Diary of a Conference Virgin (aged 29 1/6): Saturday part deux

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Our Vince Cable the Able was the main event of a lot of people’s Saturday conference. It will therefore surprise precisely no-one to see that the Red Box is desperately attaching electrodes to the equine corpse of the “Should Vince have stood?” non-issue. The giveaway in such tedious toilet paper coverage is that it actually devalues Cable – the man supposedly being praised – as much as Clegg, as if the shadow chancellor’s function is limited to providing a compare-and-contrast exercise for the media.

Alex Foster has reported fully on Vince’s speech already – as an added homebody bonus he even wrote it on the same day – so I need only add one observation on a feature that struck me as odd – what in the name of  crushed bananas is all this fruit juice business? For a start, regular drinkers citizens of the People’s Republic will know that I have an intense distrust of binge-drinking sabre-rattling, as it were. It’s true that if you’re going to take measures against binge-drinking, a certain amount of limited influencing behaviour by tax is a great deal more liberal than, er, giving the police powers to take people’s private property away. But I’m not convinced, and nor I see is the Times, that sugary flavoured water was the best example to set against alcohol. Has he been got at by the fruit juice lobby? Or was he merely setting up the best throwaway one-liner of the speech, about the party’s progress from sandal-wearing beer drinkers to a bunch of smoothies? Only unsubstantiated introspection will tell.

Lunchtime fringe came courtesy of the Centre For Um, they of the shy and retiring leafletters, who hosted a meeting on the future of social housing with the (I think) director of Shelter, a council leader from South Shropshire whose name escapes me and it isn’t on the diary – can anyone help in the comments please? I don’t want to come across like some slavish MP spotter – and Lembit Opik. It is now official party communications policy to make a willy joke when introducing Lembit to anything from a public meeting to one’s aged grandmother, and today was no exception. You can make one up yourself though, because this one needs context in the form of a, er, sparkling water bottle. It was funny at the time. Ish.

Anyway, I am most pleased to discover (because I, like others, have not been particularly stunned in the face with Lembit’s media presence on his actual brief) that I like the party definition of the social housing problem. All three members of the panel referred back to the central idea that it is not a problem in a silo – batshit-crazy house prices impact on younger people trying to buy, which in turn puts pressure on the private rented sector, which in turn pushes out people at the bottom end of the income ladder, who can’t afford private rents and can’t get adequate social housing either.

Lembit is unrepentant about the struggle councils face against nimbyism. A distressing number of communities will say they desperately need affordable housing, just not, doncherknow, right here. Now, apparently, the correct response here is not to torch these tedious baby-baggage-boomers’ houses and dance on the ashes of their share certificates to see how they like it, which just goes to show where I have been going wrong. No, instead we must explain to communities where we want to put new houses, what measures will be taken to reinforce the infrastructure, and what kind of people we expect to live in them (“Are you local?”). We should be firm, yes, and do the right thing if we know it’s the right thing to do, but at all times broadcast our reasoning. Oh, all right.

And so to a brief coffee-fuelled collapse in the Lib Dem Voice office, where we are amassing a really quite impressive haul of chocolate. There are people in that office who haven’t seen daylight for forty-eight hours, and who have forgotten that food comes in any form other than Malteser-shaped. I watch the health debate in the main auditorium on the monitor, which is, naturally, rivetting anyway, but rendered even more so by the fact that an occasional blip in the matrix causes the Lib Dem yellow background to turn green and the person on the stand to dissolve into little dancy pixels. Still, at least we can see them; the camera angle is so focussed in on the stand that the chair, Sal Brinton, is off camera, so there are minutes on end when conference is apparently being addressed by an invisible woman. That’s Liberal Democrat media coverage for you.

The other high point of the debate – and let me caution you before you continue with this tortuous sentence that you’re going to have to look elsewhere for serious, informed commentary – is when one speaker suddenly rivets the attention of the Lib Dem Voice team by a totally gratuitous attack on “a new generation of overweight computer geeks”. “Shame!” we cry. That’s a core vote you’re alienating there.

Now, I should have pointed out in my discussion of the Centre For Um fringe meeting that at no point, dear homebody, did I cough and mumble ahem – land value tax – ahem.  But I was able to get my LVT fix at a later fringe meeting, boasting  on its panel superblogbananas James Graham and Jock Coats, and, making his last and positively final appearance, Lord of the Dance Vince Cable. Owing to Vince’s last-minute addition to the panel, the meeting was moved from one of the  airless little hutches near the main auditorium to a hall seating about three hundred. Liberal Review, Extra Bold and I are naturally the first to arrive and sit right down in front of the panel like the shocking keenos we are. We even road-test the microphones with Extra Bold’s panto training.

“Land Value Tax is a great idea!”

“OH NO IT ISN’T!”

“OH YES IT IS!”

I enjoy the meeting because I am a fledgeling LVT-egg, albeit a puzzled one, or addled, if you will. Fortunately, the discussion is mainly based on evolving a strategy for pushing the policy rather than technical refinement – something the panel agrees that we, or rather ALTER, have been a little self-indulgent in. Vince in particular asked the floor at large for ideas – how can we demonstrate that LVT will work, bring it out of niche appreciation and into the wider policy arena? Apparently financial journalists ask him why we don’t make more of such an avowedly liberal policy, which is encouraging. James Graham talks about the need to make a moral case for LVT, about which I am not sure, because making a moral case for a policy is just asking for the Daily Mail to come along and twist the whole thing through five hundred degrees like they did for inheritance tax. We all hum and haw contentedly in what I imagine is one of the best-informed fringe meetings, in terms of attendees as well as panel, to take place during the whole conference, but the evening draws on and, somewhere across town, free wine is being chilled…

Join me again later as I slowly and cautiously attempt recall of the events of the evening.

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9 Comments

  • Grammar Police 10th Mar '08 - 8:46am

    Did you find out why LVT wouldn’t just force those of us on modest/poor salaries/no salaries to live in areas were the value of land is relatively cheap, or at least cheaper because it’s not in close proximity to utilities or transport links?
    Or even worse, the flight of such people when regeneration starts taking place as they fear the rise in taxation – a state sponsored gentrification.

  • Grammar Police 10th Mar '08 - 9:51am

    Oh, so it’s okay to make poorer people live in areas with no facilities (and to force them to move out whenever facilities are brought in) because this kind of thing is already reflected in rental prices?!

    At least council tax is uniform across a local government area (ie band C near a railway station pays as much as a band C across the other side of the borough) and so it’s only rental price that changes. You seem to be agreeing that with LVT there would be both a higher rental and higher LVT for property near facilities. I suppose you might suggest this was *fair* – if you live near a railway station and shops instead of on an estate miles away you should pay for it. Great – a decent place to live would (even more than currently) be open to everyone, like the Ritz.

  • Grammar PCSO 10th Mar '08 - 12:21pm

    James,

    As I said: so it’s okay to make poorer people live in areas with no public services (and to price them out whenever public services are brought in to an area) because this kind of thing already happens speculatively with rental prices. This is a problem with the free market, yes – well done. It is.

    I do see that you would be formalising and making more efficient what happens already, but I can’t see that it would actually keep rental or house prices down by more than you’d end up paying in LVT.

    * . . . yet people still keep coming back reciting the same old canards as if they are being startlingly original.*

    I’m not trying to be original, just to get a straight answer.

    I can understand it’s frustrating to have to repeat yourself (for us mere mortals) but collectively LVTers don’t seem to be doing that good a job of convincing us – which suggests to me that there’s something wrong with the way you’re trying to push the message.

    Patronising us probably doesn’t help, whether you think our lack of grasp of economics is pitiful or otherwise.

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