Friday, 28 September 2012

The best and the worst bits of conference

So, Lib Dem autumn conference is now over. As normal it was great fun though expensive (especially if, like me, you're on a student budget) and a fantastic opportunity to bump into friends and acquaintances old and new.

And I thought I'd just write this post to highlight my personal best and worst bits of conference.

The Best

As always, my favourite bit of conference was Glee club on the last night - a proud, decades old, tradition where we all get together, get drunk, and sing Lib Dem versions of many popular songs until 2am. My favourite songs this year were Lib-Lab Lie (to the tune of American Pie) and Policing The Land - a brutal pillorying of the conference accreditation system.

Another highlight was my good friend Natasha Chapman making her first speech at conference. Despite being rather nervous she did absolutely brilliantly and I foresee brilliant things in her future - if only she'll give up on her ambition to be a scientist and let me bully her into becoming Prime Minister instead ;)

And then there was the Equal Citizenship motion passing overwhelmingly and the incredibly heartfelt speeches made during the debate by sick and disabled people - if I ever needed reminding of why it's worth doing this their stories were all that anyone would ever need to realise why this injustice needs fighting.

Finally, there was conference overwhelmingly defeating the leadership in a vote on secret courts - more on this later.

The Worst

The worst and most depressing and simultaneously infuriating moment of conference was a rigged debate over economic strategy. Basically, Danny Alexander had a motion endorsing the government's economic strategy and calling for a few good, liberal, additions to it. Some people objected to the notion of officially endorsing George Osborne's economic strategy as party policy and so two amendments to the motion were put forwards.

As the Guardian accurately reports:
One amendment tabled by Linda Jack, the leader of Liberal Left, a smallish pressure group that has opposed the coalition from the outset, called for the fiscal mandate to be scrapped. Another amendment tabled by Prateek Buch, from the more centre-left Social Liberal Forum (SLF) opposed "yet more public spending cuts, which will be counterproductive, particularly if capital investment and welfare spending are targeted again". 
It also called on the coalition to "prioritise measures to boost demand through public and private investment, using all tools available to government including the flexibility in its fiscal mandate, over further spending cuts beyond those already in place that would suppress confidence and demand yet further". 
The first amendment from Jack had the support of only 13 signatories while the other, more subtle but still pointed, motion from SLF had 29 supporters.
And, with these two amendments put forward, the Federal Conference Committee decided to select the motion with fewer backers, and a fairly extreme anti-coalition motive, and completely ignore the more moderate one and block it from debate.

As a result, conference was presented with a choice between reluctantly endorsing the current deficit reduction strategy or completely rejecting the government's entire economic strategy. In short, it was no choice at all with the result that most voting representatives decided to back the motion and reject the amendment as most of them, myself included, felt that the amendment was too extreme and damaging to the coalition which, like it or not, most of us are still reluctantly signed up to.

We were helped to this view by a rigged debate in which the chair called hardly any ordinary party members to speak, instead calling MP after MP, one after another, to support the motion and to denounce the amendment. There was precisely one speaker called to support the amendment in the debate - something which I am sure was far from reflective of the balance of opinion in the speakers cards submitted to the chair of the debate.

The obvious effect was that you had party authority figure after party authority all saying the same thing, distorting the debate so that advocates of the amendment couldn't get a word in edgeways. Couple this with a whipping operation which saw MPs, peers and their staff flood into the hall just in time to cast their vote, and what we ended up with was a disgustingly partial and rigged debate which forced conference into voting for an endorsement of Osborne's economic strategy due to the lack of any real alternative. It was undemocratic and the chair of that debate (who I won't name) should be utterly ashamed of himself for so obviously distorting the party's democratic process.

Something similar also happened with a debate about the government's proposals for secret courts. Basically, the government wants to allow secret courts in cases where there is top secret evidence which can't be disclosed where the intelligence services deem it to be a threat to national security. Instead, the government's lawyers would have a cosy tete-a-tete with the judge and a government appointed "advocate" for the other side's defence team where they could all discuss the evidence in secret without the other sides lawyers even being able to communicate with their so-called advocate.

The party leadership wanted the party to back wording which would allow this to happen and, despite a similar whipping operation where popular MPs and peers were wheeled out to sacrifice their credibility to defend the leadership's position, the response from conference was a resounding "fuck no" with members actually cheering as they overwhelmingly voted for the secret court proposals to be scrapped. So, while the two attempts to rig conference were utterly disgusting, at least I can be proud of my fellow party members for not standing for it.

An Announcement

And all of the above brings me to an announcement I'd like to make. Given the failure of the FCC to protect debates from being rigged, and because of various other issues, I'd like to announce that I am standing for the Federal Conference Committee in the internal elections later this autumn. I'll have a more detailed manifesto up shortly.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Equal Citizenship motion passes!

I'm in a great mood at the moment. Yesterday afternoon my Equal Citizenship motion was passed by Lib Dem conference (and overwhelmingly passed I might add - only one person voted against it), along with an amendment effectively blocking tory plans for an extra £10 billion of cuts to the welfare budget.

As a result, the motion is now party policy and I'm now determined to do some proper lobbying, along with the brilliant and amazing Kelly-Marie Blundell, to make sure that, unlike last time, our MPs and peers actually act on the motion.

The full text of the unamended motion can be found here and here are the key points which the amended policy motion demands:

  • An independent review of the impact of the government’s welfare reforms 
  • Action to make all ESA assessment centres accessible
  • Changes to assessment for disability benefits (primarily ESA and PIPs) to make them fairer and less intimidating to applicants 
  • More funding to advice services like the CAB during the transitional period for any further changes to the welfare system
  • A national public awareness campaign to tackle disability hate crime
  • More funding for schemes like the Access to Work Fund to help sick and disabled people seeking work
  • A review of means testing for income related disability benefits to look at changing the ridiculously low cut-off thresholds used at the moment
  • A block on Conservative calls for a further £10 billion of cuts to welfare and pension spending

I'm not naive enough to think that all of these will actually be done this parliament but I certainly think that there's no reason why some of them, such as making assessment centres accessible and tackling disability hate crime, can't be done immediately. And today I met with Scope and various Lib Dems in government so that Kelly-Marie and I could start to get the ball rolling on lobbying parliamentarians to deliver on the will of Lib Dem conference.

Also, one other thing from the debate on the policy itself, is that I reminded conference that we need to apologise, as a party, for the welfare reforms and for our failure not to do more than we did. Because, while things like preserving the mobility component for DLA for people in care homes, blocking a 10% cut in housing benefit for people on Job Seeker's Allowance and maintaining the Harrington Reports are all good things, they simply aren't enough to absolve us of responsibility for the suffering being faced by sick and disabled people right now.

I just hope that passing the motion can act as a starting point for finally making good the damage caused and for finally starting to make sick and disabled people equal, rather than second class, citizens.

And last, but definitely not least, a massive, massive thank you to everyone who supported the motion, helped write it and who helped get it to autumn conference. You're all heroes :)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

About to give a speech

I'm typing this quickly because I'm about to go to a question and answer session with Nick Clegg at Lib Dem autumn conference where I intend to ask an awkward question if I get called to speak.

So, just as a brief update, at 15.05 I go to the question and answer session with Nick Clegg, where I have submitted this question:
What is fair or liberal about us cutting Disability Living Allowance by 20% and taking Employment Support Allowance away from vulnerable sick and disabled people?
After which, it's my Equal Citizenship motion, which is backed by party members including the cabinet minister Jeremy Browne, former leader Sir Menzies Campbell, and party president Tim Farron.

I'm summating the motion and Kelly-Marie Blundell is proposing it.

If you haven't got time to read the full thing, basically it's about getting a full, independent review of the cuts to disability benefits in the Welfare Reform Act with the goal of reversing them and about proper action to tackle disability hate crime. Additionally, an amendment has been proposed to the motion which would block any further cuts to welfare this parliament. And, if the motion is passed by conference, it becomes official party policy.

That said, the Deputy Prime Minister's office (though not Nick Clegg himself) has given us the message that even if the motion is passed they'll ignore it. Given that this is grossly unconstitutional, I look forward to seeing how conference react to this when I mention it in my speech.

So, that's the update. And I'll do an update either later today or tomorrow about whether it was passed or not.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Back

Last weekend it was my 22nd birthday. The week immediately prior was my last week of work. The weekend before that was a holiday to visit my ancestral homeland of Yorkshire with my grandparents (yes, it turns out that I'm part Northern - I'm still coming to terms with the revelation).

And all this together, and the the general busy nature of things, has meant that I haven't blogged anything since last Monday and have spent most of my waking hours just generally taking a break from everything and, to be completely honest, spending a wee bit too much time playing video games. As a result I've missed Michael Gove's cackhanded and idiotic attempts to take our education system back to the 1950s (something which, according to the email he sent to Lib Dem members, David Laws thinks is absolutely wonderful) and Clegg's apparently heartfelt and honest but long overdue apology for breaking his word on tuition fees. Kudos to Clegg though for being the first politician in my lifetime to actually stand up and say sorry for doing something wrong - Mr Blair and Mr Brown, perhaps you'd like to do the same now?

And, to be perfectly honest, I quite liked having a brief break from politics and the world in general. Escapism is so much more fun than looking around you and realising what an utter shithole the world can be and is.

But today I read something powerfully written which touched me. I don't agree with all of it but James Graham's blogpost on the Cleggpology, former party strategist Richard Reeves, the coalition and the future of the Liberal Democrats is erudite, well informed and very insightful and it reminded me just how bad the state of politics in this country is.

And it also reminded me of the fact that there's no such thing as the big win in politics, of one woman or one man or a small group of people who can sweep to power and set everything to rights. It just doesn't happen. Instead it takes years, decades, of constant, relentless struggle by hundreds of people to make real and lasting change happen. And that's disheartening because, like most young people in politics, I like to think of myself as the dashing future saviour of the nation - and having to face up to reality that the absolute best I can ever hope to achieve is to make a few minor changes here and there is a bit of a let down compared to the dream.

But I suppose that dreams are necessary because it's only the vision of a radically better world that keeps us going.

So, putting melodrama aside, I've been reminded of why I do what I do and of why I think it's important not to abdicate responsibility for trying to make a better world and why I have no right to be selfish and ignore the injustice all around me in favour of escapism. Not to mention the fact that there are so many people fucking things up at the moment that I couldn't possibly do a worse job by trying.

I think I've now come to intellectually accept that I'm not going to change the world. Thankfully though, I don't think I've believed it yet. And who knows? If I keep on dreaming about changing things then there's a small chance that maybe, just maybe, I might actually be able to make a difference.

Anyway. That's enough self-indulgent introspection. Normal service of angry rants will resume shortly.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lib Dem MPs back Equal Citizenship motion

Well, I've got some good news for a change - several Liberal Democrat MPs, including the party president, Tim Farron, and former leader Sir Menzies Campbell are backing the Equal Citizenship policy motion, due to be debated and voted on at Lib Dem conference later this month, which calls for an independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act, for proper reform of assessment mechanism of disability benefits, changes to means testing thresholds for disability benefits and action, including a public awareness campaign to tackle disability hate crime, in order start empowering and enabling sick and disabled people to be able to be full equal citizens in our society rather than marginalised.

This is the list of MPs who've backed the motion:

Sir Malcolm Bruce MP
Sir Menzies Campbell, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Tim Farron MP, Party President of the Liberal Democrats
Stephen Gilbert MP
Stephen Lloyd MP
Adrian Sanders MP

With these MPs supporting the motion hopefully this time, if the motion does get passed, it won't be promptly ignored by the leadership.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Welfare dependency versus benefit fraud

There's something that's been bothering me when it comes to discussions about welfare reform. Time and time again people talk about (mythical) massive welfare dependency and benefit fraud and use this to argue that we must be ruthless in targeting fraudsters as if that's the same thing as welfare dependency and as if benefit fraud (which already has several benefit fraud task forces and a hotline to report incidences of it) wasn't costing us ten times less than tax evasion.

And I think a major issue here is the way that people conflate people being trapped on benefits, or forced to depend on them due to lack of alternatives, with benefit fraud.

To people doing this I say:

Look, if you want to tackle benefits dependency then what you need is education, careers advice, and all sorts of other support provided for people right from an early age. You might also want to look at ending the situation where the minimum age isn't enough to live on and forces a significant chunk of the population to be in the situation of being in work and also having to claim stuff like housing benefit and working tax credit.

However, this is COMPLETELY different from the issue of actual fraud which is incredibly low at 0.7% (based on very accurate statistical studies conducted periodically by the DWP). You're always going to have some fraud in any system and we have to put up with that.

But fixating on welfare fraud, which is a relatively minor problem, is just a massive distraction from much bigger wastes of money and much bigger costs to the taxpayer elsewhere (such as tax evasion). Additionally, all too often, this fixation focuses mainly on perpetrating myths and promotes a heartless cruelty (as well as a twisted sort of envy) directed at some of the poorest people in society. And the result of it inevitably is that, instead of actually weeding out a vanishingly small number of cheats, you just end up kicking some more vulnerable people out into the cold and patting yourself on the back for a job well done.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Who are the new DWP ministers?

So, in the current government reshuffle, two notable changes are the departure from the DWP of Chris Grayling and Maria Miller.

Instead they have been replaced with two people who most members of the public will never have heard of. They are Esther McVey (former parliamentary private secretary to Chris Grayling) and Mark Hoban (the former Treasury Minister), with both of them being Conservatives. That these are the new job holders is probably certain given that the official Number 10 twitter account has tweeted the appointments.

Mark Hoban is taking over from Chris Grayling as Minister of State for Work and Pensions.

Esther McVey is taking over from Maria Miller as Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Work and Pensions (though it's not known if she'll also be Minister for the Disabled).

Now, as McVey has been working in the DWP as Chris Grayling's chief assistant since 2010 she obviously has experience of working in the DWP while Hoban has none with his previous parliamentary experience being in science and technology, education and the treasury. However, with both of them, their personal opinions and approaches to the DWP's work are pretty much unknown.

That being said, it's obvious that neither of them are being in to rock the boat. Both of their job moves are promotions so my guess would be that Number 10 just wants them to pretty much keep things going the way they are under the auspices of their immediate boss Iain Duncan-Smith (who's presence will mean that the welfare reforms will keep going but who also is disliked by the treasury for fighting ferociously to protect his department from cuts).

So, to give us a better idea who these two new ministers are, I'm going to start with brief biopics of each of them.

Mark Hoban

Economist and former financial analyst. Married with no children. MP for Fareham in Hampshire, a Conservative safe seat, and member of the Conservative front bench since 2003 - primarily in finance related roles - and is viewed as a 'hard-nosed' safe pair of hands.

However, based on an interview on the Today programme and looking at the analysis of the interview by Touchstone, where he defended the housing benefit cuts and changes to DLA, while refuting analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis of the changes (based on the DWP's figures) as being likely to significantly increase poverty. From this he's either good at spouting the government line or a fool who actually believes it. Personally I think it's more likely to be the latter.

However, given that he's got no previous experience in this area and doesn't appear to have ever shown an interest, it's pretty impossible to tell what kind of job he'll do in his new role.

Esther McVey

Former TV presenter and businesswoman. Single. MP for Wirral West in Merseyside, a marginal seat which she won from Labour in 2010 after losing in 2005. She's also a supporter of Conservative Way Forward, a neo-Thatcherite group within the tories (albeit one which also supported David Cameron's modernising agenda). While this and the fact that she (unsurprisingly) supported her boss's welfare reforms in public, is rather unpromising, what her personal opinions are is anyone's guess and she is patron of a disabled children charity called 'Full Of Life'.

The best thing about her I've been able to turn up so far is that she doesn't appear to have copied her boss's habit of describing disabled people as workshy and scroungers - it's early days yet though. Additionally, she did manage to get Grant Shapps to visit families living in partially demolished streets in her constituency when he was Housing Minister with the result that he made an extra £75 million available to help families trapped in  those and similar situations - so not without some sense of decency then.

Can be found on twitter as @EstherMcVeyMP.

IDS Downfall video

For those who are unaware there's a film, called Downfall, which is set in Hitler's bunker in the last days of the Third Reich. There's a scene in it where a furious Hitler launches an angry tirade at his generals following the realisation that the war is lost. The internet has turned this into a meme by changing the subtitles on the clip to make it appear that Hitler is talking about current events instead - or possibly changing it so that Hitler is someone else entirely.

And now one of them has been done for Iain Duncan-Smith - the minister presiding over some truly brutal cuts to disability benefits and support for vulnerable people. Given that the reshuffle is going on, it might well be that IDS is no longer in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions by the end of the day - in which case I'll probably have to make a parody of my own.

Anyway, here's the video. Enjoy.