Labour’s lead over Tories cut as Ukip enjoys new surge – poll
Labour down two on 35%, Tories unchanged on 28% and Ukip up three on 19% in latest fortnightly poll. Read more…
Help to Buy scheme condemned by Lib Dem grassroots groups
Critics claim £12bn mortgage scheme brought forward from January by Conservatives will fuel house price bubble. Read more…
Free school meals policy gets lukewarm reception from educationalists
While few doubt benefits of policy, questions remain over whether money could be better spent elsewhere. Read more…
Vince Cable: public opinion on immigration is now ‘absolutely toxic’
Business secretary warns against ‘inflaming’ public opinion and attacks plans to hit immigrants with extra charges for using NHS. Read more…
Lib Dems and Tories hand back £520,000 bequest after outcry
Coalition parties return donation that was bequeathed by Joan Edwards to ‘whichever government is in office’. Read more…
Lord Rennard questioned by police over harassment allegations
Senior Lib Dem peer is interviewed under caution over allegations he sexually harassed women party activists. Read more…
Lord Lester condemns spate of resignations from party among those who oppose justice and security bill
A leading Liberal Democrat peer involved in the battle over the expansion of secret courts has condemned former party colleagues who resigned over the issue for being “fairweather friends”.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a key member of parliament’s joint committee on human rights and drafter of government-defeating amendments, spoke out following a spate of political departures.
Over the last three days Prof Philippe Sands QC, Dinah Rose QC and Jo Shaw, who formerly led the campaign inside the party, have quit the Liberal Democrats in protest at the coalition government’s backing for the justice and security bill.
Opponents believe so-called closed material procedures – used in cases said to involve national security – deprive claimants of a fair trial by not allowing them to see all the evidence.
The Liberal Democrat party conference has twice voted to reject the expansion of secret hearings into the main civil courts but an overwhelming majority of the party’s MPs voted in support of the measure last week. The next stage in the political battle comes later this month when peers will re-examine the bill.
Lester said: “It’s disappointing that some prominent Liberal Democrats have resigned and gone into the political wilderness because of their dislike of the justice and security bill and its support by the coalition government.
“But instead of being fairweather friends they would have done well to support the work of the joint committee on human rights in building essential safeguards into the bill.
“We Liberal Democrats have made vital changes and will press for more when the bill returns to the Lords on 26 March to achieve a fair balance between justice and security under the rule of law.”
Lester says the outcome of the next vote is uncertain. In the last Lords debate on the bill in November, peers inflicted a series of defeats on the government by majorities of more than 100.
The vote on 26 March, however, coincides with the Jewish religious festival of Passover when a number of peers will be absent, including some key opponents of the bill in its current form.
Some of the key safeguards put into the bill when peers defeated the government last year have since been removed during committee stage in the House of Commons. One of the main Lords amendments that disappeared was the so-called “Wiley balance” – a process of assessment that would have allowed judges to weigh the interests of national security against the wider public interest in the fair and open administration of justice.
Deputy prime minister also uses spring conference speech to play down economic policy divisions at top of party
A newly optimistic Nick Clegg, saved from the near-death experience of the Eastleigh byelection, said the Liberal Democrats have moved from being a protest party to the anchor that will deliver centre-ground governments committed to both a strong economy and a fairer society.
In a speech closing his party’s spring conference, he attempted to paper over the mounting differences at the top of the party about stimulating growth, saying both the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, agreed the coalition needed to take a flexible approach to deficit reduction.
He also insisted that being in a coalition government did not dilute the party’s identity, but strengthened it. He said: “There is a myth that governing together, in coalition, diminishes the ability of the smaller party to beat the bigger party. The idea that, in Tory facing seats the Liberal Democrats will find it impossible to distinguish our record, our values, from theirs. But that myth has been utterly confounded. The opposite is true.
“The longer you stand side-by-side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see. We don’t lose our identity by governing with the Conservatives. The comparison helps the British people understand who we are.”
Clegg said the Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns. “At least the leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard they try. They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right hand side.”
He said he relished the fact that the party was no longer seen as the party of protest, or the automatic “none-of-the-above” choice.
“The Liberal Democrats are not a party of protest, we are a party of change. A party that is for things, not simply against things. A successful political party cannot thrive just by picking up the votes that have been lost by its opponents. Our ambition is to reach out to the millions of people in this country who want a party that strikes the right balance between economic credibility and social fairness.”
In a thinly coded reference to Ukip, he added: “We are not some kind of receptacle for people who don’t like the world – and don’t want to do anything about it. We grapple with the world. We strive to make it better. And the more people who see that, all the better too.”
With Cable saying the balance of risk had begun to shiftin favour of an economic stimulus, Clegg admitted: “Britain’s economic recovery has proved more challenging than anyone imagined. The crash in 2008, deeper and more profound than we knew.”
But he also warned of the dangers still confronting the economy, and the threat of rising interest rates, saying: “Just two weeks ago, the uncertain outcome of the Italian election threatened to plunge Europe back into crisis. Suddenly we were reminded of the danger that looms when markets question the ability of governments to live within their means.
“Countries around the world face the same hard truth: we must all pay the piper in the end. I want to make one thing clear: we will not flinch on the deficit. But to be unflinching is not to be unthinking. And the idea that the choice is between a cruel and unbending plan A and a mythical plan B is simply not the case.”
He continued: “Balancing the books is a judgment, not a science. And our plan has always allowed room for manoeuvre.
“Sticking to a plan requires government to be flexible as well as resolute, nimble as well as determined.”
He argued the coalition had already shown flexibility by delaying its deficit reduction programme by two years.
“When economic circumstances around us deteriorated and UK growth forecasts suffered, voices on the right called for us to respond by cutting further and faster. But instead we took the pragmatic choice to extend the deficit reduction timetable. As tax receipts went down we let the automatic ebb and flow of government borrowing fill the gap.”
Clegg denied the coalition was slashing the state, saying: “By the end of this parliament, public spending will still be 42% of GDP. That’s higher than at any time between 1995 and when the banks crashed, in 2008.”
In an oblique reference to Cable’s call for a multibillion-pound direct investment in a house-building programme, Clegg said the government was already “straining every sinew to invest every available pound into UK infrastructure”. The coalition was spending more on capital projects than Labour spent, on average, between 1997 and 2010.
He also referred to the massive investment already under way in construction projects and insisted the Treasury had already made an unprecedented break from the straitjacket of its orthodoxy by offering of £50bn worth of guarantees from central government to people willing to invest in infrastructure and construction.
“No government has offered these kinds of guarantees, on this scale, ever before,” he said in a key passage of the speech. “We will and must do more to mobilise investment into our long-term infrastructure needs. I agree with that. Vince [Cable] agrees with that. Danny [Alexander] agrees with that. But, as we all equally acknowledge, there are no cost-free, risk-free ways of finding such huge sums of money. Not at a time when Labour left the cupboard bare and we still have the second highest deficit in Europe, behind only Greece.”
Clegg also claimed: “We may be the smaller party, but we have all the biggest ideas,” pointing to “the world’s first ever green investment bank. The business bank; the bank levy; the green deal. Better schools and proper vocational learning. Greater shareholder democracy. Flexible working and shared parental leave. Tax cuts for working families, paid for by higher taxes on unearned wealth.”
He then set out his criticisms of Labour and the Tories, arguing that only the Lib Dems offered both economic and social renewal. “The Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns. At least the leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard they try. They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right hand side.”
Referring to the calls from Conservative ministers for Britain to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, Clegg said the Tories would actively take away rights enjoyed by British citizens just to appease their backbenchers.
“Conference, make no mistake, no matter what the issue – safeguarding the NHS, creating green jobs, stopping profit-making in schools, preventing a return to two-tier O-levels – the Liberal Democrats will keep the coalition firmly anchored in the centre ground.”
Clegg went on to criticise Labour for opposing “every single saving the coalition has been forced to make with not a single suggestion for how to raise money instead”. Labour, he claimed, “are embracing opposition in the worst possible way. All they are interested in is striking poses and playing parliamentary games. They try to lecture us about taxing the rich. Even though taxes on the richest are now higher than they were for every year under 13 years of Labour. They conspired with Tory rebels to scupper Lords reform, even though it was in their manifesto.”
Clegg continued: “By now I expected a re-energised Labour party, refocused. The whole point of opposition parties is that they come up with ideas. But they haven’t. Under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, Labour remain a blank page in British politics. These people were in the government that crashed the economy before. They’ve given us no apology. No solutions. No plans. No sign that they even understand what they did. The truth is, left to their own devices, they’d do it again.”
Social Liberal Forum left frustrated after attempts to put a debate on a shift in economic policy on agenda are outmanoeuvred
The Liberal Democrat leadership has again outmanoeuvred supporters of a targeted growth stimulus by preventing a general debate on the economy at the party’s spring conference.
The steps by the federal party’s conference committee to block the debate – which will keep the issue off the conference agenda for at least 12 months – were denounced on Sunday .
A frustrated Prateek Buch, director of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) pressure group, said: “I cannot understand how a serious party of government can decide, against the democratic will of our members, not to debate the single most important issue that faces our country, if we are unable to discuss a flatlining economy, the biggest issue facing the country?”
The SLF, a left-of-centre pressure group, had first attempted to table a motion for the conference calling for a fiscal stimulus a month ago, but was rebuffed by the federal conference committee on the grounds that it would require a two-hour debate.
In response the SLF submitted a week ago an emergency motion to go forward for a ballot of delegates attending the spring conference in Brighton. A total of nine motions ranging from secret courts, the NHS and the safety of bees had been submitted for two 30-minute slots set aside on Sunday morning.
The SLF emergency motion called for more public investment funded by borrowing, a commitment to build 100,000 houses a year by 2015, increased lending to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through imposition of net lending targets on semi-state owned banks, a mansion tax and the resistance to pressures to commit to public spending cuts after 2015 election.
The vote would have been a key test of whether the party rank and file was losing faith in the government’s austerity programme, and like the business secretary Vince Cable, believed the balance of risk had tilted towards a stimulus.
The federal conference committee agreed on Friday that the SLF motion could go forward but with one unique stipulation – that it had to come top of the ballot since the issues were so important it would require an hour’s debate.
It was widely expected that an emergency motion criticising MPs over secret courts would come top of the ballot meaning the SLF motion being kept off the conference floor. Aware of the sensitivities, Cable said he would like the motion debated but refused to say if he would support it if it was cleared for debate.
On Saturday afternoon it was duly announced that the SLF motion had come second behind secret courts, but ahead of another motion on the Leveson report that had come third. On this basis the conference authorities ruled the economic debate could take place, but Leveson, third past the post, could.
Conference delegates then moved to suspend standing orders to allow a mini-debate on whether to allow 90 minutes for an emergency debate on Sunday. It was claimed that the issues were so vast that representatives would be queuing round the block to join it. Conference voted by 179 to 177 to suspend standing orders, well short of the two-thirds majority required for a suspension to be granted.
As one disgruntled SLF member argued: “We would have won that vote and the leadership know we would have that vote, so for the lack of 30 minutes, we remain wedded to George Osborne’s deficit plan.”
Buch said: “We hope to return to the matter at our next conference and will seek clarification from conference committee as to the procedural reasons for refusing a debate – lack of time is a poor excuse when we spent 45 minutes on a non-debate about how not to change the party leader.”
It is the second time a motion calling for a shift on economic policy has been blocked. At the main conference in the autumn, the conference committee selected an amendment put forward by the Liberal Left pressure group opposing any deficit reduction plan over a more mainstream Keynesian one put forward by the SLF.
The conference committee declared the hardline motion opposing the government’s entire economic programme would lead to a clearer debate.
Jo Shaw attacks Nick Clegg in resignation speech as Liberal Democrat MPs come under fire at party conference
The leading Liberal Democrat campaigner against secret courts resigned from the party at the rostrum of its spring conference as members voted overwhelmingly for a second time in six months to reject the justice and security bill.
Prominent party activist Jo Shaw accused Nick Clegg of a betrayal of liberal values and employing the shame shoddy realpoliitik as the Blair government.
The Lords are due to look at the bill again this month and Sunday’s vote will strengthen those peers seeking to reinstate protections thrown out by MPs, including most Liberal Democrats, last week.
The behaviour of the Lib Dem MPs was denounced as “quite simply shameful” by leading lawyer and former Cambridge Lib Dem MP David Howarth. He said: “This is not about policy or about deals: it is about who we are. This bill does nothing to help the security services to gain more information or foil more plots. All it does is give them an unfair advantage in cases where they are accused of kidnapping and torture. Again, anyone who cannot see that is fundamentally wrong and not liberal”.
Addressing the Liberal Democrat leader of the Lords, Tom McNally, Howarth said: “Tom, I know the Lords can stop this bill. You know the Lords can stop this bill. They should stop this bill”.
Shaw, a parliamentary candidate in 2010, described her parliamentary party’s handling of the bill as “a car crash in slow motion and a textbook case of political failure”.
Her resignation followed news that Dinah Rose QC, one of the country’s leading human rights barristers, is to resign her membership of the Liberal Democrats in outrage at the coalition’s backing for secret courts.
She said the revised bill failed to meet the demands of conference or the amendments made by peers. In an emotional speech she said her party’s leadership “could have put a stop to this bill at the outset and have failed. Despite principled objections from party activists from all sides, the leadership has unilaterally decided that civil liberties is not a red line issue.
She concluded: “I joined this party to campaign for my values 12 years ago. A decade ago I was proud to march with my party leaders against the Iraq war. I supported the coalition government because of the opportunities it gave us to put our Liberal Democrat values into practice.
“Today is a sad day at the end of a very sad week because I have come to the conclusion that I cannot continue to campaign to uphold the values of fairness, freedom and openness inside the Liberal Democrats under its current leadership – a leadership for whom the privilege of power has meant the betrayal of liberal values. The party that stood against 42-day detention, ID cards and the war on terror is led now by those who on this crucial issue employ the same shoddy logic, and have fallen into the same anti-democratic realpolitik as the Blair government. It’s not me Nick, it’s you.”
As she resigned Rose offered the hope the party “would finally be led by someone who would act according to liberal principle and scrap this bill’.
Martin Tod, a fellow campaigner against secret courts, said: “Something has gone horribly wrong with our party if committed libertarians like Jo Shaw don’t feel any longer they can remain members.”
But McNally, a justice minister, indicated he was unlikely to lead a rebellion but would instead seek further concessions. He said it was to the credit of the party that it was so troubled by the issue of secret courts, but said the bill’s critics lived in an Alice in Wonderland world.
McNally said: “if we do not have the procedures by which we can examine some of these attacks on the behaviour of our security services, then they will go unchecked, money will be paid in compensation and reputations will be damaged because there will have been no opportunity to mount a defence.”
He insisted the bill returning to the Lords was dramatically different to the one set out in a green paper 18 months ago, adding: “Sometimes you come to that juxtaposition between justice and security where you have to take tough decisions like we did in Northern Ireland and in certain immigration cases.”
“It’s a tough decision; it is a decision you have to make when you are in government. We will make that decision.”
Simon Hughes, the party’s deputy leader, said there was not a parliamentary majority to get rid of the section of the bill introducing secret courts altogether, but said it might be possible to make sure the legislation was temporary, adding that the rules of the secret court should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Caron Lindsay told the conference: “There are some things you just cannot polish. Our instincts must be to protect people from the excesses of the state. The bill is the embodiment of the state accruing power in the name of public good.”