Posts Tagged policy

Facing the future – your chance to shape party policy

Liberal Democrats are generally proud of our democratic policy-making process, and the quality of its content – if sometimes also bemused by its sheer quantity.

Policy documents tend to have imposing but vague titles, inviting a bit of a guessing game as to their real subject, like “The Power to be Different” (local government), or a recent favourite “Are we being served?” (consumer policy).

One where the title definitely fits is “Facing the Future”, one of two policy groups on which I currently serve. The party usually has a general policy review after each General Election. This time we have the additional challenge of the coalition, making developing a distinctive policy programme for the next election more important than ever.

Our remit is not so much to come up with answers as to define the questions that our next round of policy papers should address. I’ve been particularly keen to include questions on responding to climate change, and on the social impact of new technology. Comments welcome by email, by 31st October.

And my other policy working group? It’s the one on information technology and intellectual property, set up in response to the emergency motion I proposed at the Spring 2010 conference, and ably chaired by Cambridge MP (and motion seconder) Julian Huppert. Contributions to the policy debate are welcome by email .
Comments should reach Julian as soon as possible, and no later than 31st October 2010. Fancy names not needed!

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Eve of conference

Tomorrow I’ll be travelling to join thousands of Lib Dems from across the country in Bournemouth for our party conference.

Last night, Islington Lib Dems previewed the conference debates at our latest Pizza & Politics evening.

The Liberal Democrat party conference is unusual among the 3 main parties in that we do actually set party policy; it’s not just a rally for the faithful. That means ordinary members can shape the policy of the party; and it also means that occasionally we have a row. Or if not a row exactly, a genuine debate.

On most issues, unsurprisingly, Lib Dems tend to agree with each other, even on issues that are divisive between the parties (and within other parties). We’re generally against ID cards, against Heathrow expansion, and pro Europe, to pick three examples. So what’s there to debate?

Well, the media will no doubt try to talk up a potential row over the Fresh Start paper. In fact, it’s a clear and in my view unconcentious statement of Lib Dem priorities for the General Election manifesto. (The most dodgy aspect is the Somerfield-type colour scheme. And don’t they have a ‘fresh’ slogan too?)

The agenda has lots of heavyweight debates, on globalisation, climate change, civil liberties – big issues, but no big rows.

So last night we teased out three smaller issues where we might have a bit of a barney in Bournemouth.

The first is whether the Advertising Standards Authority should have rules requiring that airbrushed images are identified as such: and whether such images should be banned in publications aimed at young people. The former is not a problem – it’s recently become the rule for those mascara ads that showcase false eyelashes – but the latter caused a real debate. Yes, young people’s self-image is fragile: but is it right to censor pictures in response? And is this really the biggest issue we face? We remain divided on that one.

The second is whether employers should adopt the practice of blanking out the names of job applicants to weed out sexist and racist judgements. Generally we saw no harm in that, although there was some scepticism as to whether it would do much good. Attending a a girls’ school or being on the committee of your local mosque could also be a bit of a giveaway.

Both these proposals are part of a package of ideas in the Real Women policy paper.

Then there are Mosquitos, the machines that generate a highpitched sound causing distress, and possibly damage, to younger eardrums. Should they be banned? Although Islington Council has tried it once – and decided against it in future – I think using Mosquitos is a terrible idea. And I’m not alone.

My own home has been under siege from groups of youths in the past, and we’ve often had the neighbourhood police on speed-dial, so I don’t deny there’s an issue; but I just don’t think indiscriminate torture techniques are the answer.

Other communities have found that shining pink light or playing Mozart is just as effective, and a considerably more humane way to discourage young people from hanging around. Not that hanging around in a public place is necessarily a problem in itself – as long as they are not a nuisance to others.

I think it’s another symptom of the current obsession with the idea that technology can solve essentially human problems. It’s not things that help people, or change people; it’s other people. It’s not mosquitos we need but bluebottles.

What mosquitos and air-brushing have in common, of course, is that they are at the crunch point where protection and freedom conflict. They also show some of the very mixed messages that our society sends young people. We’ll protect your eyes while assaulting your ears. Should be an interesting conference….

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Harrogate day 3: from faith to hope

I’m back home, feet up, and reflecting on Nick Clegg’s speech.

A typical leader’s speech slags off the other parties, makes a few jokes, ticks some policy boxes, and ends with some feelgood promises and election-ready tub-thumping. Nothing wrong with that. But this was something different.

No jokes. This a brave move. In a leader’s speech, jokes aren’t so much the icing on the cake as the sugar on the pill – they keep the audience entertained as well as thoughtful, and they give the journalists an easy hook for their story. No jokes means we all have to work harder. This may have been Sunday morning, but it wasn’t easy. Nick was embodying the message: serious responses for serious times.

No easy answers. Nick did outline our policy highlights: but he made it clear that things will get worse before they get better. We have tough times ahead and we need to be clear-sighted and tough-minded to get through them. He challenged us to see the recession as a challenge and a chance to rebuild, like rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

No short-termism. Politicians are normally short-term – not our fault, the electoral cycle gives its rhythm to public policy – but Nick was thinking long-term. This is partly the impact of his paternity leave: he’s looking on the world as the place his precious children will live their lives, not some policy-testing ground.

No policy boxes. Politicians are great at putting policies in boxes so we can tick them. Again, not entirely our fault, it’s the way government departments, council services, the media, parcel things up. But Nick made connections: between the Government’s attitude to borrowing and the failure to tackle climate change, between a partisan electoral system and a failed economic regime.

No unrealistic promises. Getting out of Westminster, on his visits and his paternity leave, has kept Nick grounded: “the people I’ve met don’t want handouts. They don’t imagine government is the answer to all of their problems. They just need a break.They just want someone to take a little of the weight off their shoulders. It’s the difference between a burden you can carry with your head held high and one that brings you to your knees. It’s the difference the Liberal Democrats will make.”

No partisanship. Nick rightly attacked the other parties on their records and their policy errors. But he spent remarkably little time talking about them at all. Instead he looked beyond party and national divides, calling on people to work together in Britain, and in Europe.

A year ago, I wrote about how Nick evoked faith.

Today, it was hope: “We are the only party that will put money into people’s pockets with fair tax cuts. The only party to offer universal childcare and smaller classes in our primary schools. The only party that will use Gordon Brown’s wasted billions to create thousands of jobs today by investing in homes, hospitals, schools and public transport to build the green economy of tomorrow. The only party that will rebuild the jobs, homes and hopes this recession has destroyed. So don’t believe the doubters, the nay-sayers, the professional cynics. This time it can be different.”

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The transforming power of education

Last night we had an inspiring evening debating education and social exclusion.

The other week, my parents reminded me that my first ever political demo was against education cuts – in my pushchair! As the daughter and sister-in-law of teachers; a school governor; a former youth worker; and a scholarship girl at university, I am steeped in a commitment to the transforming power of education and the importance of seeking excellence for all pupils.

But as I’m a Lib Dem you’d expect that. What was special about last night was debating the issues with our guest speaker, Stephen Williams MP. Stephen is not only part of our Education team in Parliament, he embodies what we are campaigning for. Stephen told us of his background: a kid getting free school meals, the son of a road worker and a dinner lady, who became the first in his family to get to university – and now an MP.

And unlike the Labour MPs – who broke Blair’s tainted promise and pulled up the ladder of achievement that helped them, by introducing tuition fees – Stephen and the Lib Dems are still looking at ways to extend opportunity. Like the pupil premium, and cutting class sizes (launched in Islington!) to give the poorest infants the same pupil-teacher ratios as prep schools. And like the truly radical proposals on parental leave.

With the sad death of Ivan Cameron, parents in politics are in the news for tragic reasons. I now believe that the big divide in politics is less between men and women (although it’s still there) and more between people who have caring responsibilities (usually women) and those without.

I’m so proud that Lib Dems have serious plans to address these equity issues and to power up the transforming effect of education. This is just what communities like Islington need.

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40 questions on women’s policy

The Liberal Democrats have published a consultation paper on women’s policy, covering issues like sex, money and safety.

As a consultation paper it’s all about questions not answers.

The questions range from the big picture – Can women really ‘have it all’? Can men? What is ‘it’ anyway and is it worth the effort? – to some interesting specifics. For example, How can we best enable mature women to get back into the labour market after a long break? and What alternatives to prison might be appropriate for female offenders?

The party will be holding a consultative session at the Lib Dem spring conference in Harrogate next month. That in turn will feed into detailed policy proposals for the main conference in September. But you don’t have to go to conference, or even be a Lib Dem to have your say.

I’m seeking views from women (and men!) in Islington on the consultation paper, and will feed them all into the policy-making process. So please email me – and if you’d like me to organise a meeting with you or your group to discuss the ideas, just let me know.

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More on Lib Dems’ education plans

More coverage of the Lib Dem schools’ policy – launched in Islington – in the Guardian, and the Indy.

At the heart of the plans is cutting primary school class sizes to just 15, to give state school infants the same good start as their peers in private schools: as the Indy points out, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the gap in class sizes between state and private schools was larger in the UK – at 13 pupils per class – than anywhere else in the world. Internationally, the difference on average is between one and two pupils per class.

Setting low minimum class sizes would particularly benefit boroughs with a high turnover, like Islington. As a school governor myself, I know how the official number of pupils – recorded each January and on which school funding depends – varies dramatically from term to term. A lower number of pupils to start with means schools could handle an influx of pupils mid year much better.

Investing in schools isn’t just about improving education, important though that is. It’s crucial for children’s life chances and those of their whole family. Social class still dictates the education you’ll have and the life you’ll lead, not your intelligence or commitment. That’s wrong, and it’s Labour’s shame that it’s still the case.

I’m proud that my party is proposing something that will really change it.

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Nick visits Islington to launch schools policy

An exciting day yesterday as I spent my lunch hour welcoming party leader Nick Clegg and David Laws MP to Islington, to unveil the party’s new schools policy.

Council leader James Kempton chaired the group that produced the proposals, so it was great to have the launch in our borough. You can watch a section on the BBC Six O’Clock news here – it is about 20 minutes into the programme.

We toured New North Community School, hearing from pupils and teachers the difference that high levels of staff attention can make for all children; appropriate as reinvesting the money squandered on Gordon Brown’s baby bonds to cut primary school class sizes is at the heart of the proposals.

Mind you, it nearly didn’t happen. At the start of the week, with snow blocking the streets and local schools closed, hosting a VIP visit was the last thing on everyone’s mind. But by Thursday, New North was open and the unflappable head Mary McStay was delighted to welcome us to her school.

It’s an amazing place; a transforming school (the children’s performance scores have doubled in the time there), winner of the London Schools Environment Award, and with a strong civic sense. School governor Barbara Smith showed the photos from the school election. The children are fired up about democracy and looking forward to visiting Westminster this month (‘that’ll put them off’ said Nick drily).

New North is full of unexpected delights from the minature orchard to the roof garden to the Tracy Emin quilt.

And it’s as much a community centre as a school; there’s a children’s centre next door, plus New North run groups for parents, sewing groups for Somali women, parent and child maths lessons in Turkish, an outreach project on the Packington estate.

It was a really heartwarming visit on a cold day.

Talking of the cold, Nick also launched my fairer fuel bills petition (you can sign up here). Nick used his first ever Prime Minister’s Question Time to press Gordon Brown on the injustice of the poorest paying more for their fuel; and it’s great pleasure to have his backing on this campaign.

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Social mobility no better under Labour

I remember years ago meeting a councillor from one of the leafier bits of Sheffield.

We compared notes on our patches, including advice surgeries and casework. Most of mine was housing or planning; she agreed about the planning, but said she had hardly any housing casework. It turned out that was because she had hardly any council housing in the ward.

Nowhere’s like that in Islington. Part of the charm, and the challenge, of our community is that all kinds of people live side by side. In my row of council and ex-council flats, there are everyone from young professionals flat-sharing to respectable pensioners, to large families making do on small incomes. We share a postcode but our life chances are all very different. And Labour’s grand plans to tackle social exclusion and inequality, and improve mobility and opportunity, have failed.

As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardos, reported recently, “Britain today is a society of persistent inequality. The life chances of children remain heavily dependent on the circumstances of their birth. Children born to poorer families have less favourable outcomes across every sphere of life.”

He was writing in his role as independent Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ Social Mobility Commission. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg set up the Commission because as a party we care passionately about social mobility. Many Liberal Democrat supporters from a social democrat background have joined us because they feel angry and betrayed by Labour’s failure to deliver on what could have been a common agenda.

Instead, over the last five years, many of the key indicators of social exclusion have got worse, not better, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Meanwhile, the extra money Labour has put into schools has largely benefitted children from better-off backgrounds. And the poorest families have been excluded from university because of tuition fees. Liberal Democrats are calling for a pupil premium, as extra money to support the poorest pupils, to try and redress the balance.

I’ve blogged before about child poverty. Islington-based charity the Child Poverty Action Group is running the 2 Skint 4 School campaign to highlight how poverty and bad education are linked in a vicious circle.

The waste of opportunity – for individuals and our country – is a tragedy; investing in the best start for young people is the right thing to do morally, socially and economically. The cost of crime, unemployment and poor health from doing nothing, is far greater than the cost of doing the right thing now.

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A better way to go

The Lib Dems on the London Assembly have published their response to the Mayor’s transport policy consultation.

There’s lots of good stuff in there, not least the way the Lib Dem approach links transport needs into Londoners lives, and the challenges of making our city greener, healthier and a nicer place to live, rather than some train-spotter focus on the hardware in isolation.

Did you know that Londoners spend the equivalent of one whole month per year travelling to and from work? Transport policy should be about reducing that, not just allowing more people to join the commuter grind.

As Caroline Pidgeon points out, “We should be developing a capital city where people need to travel less often and less far. This means keeping essential public services like health, police and post offices local, not consolidating them into larger and more distant centres.”

All things that Labour government policy of recent years has undermined.

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Heathrow: Labour dithers while Londoners suffer

The BBC is reporting that a decision on a third runway at Heathrow has been delayed.

Earlier this week I was woken at 5.40am – not by Percy (the cat) or any call of nature but by aircraft noise overhead. You don’t need to live next to Heathrow to be disturbed by it. Andrew Adonis, the new Minister for Transport, is an Islington resident, so he should know all about the noise and nuisance from Heathrow’s flight paths over our borough.

I’ve blogged before about my own opposition to expanding Heathrow. Adding a third runway at Heathrow would be a disaster. It would increase carbon emissions when we need to cut them, and demolish London homes when we need to build more. It will bring many more flights across our skies; but most of the passengers will be in transit, doing nothing for our economy.

As Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told the anti-expansion rally earlier this year, “the case for extending Heathrow airport is so threadbare it’s embarrassing…. The government will never be taken seriously on climate change until they say no to Heathrow.”

And Lib Dems at every level are doing their bit. Our local MEP Sarah Ludford has taken up the issue with the EU Environment chief. Islington’s Lib Dem Council has joined the 2M group of local authorities opposed to expansion. Now the Government must listen and back down from these disastrous plans.

Lord Adonis must say no to a third runway at Heathrow. If he lets it go ahead, he won’t deserve to sleep at night – and the rest of us won’t be able to.

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