Moving on after yesterday’s high drama

Lib Dem Conference is at its absolute best when it debates a hotly contested issues.

High quality speeches on both sides of the argument for Conference to decide upon. And if the leadership’s position is looking threatened, they just roll out a big hitter like Tim Farron to deliver a barnstormer and get them out of trouble.

Or, in the case of yesterday’s debate, not.

The issue in question was whether to have a national housing target. This has been debated at two Conferences in the recent past and on both occasions, Conference voted to retain a national annual target, in this case 380,000  homes, with (whatever happened in the debate) 150,000 for social rent. A great policy that many thought would give not just hope but homes to the hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have a secure home that they can afford.

With Conference having made its wishes known, it is odd that the leadership chose to pick this fight in the first place or prosecute it in the way that they did. The Federal Policy Committee was very closely balanced on this issue and, as I understand it, Ed insisted that housing targets were dropped. Inevitably, the Young Liberals put in an amendment to reinstate them.

Policy and research is one of the great strengths of the current crop of young Liberals. Chair Janey Little has already contributed huge knowledge and collaborative working skills on various policy issues, not least on violence against women and girls where she brought all the various stakeholders in and consulted them. She put those skills to good use. On her side of the argument were Council leaders like Stephen Robinson in Chelmsford, Keith House in Eastleigh and former Housing Minister Stephen Williams as well as current London Mayoral candidate Rob Blackie and his predecessor Luisa Porritt.

Unfortunately, the leadership response to this was to produce a series of leaflets rubbishing the Young Liberals’ amendment in a way that was always going to annoy Conference attendees. Certainly,  I had always been likely to support that amendment, but I did so with added passion and fury simply because of the aggression shown by the opposition and the fact that Ed was talking about the issue as though it was a done deal. The manner in which this was done was also a massive hostage to fortune. You know how in the American primaries candidates kick lumps out of each other until one emerges victorious? Well, that process does the opposition research for them. That is a lesson the leadership might like to learn for the future before it puts out simplistic, aggressive literature.

The debate yesterday started well with an inclusive speech from Helen Morgan in which she acknowledged the concerns that the Young Liberals had expressed in their amendment. By the time the argument got to the floor, though, it very much looked like it would go their way. Speeches were around 2:1 in favour of housing targets.

But not to worry, they still had their Trump card, Tim Farron.

Sadly, he took his role too literally and forgot for a moment that he wasn’t Donald Trump. His deeply insulting speech, in which he said that the amendment was the most right wing thing he had seen come to the floor of Conference since we’d sent Liz Truss on her sleeper mission to the Tories drew gasps from the audience. . He accused its proposers of being Thatcherites. This was clearly nonsense, given that the amendment was supported by the Radical Association and many members of the Social Liberal Forum.

It takes a lot to shock a Lib Dem Conference. We’re not a pearl clutching bunch as a rule, but he managed it. But there was no awe to go with it. Rob Blackie stood up and simply said at the beginning of his speech “Tim Farron: That was below you. You are better than that.”

If the amendment had not won before, that speech got it over the line. The vote wasn’t even close in the end.

The headlines today are not what Ed Davey would have wanted to wake up to on the morning of his first massive in person Conference speech. So how do we move on from this? Thankfully, it’s not difficult.

1. Embrace it

There were a lot of incredibly good, substantive and emotive arguments put forward in favour of the amendment, not just in the debate but in many posts on here. Use them. Tell the stories of young people who have no prospect of owning their own homes, or are living with their parents, unable to get on with their own independent lives in their 30s.

Take the expertise of Stephen Williams who, as a former housing minister, knows what he is talking about when he said that we should not be limited by Tory failures and said that it was possible to have targets and make them work. Molly Nolan, the Scottish rural affairs spokesperson talked about the need for localism combined with national ambition. Stephen Robinson knows how to win and build houses.

Work with those who spoke in favour and others who weren’t called.

There is a strong argument to be crafted. The emphasis was on getting rid of housing targets and there was a suspicion that this was because they wouldn’t go down well in the Blue Wall. But there is so much else in the Housing Paper in terms of building communities and engaging a wider section of people in the planning process and building properly thought out garden cities that we can take forward without fear.

Take forward the argument with confidence and make the policy work.

2. Tim Farron must apologise

Just after the debate, Tim Farron tweeted to Janey Little and the Young Liberals:

“Well done. You won the argument fair and square. Great speeches.”

This isn’t enough. He actually needs to apologise, publicly, for what he said yesterday.

3. Learn from the mistakes

Pick your fights carefully and win the ones you do by prosecuting them in an inclusive manner that does not cast a shadow over the party and won’t come back to take a chunk out of your backside in the future.

What happened yesterday could have been avoided.

The good thing is that we have an excellent housing policy that is well crafted and thought through. Get out there on the front foot, with confidence.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Suzanne Fletcher 26th Sep '23 - 10:15am

    Agree with Caron. and proud to be an elderly young liberal.

  • Unusually I found myself agreeing with speakers on both sides and had to keep reflecting on the actual words in the motion while speeches were being made in the hall. In the end, in spite of Tim Farron and the leadership choosing the wrong ditch to die in, I voted against amendment one – primarily because I have spent years listening to a Labour Council in cahoots with developers rabbiting on about the constraints of national targets. However Conference has spoken and it would be better if this provoked ongoing conversation in the right places rather than a licking of wounds. Thank you Caron for a sane and sensitive response.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 26th Sep '23 - 10:49am

    What was most disappointing to me yesterday (apart from Tim) was the lack of realisation by some that targets aren’t the problem of the solution – simply the headline.
    How Tories have addressed the issue is the problem. And how we will address the issue is the solution.
    Now we have to stop buying in to nimby messages of “development bad” and start showing communities that our way of meeting the targets will enhance communities for both existing and future residents

  • Much ado about nothing, as far as I can see. I didn’t vote in the debate as the presence or absence of targets is such a trivial thing to have a row over. On the one hand targets are such a New Labour approach and don’t get any houses built. On the other hand, anyone who thinks the Tories will study the detailed wording of our policy motions before launching their attacks on us is deluded – they’ll just do it anyway. And in return, we can remind voters where so much Tory party funding comes from …

    We’ve had some barnstormer debates in the past on things that really matter, but this wasn’t one. So I agree with Caron that we should just move on – but insisting that Tim Farron apologise is quite OTT. Moving on also requires a more conciliatory tone towards those who list the vote and with whom we don’t agree!

  • I didn’t hear Tim’s speech, but from what a number of people have told me I gather he was eloquent, provocative and wrong, probably not the first or last time. However, it seems he livened up the occasion.

  • Hear hear, Mary. Targets don’t get houses built, but they do give us a yardstick to say whether we have really succeeded in what we set out to do. They may not make much difference to good councils, but they do at least keep bad councils building.

  • Bloody well done on the Young Liberals for putting in the amendment.

    The leadership well-deserved a kicking on this.

  • On the issue of Tim’s speech, I think the point here is that the leadership need to appreciate that it just isn’t reasonable to expect young people to troop to byelections time and time again to deliver NIMBY campaigns, when they are all too painfully aware of the housing crisis. Screaming “Thatcherite” at them when they dare to object to the increasingly crypto-NIMBY stance of the leadership is just not going to wash.

  • Andrew Emmerson 26th Sep '23 - 12:57pm

    It is striking to me on reflection that really, what was a generally respectful if not passionate debate, the only person to get personal (outside of Rob Blackie’s rebuke of such) was Tim Farron.

    His response felt far more personal because of the context of the rest of the speeches. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that bad, it was silly ad hominem from someone who got a bit carried away with himself.

    Nonetheless, Caron is right, an apology is owed, attacking the many many people who stood up with good and honest intentions as an MP, and as a former leader fell below the standards we should expect.

  • Andrew Emmerson 26th Sep '23 - 12:57pm

    On actually reviewing the substance of the position against, it seemed to amount to nothing more than “The Tories haven’t met targets, so why should we have them…but let’s have a different target we then have to explain to the electorate” with a few weird pro developer comments thrown in. The argument wasn’t really convincing.

    I do feel the Young Liberal Amendment strengthened the motion as a whole. Having a target that has a headline figure, and nuance in the social housing element is both saleable and coherent.

    I’m still roughly at a loss as to how the Leadership got themselves into this position and baffled that it’s the third time in so many years that it has come back to conference, where line after line of young people (and seasoned veterans) have stood against it. It’s a special breed of tone deafness.

    Now is the time to move on and actually sell the now very saleable position we have.

  • Now that we have an agreed policy, minds should turn to how the policy of building 150,000 social homes annually can be implemented.
    MacMillan was the last prime-minister to deliver housebuilding at volume For a lasting solution to the housing emergency, the Conservative party should learn from its past
    “Knowing that the private sector would never build enough, Macmillan convinced the Treasury to fund councils to build. This Conservative government built 166,000 social homes in their first year, then 205,000 the next, then 208,000 the year after, and so on.”
    “…successive governments have relied on the private sector to build more homes even if that reduces prices and hits their profit margins. Macmillan knew this would not happen, but forgetting this simple truth has hit this country hard. The lack of housing means prices keep rising, putting a secure home out of reach for more and more people. The lack of social homes means councils have nowhere affordable to house people in need, so more end up homeless”.
    Interestingly, housebuilding groups like Vestry have shifted their focus solely to social housing as soaring mortgage costs hurt sales completions across its wider business UK building group Vistry to focus solely on social housing
    Vistry said it continued to see “good demand” for affordable housing from bodies including local authorities. By contrast, private sales had slowed further since June, the company said, as mortgage costs continued to soar for prospective homebuyers.

  • Tristan Ward 26th Sep '23 - 1:46pm

    I left Conference this morning ing, but wasn’t in the hall for the Houosng Debate.

    I think we had better be careful here. The seeds of the tuition fees debacle were sown in a disagreement between the MPs preparing policy other one hand, and the Federal Policy Committee and Conference disagreeing with them and insisting on retaining the commitment to tuition fees on the other. The result, with further mistakes, was a split Parliamenty Party and ean enormous political stain that is ocassionally brought up on the doorsteps even in 2023, more than 10 years later.

    A hung Parliament cannot be ruled out next year – – if you know the result of the next election you have a better crystal ball than I have. If there is one, our negotiating team would obviously prefer to be asking for a deliverable program.

    Ironically the solution for education overall – including graduate funding and the pupil premium – was far more equitable than what went before.

  • Private sector housebuilding is likely to decline in the coming years. One of the most important policies adopted for actually being able to build affordable housing is addressing reform of the 1961 Land Compensation Act, that so distorts the market for development land
    Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow levelling-up secretary, announced the intention to reform how land is valued when acquired by councils through “compulsory purchase orders” (CPOs), if Labour wins the next general election Labour plans to tackle housing crisis by forcing landowners to sell at lower prices Angela Rayner has recently replaced Lisa Nandy in a reshuffle.
    Hugh Ellis, director of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, a charity, said Britain’s “new towns” programme of the 1940s and 1950s had been successful because development corporations could buy vast tracts of land at agricultural value.
    This is one policy area where the LibDems and Labour should be singing from the same hymn sheet in the next election.

  • Peter Martin 26th Sep '23 - 2:54pm

    ‘Britain’s “new towns” programme of the 1940s and 1950s had been successful because development corporations could buy vast tracts of land at agricultural value.’

    Sounds good. There’s no reason why land can’t be compulsory purchased at existing value plus perhaps 25% loading as compensation for the inconvenience and costs of relocation.

    I notice that the argument against targets was that these hadn’t been met in the past. I suspect the real reason was that some Lib Dems don’t want to upset previous Tory voters. The counter argument should be that there also needs to be policies in place to ensure that the targets are met.

    Lib Dems can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to support a higher level of immigration you’ll need to do something about the housing problem. If you don’t you’ll be creating a golden opportunity for the extreme right to claim that others are taking the housing that should be available for our own younger people.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Sep '23 - 3:14pm

    “I notice that the argument against targets was that these hadn’t been met in the past.”

    I voted against Amendment 1 because I really could not see how, with the limited construction workfoce available in this country, such a target could be met in the foreseeable future. I was in no way convinced that the movers of the amendment had thought this through.

    ” I suspect the real reason was that some Lib Dems don’t want to upset previous Tory voters.”
    If large housing estates are dumped on existing communities without appropriate services, or on good agricultural land needed for food production, or on a flood plain etc. then we all have good reason to complain without resorting to NIMBYisn.

  • Barry Lofty 26th Sep '23 - 3:53pm

    Nonconformistradical: Hear Hear!!

  • Chris Moore 26th Sep '23 - 3:53pm

    It’s a target; it’s an expression of intent. And that as a country we must do better on housing.

    The fact it’d be very difficult to meet is precisely the point. It requires change and reform.

    It’s pointless having a target that’s easy to meet; that’s just business as usual.

    And Peter Martin is absolutely right.

  • As someone who has a lot of professional interactions with developers, I think it’s correct that they’ll use targets as an excuse to further reduce the quality of homes and environmental standards, making life harder for more responsible local authorities, but I also understand why it’s important to many within the party as well as potential voters, that we have one.

    IMO the arguments about having or not having a target were all a big distraction from the policies that will do far more to improve the housing situation, and it’s a shame that little attention was given to them in the debate. Both sides will no doubt blame the other for that.

    Hopefully some of that passion will now transfer into developing the skills base, ending land-banking, improving existing stock, developing social housing, protecting minimum standards and ending (or curbing the worse) of leaseholds.

  • Denis Loretto 26th Sep '23 - 5:15pm

    If the overall target of 380,000 had been retained in the original motion together with the other sensible provisions in that motion I reckon not a ripple would have been caused in the minds of potential Tory-Lib Dem switchers or anyone else. As it is this issue has been brought to the fore. The leadership must learn not to treat Lib Dem members as cannon fodder.

  • “Molly Nolan… talked about the need for localism combined with national ambition…”
    Given that the former clashing with the latter is the major flaw with national targets, I’d genuinely be interested if someone could explain how it can be resolved.

    Can anyone, btw, explain to me how it’s deemed consistent to have top-down, centralised decisions on one issue when we are so against them in all other areas of life? (and yes, I’m aware housing is in crisis).

    Tim should have stuck to criticising the amendment, not its proposers. But (and I’m no fan of THAT woman!) is calling someone a Thatcherite so jaw-droppingly OMG offensive and wounding that a public apology is needed?

  • Housing affordability and shortages are a major problem in virtually every developed country across the world. Even in relatively sparsely populated counties like New Zealand they have been unable to solve the issues so far New Zealand’s housing crisis is worsening
    When Jacinda Ardern, and her Labour party was first elected in 2017 she made lofty pledges to give Kiwis cheap houses. “We can make home ownership possible again,” she promised in a speech which has aged like milk. Since then, the number of applicants waiting for public housing has more than quadrupled to over 24,000. More than half of those are Maori, the country’s indigenous people, who make up just 17% of its population. Last year New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into the “right to a decent home”, piling pressure on Ms Ardern.
    Her government has not always helped itself. It promised in 2017 to erect 100,000 affordable houses through a scheme called KiwiBuild. By last May it had slapped up only 1,000. The target has been abandoned.
    Here too the Conservatives are falling far below their pledge to build 300,000 homes per year New homes: What’s happened to the government’s housebuilding target? and the target has been scrapped.
    Until the issues surrounding Land Value capture, bank financing of existing house purchases (versus new build) and the limiting factors of insufficient trained construction workers is grasped, the next government will meet the same fate. Easing immigration restrictions for construction workers may help in addressing some of the shortages in the construction workforce but brings with it a need for additional housing for workers and their families.

  • Iain Sharpe 26th Sep '23 - 9:29pm

    Given the great emphasis that was put on the votes we would lose if the 380,000 homes per year target was dropped it will be interesting to see how prominently this features on Focus leaflets in areas that those who spoke for the amendment represent.

    Despite the impression that might have been given in the hall, I suspect that no one should hold their breath waiting for Lib Dem leaflets in areas we hope to win proclaiming the 380,000 in big headlines. Indeed it’s more likely to appear on opposition leaflets.

    Indeed given where Lib Dem target seats are located perhaps the best to be said for this policy is that it makes it that little bit less likely they will be called upon to deliver it – because if they did they would find that central government holds so few of the direct levers for delivering it that it would become a millstone round the party’s neck and another broken promise.

  • Peter Watson 27th Sep '23 - 12:41am

    @Iain Sharpe “given where Lib Dem target seats are located perhaps the best to be said for this policy is that it makes it that little bit less likely they will be called upon to deliver it”
    Sadly, the party’s priorities and strategy these days – a by-election like Chesham & Amersham being a prime example – seem to be based not on asking “what does a Lib Dem want” but instead “what does a soft Tory want”.
    It feels like the opposition parties are scared of frightening potential Tory voters while taking their own supporters for granted because of a lack of radical or left-leaning alternatives, and I fear that at the next General Election, I will simply be offered a choice from three shades of blue (or at best, blue and two shades of grey). 🙁

  • I agree with those who say that you can’t be pro immigration and anti house building as something has to give.

    Having said that we don’t want the countryside to be covered in Barratts style developments. The long term aim has to be to shift the economy northwards where there is less of a housing shortage.

  • Further to previous it should be noted however that research has suggested that 2/3 of increase in housing demand is not caused by migration but by other factors e.g ageing population
    Newly arrived migrants tend to live in larger privately rented houses.

  • @cassie, @PeterWatson👏👏

  • Jenny Barnes 27th Sep '23 - 11:33am
  • Hugh, the policy paper proposed building ten new garden cities, which will presumably be in the countryside and reduce the pressure for urban sprawl. I don’t think that got a single mention in the debate.

    It’s important we protect green spaces and protect access to them. They are proven to be essential for our mental as well as physical health, and we shouldn’t compromise there, BUT the current definition of green-belt doesn’t serve that purpose, and some spaces it protects don’t serve that purpose. A reassessment of what green-belt is supposed to do (maybe give it a new name), and whether each area serves that purpose should be carried out and considering how it is accessed. I’m keen to protect National Parks, but with similar caveats that effort should be put into identifying areas within those parks where some development would be appropriate. A focus on building hotels & tourists hostels (with staff accommodation) at the same time as restricting holiday lets would ease the pressure on housing whilst protecting the tourist economy.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 27th Sep '23 - 11:38pm

    Iain – you are correct that I have absolutely no intention of putting out any leaflets in Chelmsford that say we want to build 380,000 houses nationally. I will however be pulling out plenty of leaflets that say that we are proud to be building infrastructure alongside new housing developments in many of the wards that we hold. I have, and I will continue to talk about holding developers to account on including affordable housing. And a leaflet I designed just before conference which will be arriving on Friday has a headline story about ensuring that developers fix snagging issues in recently built houses and deliver the infrastructure they committed to. There is plenty of prodevelopment, pro infrastructure, pro sustainable community policy in the depths of the motion, and the paper that I will be proud to talk to voters about.

    I will be putting 380,000 houses in large bold type on the emails I send to young activists across the East of England and London, asking them to come to Chelmsford and help a pro-housing council leader to get a pro-housing MP elected. And I have confidence they will come. Because they know that we genuinely care about their futures and don’t just consider them leaflet deliverers but instead valuable and valued campaigners.

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