Conference: Make It Happen debate… the live-blog

by Stephen Tall on September 15, 2008

Yes, it’s the day of the Big Debate on Make It Happen, the party’s policy and consultation document, and there’s keen anticipation here in the conference hall. Over 100 members have applied to speak so far, so we can expect some fiery views on both sides of the should-we-cut-the-tax-burden debate.

The party’s manifesto chief Danny Alexander has introduced Make It Happen – plenty of warm applause, including for the line that tax cuts for ordinary people are very much part of a social justice agenda. He urges conference to vote down Paul Holmes’ and Evan Harris’s amendment, arguing it will undo all of the good of Make It Happen.

He’s followed by Paul Holmes who’s moving the amendment to Make It Happen, noting that he agrees with almost all of it but urging conference not to vote for a cut in the overall tax level when there are so many needs for investment in public services. His passionate peroration gets a rousing reception.

Mike German, outgoing Welsh Lib Dem leader, is up next supporting Make It Happen: “I don’t want bigger government; I want bigger people”. It’s lucky he’s not leading the Liliputians.

Richard Grayson speaks for the amendment, stressing that it calls simply for public investment to be placed ahead of tax cuts. Now Graham Watson, leader of the Lib Dem MEPs, stresses the impact the Lib Dem tax cuts will have on ordinary people, those “struggling to put food on the table, or pay for their children’s school clothes”. (Incidentally, Alix-of-the-People’s-Republic will be pleased to hear Graham stress people, not families). Then the sneaky part – Graham explicitly links defeat of the amendment to support of Vince the Superhero.

We have two lords now: Lord Roger Roberts, in favour of the amendment, who reveals he’s responding to the very many text messages he’s had expressing dismay with the party’s tax-cutting agenda; and then Lord Tom McNally, who argues that tax-cutting is in the social democratic mould. Lord McNally also uses the Back-Vince-or-else line: “there’s no point giving Vince a standing ovation in the morning if you’re going to kick away the plank from underneath him in the afternoon.” Some cheering for this.

[Apologies, teh internets is on-the-blink here in the LDV Cupboard, so I missed a couple of speakers. Let me assure you they made jolly good speeches on both sides of the argument. Incidentally, the applause for those moving the amendment is markedly more lukewarm since the Vince Pincer movement of Graham Watson and Lord McNally.]

Jo Swinson is up now, speaking from the floor rather than the platform, earning kudos for ‘ordinary memberiness’; repeats the Make It Happen arguments that tax cuts for low earners is a practical way of addressing social justic problems.

[I’m not live-blogging the interventions from the floor, by the way, because BBC Parliament doesn’t flash up their correctly-spelled names, and I don’t want to commit any faux pas. Suffice to say they’re evenly balanced – though all those in favour of the amendment have their own ideas of how the £20 billion of spending cuts could be spent… which is sort of the problem when you start raising taxes: when do you stop?]

[Oh, interesting – Vince Cable has been called to speak. It’s clear the leadership wants to win this one. The Vince Pincer earlier wasn’t enough: now we get Vince himself to coax and convince.]

Duncan Brack is now up arguing for the amendment, making the not-unreasonable point that announcing tax-cuts before you’ve worked out how they will be funded through spending cuts, and asking how that increases the party’s credibility. Of course, the answer to our credibility gap is… Vince. Speaking of whom…

Vince Cable gets up, a conference hall swoons… “Millions of voters are saying to us, ‘We just want a bit more freedom.'” Vince argues you can’t spell out in detail the spending cuts now with which we’ll go into the general election. He concludes with a clarion call to oppose the amendment. The Hall simultaneously orgasms.

Richard Younger-Ross: “forget the Cameron-effect, have journalists not heard of the ‘Clegg effect’… we’ll gain seats in the north and we’ll gain seats in the south under Clegg’s leadership and with Make It Happen”. Argues that care for the elderly and scrapping tuition fees must come before tax cuts.

Tim Farron puts forward, forcibly, the argument that tax cuts for the poor is about social justice, and notes that a woman in his constiuency on £7k pays £2k in tax. “Labour tax cuts have always been about comforting the comfortable, ours are about lifting the poorest out of poverty”. I’m discovering today what those who attended the rally on Sunday learned: Tim Farron is a terrific speaker. We should hear more from him, I feel.

Chris Huhne: “Helping the hard-pressed, by whatever means, has always been our mission” – a deeply intellectual, well-thought-through speech. Interesting international comparison: he’d happily vote for tax-cuts as a Swedish liberal, and vote to increase them as an American liberal.

Evan Harris is winding-up in favour of the amendment, and starts off with an ice-breaking joke: “Nick you needn’t worry… too much.” He makes a nice point that, under a devolutionary Lib Dem government, the proponents of Make It Happen are arguing for local government spending cuts: “good luck to those of you want to campaign on that platform”. Conference knows what to expect from Evan: a barn-storming, wit-infused speech of passion. Evan knows what to expect from Conference: he’ll be on the losing side.

Simon Hughes, arguing for Make It Happen’s adoption as president of the party and chair of the federal policy committee, notes how the new policies will distinguish us from Tories – whose only announced tax-cuts are for double-millionaires with large estates, and stamp tax on shares: how’s that for helping out ordinary people? Simon sums up the Make It Happen tax message pretty simply: “If you’re very rich you’ll pay more; if you’re not, you’ll pay less.”

The speeches are over, now time for the vote. (You have to be sitting down in the conference hall to vote, I’m afraid: bad luck for those sitting down comfortably in front of their computers).

Result of card vote:

** The amendment is “clearly defeated”. ** (Though not “clearly” defeated if you’re watching BBC Parliament, which decided not to show the delegates in the hall at this point).

** Make It Happen is passed overwhelmingly, with only “a very few” against **

In truth, the result was never really in doubt. Compared with two years ago, when the Lib Dem conference voted to ditch its commitment to the 50p tax-rate for top earners, the switch to proposing overall tax-cuts targeted at the poorest has not exercised Lib Dem activists over-much. Now all we have to do is let the public know what Make It Happen is all about.