Liberal Democrats Conference news September 1822 LibDems prepare plans for power

22 Sep 05
The Liberal Democrat leadership this week called on members to support a bold range of new policy proposals designed to give the party a real chance of electoral success by the end of the decade.

23 September 2005

The Liberal Democrat leadership this week called on members to support a bold range of new policy proposals designed to give the party a real chance of electoral success by the end of the decade.

LibDem leader Charles Kennedy urged the party to take risks if it were to reach new audiences. 'We cannot provide the real alternative to this discredited and fading Labour government if we keep our heads securely below the parapet,' he told delegates in Blackpool on September 20.

The LibDems are conducting two major policy reviews. One will look at taxation and the other at policy priorities and presentational issues, reviving the conflict between the Orange book modernisers and grassroots activists reluctant to abandon traditional and popular campaigning positions.

There is little doubt among party insiders that the outcome of the two, particularly the tax review, which is to be presented and debated at next year's autumn conference, will determine the LibDems' future direction.

Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, a leading moderniser, would not pre-empt the outcome but said any proposals should be simple, disciplined and sustainable, exploiting the fact that the boom years under Labour were coming to an end.

'The old quip that all Labour governments eventually run out of money is beginning to acquire a ring of truth,' he told the conference.

'In such a world, there will be no credibility whatsoever for us promising to spend, and tax, more than Labour. This would be like announcing that the answer to Billy Bunter's weight problem is more cream cakes.'

He said that the party's central message should be fairer taxes, not higher taxes, with the low-paid and pensioners lifted out of tax altogether. 'And there are rich people who can and should pay more, reflecting their ability to pay,' Cable added.

But many activists are angry at what they see as an attempt to shift the LibDems closer to the other two main parties. They succeeded in landing a body blow on the leadership this week when they threw out plans to sell off the Royal Mail to a mixture of small shareholders, employees and the open market.

One activist told Public Finance that although 85% of these proposals were very good, overall it was a 'jumble' and would have been politically difficult to defend.

'It went into too much detail to the point where it could have been attacked from both sides of the fence,' they said. 'If we'd passed it, the Labour Party would have murdered us.'

Teather calls for bigger health role for councils

Councils should take on a larger health role to overcome persistent inequalities, the LibDem local government spokeswoman told a fringe meeting at the conference.

Speaking at a debate on the role of local government in public health on September 21, organised by the Local Government Association, Sarah Teather said poor health was often related to poverty, inadequate housing and lack of education as well as to diet and exercise. She called for better co-ordination of services.

'Why not make councils responsible for commissioning health services?' she said. 'Then they can reap the rewards of joining up services at a local level.'

Teather also criticised the lack of democratic accountability in the NHS and said a link with councils would make the health service more responsive to local needs. 'Where do people go if they want to lobby for more GPs? Frankly, the primary care trust doesn't even answer my letters so what chance does anyone else have?' she said.

Teather's comments were echoed by Mike Storey, leader of Liverpool City Council, who said councils should never have lost their public health function when local government was reorganised in 1974. He suggested that the child protection scandals and infectious disease outbreaks of recent years could have been thwarted had it not been for the schism between public health, environmental health and education.

But Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, criticised councils for scaremongering on everything from sunbathing to smoking. 'This is more about fears than facts,' she said. 'Councils are ill-equipped to act as health experts.'

Vote to abolish 'discredited' Standards Board

A motion to scrap the 'discredited' Standards Board for England and replace it with another body was overwhelming endorsed by delegates.

The board, which polices councillors' behaviour, was attacked for being more a vehicle for gaining political advantage than for upholding high standards in public life. It was variously described as 'discredited', 'perverted' and 'the work of the devil', which victimised councillors and prevented them from doing their jobs.

Some delegates even said there was no need for any kind of external check on councillors and called for the motion to be amended accordingly.

Steven Gauge, a delegate from Croydon, said: 'Let's not replace the Standards Board with another body which will do more or less the same thing. Councillors are scrutinised by a free press and have to stand for re-election every four years. It's called democracy.'

But the attempt to rewrite the motion was unsuccessful and delegates backed proposals for a revised body and a new councillors' code of conduct.


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