Local Government Conference live blog

Good morning from the Mercure Hotel in Manchester, where Liberal Democrats from around the country are gathered at the Local Government Conference jointly organised by ALDC and the Lib Dem contingent of the LGA.

The agenda for the day is here (pdf). I’ll cover as much as I can of some of the talks, as well as some comments from Don Foster, Gerald Vernon-Jackson and others. There will be a bit of a break mid-morning while I interview Nick Clegg for the site (we’ll publish the interview this week).

I’ll also try and post on the Lib Dem Voice twitter account here, and on mine here.

Nick Clegg is shortly to kick off proceedings with a speech – I’ll bring you the highlights when it starts. (The full text is now on the party website here.)

10.02 – The hall is filling up for Clegg’s speech, which may or may not be broadcast on the BBC website here.

10.05 – Gerald Vernon-Jackson introduces Mark Hunter MP, who in turn is introducing Nick Clegg. He corrects the delegate list which says he is MP for Cumbria. He is actually MP for Cheadle.

10.07 – Mark congratulates Sir Andrew Stunell on his knighthood.

10.10 – Clegg has achieved what many thought was impossible says Mark, leading the Lib Dems into government.

10.11 – Nick Clegg is now up. The big theme of this speech is that the party should do everything possible to ensure it now acts in everything it does like a party of government. I’ll bring you some snippets.

10.13 – Clegg: “Our party is at a very real fork in the road – with very real consequences, depending on which way we turn. One way embraces the future: Where the Liberal Democrats seek to become a firm party of Government. Striving to govern at every level in order to make Britain a better place. The other clings to our past: Limiting our ambitions and our prospects; Consigning ourselves to be “the third party” forever; Turning away from the millions of people we have promised to serve.”

10.15 – Clegg: “I am proud of the things we achieved in opposition – of course I am. But the truth is this: the Liberal Democrats can do more good in a single day in local and national Government than in an eternity in opposition.”

10.18 – Clegg: “Under Labour, the stock of social housing reduced by 420,000.”

10.19 – Clegg: “On every big question facing Britain – fixing the economy, decentralising power, the environment, Europe, reforming public services, civil liberties, crime and rehabilitation – liberalism offers the right solution. And for that reason, the Liberal Democrats must always stand ready to govern, locally and nationally. Yes for the good of our party, but much more importantly, for the good of our country.”

10.21 – Clegg: If we resign ourselves to opposition “we condemn our party to the worst possible fate: Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline.”

10.23 – Clegg: “I cannot remember a time when this party’s values were so in step with the country at large. Ed Miliband is wrong when he says Britain has shifted to the left. The Tories are wrong if they think they can hold power by lurching to the right. More than ever the British people want their government anchored to the centre ground, where the Liberal Democrats are holding firm.”

10.26 – Clegg: “In the past, the Liberal Democrats had to deploy highly localised campaigns. Yes, we had key national policies: a penny on income tax for education; our opposition to Iraq. But up against a suffocating two party system, the only way to get a foothold was through targeted, street-by-street campaigns. During that time, it was the entirely right thing to do, and it was very effective. Indeed, that approach earned us our reputation as an unstoppable campaigning force. But it is a tactic, not a strategy for building the strong, sharp identity we should be aiming for as a party that can hold national office. And we are in a different phase now.”

10.27 – Clegg: “Going forward, the idea that in a General Election we can be under a national spotlight and yet run the campaign as a series of loosely linked by-elections simply isn’t possible. We can be singing different verses – but they must all be from the same song.”

10.28 – Clegg: “When people hear the words ‘stronger economy and fairer society’ I want the yellow bird to immediately pop into their heads. I want them to be able to finish that sentence: ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life’.”

10.29 – “We are going to work harder than ever to produce a manifesto that is practical, responsible and deliverable. With coalitions increasingly likely in British politics, every line in our manifesto will be a potential government policy. And this manifesto will be scrutinised like never before. I’ve been crystal clear with David Laws since the day I asked him to coordinate this process: I want the manifesto to set out our ambitious vision for a liberal society. But it must be a to-do list, not a flight of fancy.”

10.30 – “As a party with compassionate instincts, the desire to offer big spending commitments will be as strong as it has ever been. But we will resist the temptation to talk big and end up delivering small.”

10.32 – Clegg concludes: “Before I finish, let me say that I am under no illusion about the scale of the task we face. I know what we are up against. But when I look ahead, for every obstacle I see a dozen opportunities. And when I look back, I see the Liberal Democrats who came before us; The people who built our party out of nothing. Who kept liberalism alive despite being squeezed from every side. And who would have given anything to face the dilemmas we are grappling with now. They would tell us that, yes, it is a challenge, but it is also a privilege. It’s time to seize this party’s future: So that the Liberal Democrats become a natural party of local and national government, once and for all.”

10.33 – Now onto a Q&A. Three at a time. First up a question on local government’s role in the Million Jobs campaign. Secondly: will Clegg hammer Miliband for his volte-face on spending cuts, or cosy up to him because you want to go into coalition with him? And thirdly a question Syria: well, I say question…

Clegg says there was some understandable unease about the jobs campaign pack and that there wasn’t enough on local government’s role. When we campaign in an integrated way it has a dramatically bigger effect on the public. He stresses that the campaign on jobs really resonates with people. A lot of things this government does on jobs are because of Liberal Democrats.

He says it is a false choice in respect of Ed Miliband. We don’t need to pull our punches in criticising other parties even when we are in coalition with them. Labour are all over the place on the economy he says. Balls went on a prawn cocktail offensive to the bankers, allowed massive debts to build up. When the whole thing blows up in 2008 it’s nothing to do with them. Of course they are not exclusively responsible for the crisis, but they are heavily implicated. They were in government for 13 years. Then they spend three years vilifying us for the difficult decisions. And now, after three years, they say it was all right after all. We must be remorseless in highlighting their hypocrisy. Then gets a big thumbs up from the hall.

On Syrian, Clegg says he understands the instinct about wanting to avoid getting involved. But not doing anything is not a particularly liberal option either. There has been a grotesque abuse of human rights. The question is what we do. We can’t do anything on our own: we have to work with the US, the French and others. We are providing considerable help to an official opposition who we formally recognise. That is why we are giving them body armour, 4x4s, communications equipment.

 10.42 – Now three more questions. How many affordable houses have been built under the coalition? Then a question on the NHS. And finally: Do you believe in localism? If so, why is Eric Pickles overriding it to build a biomass incinerator in Trafford.

The net increase in affordable housing, he says, is about 86,000. One of the big frustrations is that one of the biggest initiatives the government has implemented – Treasury guarantees offered to housing associations – has been painfully slow to get off the ground. House-builders are very positive but it’s proving difficult to get off the ground. No mention of planning reform, I note…

On the NHS, there are exciting possibilities for us as Liberal Democrats to push forward the public health agenda. He encourages Liberal Democrats to push things with big ideas locally. Look out for a big push in the spending review on the integration of health and social care.

Eric Pickles – councillors in his own patch tell Clegg how infuriated they get with Pickles. But there is a gap between Pickles’s rhetoric and what actually happens. Pickles, privately at least, is one of the most sensible people to talk to – that says something about his Tory says Clegg. He uses it as an opportunity to bash the Tory Taliban with their wishlist of nonsense proposals.

10.52 – Some more questions. Will we fight a pro-European campaign next year? Can 16-18 year olds have concessionary bus fares?

As a side point Clegg says that some of the things the Lib Dems have persuaded the Treasury to do over the last few years would have been unthinkable previously.

On Europe he says we should be enthusiastically pro-European. We should not be starry-eyed – having spent 10 years there he knows the EU is far from perfect. But to be relevant in the modern world, to deal with climate change and other big issues we have to be constructive members of the EU. Yes we are in favour of reform, yes we think there should be a referendum when there is a treaty change, but we should be very clear on the benefits of our membership. He’s making a speech soon on this he says.

On concessionary fares he says he completely agrees and Norman Baker is doing some good work on this for the manifesto. Doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon then. Young people need to be given simple, clear choices on things like this he says.

There will be a bit of a break now as I am off to interview Nick Clegg – you can follow proceedings on the hashtag #libdemlocal on Twitter.

 15.26 – Good afternoon. I’m back in the hall for a discussion between Tims Gordon, Pickstone and Faron as well as Hilary Stephenson, Gerald Vernon-Jackson and John Leech. The discussions is titled “Facing the challenge”.

15.27  -Tim Farron is first up. His basic message, unsurprisingly, is that we need to get out campaigning right now.

15.29 – Tim Gordon, Lib Dem CEO, is up now. He says that the issue of party morale is making him go grey. It is activists that will make the difference between success and failure.

15.31 – Tim Gordon asks for leadership on two fronts: ensuring we have candidates in place and quickly. And secondly on the Morrissey Report. We are too male and too white. In putting together those slates of candidates, ensure that we have a range that reflects the people we serve. The party nationally is going to be doing lots in response to the report, but we have to do it locally too.

15.32 – Now up is Hilary Stephenson, the party’s director of campaigns. She is talking about next year’s elections. The first thing we need to do is go out and recruit more volunteers. She says that some of the people who became less enthusiastic a few years ago are now coming back. So we shouldn’t be shy about going back to them. But we also need a whole new generation of new people, and the only way to get them is going out talking to them.

15.34 – She also says it is vital to start campaigning now. She also re-iterates that we need candidates everywhere. Door knocking is also absolutely vital, in person and on the phone.

15.37 – Now Cllr Tim Pickstone from ALDC is speaking now on the importance of good quality candidates.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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2 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Jun '13 - 11:58am

    I filled with delight as I read the part in Clegg’s speech where he talks about centrism. The important thing is to have realistic, fair and popular policies – not want to commit ideological jihad on laws or the rich in the name of freedom.

  • David Wilkinson 26th Jun '13 - 1:11pm

    10.10 – Clegg has achieved what many thought was impossible says Mark, leading the Lib Dems into government.

    That turned out nice

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