Monday, 31 March 2014

Liberal Leader promises Full Employment on BBC News tonight


You can view the clip here Though they cut it badly hiding the fact the Sinclair was speaking on behalf of the Liberal Party the BBC News tonight had a clip from the 1945 election. Sinclair, unlike Osborne, was using Liberal MP William Beveridge's definition of full employment in a free society. You don't get PPB like this one today when the Party Leader declaims as if he is addressing and open air meeting

40 years of local government-the reform that failed

Forty years ago this week the Heath government inflicted a reform of local government upon us. To commemorate this anniversary BBC Sunday Politics NW did a piece including contributions from our MP John Pugh and me. Jim Hancock, the NW's premiere political commentator, has written arguing that there is still unfinished business for the NW following on from a previous posting calling for a more co-ordinated Regional approach which I covered in an earlier posting.

 Southport got a rotten deal out of local government reorganisation in the 1970's. In truth none of the options on offer back then were 'Southport friendly'.( Well, I say that but had Heath not rejected the 1969 Redcliff Maud proposals I would not have been writing this posting) The political architecture drawn up by Peter Walker for the North had no place for towns like ours.

The past forty years have done nothing to dull the discomfort. Thousands upon thousands of local residents have petitioned the powers that be for changes to the structure.

A quick glance at a map shows why- 95% of our land boundary is not with Merseyside. Since re-organisation we have had no significant investment in our transport, road or rail, to the north or east. Whilst a regular, four times an hour, electrified rail service goes to Liverpool the service to Manchester has greatly declined. We have diesel units, amongst the oldest rolling stock on the network, that reluctantly chug their way to Wigan. It is a near miracle the Northern Rail keep them in service.  It is simply not fit for purpose. The same is true of road links. The chance of a decent road link to the motorway network is declining and there is no sign of an Ormskirk by pass.

Our town's economy is centred on visitors, retail, tourist attractions, conferences and good food, for these to flourish good road and rail communications are essential. The links we need investing in are not in Merseyside. They lie within Lancashire and Southport is simply not a priority for our neighbours. The so called City region is no use.

We are competing with Liverpool and Manchester for retail and conference trade. Millions are being invested in upgrading their communications. Investment not seen since Victorian times is being made in the Manchester rail hub and the Liverpool Manchester line is being electrified. Greater Manchester is talking of electrifying the section of line from Wigan to Manchester leaving the portion from Wigan on to Southport to wither and eventually close? Southport needs a voice at the table which makes decisions about the transport infrastructure that impact on us.

We now have excellent conference facilities-recently further improved by the increase in bed spaces and an excellent 4* Hotel abutting the Conference facility . Our retailers have got their act together and along with other have successfully won the vote for a Business Improvement District.  They have some exciting and innovative ideas but with out improved communication links they have an uphill battle to attract people to the town. Reconnecting with our natural hinterland is essential and that means electrifying the rail route from Southport to Manchester, restoring the curves at Burscough opening up a line to Preston once again and connecting us to the motorway network.

What is to be done? John Pugh our MP has a Bill before Parliament at present that would allow local residents to trigger a boundary review. At present the process is controlled by London based bureaucrats who resist all calls for change.

There is a bigger problem.  It is not just that those who work in London are not interested in allowing sensible changes to boundaries in far away towns of which they know nothing and seemingly care less. The main problem is that they are promoting an idea -City Regions- which will make the situation worse. Jim Hancock puts it well :

It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.

What went wrong? In a word; Prescott. That is John Prescott, a man who history will judge harshly, not for his bad grammar but for his incompetence. Blair put him in charge of a massive department. Part of his brief was to bring in Regional government in the aftermath of the devolution to Scotland and Wales.He failed. Maybe Blair intended him to fail. The Whitehall mandarins cheered as no doubt did those who believe unitary government. The proposals that Prescott produced for the NE were insulting. He was offering nothing more than a parish council.

Ming Campbell was asked this weekend: What is the answer to the West Lothian question? Ming replied: Federalism.  He was right. Prescott failure to put forward a credible Regional option for England has undermined that objective. Of course the powers in London don't want powerful English Regions exercising the sort of powers that are on offer to Holyrood under 'Devo Max'. The civil servants would hate it. Instead we have this botched idea of City Regions- essentially City Councils with pretensions. Of course it flatters their egos, makes them feel important but essentially they have gone along with a divide and rule policy which Balkanises the north and does great economic damage to those who do not live and work in the core cities. The Labour party in these parts are broadly untouched by New Labour ideas and still dream of state control and democratic centralism and therefore no friends of decentralisation.

As Jim Hancock points out if the Cities are seen as the only drivers of economic growth in the north those of us who want to live and work in the spaces in between are ignored. I am a Liberal. I believe in the diffusion of power and wealth. Towns like Southport are being written out of the script if we allow this folly to go on. I pointed out how our key requirement for economic success is improved road and rail links to the North-towards Preston, and the East towards Manchester. Since local government re-organisation there had been very little investment  and the service has declined significantly damaging our economy. The key investment is not within our 'City Region' and they will never become someone elses priority.  The only decent links are through a narrow corridor to the south- within Merseyside.. We need those visitors from the Lancashire and Greater Manchester back, potentially they represent 70% of our visitors. The boundary is the impediment to that investment.

John Cruddas  the man in charge of Milliband's policy review speaking at the Progress meeting recently declared:  "The real divide within Labour is no longer between left and right, but between those that centralise power and those that devolve it."

This debate has been going on within Labour for generations and the centralists always win. David Marquand's excellent book records the battle in 1945 over the Health Service. Predictably in the 'nationalise it under central control' corner was Ernest Bevin.  His approach was summed up by David Marquand as:'quintessential democratic collectivist....whose policy was shaped by a technocratic centralism that would have delighted the Webbs.'  He asserted to the cabinet that there was 'an overwhelming case' for putting the voluntary hospital sector under public control and-most significantly- that Local Government wasn't up to it. Apparently L.G. had too small a units-where have we heard that before ?- even though we have giant units of local government compared to most of Europe.

There was a fierce battle in cabinet with Herbert Morrison championing the  resistance to nationalisation in the name of -'local democracy and civic engagement' and Bevan claiming 'rationality and uniformity',  whereas as Morrisson believed that local democracy should trump 'administrative convenience and technical efficiency. We know who won.

We cannot rely on Labour with its internal schism and tergiversation on this most crucial issue. Liberals are the champions of decentralisation, we believe that small can be beautiful and that civic involvement enhances democracy. The strengthening of powers to Wales and Scotland that will inevitably follow the referendum require us to spell out a federal alternative for England and for large swathes of the population City Regions are not the answer.

I wrote this posting (especially the final paragraph) before the city region exploded it petty squabbling and destructive division. It is as though the Labour bosses are seeking to prove they are incapable and exercising enhanced powers.
Writing in the Liverpool Echo Marc Waddington ( a lad from Burnely who therefore should take note of Jim Hancock's strictures quoted above) noted:

After the chaos of the Merseytravel debacle, when Labour in-fighting led to the coup of its chairman Cllr Mark Dowd and all the horror stories about profligacy with public money followed, a lot of people hoped it was moving into a steadier period.
It has done and has been run pretty well under the chairmanship of Cllr Liam Robinson, but there may be some fears within the corridors of Merseytravel that the fall out on the combined authority could send the transport authority off the rails.
After all, it is now answerable to the new body, and if we have two factions then we have problems. We don’t want progress slowing to a crawl because of personal disputes.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Shirley Williams at dinner for Ronnie Fearn's 50 yrs as a councillor

A couple of  weeks ago I blogged about Shirley William's impending visit to Southport  Well she came and once again conquered the hearts and minds of all those who turned out. In her talk, to which I shall return, Shirley spoke of the big changes she had seen in her political life time especially around the role of women and the digital revolution. She recalled the only feminist remark she had heard Thatcher make and tried to persuade us that she was as ignorant about digital matter as Ronnie Fearn-whose fifty years as an elected councillor we had come to celebrate.

I had the pleasure of having Jim Hancock join our table at the dinner held at the Ramada -the recently opened hotel next to our conference centre. It was a different world back in 1963 when Ronnie was first elected. In local government terms Southport was a County Borough and we were the largest party. The night Ronnie was elected nine other Southport Liberals topped the ballot and he joined a group of 26 Liberals in the Town Hall. The party was still basking in the after glow of Eric Lubbock's victorious Orpington by election and all things were possible. Southport was always different. After years of Tory domination a formal Lib/Lab pact had a majority in the council chamber. As I understand it we fought 10 seats and Labour fought five. The pact was so strict that we helped out in each other's by elections
For Southport Liberals Orpington was not the first sign of revival. In truth we had always survived. In 1959 Sam Goldberg came second in the  General election, (Michael Meadowcroft tells the story in an edition of  Liberator page 16)

Shirley with some Southport Lib Dems-
Haydn Preece is just visible behind Ronnie's right ear
I was telling Jim this during the meal and repeated an assertion that I have heard frequently made that we were the only 2nd place in England in a three cornered fight in 1959. Jim raised a quizzical eyebrow and, as befits a West Country lad, politely wondered about Torrington-the scene of Mark Bonham Carter's  1958 by election victory.

When I got home I began to check the election stats. In truth scrolling through the 1959 results is pretty depressing. Clearly they were a lot better than 1951, but page after page of third places and no candidate was not promising. Never the less Jim was right. There were eight other seats in England where we didn't fight in 1955 and gained second place in 1959 including Torrington, Roger Cuss in Cheadle and Ludovic Kennedy in Rochdale . In addition there were, chiefly in the West Country a handful of long term second places-Tavistock (Richard Moore), Honiston, Bodmin, North Cornwall etc plus Westormland where A. C Acland came second. (I met Acland in 1992,  well I met a man who was living in Middlewich where I was the County Councillor who introduced himself as the parliamentary candidate for Westmorland in 1959 and reminisced about Jo Grimond. Jo had made a visit to  during the 1992 General Election to the Cheshire constituency.

It was not surprising that when Jim and I were talking the conversation turned to our old friend Viv Bingham.  Viv died in 2012 and Jim helped organise a meeting at the NLC in his memory. If Viv was around today one thing of which we can be certain is that would be concerned about the state of the Co-op. Viv's last job was as head of HR for the Co-op based at it's Manchester HQ. Viv was a firm advocate of workers' co-operatives and like all Liberals of his generation saw co-ownership as a central tenant of his political creed. He would have been depressed by the sad state of his former employers and I suspect angry at the 'lite' version of employee ownership and workplace democracy advocated by his party's leadership. The policy he advocated was one where, as Richard Wainwright frequently told Liberal Assemblies, labour hired capital. Viv wanted to see workers treated on the same basis as share holders with the Boards of companies elected on a common voting roll. and compulsory profit sharing for all companies with more that 50 employees . At the time of his death Viv was talking about publishing his reflections on the need for Liberals and the Co-operative movement to reignite their partnership. Maybe out of the ashes of the present collapse that opportunity may present itself. I shall return to this in a later posting when I get write something about the SLF fringe meeting at York.

The other discussion Jim and I had was over the misguided emphasis on City Regions. He wrote recently:
It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.

Policy today appears to be that the towns and villages in between the cities in the north are a waste of space and ought to be taken over by the cities. This too I will return to in a later posting.

As to Thatcher's' feminist' remark made to Shirley in a House of Commons loo? That too will appear in a separate posting..............  

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Prime Minister visits Southport

I popped into The Atkinson today after being alerted that they had new stock. The information/ticket office doubles as Tourist Information and they have always had old railway posters and other Southport memorabilia. It was good to see they had lots of postcards, mugs etc of some of the art works in the gallery -pride of place was clearly given to Lilith by John Collier.

What caught my eye was a black and white notelet of a Prime Ministerial visit to Southport allegedly in 1910.

I am just re-reading Roy Jenkin's biography of Asquith( the Prime Minister he 'truly loved' according to Michael Steed) and I can find no reference to the visit there. Michael Braham's: 'Southport Liberal Association: The first 100 years' doesn't mention it either.

1910 was a tempestuous for Southport Liberal, two General Elections including what is popularly agreed to be the nastiest Tory campaign on record. waged against the Liberal Candidate Baron de Forest.The Tory a Major White played the race card with gusto. Anyway I can find no trace of a visit by Asquith.

The Prime Minister had come the year before to the conference of the National Liberal Federation held in the Cambridge Halls-now The Atkinson-. Braham tells us that there was a reception for 2,000 guests who were entertained by the Southport Vocal Union's Choir and music by the Corporation Band. A Garden Party was held in Hesketh Park for 2,500 guests.

Later during the Conference Asquith addressed upwards of 6,000 people. There was no Hall big enough in the town to accommodate the their were two meetings one in the Empire Music Hall (where was that?) and one in the Opera House.

Maybe Asquith just popped in to visit the Botanic Gardens in 1910, after all with two General Elections he must have been short of things to do

A YL bit of the equality jigsaw

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWith equal marriage about to be a reality there have been quiet few reminiscences in the media about the journey from pre Wolfenden days to the success of Lynne Featherstone's Bill. Rev Richard Coles can still be heard on iplayer fronting a Radio 4 program Gay Rights: Tying the Knot and Mathew Parris writing in The Times about his plotting 25 years ago along with Ian Mc Kellan and Peter Mandelson to advance the cause.

I want to go back before that -not as far as the Wolfenden Report or Roy Jenkins 1967 legislation- but to the Winter Garden's in Morecambe at Easter 1972.  Bear with me if you haven't heard the story before.

It was the Young Liberal Conference. About 500 of us had gathered on the Lancashire coast to recover from the battering and bruising of the Party Assembly held in Scarborough six months earlier. We had much to discuss. The YL essay book 'Scarborough Prospectives' was picked over as was the future of Community Politics.

What stands out most clearly in my memory was the motion move by Bernard Greaves. Bernard was, and is, held in very high regard. He was Political Vice chair of NLYL during the Red Guard era and went on to Co Author The Theory and Practice of Community Politics. The hall was (in my memory) full when Bernard came to propose his motion. His purpose was to build on the Gay Rights motion passed at a previous YL conference. Bernard explained that despite our good intention it was still very difficult to be openly gay. To help overcome this he wanted the conference to urge same sex dancing at the civic reception.  He turned to Peter Hain-who was finishing his term as Chair-and said how he was looking forward to asking him to dance at the Good Friday reception. It was a moment of delightfully excruciating embarrassment.

Bernard's motion was passed without dissent. It is hard to recall just how irrationally hostile society at large was towards homosexuals back then. I recall the letters written in green ink coming into YL HQ.  Ours was one of the very few national organisations that clearly stood against the prejudice and where openly gay people could make a contribution. Even so many people who later 'came out' explained that even in that accepting environment they didn't feel able to follow Bernard's example and be open.

Anyway come the Good Friday  reception and the Mayor of Morecambe and Heysham Corporation welcomes  us and announces that there was a by law in the town which forbade dancing on Good Friday........Well no one got arrested,  after the Stop the Seventies Cricket Tour Campaign and the mass acts of civil disobedience it was hardly a deterrent

Forward to 1974 and I held the post of Political Vice Chair and the YL's had voted to make their major campaign a Gays Rights one. In part this was centered around The Homosexual Law reform proposals that the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) had produced. About the first thing I did in my new role was to give a press conference too which only Gay News turned up! The campaign went well. Among other things the party committed itself to backing the CHE Bill.

David Steel was by far the most progressive party Leader on these issues and the 1979 manifesto contained the clear and unequivocal commitment of: ' Removing all legal discrimination based on sexual orientation.' As you might guess the Labour manifesto was silent on the issue

Just prior to the 1979 election the Edge Hill by election was called and won by David Alton. A Michael Taylor stood as a Gay Liberal. I canvassed a lot in that by election. The only people I met who mentioned Taylor were Labour canvassers. They thought it very funny and went on about it. It was generally believed that this was a concerted attempt to smear Alton.

So as Rev Coles might say the Liberal Party has played the role of the prodigal son's brother. It is not surprising that Ben Summerskill and other find it difficult to acknowledge our role in this journey. We were not alone , but we were early and consistent advocates of the cause at a time when there was no electoral advantage in doing the right thing

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Lord Bonkers highlights Labour's weakness

I have shamelessly copied this posting from Lord Bonkers.

Vince Cable gives a Commons master class - at the expense of Ed Balls

Vince Cable's response to Ed Balls in the Budget debate yesterday was a work of art and deserves to be quoted at some length:
I have calculated that this is the 18th Budget to which I have responded in some capacity, and the fourth directly to the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. However, since he wrote many of the others, I was probably responding to him indirectly. Having heard the right hon. Gentleman over the years, I have picked up on some traits. First, he obviously has a capacity for a crunchy, memorable soundbite that often turns out to be wrong. I think he was the author of the phrase “No more boom and bust”, the consequences of which we are still living with. I also think he was the author of “triple-dip recession”, which of course we never had. 
When we first had these exchanges a couple of years ago, the right hon. Gentleman had a very good football chant going on the Back Benches behind him: “Growth down, inflation up. Unemployment up.” Now of course we have growth up, unemployment down and inflation down. His current favourite is the “millionaires’ tax cut”, which I would find a little more persuasive had I not sat on the Opposition Benches for 10 years being lectured by him and his boss that any increase in the top rate of tax above 40% would be counterproductive and damaging to the economy. 
One feature of the right hon. Gentleman’s speeches that we all look forward to is the annual conjuring trick, and the 10 different ways we could use a bankers’ bonus tax. The rabbit out of the hat trick gets progressively more difficult because the rabbit gets bigger and the hat gets smaller as time passes, so I shall remind him of some of the figures. 
When the right hon. Gentleman was City Minister and presiding over all of this, the total bankers’ bonus pool was something in the order of £11.3 billion, and it was £11.5 billion the following year when the Labour Government brought in a bankers’ bonus tax. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which monitors these things, the bankers’ bonus pool was £1.6 billion last year. In the current year, it is estimated to be £1.3 billion. That is one-tenth of the size of the bonus pool on which the original tax was placed. We are then left with the question that is at the core of his fiscal policy: how is he going to get £3 billion in tax out of a £1.5 billion bonus pool? The charitable way to describe that is as a mathematical puzzle. We ought to refer it to the new Turing institute to investigate. 
I should perhaps declare one self-interest. I do not have an interest in the millionaires’ tax, but compared with both the shadow Chancellor and the Chancellor I am more likely to take advantage of the relaxation in the annuity rules. It is worth recalling that over many years I came to this House on many Friday mornings, with Back Benchers from my own party and Conservative Opposition MPs, to try to achieve this reform. We were confronted with relentless stonewalling by the Labour Government of the day, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a part and in which he participated directly, with the very simple message that pensioners were far too stupid and irresponsible to be trusted with their own pension savings. This is one of the really big, major positive changes to come out of the Budget.
It is worth reading his whole speech. Thrill as he swats away what are supposed to be telling interventions from Labour backbenchers.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Uganda, Nigeria not a time for for mealy mouth accommodation ..

The daughter of the Ugandan President declares she is gay . She explained in a radio broadcast she was doing so in protest against the anti gay leglislation signed by her father. Lynne Feathestone has declared:

Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality legislation is abhorrent. It imposes draconian penalties for repeat offences of homosexuality, so-called ‘aggravated’ homosexuality, same-sex marriage, attempting to commit homosexuality and for the loosely defined ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. This is nothing short of a great leap backward – not just for Uganda but for gay rights across Africa. I believe it marks a growing state-backed homophobic trend across the continent, one we cannot and should not ignore.

Uganda is not alone in passing anti gay action. In Nigeria the sister church to the CoE has issued an oath to be taken by members The text of the vow reads:

I declare before God and his Church that I have never been a homosexual/bisexual or (have repented from being homosexual/bisexual) and I vow that I will not indulge in the practise of homosexuality/bisexuality. “If after this oath I am involved, found to be, or profess to be a homosexual/bisexual against the teachings of the Holy Scriptures as contained in the Bible. “I bring upon myself the full wrath of God and subject myself willingly to canonical discipline as enshrined in the constitution of the Church of Nigeria, so help me God.’’ 

We wait for the CoE to distance itself from The Nigerian Church. And we wait.

 Meanwhile from the CoE sister church in USA -Episcopal Church -the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has issued the following statement on LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered) rights:

The Episcopal Church has been clear about our expectation that every member of the LGBT community is entitled to the same respect and dignity as any other member of the human family. Our advocacy for oppressed minorities has been vocal and sustained. The current attempts to criminalize LBGT persons and their supporters are the latest in a series, each stage of which has been condemned by this Church, as well as many other religious communities and nations. Our advocacy work continues to build support for the full human rights and dignity of all persons, irrespective of gender, race, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability or inability. To do less is effectively to repudiate our membership in the human community. No one of God’s children is worth less or more than another; none is to be discriminated against because of the way in which she or he has been created. Our common task is to build a society of justice for all, without which there will never be peace on earth. Episcopalians claim that our part in God’s mission is to love God fully, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means all our neighbors.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church