Saturday, January 21, 2012
Nottingham Liberal Democrats' Winter Mini-Conference
I spent this afternoon at Nottingham Liberal Democrats' Winter Mini-Conference.
It was an excellent event and could well provide a model for other local parties. Liberal Democrats can be so concerned with campaigning that they seldom make the time to discuss policy or the party's wider philosophy. Meanwhile, our national party conferences can be prohibitively expensive, are increasingly managed and require you to give your passport number, inside leg measurement and a DNA sample.
So there is certainly a role for more local events that enable party members to learn about and debate policy questions
There were three speakers: William Davidson from ALTER (the Lib Dem group Action for Land Taxation and Economic Reform); Dr Corinne Camilleri-Ferrante, a consultant in public health medicine, and Bill Newton Dunn MEP.
William Davidson gave a good summary of the case for taxing land values. This is an idea that has been around in the party since the 19th century - indeed, suggested that Henry George's classic work on the subject from 1879, Progress and Poverty, outsold Karl Marx's Das Kapital in the English-speaking world.
The basic idea behind land value taxation is that the state should tax the profits that private landowners make because of public investment - say a new railway station increasing the price of nearby houses - should be taxed so that the public gets the advantage instead. At the same time, the state would have less need to tax income, profit or economic activity in general.
Land value taxation was implemented to an extent by Liberal governments early in the 20th century, but abandoned in the 1920s. There has been a recent revival of interest in the idea and it is now Liberal Democrat policy to use a form of the tax as a replacement for business rates.
My concern, which I tried to frame in a question, is that the idea of land value taxation was developed in a era when the great villains, in Liberal eyes, were landlords who refused to allow the fullest economic development of their estates. Nowadays, Lib Dem campaigning is often predicated on the idea that it would be a good thing if land were not developed to its fullest extent, and I wonder how this fits with taxing land values. Anyway, there is plenty more about the idea on the ALTER website.
Corinne Camilleri-Ferrante made an impassioned case against Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill. You can read her view for yourself in a Guardian article published last week.
I was convinced that we should campaign to retain the duty of the Secretary of State for Health to provide services. This is particularly necessary if you are a good Liberal who wants to see more diversity and local management in the system, as there then needs to be someone at the centre who will act to fill any gaps that emerge. David Cameron's recent intervention on the quality of nursing care is a good example of what can sometimes be necessary.
Beyond that, I always find it hard to disentangle concern for the patient, the defence of professional interests and the resistance to change we all feel in our jobs in such contributions. For instance, Corinne was concerned that local government is to take more responsibility for public health, but that seems to me a thoroughly good thing.
The idea that we should just leave it to the doctors won't really do: as someone pointed out from the floor, the British Medical Association opposed the setting up of the National Health Service ("...and Lloyd George's Health Insurance Act," I helpfully added).
Finally, there was Bill Newton Dunn - eloquent, patient, polite, as he always is. He gave us a master class on European politics and the current economic crisis.
Somehow MEPs sounds less like politicians than Westminster MPs. In part this is because so many of us know too little about European politics, so such talks always have an element of education about them. But it is also because there is something of a democratic deficit about the whole European project - see this week's election for a new President of the European Parliament for an example, though Bill told us that there are moves to make this process more open and to involve the public more in future.
He also, surely rightly, argued that David Cameron's problems with Europe have their roots in his decision to seek support in the last Conservative leadership by promising to take the party out of the European People's Party where is natural allies are to be found. More encouragingly, Bill suggested that Cameron has now realised the dangers of isolation and is trying to do something about it.
Oh, and this being a Lib Dem event, there was someone who wanted to solve the problems of interpretation at the European Parliament by forcing everyone to learn Esperanto.
Overall, it was a really good event and, as I began by saying, its format could well be copied by other local parties. It ran from noon until four o'clock, meaning that Nottingham people did not have to give up a whole Saturday and those of us who came from further way could travel at a civilised hour.
The venue was the comfortable surroundings of the city' masonic headquarters. There was a Wi-Fi network there, so I had thoughts of tweeting from the event, but I did not have the password (or perhaps the handshake) to allow me to use it.