Liberal Democrats learn in Government
The party conference season started with the Liberal Democrats gathering in Brighton. I left crisp but sunny Aberdeenshire on the same flight as David and Samantha Cameron returning from their summer visit to Balmoral. By contrast the weather in the south was wet and windy.
Nick Clegg’s decision to precede the conference with an apology over the tuition fees pledge was his own decision presented in a broadcast recorded in his own home.
He knew it would be criticised, even ridiculed but may not have bargained for it being set to music and going viral on YouTube.
Nevertheless what Nick wants to set out to those who may listen is that the Liberal Democrats are on a journey from being a party of protest and perpetual opposition to a party of Government. The party has made mistakes but wants to learn from them.
What Nick will not do is apologise for entering a coalition which was the inevitable outcome of an indecisive election at a time of grave economic crisis.
The Liberal Democrats have not ‘gone in’ with the Tories. We have agreed a programme which tackles fundamental issues such as the budget deficit, the failed banking system, the need for welfare and pension reform, infrastructure development and the green agenda.
Raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 – a £700 a year income tax cut for most standard rate taxpayers - is a substantial Lib Dem achievement, as will a £140-plus basic state pension for all.
Clearly, by the next election, the Libe Dems will present themselves as a party that has lost its political virginity but gained experience.
If economic recovery is taking hold, voters may think again about handing power to a Labour party that could squander the hard won gains. They may also hesitate to give a majority to a Conservative party that will favour the rich.
In a Westminster election that will come after the Scottish independence referendum voters are unlikely to favour the SNP if they are considering the shape and character of the UK Government sustained by Westminster MPs. Politics has never been so unpredictable.
Youngsters share scepticism over independence
It comes as no surprise to me, as recent polls have shown, that 16 year olds do not appear to be any more enthusiastic about independence than any other section of society.
From my discussions with fifth and six formers I pick up a greater concern about the future of the planet and the opportunities they can look to for themselves.
I have long supported the case for 16 year olds to be given the vote. After all, at that age you can get married and die for your country.
However, it was bit cynical for the SNP to argue that the age limit should be reduced for the referendum yet not promote it for other elections. The thinking was that starry eyed youngsters would flock to the saltire.
Globally, we are facing huge economic and environmental challenges. I am sure that young people can plainly see that having more and more small nations competing for a share of scarce resources may not be the most constructive way forward.
Scotland’s identity is not in question. The sooner we put this flirtation with independence behind us and get on with tackling the real issues we face, the better.
Delegates hold firm to economic strategy
The key debate of the Liberal Democrat conference was focussed, as it should be, on the economy. Some delegates wanted to abandon the deficit reduction strategy but were overwhelmingly defeated.
It remains the case that the UK’s low interest rates would be put at risk by a change in strategy.
It was also pointed out strongly that many Liberal Democrat measures being implemented by the Government should start to deliver jobs, investment and confidence.
These included the Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh, electricity market reform, infrastructure investment, a stimulus for house-building, restructuring the banking system and the establishment of a bank targeted at small and medium sized businesses and, of course, the raising of the income tax threshold.
These are policies I helped to work over many years and I am pleased that at last Liberal Democrats have the opportunity to implement them.
The party knew when they voted to enter the coalition that the core economic strategy was a five year commitment. To change course at this stage before most of the measures had had time to have an impact would spook the markets without delivering growth.
Skills and infrastructure top priority
Against this background, the economy of the North East is extremely buoyant. For us the issue is full employment and looming skills shortages and frustration on lack of progress on key infrastructure investment.
It has been estimated that the North East needs 120,000 new skilled workers over the next eight years if it is to replace retiring workers and win new business.
I am working to ensure that the necessary training is provided through an Energy Academy, building on the capacity of our existing training centres, colleges and universities.
At the same time I share the frustration of the legal challenges to the AWPR, aggravated by the Scottish Government’s failure to complete the Tipperty section of the A90 or press ahead with upgrading the commuter rail link and Aberdeen City Council’s attempts to stop the building of the long overdue third Don crossing.
The one piece of potential good news is the co-ordinated plans to upgrade broadband across the North East.