Party conference diaries: Lib Dems, day two

As you might expect after a big party on Saturday night, Sunday morning started slowly… but I’m told this is a natural part of conference life cycle as the celebration gives way to the serious business of making policy. 

The buzz in the Media Centre was around the party leader’s  idea of “progressive austerity”  (which broke on Tweetminster first, thanks to our multitasking strategy director @abeddard).  "Progressive austerity" describes the new policy of balancing tough national spending choices with more financial independence for local government - primarily through local income tax.   The whole day was characterised by debates about devolution and localism (that’s “progressive”), and how that could achieve the target of cutting £2bn in public spending (that’s “austerity”).  This idea rests very heavily on shifting power away from Whitehall to the regions - the idea being that this will save money on wasteful central government bureaucracy.  What we haven’t heard much on yet is how this localised approach will avoid creating its own inefficiencies.  If every local public service makes its own decisions (about how to do things, what systems to buy, everything) how will they work effectively together?

After getting a great Audioboo with Nick Clegg at midday the Tweetminster team started digging deeper with candidates and local councillors to add some insight into what localism means to candidates and grass roots activists. 

Bridget Fox, PPC for Islington South & Finsbury told us that for her, poverty has to be a high priority. Her campaign will alert affluent Islington residents to the fact they live just a few streets away from some of London’s most deprived areas - and it’s getting worse.  Ending child poverty in London needs better local services. 

Another popular PPC, Greg Stone for Newcastle East told us that in his constituency there are over twenty thousand students, and his campaign reaches out to them. As a result, he has been pushing Nick Clegg very hard to give a clear undertaking on tuition fees - he is well aware that a fifteen billion pound commitment over the life of the next parliament is a huge cost, but for him the local community needs to hear about a better package for students, especially in the recession struck North East.

Chris White, opposition leader for Hertfordshire County Council, told us that local government has a key role to play in making Britain a fairer society and in executing cost effective policies. But if the Tories get in (Eric Pickles once again in for criticism) central government would grow even larger, cost even more and deliver even less. Localism (for Chris) is the most effective way to achieve spending cuts without hitting Britain’s poorest families.

So localism, devolution, federalism, dispersal of power - call it what you will -  is about making sure more money generated by local taxpayers gets spent by local representatives for the benefit of the local community.  That seems simple enough but critics throughout the day raised their eyebrows and urged a note of caution.  As one panel member put it “Universal benefits are easy to claim, but even so, there is over £5m in unclaimed child benefit in the UK.   So making the system more complex could harm the people who need it most because benefits will be harder to claim”.  The proponents’ response was, rather disappointingly, “no it won’t”.

So in general it was a bad day for Central government in Bournemouth today.  Especially with the announcement that the UK is ranked alongside Russia, Malaysia, China, Iraq and Singapore as “endemic surveillance societies” by Privacy International - a statistic that kicked off the debate over scrapping ID cards.  ID cards are universally despised here, and the subject rallied the audience, ending the day with a buzz akin to the celebrations last night.

Posted at Mon, Sep 21st 2009, 08:08