Paddy Ashdown writes…An essay to my party on the eve of Conference: Four dangerous ideas

So, here, as promised are four dangerous ideas for the future. Please be clear. I am not necessarily proposing these. Just asking why we are not even discussing them?

Dangerous idea 1

We are guiltily obsessed with student fees. The fact that we don’t need to be, because the principle is right, does not make life easier (how I wish we had called them a Graduate tax!). But now with the student loan debt rising, do we not also have to consider how we get better value for what students pay? If we have a tertiary education system which cannot be paid for without loading more and more debt on our young, should we not be looking at the system, not just at how they pay? We persist in the medieval practice of taking students to medieval ivy covered buildings, to receive their education in the medieval manner from minds, too many of which, when it comes to delivering education, are stuck in the middle ages. Yet distance learning was pioneered in Britain at the Open University when communicating with your tutor meant stuffing your academic paper in an envelope, licking it, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the local post-box. Today the whole planet is into distance learning. Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain! If we were to convert at least part of our tertiary education syllabus to distance learning we might reduce the cost of degrees without diminishing their quality, give students more flexibility, force lecturers into the modern age, widen access and create a superb platform for adult education all at the same time. Why, beloved Lib Dems, do we allow medieval vested interests to preserve our ivy covered tertiary education system exactly as it is, loading more and more debt on students and preventing us from doing what much of the rest of the world is doing already? Just asking.

Dangerous idea 2

We have long understood that property owning rights are one of the foundation stones of democracy. Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it.I am talking of course, about our personal data. Why do we Lib Dems not assert the citizens right to own their own data and to have control over how it is used? Why about proposing a law – perhaps a European one – which says to Messrs Amazon, Google, Starbucks etc, that they can use our personal data for their commercial purposes, but only with our permission and if they give us a share of the profits. Can you think of anything which would more alter the relationship between these masters of the commercial universe and the customers whose information they exploit for such enormous profit? Can you think of anything which would more empower the citizen in the market pace? Isn’t that what we Lib Dems are supposed to be about? So?

Dangerous idea 3

The political parties or movements that are thriving at the moment (e.g. En Marche, Italy’s 5 star movement and Momentum to name a few) are those who have adopted an internet based model which enables mass younger membership, flat low cost management, modest entry fees, direct democracy, constant engagement, high participation and the opportunity to take part in politics as just one of the multi-transactional things we do in our busy lives. The older conventional political parties are stuck in the model of the1870s; vertical hierarchies, festoons of committees which claim democracy, but end up with management by those who can spare the time; low and ageing membership; high cost of entry; limited engagement; even less real participation and a dependency on political obsessives (like me). And they are dying. The number of people in political parties has dropped from 10.5% of the electorate 20 years ago, to 1.5% today. Should we be worried about this? Apparently not. I know this, because I sent a paper to our Party Board suggesting that we might take a look at these revolutionary new ideas being followed by those who are succeeding, where we are not. I did not suggest anything as radical as actually doing this. Just that we should look at it. I know it was discussed (and rejected with some muscularity) as I read about it, not always in the most admiring terms, in these and other pages where the Party, usually with delicious irreverence, exchanges its views. Fine. It probably was a dotty idea. But here’s the thought. Imagine if this was one of our new members suggesting an idea for us to consider and they heard nothing more except rumours of its death, without even an acknowledgement, let alone an explanation or reply. Would they consider us, a Party open to new ideas? Or one defensively closed against them?

Dangerous idea 4

In Estonia and Lithuania they are thinking ambitiously about the application of blockchain and bitcoin to public services, and what these innovations can do to deliver greater efficiency, transparency and citizen power. Why aren’t we?

I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party’s clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last – at Conference or outside it – hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?

Look, for instance at this week’s resolution on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The answer to the abuse of tenants in places like at Grenfell, is to give them the power and support to manage themselves through tenants’ co-operatives. I thought this was our policy. So where is it?

Answers on a post card please – preferably post marked Bournemouth and dated next week.

* Paddy Ashdown was the first Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988-1999. He is now a Liberal Democrat of the House of Lords

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62 Comments

  • Who was in charge of the Lib Dem campaign that saw us lose almost all of our Euro MPs, reduced us from 57 – 8 MPs, goodness knows how many councillors bit the dust and then failed to even eat his hat. Perhaps some folk should retire graciousdly.

  • David Evans 12th Sep '17 - 9:55am

    I’m sorry Paddy, but Tuition fees was a betrayal of our most cherished principle – Tell the truth and keep your promises. It is the main reason our vote collapsed in 2010 and the unwillingness of people like you at the top of our party to acknowledge that, accept the blame and agree to change, is the reason we are still not recovering.

    People do not listen to the ideas of parties they do not trust, and more than 90% of them no longer trust the Liberal Democrats. Indeed they trust their local Lib Dem councillor, MP (if they are lucky enough to have one) or even Lib Dem candidate than they trust our party itself.

    Until we stop pretending we were right all along and that we knew best to do what we wanted and not what we promised, our party will continue on its road to further decline and oblivion.

    So Dangerous Idea No 1. Swallow your pride and Admit you got it very wrong.

  • Gareth Hartwell 12th Sep '17 - 9:59am

    Though these are good ideas, they are all rather parochial. I believe that the modern world is international and that young people are growing up in a digital economy which does not respect international boundaries. None of these four ideas can properly by delivered within the UK by itself.

    So it makes little sense for the Lib Dems to have a national (by which I mean British) industrial and economic policy because there are no (at least very few) British companies or British employers. We need to stop thinking in this narrow way and establish coalitions of liberal democratic parties internationally and agree joint policy platforms on which we campaign around the world.

  • I was hoping for dangerous. These are just gimmicky and fashionable, plucked from the pages of some Sunday newspaper.
    Does Paddy, or anyone else for that matter, really think these will transform our dire economic situation?
    No wonder the voters are desperately seeking alternatives to the tired political elite and their endless smoke and mirrors.

  • Tom Papworth 12th Sep '17 - 10:15am

    1) Is it true that “Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain!”?

    There are six public (https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/distance-learning/where-to-study-at-uk-universities-and-colleges/) and several private sector (https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/distance-learning/where-to-study-with-private-sector-providers/) institutions delivering distance learning already.

    This should be something that institutions develop for themselves rather than being a “big idea” driven from the top.

    2) An interesting idea but I’m not sure that “a person’s data” really is theirs. If I record your name, age and height, are these numbers yours or mine? Still, I wouldn’t object to it being looked at.

    3) “festoons of committees which claim democracy, but end up with management by those who can spare the time”. God yes!

    The sooner we move to OMOV on party policy, and eliminate the primacy of a conference that most members cannot afford to attend, the better. No limited company or national membership organisation would only give a vote to those who can afford to spend five days in Bournemouth!

    4) Blockchain by all means. Let’s not get swept up in a Bitcoin bubble though. Crypto-curruncies are interesting but at this stage far to volatile to be used for regular payments.

    —-

    And while we’re on new ideas, how about (5) radically reforming the land-use and planning restrictions that prevent us from building the homes, railways, roads, runways and other developments that we need to accomodate our population. It’s a disgrace that as a party we all-too-often end up backing the Nimbys and opposing every infrastructure and housing project. Talk about the party of vested interests!

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Sep '17 - 10:31am

    “In Estonia and Lithuania they are thinking ambitiously about the application of blockchain and bitcoin to public services, and what these innovations can do to deliver greater efficiency, transparency and citizen power. Why aren’t we?”

    Not being someone unwilling to learn from the experience of others I’m happy to take on board experiences in other countries.

    However, who controls the blockchains/bitcoins – systems which can be hacked just like any other internet-connected system?

  • Gareth Hartwell 12th Sep '17 - 10:35am

    Progressive policies of the future need to take account of the following facts (which our political rivals routinely ignore but we shouldn’t):

    1. Education is increasingly an international market, while decisions on student funding may be national, decisions on the levels of fees which can be set and the funding which Universities need to be taken in the light of market demand, otherwise students will just go elsewhere.
    2. Many jobs can already be undertaken anywhere in the world and this trend is increasing. So immigration policy has very little effect on employment. Even education is increasingly taking place remotely so UK institutions are competing directly with institutions around the world, national rules on immigration and physical constraints are irrelevant.
    3. All companies face an existential threat because all industries are transforming fundamentally. These transformations are happening on a global basis so it makes no sense to adopt policies relating to this in an individual country (or indeed merely a continental organisation such as the EU).
    4. Increasingly a large part of wealth-generation is in intellectual rather than physical goods. This means that it is very easy for wealth generators (companies) to move this between countries so it will be more and more difficult for them to set taxation policies in isolation.
    5. Spending decisions (on health, pensions, benefits etc) have to be taken in the light of the ability of governments to raise money so as a result of the other factors above it will become increasingly difficult to make spending decisions in isolation to other countries irrespective of whether the UK is or is not a member of international bodies.

    I’m a founder member of the Lib Dems but I’m finding it more and more difficult to understand how our policies make practical sense in the world of the future which will be completely different in almost every way to the world of the past. The other parties also dont understand this but that is not an excuse, we need to embrace the future and come up with policies which make sense in the real world.

  • As an ex-Labour member who now lends his vote to the LibDems, and was very briefly an LD member this year, none of this reassures me. I’m happy to keep voting LD because of the party’s current anti-Brexit, anti-isolationist stance, but this isn’t a great set of ideas that would keep me voting LD if Brexit wasn’t an issue. The policy suggestion for universities is absolutely laughable (the Open University is far more expensive than regular universities, many subjects such as engineering or chemistry or fine art can’t be taught sufficiently without the practical elements, and young people want to go to university to broaden their horizons and enrich their lives, not only get a degree certificate). To be honest, I fear that the LDs have lost a generation of young voters by being seen as a party in favour of extremely expensive higher education. I despise Corbyn and the rest of his far-left extremists, but at least they are aware that students and people in their 20s and 30s are sick of being financially crippled for life for doing the right thing and getting an education.

    As for the rest of the policies… Nothing on tackling the housing crisis? Nothing about universal basic income as a means to renew the welfare state and help a generation of precariats? Nothing concrete about stopping Brexit? Nothing to inspire hope in the disheartened? (Also, I don’t think that the pro-Kremlin, anti-EU Five Star Movement that infests Italian politics should be considered positive inspiration for anything liberal.)

  • Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it.I am talking of course, about our personal data

    That’s the price you pay for getting things like Google and Facebook for free. These companies have to make money somehow, and people have proven unwilling to pay directly for their services, so they have to make the revenue some other way.

  • John Bicknell 12th Sep '17 - 11:54am

    Re: idea no.2. Surely the revised DPA legislation, coming into effect next May, which forces organisations to gain active consent before using anyone’s personal data, deals with this point? Perhaps a legal expert could confirm or clarify.

  • Phil Beesley 12th Sep '17 - 12:35pm

    #1: As Tom Papworth noted, UK universities provide distance learning for UK students. I advised one such department on IT matters more than 20 years ago. Noting Paddy Ashdown’s criticism of outdated structures, I suggest developing policies for continuing education and less fetishisation of the undergraduate degree.

    #3: Face to face meetings may be necessary for some discussions. For others, a conference session via phone or web cam may suffice.

    #4: Paddy Ashdown’s argument seems muddled. It starts off about high tech and ends up with no tech. You don’t need much technology in order to listen to citizens.

    Blockchain is interesting technology as a ledger, a record system, which somewhat contradicts idea #2 about data ownership. To understand a set of ledgers, you need a lot of time on your hands. That’s why forensic accountants are well paid and investigative journalists fail to deliver their briefs. I’m no more comfortable about personal data stored in blockchain than in a SQL database.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Sep '17 - 1:24pm

    The Open University, on the staff of which I worked for 25 years, adapted to changing times, Paddy, and now is to have more digital methods, since distance learning has indeed been adopted by some other British universities as well as those which the OU fostered abroad, for instance in China. But one of the joys of the OU was always the possibility for students to talk to their tutors, on the phone or on line, to attend day schools and (formerly) summer schools, borrowing the red-brick campuses of other universities. Personal contact was also part of the ethos for the staff, because the academics worked together in course teams to produce the distance-learning materials. However many modern methods educators adopt, particularly for the international interactions which Gareth Hartwell so rightly insists on, face-to-face contacts will continue to be wanted and needed.

    No use trying to entice the young only on line, either, with all the competition there is out there and many of them probably having the attention-span of a butterfly. And, by the way, folks, having committees elected by the membership to run the conferences and keep policy development going IS democratic as well as the only practical way to do it: I applaud their dedication and hard work, and their efforts to involve members who can’t get to the conferences in policy and strategy development.

  • The Party must reconnect with younger voters. They are the lifeblood for the future and the party needs to do so much better, until we get a way through the student fees mess then we are doomed to a shrinking share of the vote. We need a real, honest and frank debate about the way forward. Vince and the team need to be open to to this matter.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Sep '17 - 1:42pm

    I was hoping for a rather more dangerous idea on student fees and universities. You might have asked: why do we have so many Universities? Years ago there was the University of London which, long before the Open University, offered External Degrees that could be studied at many local colleges while London University controlled the examination process. We also had the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards) that oversaw the awarding of degrees from over 140 institutions, but which was abolished in 1992. Now, it seems that every former college is calling itself a University and awarding its own degrees. This must be inefficient, raising the cost of University education as well as making it difficult for employers to judge between graduates of different universities.

    A more radical approach would be to rationalise the University sector, not necessarily reducing the number of student places, but reducing the number of degree-awarding bodies.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Sep '17 - 1:43pm

    Yes to these , but again it is the response that is of concern.

    Immediately criticism because the ideas are not the ones some would emphasise.

    We all have priorities.

    I like all these suggestions.

    If we stopped obsessing about leaflets and recognised the online possibilities, we would reach many more people.

    And Paddy knows it is Liberal to put power into the lives of individuals not governments, national or local.

    Too many mistake socialism for social liberalism and social democracy.

    Socialism is not about power in the hands of people unless part of a powerful group.

  • Matt (Bristol) 12th Sep '17 - 1:49pm

    I have to admit that these ‘dangerous ideas’ don’t immediately get me in the gut, apart from possibly Paddy’s proposals about trying to democratise and tax the trade in information rights, which feels like an overdue shift in recognising that capitalism has found a way to monetise an asset that was previously either individually private or public … its the enclosure of the commons all over again, but in theoretical space.

    But the shift he is trying to make behind these ideas … where the state has a role to hold capitalism to account, but must itself be continually held to account and democratised and devolved to prevent itself becoming another problem – that’s where I want to see the party headed. Tenants’ collectives, information is power, devolving access, working across borders, busting elites but not by creating new centralised or regionalised elites … this philosophy, for me, has the seeds of an approach that could address the issues raised here by others that Paddy does not address, including social care, local government, land ownership and taxation.

    It’s also profoundly contrary to where both Labour and Tories are going. But what it’s lacking is a headline, an emotional grab, a quick summary that makes narrative sense. It’s also contrary to many of the perceptions and self-perceptions of our party as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and ‘a voice for local communities’, both of which are valid, but have small-c-conservative implications.

    And yes, like all the clever ideas we could try, it could struggle to take root in a profoundly binary environment, unless splits occur in other parties, and – at the same time – new voices come into politics from outside, who adopt our ideas or recognise us as fellow-travellers.

  • Dangerous idea 2 has already been had.

    In fact, it’s been actioned.

    By the EU.

    The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in 2018.

    It requires explicit consent to hold sensitive personal data and to use it. You’ll also have to stipulate how long you keep data. You have to have a good reason to hold it and use it.

    As for payment for data; I don’t see Starbucks as being able to get data without them offering something in return, why would I hand over my email without it being linked to a discount card or something. Those who can make giving them your data a condition of doing business with them (e.g. Facebook) can argue that they are “paying” you for your data by providing their service free of charge. Your data is how you pay for your use of Facebook.

    As a party we are going to have to look at GDPR very carefully. Marking someone down as “soft Labour” is recording sensitive personal information and “for political purposes” may not be enough explanation of what will be done with the information. “Do you mind if I note you down as “soft Labour” for our canvassing for the up coming election? What about the next election? And the one after? And what about for longer than 18 months?”

  • Mark Blackburn 12th Sep '17 - 2:24pm

    Here’s some dangerous ideas.
    1. Re-name and re-brand the party. ‘Liberal Democrats’ is as about as toxic a brand as Ratners was.
    2. Consider merging with the Greens. Their edge has also been blunted by the Labour surge and its false Momentum.
    3. Introduce Universal Basic Income, something radical to address social and economic inequality.
    4. Serious investment in housing, green energy and local infrastructure. Yes, BORROW, even. But save some money from cancelling the Trident replacement, which does little to dissuade ISIS or North Korea.
    5. Commit to cancelling Brexit, saving our economy and exposing the con that got us into this mess – what could be more patriotic?
    6. APOLOGISE for the Tuition Fees breach of trust and our behaviour in Coalition – admit our wrongs and apportion blame to those responsible, i.e. the leadership and those around them, who too willingly adopted the Tory economic austerity model rather than delivering the ‘new politics’ they promised.
    Then we can move on and attempt to become the radical, socially-liberal, pro-European party this country desperately needs. On 6% in the polls, and with Lib Dem Fightback seemingly stalled, it’s a hell of a challenge, but we’ve little to lose.

  • Dangerous Idea 1 seems emblematic of the terrible approach to university education we have in this country. Can we have a senior politician talk about these bodies in a positive way, and recognise that the reforms we need are nothing to do with tinkering with the political virility symbol that are tuition fees – but involve rolling back the REF and TEF, properly investing in new staff, and keeping universities as distinctive and independent institutions, not just another key stage of schooling? Instead we have attitudes like Lord Ashdowns – dismissing universities as ancient, unchanging bodies – and Laurence Cox’s above, who calls for mass layoffs and the gutting of local economies by the dozen under the thin disguise of “rationalisation.”

  • Richard Church 12th Sep '17 - 2:34pm

    New ideas are great, but there’s plenty of old ideas out there too, and they are just as applicable to today.
    Land Value Taxation to kick start house building and free up land from speculators. Universal Basic Income / Negative Income Tax to get people out of the poverty trap and cut the welfare bill.
    Industrial Democracy to give people more say in their workplace.
    Inherited wealth to be treated and taxed as income on receipt, to cut the growing concentration of property in few hands.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Sep '17 - 2:36pm

    (1) “Medieval ivy covered buildings”? Paddy seems to have an antiquated idea of what most universities nowadays look like! As so often, I agree with David Evans on tuition fees but they are not the big question which is about the whole nature of post-school education – life long and for life, education as well as specific training. “Distance learning” is just a bit of it.

    (2) Empowering the citizen in the market place – “Isn’t that what we Liberal Democrats are supposed to be about?” Paddy seems to be in a bit of a muddle here, and stated as starkly as that the answer is – well no, not actually. Though it may be part of it if we get the wording right.

    The power of corporations like the GAFA quad and all the rest is indeed a major issue facing everyone on the planet. It’s not just the ownership, control and use of data though that is critical. It makes a policy such as renationalising the post office look laughably trivial. Tim here for some “dangerous thinking” but “making them pay for it”? Hm, how would that work?

    (3) The party. There is certainly a democratic deficit in the party and we certainly have not learned how to use the internet effectively or even usefully in campaigning terms and in internal debates. But plebiscitory decision-making is not part of Liberal democracy but a tool of populists and central controllers. As for committees, I see no festoons of them – they seem to have been stripped down to the minimum. And the way they operate seems to be both inefficient and secretive.

    (4) I don’t understand what bitcoin has to do with Liberalism. As for blockchain I had to look it up and I still don’t understand it. But for most people, money and the internet is a lethal combination and should generally be avoided.

    So yes, a lot of “dangerous thinking” is needed but these are not it. I despaired at the election at the almost complete failure to discuss the major issues facing citizens of this country, this country, and the world as a whole. Our politics is bust and the populists of right, centre or left are further from fixing it than ever. Along with the rest of us.

  • You may not agree with Paddy but he has achieved his objective, these issues are being discussede Q.E.D.

  • Red Liberal 12th Sep '17 - 3:48pm

    Mark Blackburn – your ideas are spot-on. Exactly as I would suggest, and would convert me to being a ‘believer’ in the party. And honestly, renaming and rebranding the party should’ve started back in June 2015.

  • Andrew McCaig 12th Sep '17 - 4:21pm

    “1. Re-name and re-brand the party. ‘Liberal Democrats’ is as about as toxic a brand as Ratners was.”

    If that were true, we would not have any MP’s at all. Where we are seen as relevant people are still quite happy to vote for us.. The problem is that we are seen as irrelevant, not “toxic”, and rebranding the Party is not going to solve that. Nor, I am afraid, is coming up with radical policies. The Greens are quite good at that, actually, but are in much worse shape than us. If no-one thinks you have a chance to put them in place, radical policies really are irrelevant to the electorate. The only thing that happens is that radical policies that are any good are stolen by the other Parties…

    The reality is that for the time being left-of-centre people who are pro-Europe are more inclined to give Labour a chance than us, and will only go for us when Labour are not a viable alternative. We were chipping away at this idea before May called her snap election, and if that had not happened we would have done well in the local elections and come a strong second at least in Gorton. By now we might well have been on 15%, with Labour still riven by infighting. As things stand now we are back to the square 1 of June 2015, and the best thing we can do is patiently build at local level and take what opportunities we can to gain electoral credibility.

    I fear any real breakthrough may have to wait for a period of Labour government, and the inevitable disillusionment that will result. We were patient for many decades up to the revival in the 1970’s and may have to be again…

  • ” Serious investment in housing, green energy and local infrastructure. Yes, BORROW, even. …”

    Any ideas how and when this will be paid back? A sudden boom in agriculture? Manufacturing? Financial Services? Anyone see any plausible jump, of the scale needed, to pay down this debt again?
    Thought not.
    Best leave the problem to the grandchildren. We are all right so who cares about their debts?

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Sep '17 - 4:29pm

    @Dav 12th Sep ’17 – 11:46am

    “Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it.I am talking of course, about our personal data”

    “That’s the price you pay for getting things like Google and Facebook for free. These companies have to make money somehow, and people have proven unwilling to pay directly for their services, so they have to make the revenue some other way.”

    No-one has any need to use Facebook. There are alternative search engines to Google.

  • Brilliant ideas all worthy of consideration. Excellent input as ever from Paddy. Dismiss him at your peril!

  • Sorry but tuition fees was and largely remains the LD’s undoing. £9,000 + interest is simply excessive and the sooner we say so the better. There are so many things we could fight on – a creeking and costly railway system, increasing mental health problems in children and young people, a lack of good career guidance for schoolleavers, air pollution and health, the banking system and tax evasion, child poverty and malnutrition in some communities, better parental leave to support families, improving mental health at work, tackling domestic abuse – let’s get real and we will get votes

  • Just read Garth’s comments. He said it all far better than me!

  • Andrew McCaig: very welcome commonsense feet on the ground comments. We need more of this.

  • Peter Watson 12th Sep '17 - 8:40pm

    Regarding “Brave Idea 1”, it is my understanding that the Coalition’s tuition fees policy has had a negative impact on the Open University in particular and the numbers of part-time and mature students more generally so I don’t think Lord Ashdown can dismiss it so readily in this context.

    Using on-line learning may bring costs down, but will that translate into lower fees or higher profits for universities? Tuition fees above £6000 were supposed to be “exceptional” and some politicians gave the impression that fees would lead to a price-competitive market or students seeking value for money (while simultaneously contradicting that message by stating that many graduates would never repay their loans, etc.), but this does not seem to have transpired so it is likely that fees will only be limited by a government cap rather than market forces or cheaper means of delivering courses. Perhaps two year degrees (without the long summer vacations) could reduce the costs (maintenance and tuition) of going to university.

  • Peter Watson 12th Sep '17 - 9:07pm

    @Red Liberal “the Open University is far more expensive than regular universities, many subjects such as engineering or chemistry or fine art can’t be taught sufficiently without the practical elements, and young people want to go to university to broaden their horizons and enrich their lives, not only get a degree certificate”
    Several points here that should be challenged.
    The OU states, “Our fee for a standard 30-credit module is £1,432, and for a standard 60-credit module it’s £2,864*” so the equivalent of one year at university (120 credits) would be £5728, significantly less than the standard £9000, but this can be spread out flexibly over more than the standard three years. Importantly, this can also be done alongside a full-time job (and family commitments).
    Many people graduate from the OU (and through distance-learning elsewhere) in subjects like engineering and chemistry. Practical work is only one aspect of these subjects, and while I am sure it is a challenge, the OU provides summer schools (compulsory in some subjects) and tutorials to address this.
    Moving away to live at university at 18 is certainly brilliant for personal development, but it is not what everybody wants or can afford. And the extent to which tax-payers should be funding it can lead to heated debates.

    Distance learning offers enormous flexibility for studying, and should be an important part of Lib Dem policy for tertiary education for reasons other than Paddy Ashdown’s value-for-money justification.

    I must declare an interest: I have a degree from a traditional university (chemical engineering), and two from the Open University (Computing, and Maths & Natural Sciences), and all have been valuable to me as my career has developed over the years.

  • @ Judy Abel “Sorry but tuition fees was and largely remains the LD’s undoing. £9,000 + interest is simply excessive and the sooner we say so the better”. I completely agree, Judy.

    We have an opportunity to do so in the House tomorrow when Labour plan to oppose the government’s plan to raise the annual tuition fee cap of £9,000 by £250 a year, increasing the debt of a student on a four-year course by £1,000 overall. There are some Tory rebels so this is an opportunity to join in defeating the Government – and begin to rebuild our credibility.

  • Peter Watson 12th Sep '17 - 10:38pm

    @David Raw “this is an opportunity to join in defeating the Government – and begin to rebuild our credibility.”
    Certainly the former, but perhaps not the latter.
    The Lib Dem defence of the current system has included claims that it is like a graduate tax, many graduates will not repay it, etc., so it would make little difference if fees are £9000, £9250, or £900000 p.a. Undermining that by opposing the increase risks looking like an opportunistic and cynical attempt to defeat the government but might further damage rather than rebuild the party’s credibility.
    The hole that the party has dug for itself with a spade labelled “tuition fees” will not be an easy one to climb out, and I’m not even sure what the advice to “stop digging” would actually mean!

  • @David Raw and @Peter Watson. It is certainly a tricky one, but we cannot get around the fact that many students are paying a completely unreasonable amount for their courses.

    Where a student only has 6-7 hours tuition a week, very common for humanities degrees, this amounts to £60/lecture plus interest. No European country, possibly with the exception of Italy at £5,000, has anything comparable. We have to be honest because people are not stupid. All our talk about not paying up front etc is not relevant. How can increasing fees from £3 -£9,000 be anything but wrong?

    Let us have done with it and change a policy that is deeply flawed.

  • Steve Bradley 13th Sep '17 - 1:55am

    A minor point : Was Grenfell Tower not already run by a Tenant Management Organisation ?

    As for having policy to encourage that sort of thing & wondering why we’re not doing it : there are a lot of good policies we have as a party that never go anywhere because the party hierarchy don’t agree, value or understand the ussues involved. Part of what first attracted me to the Lib Dems is the ability of any member to influence & create policy at conference. Yet it is deeply dispiriting to do so & then find it is routinely ignored & not pursued by the party once passed. That is sham democracy.

  • John Probert 13th Sep '17 - 10:16am

    SOLVE THE HOUSING CRISIS
    Our MPs absolutely must hold this government’s feet to the fire.
    The housing shortage is a massive problem for society which all governments have been promising to solve since at least the time of Tony Blair.

    DEMAND INDUSTRIAL COPARTNERSHIP
    This means sharing a percentage of the profits made in industry and commerce with the workforce itself.

  • Ashley Cartman 13th Sep '17 - 2:12pm

    I think many people miss the fundamental point Paddy is making (Mark Blackburn notable exception, love your ideas).

    It is not that Paddy’s 4 ideas are worthy, correct, or credible, it is that we need a party where radical embryonic ideas such as these are aired and given time to flourish or die through rigorous debate.

    I too believe that “our obsession with Brexit (is) in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to”.

    Let’s go back to our roots, build a strategy, and then go for it.

  • OnceALibDem 13th Sep '17 - 3:56pm

    “I too believe that “our obsession with Brexit (is) in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to”.”

    Me to – look how the row on facial recognition at Notting Hill passed with barely a mention by any Lib Dem. Apparently Ed Davey signed a letter but I can’t find anything public about this Added to that a leader who doesn’t mention civil liberties or anything approximating it in his leadership manifesto and the otherwise laudable My LIberal Britain values statement that is very light on that area and you have a party becoming quite subtly but significantly different from the one I was a member of.

  • Walid Marzouk 13th Sep '17 - 4:53pm

    We, as Lib Dems are not in good shape. let us admit it . we are in NEED of new strong daring policies and some of Paddy’s are worth discussing .Our focus on a second EU REF is proven to be wrong and our policy is on marijuana is a stocking filler – we are down to 7% of the vote even after UKIP’s collapse –
    To paddy’s list
    Reforming the UN , permanent members 10-15 .NO veto. 2/3 majority. A stronger UN= less wars, corruption,Poverty & migration
    come on HQ , wake up & smell the coffee .

  • I love the first two. Ive long said that education is done in a style too much akin to school. We seem to want to chain people to institutions and whilst people may learn their actual engagement with the world is stifled. The shares in the big corporate firms re: data exchange is another great idea. We’ve always been about employee share ownership haven’t we?! But there are a few other ideas I’d like to throw into the mix. …rethinking our railways – must we accept the binary debate? With imagination we could create a climate in which real competition thrives. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because of a lack of political will. Why not have bespoke trains two or three times a day on main lines, run by smaller companies, which offer a different kind of service. Why not instill some competition in at seat services. Creating a climate for competition will increase innovation overall. ATM passengers ride round on services that haven’t improved in decades. Train travel should be an experience. We need to create a new age of luxury train travel. The other area follows on from this and that’s the subject of monopolies. Monopolies, public or private are not liberal and they stifle creativity, innovation. Our broadcast sector is slowly in danger of contracting. a few big players being allowed in the game stifling creativity and ideas. (Just look at the lack of comedy innovation as one example). We have to act in this industry and in others to ensure real competition and the ability of small players to enter the market. One stop shops shouldn’t be part of the liberal agenda. Mental health – we’ve earned plaudits but the issue is not black and white. I know from experience of relatives that the pills we shove people don’t always work and are ruining many lives. Some people sleep 12 hours a day, unable to hold down jobs etc. Psychiatry is not an exact science and sometimes trends around certain drug treatments are creating more problems. Add to this big pharma, which no party seems to tackle, and is probably the biggest strangler of our NHS. Then there’s the really big question. Tech and the future world we want to live in. Shouldn’t we blindly accept every last development? It’s a fundamental question because the speed of tech advance means we may one day render the human redundant. We’re already losing the art of communication. Do we actually WANT to become robots? It wouldn’t harm to have the debate now would it?

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Sep '17 - 10:10pm

    So many good ideas. I hope members will progress them by discussing them in local parties, taking them as policies to regional conferences, asking Federal Policy Committee to set up working groups to further them, and sending policy motions in to FPC for consideration at the next big conference. ( I just checked on the party strategy, for example, and find it is to be discussed at Bournemouth, and there should be a formal proposal at the Spring Conference next year. Good.)

    We can’t submit just to being a debating society when there are such divisions and weaknesses in both major parties to show up and exploit. Andrew McCaig, operating as I think you do in the most stubborn, uncompromising county in England, aren’t you furious at the Labour Party claiming Remainers as their own in the General Election while their only consistency is to support Brexit? How long do we let both parties pretend that staying in the internal market is possible without accepting most of the four freedoms, or that we can have a customs deal with the EU as good as being in the customs union and still make free-trade deals outside the EU? How long are we going to put up with the daft idea of a transitional arrangement after March 2019 having any significance?

    As for Walid Marzouk saying that ‘Our focus on a second EU Ref is proven to be wrong’, sorry but that is simply nonsense. This signature policy of ours is the only sure path for Exit from Brexit.

  • Part of Macron success was he asked over 200,000 people what they wanted. The radical idea is to ask the voters of the UK what they want from their Government, their MPs and their other political representatives. Perhaps we can then have a better idea on whats important in our current political environment.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '17 - 9:04am

    Missing from these ideas is the ownership of pensions. Despite the late Robert Maxwell saying that when he bought the Daily Mirror he also bought the pension fund there has been insufficient action. Pensions are deferred pay and ownership should be with the pensioners. A simple principle which should not be obscured by over-complication.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '17 - 10:12am

    As a blood donor at the time I was surprised to hear our then leader say
    “If blood is free, why should water be charged for?”
    so how about building an aquaduct from Northern Ireland to the west coast of England or the north coast of Wales? This would not be a radical idea, there has been plenty of thought given to a national grid for water. The reservoir in Kielder Forest was created to supply industry planned for the northeast which never happened. Piping the surplus water to the East Midlands is practical, but the real need is for farming in Essex. I live in Kent.

  • Russell Simpson 14th Sep '17 - 11:20am

    Tuition fees: We should stop fretting about this. Clearly a Libdem govt would not have increased fees but if the public refuses to accept that a party with 8% of MPs cannot implement its entire manifesto then there’s not much we can do about that! Apart from restoring grants for the less well off and limiting interest to CPI, the system is pretty much working as planned. Those who benefit from getting a degree end up contibuting to the cost. Anyone who doesn’t know that scrapping fees would be regressive is not paying attention. A Graduate tax (preferred by Ashdown and the NUS) would be more progressive but (in my opinion) less fair – why should you continue paying once you’ve repaid the £50k? However, student debt is NOT real debt. On an average salary the repayment amounts to £10 per week (you’d struggle to buy 2 pints in London with £10!) That’s about 2% of take home pay. When people talk about student debt they usually also mention the cost of housing…Now that’s a bit more than £10 per week!

  • Peter Watson 14th Sep '17 - 2:37pm

    @Russell Simpson
    “Clearly a Libdem govt would not have increased fees …”
    Perhaps. Lord Browne’s report and recommendations would have to have been considered by that Lib Dem government with a leader who apparently did not agree with party policy. Lib Dems at many levels have defended the new scheme and appear to be satisfied with it, so can we be certain that a Lib Dem government would have implemented something very different?

    “… but if the public refuses to accept that a party with 8% of MPs cannot implement its entire manifesto then there’s not much we can do about that!”
    No. It is not about the manifesto commitment to “scrap unfair tuition fees”, let alone implementation of the “entire manifesto”. The public refuses to accept that following an election campaign that promised “no more broken promises”, it was hunky-dory for individual Lib Dem MPs so spectacularly to break their highly-publicised personal promises to vote against increasing tuition fees.

    However, in the second part of your post I think you point to one of the options the party has: full-blooded ownership of the current tuition fees scheme (albeit with an improvement to the interest rate) and no attempt to pretend it is a graduate tax. I can’t say I agree with the approach of “owning” the system but I believe the party needs to be decisive one way or the other: own it or disown it. Currently the party seems to have a confused and half-hearted approach while it continues to take all of the blame.

  • @Laurence Cox (12th Sep ’17 – 1:42pm)
    “I was hoping for a rather more dangerous idea on student fees and universities. You might have asked: why do we have so many Universities? …
    A more radical approach would be to rationalise the University sector, not necessarily reducing the number of student places, but reducing the number of degree-awarding bodies.

    Actually, a more rational approach would be to reintroduce gradations in the ‘University’ sector. Whilst some will complain about: Universities, Polytechnic’s, FE Colleges etc. the advantage they had was the different labels. So perhaps what we need are a new set of labels, but then that is already happening – practically the only ‘true’ universities are members of the Russell Group…

  • Andrew Kerr 14th Sep '17 - 3:21pm

    However, who controls the blockchains/bitcoins – systems which can be hacked just like any other internet-connected system?

    Blockchain is a decentralised, distributed peer to peer cryptographically secure ledger. To hack that you would need to break the underlying crypto (not happening) or steal private keys (actually quite possible).

    Blockchain could potentially be used for things like tracing country of origin for customs, or food or drug provenance.
    http://www.pharmtech.com/conference-finds-blockchain-still-years-away-use-pharma

    I don’t see any use for crypto currency for governments, and they have a host of problems (including the waste of processing power to ‘mine’ the damn things, and the embarrassing security of many existing exchanges – see “steal private keys” above).
    https://qz.com/749789/bitcoin-exchanges-cant-stop-getting-hacked-no-matter-what-security-system-they-use/

    Paddy gives no indication that he understands these technologies or their potential use cases. He sounds like he is throwing buzzwords out there.

  • Laurence Cox 14th Sep '17 - 4:57pm

    @Tim Oliver
    I was surprised to see anyone here standing up for the Vice-Chancellors and other senior university managers with their six-figure salaries. Maintaining the number of student places, requires maintaining the number of academic staff to teach them as should have been clear from my example of the old London External degrees, so no gutting of local economies would occur.

    @Roland
    I fear that it is too late to go back to the pre-1992 system, although it was undoubtedly better than what we have now. Many Polytechnics specialised in particular subjects and had a close working relationship with local companies; Hatfield, for example, had a strong Aeronautical Engineering department and links to De Havilland.

  • @Laurence Cox – “Hatfield, for example…”

    Yes, Hatfield and the lost Hertfordshire aerospace industry… When I was looking at Universities to study Computing at, it was rated as one of the top five in the country; I didn’t accept the offer as I effectively lived next door and part of the point of going to Uni was to live away from home…

  • Firstly, if we think the student loan / graduate debt scheme is a graduate tax then we need to make it policy to make it a graduate tax with progressive rates as I have suggested (1% or 2% 3% and 5%) and not a 9% rate, which Laurence Cox (https://www.libdemvoice.org/paddy-ashdown-writesan-essay-to-my-party-on-the-eve-of-conference-55225.html#comments 12th Sept 17 1.07pm) points out means a marginal tax, NI and Student Loan rate of 41% compared to 42% tax and NI rate for those earning over £45,000.

    Secondly, Paddy is correct we do need to recognise that property owning rights are a founding stone of democracy, and we should reject the idea that people should have to sell their home once they are dead to pay any tax except inheritance tax. I like the idea of making companies pay for the personal information they hold on a person, but I am not sure it is feasible.

    Thirdly, Paddy has identified the wrong problem. It is not our committee system which is the problem, it is how we make our policy. We need to reform the way policy groups are formed and allow the groups themselves to set their own terms of reference. We need to bar MPs, Lords and Euro MPs from chairing working groups and having more than two members on the groups. We need to only allow two members of the Policy Committee to be on any policy working group. We need to abolish the criteria of expertise in the field being discussed and instead draw lots from those people who expressed an interest in each nation and region so there would be either 13 or 26 such members of the policy working groups. This should make radical policy more likely and reduce the influence of special interests in making policy. We need to put more resources in two way communication with the members and this is not possible if we have a one low flat rate of membership fee, our multi-level fee structure is fine (£12 is low enough with £6 for concessionaries).

    Fourth, there was man on Thursday’s night Newsnight who stated that Blockchain is useful for other things than Bitcoins, but hecouldn’t give any examples.

  • Agree entirely with Michael BG. Higher education should be funded by a progressive graduate tax. The present system allows the highly paid banker to be free of the debt by the time he/she is 30, while the school teacher ( for examples sake) is still paying it off well into middle age. Is that our idea of fair ?
    Need to differentiate between policy ideas that will win votes and those, such as Paddy’s #3 which are designed to get the membership motivated and active. There are, I suggest, two types of member. The first are those who join as a gesture of support and in the knowledge that their subscription will help fund the party. And that’s about it.
    The second type of member has a passionate interest in the issues and in policy and has a fairly clear idea of the policy direction he wants to see the party go in. He or she will not be a happy bunny longterm if all the policy decisions are handed down from on high, or created by working parties comprised of people appointed in some obscure manner, while their involvement is being asked to stuff leaflets through doors a couple of times a year (oh, and tedious requests for more money).

  • A really dangerous idea.

    Set inheritance tax at 95% for estates worth more than x, where x is number that mirrors the average price of a UK home. That way, when rich old buggers like me die, the wealth that I’ve accumulated by virtue of living in, working in and investing in the UK (especially in its property market) goes back to the nation to pay for things we desperately need.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '17 - 10:18am

    Ivy covered professors in ivy coloured halls

  • Paddy’s ideas are interesting and have stimulated some debate. Perhaps part of his intent was to get people thinking about what constitutes a ‘dangerous idea’. But PA’s ideas hardly qualify for the description of radical, let alone dangerous. (BTW, dangerous to whom, or to what?).

    If the Lib Dems are going to capture the imagination of the British people they are going to have to come up with something more inspiring than this. Other comments here point the way: Universal Basic Income could be the big, reforming idea that reinstates the LD’s radical credentials. LVT may seem a bit wonky to the average person, but it is a truly radical policy that would indeed be dangerous to long-established interests, but very much in the interests of the people at large. The Labour Party are already flirting with both of these ideas, so I say, get in there first, and seize the moment.

    I think British people are hungry for real, reforming and progressive change. We need big ideas and policies that will truly change things for ordinary people for the better. Tinkering at the margins will no longer cut it.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Sep '17 - 3:17pm

    I think a membership that fits in with young people’s online existence and runs in parallel with more traditional membership might work. We would need to divert resources to run it perhaps as a pilot. Regarding tuition fees, I like the Welsh model with free subsistence. If our review does come out with a graduate tax as its main recommendation that would be fine; a rebranding exercise as little would change. We do need to come up with something that is credible and allows the electorate to forgive and forget the past.

  • Simon Banks 6th Oct '17 - 12:04pm

    Some good ideas here, but the cheap sneer at academics is unworthy of him; and does he think all university buildings are covered in ivy or is he just having a covert go at Oxbridge?

    As for an internet-based party, yes, there is hugely more we could do particularly in policy formation, using something like the Meetup pattern. But formal processes exist for a reason – to ensure fairness and probity. A decision to spend a lot of money needs to be considered by someone who is accountable and democratically elected. If that’s a group of people, it could do a lot more electronically, but anyone who’s tried the different methods knows that until you can have electronic meetings where you can see the other people present, the face to face meeting has big advantages for more complex or sensitive issues. The implication of what Paddy’s saying is to sideline or abolish local parties, but electronic democracy without a network of democratic groups (locality based or not) puts huge power in the hands of the elite at the centre because they decide the questions to be asked and analyse the responses. And by the way, some local parties are doing a lot electronically and have involved new members to the extent that the new members largely are the local party.

    We should indeed learn from new political movements and we’re told the party has learnt a lot from the Barack Obama campaigns, though it didn’t seem to help us much. But I’d proceed with some caution until we can see whether parties that have arisen from nothing in a couple of years have staying power.

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