ‘undecided’ voters. He argued for future votes for 16- and 17-year-olds. Harrow noted the influence of ‘trusted message carriers’, including the BBC and celebrity endorsers, but also warned that direct comparisons between the Scottish experience and an EU referendum could underestimate major differences.

Professor John Curtice warned that any European referendum could result in a victory for either side. He noted that the ‘Better Together’ campaign rejected a continuation of the status quo, and argued that the public will be more likely to support staying within the EU if reform appears imminent; Cameron’s position is “very similar to that of the modal voter” in his desire to stay within a reformed EU, he believes. Professor Curtice also argued that EU membership has failed to generate a sense of European identity among Britons – unlike the Scottish referendum, where identity was key. In consequence, a pro-Europe campaign needs to focus on ‘instrumental issues’, namely practical benefits of staying within the EU. 

Professor Dame Helen Wallace drew comparisons between previous referenda across Europe. She highlighted the importance of well-run campaign mechanics, arguing we can learn lessons from the tactics used in the 1975 European referendum and Irish referenda. She also noted the failures of the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign, compared with the ‘No’ side’s popular and clear messages. She also warned against underestimating populist feeling and noted that immigration is likely to be central in our own debates about the EU. Finally, Professor Wallace argued a pro-Europe campaign will need to focus on practical, instrumental arguments, rather than only tackling UKIP.

Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP noted that a key lesson from the Scottish debate was the sway of arguments from within the community; for example, powerful pro-Union economic arguments came from the business community, not from the Treasury. He agreed with Professor Curtice that a pro-Europe campaign would need a focus on change within the EU, not a continuation of the status quo. The pro-Europe campaign needs to paint themselves as the ‘true reformers’, he argued, and that the opposite position will set the country back by decades.

Opening questions to the floor, the audience discussed the role of 16-and 17-year-old voters in a future referendum, as their demographic is least likely to support UKIP. The panel agreed, but emphasised that a European referendum may be seen as less relevant to young voters than Scottish independence. Danny Alexander MP urged making pro-Europe messages patriotic, since the anti-Europe campaign could dominate this message. The audience discussed the potential trap of targeting UKIP in a pro-Europe campaign: Professor Curtice noted that UKIP appeals primarily to a small and specific demographic, so a pro-Europe campaign should focus on the larger group of non-UKIP voters who will want to quit the EU. Craig Harrow argued that the campaign should highlight the risks of leaving the EU to ordinary people’s lives within the UK itself, drawing parallels with the role of the NHS in the Scottish debate.

In closing remarks, Professors Curtice and Wallace thought there would be no referendum. Danny Alexander MP, Craig Harrow and Professor Curtice argued that if there was a vote, the pro-European side would likely win.

By Anna Claeys

Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2014: After the Scottish referendum, what happens now?Balancing Technology and Privacy: What’s the Best Way Forward?

Balancing Technology and Privacy: What’s the Best Way Forward?

Partner: Microsoft

Monday 6th October 2014

Speakers: 

  • Simon Hughes, MP, Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties
  • Baroness Sarah Ludford
  • Hugh Milward, Director, Corporate Affairs, Microsoft
  • Charles Brand, Trustee, CentreForum (Chair)

Summary:

The increased sharing of information through technological advances has led to serious considerations about the nature of privacy and the roles of government, the technology industry, advertisers, the public, and others. Hugh Milward set the scene for a lively discussion of this topic by drawing on Bill Gates’ profound belief in the transformational power of the computer and the inherent importance of citizens and consumers being able to place trust in evolving technologies. He emphasized the need for principles on transparency and scrutiny in establishing such trust. 

Sarah Ludford expanded this thread by pointing out the benefits of harnessing technological advances as well as the importance of regulation in curbing the improper handling of data. She began by stressing the economic opportunity and political engagement associated with technological advances, pointing to developments in Hong Kong. Along these lines, a careful balance must be upheld in maintaining an “ordered disorder” and “regulated non-regulation” of the internet. In terms of government involvement, Baroness Ludford touched upon Edward Snowden’s disclosures of global surveillance programs, and indicated that while revelations about these programs were less-than-surprising, the more shocking aspect was the cynicism and “what can we get away with?” attitude taken by governments. With regard to such surveillance, she insisted on the need for open debate coupled with strong and clear laws that are democratically legislated and guided by the courts. In addition to this, Baroness Ludford called for a “culture change” around personal data handling – noting the importance of data ownership and attaining clearly demarcated permission for using people’s data.

Simon Hughes outlined the progress of the data protection agenda, listing serious corporate data breaches and an increase in cybercrime figures as driving factors. The current EU Data Protection Directive dates back to 1995, and the reform now being undertaken is intended to bolster consumer confidence while maintaining the data flows that feed a thriving information economy. Hughes said that a balance must be struck between data protection and freedom of information, noting that while it is yet to be seen whether the regulatory instrument will take the form of regulation or directive, the reform should come into law by next May. Commenting on this topic, Hugh Milward stressed the importance of having an international agreement so as to prevent tussles between different regulatory jurisdictions, citing as examples the April 2014 New York court ruling ordering Microsoft to hand over data stored on servers outside of the US, and the UK Drip Act.

The overflowing audience addressed the panel with a multitude of questions to round off the discussion. One observer noted the Orwellian feeling of being under “total surveillance” by large corporations and the fear of having no idea what is being done with users’ personal data. Hugh Milward acknowledged this as a legitimate concern, saying that at the moment, your data is not yours – rather, it belongs to the organizations you post it on. Simon Hughes also agreed with the audience member, emphasizing that the system must ensure that people are never personally at risk. On the flip side, Baroness Ludford pointed out that there is a tradeoff to be had, explaining that providing organizations like Google with your data is what makes their service “free”.

By Alexandra Tzvetkova