Friday, 31 December 2010

A Year in Review

A little late but never the less, I did promise one!

January 2011 saw Daisy Benson selected to fight Reading West for the Liberal Democrats. For some unfathomable reason I chose to take voluntary redundancy after 22 years with ICL/Fujitsu Services so that I could work full time on her campaign as election agent. Our starting fighting fund? £4,000! It was hardly going to be a fair fight with one party backed by multi-millionaires and hunt supporters from Aldershot and the other with stockpiles of union funds and facilities.

The big lesson for me was finding the public responding to a positive campaign. It was helped by both the Tories and Greens agreeing to a clean campaign but we soon discovered why Nasty Naz wouldn't sign up for it. Actually that's a little unfair. Naz himself isn't that 'nasty' and a quite pleasant person but as he refused to apologise for Pete Ruhemann's catalogue of lies and smears in Labour leaflets ultimately the nasty moniker was a fair one.

Whilst this was going on, my normal council work saw me responsible for putting together the Lib Dem budget. It was clear that when I required access to officer time and more detailed budget figures that I was being blocked by Labour. This made it impossible to set a Lib Dem budget which required major changes to the way some of the council services were delivered. With that avenue blocked by them, all that could be done was to take the Labour budget and whittle away at it. However, I did have a few tricks up my sleeve and came up with an alternative budget that was signed off by the Section 151 officer as being 'not at risk' which would have seen lower council tax for 2010/2011 and no cuts whatsoever to front line services. Labour's "lowest possible budget without cuts to front line services" was a demonstrable load of cobblers.

However, because of Labour's shenanigans I was given no opportunity to propose it. My experience since then, now that I have full access to the accounts, is that a 0% budget was perfectly achievable last year with no cuts.

The election itself was a stagering vindication of the Lib Dem approach. In Reading West our share of the vote went up by 9%. I'm immensely proud of what we achieved with such limited resources and learned many valuable lessons for next time. Across Reading we polled 26% of the vote which proportionately should have given us 12 councillors. Each year since 2006 we have made year on year gains in terms of the number of councillors, the only party to do so.

Post election it was clear that stability was needed in Reading. Two years running where the budget had been set against the odds because Labour refused to negotiate resulting in another year of the same would be a disaster. We had been told the previous October that £20m savings would have to be found over 3 years and it was clear that regardless of the outcome of the national election that Reading needed a stable platform because setting a budget was going to get harder. Setting a legal budget is the responsibility of all councillors. As well as that I'd also lost all confidence in Labour's financial competency to create a budget on their own.

Whilst nationally Labour rejected any idea of co-operation, viewing Lib Dems as lobby fodder rather than political partners, what became quickly clear is that locally they wanted to do exactly the same. They just weren't interested in forming a joint administration. They wanted all the cabinet posts and offered us nothing in return.

Contrast Labour's position with that of the Conservatives who were prepared to give Lib Dems the lead councillor positions of Housing, Health & Community Care and the Environment and Sustainability. In terms of our party policies, these are where many of our campaigns were and we had the most to contribute to the agenda. In the end, it was a unanimous group decision to form a coalition something I myself would have laughed at only a month earlier during the heat of the campaign.

Later in the year the higher education debate rumbled on with several Lib Dems getting their nickers in a twist over it. I hope it's been a lesson for them - don't sign an NUS Labour pledge! Being outsmarted by Aaron Porter does not look good. In fact I have more respect for Lib Dems who were prepared to say; look, it's still our policy to scrap tuition fees as a matter of principle, but given the hand we have been dealt this is the best deal for poor students. It is.

In 1983 I was offered a job repairing computer terminals. A week later a place came up for me at Portsmouth Poly and I remember clearly what formed my decision making. I came from a poor, single-parent family having grown up on a council estate and what scared me at the time was failing a year and leaving Poly with a debt I couldn't pay off. That's what would have stopped me starting a degree. I would not have gone to Poly under Labour's student loan system, I simply could not afford to take the risk. I would have gone under the new proposed system. And before Labour supporters delude themselves further, in August 2009 Peter Mandleson was floating the idea of £7,000 fees and that was before Alistair Darling's £44bn savings announcement. Sensible people know it would have been no better under Labour and without a reform to their loans system it would have been far far worse for the poor.

The surprise of the year for me is how well the coalition is working. We are still two distinct parties and both locally and nationally each party has members upset with one thing or another in the agreements but there are two main things I bear in mind:

(1) There is no Santa Claus
(2) You can't always have what you want

Since May I have not seen a single constructive comtribution to the debate from Labour, other than opposing everything - including their own manifesto commitments!

Looking forward, I wouldn't rule out a future coalition with Labour, but they will have to do a hell of a lot of growing up if they want to be relevant in a world of pluralist politics.