Friday, 8 October 2010

Sorry David, your sums don't add up.

David Cameron's had a tough week.

And rightly so. The last few days have, I believe, demonstrated the shallowness of his attempts to portray himself as honest and above politics.

Let's revisit the child benefit debate. My own views are clear, and I've expressed them on here. However, I fully appreciate why the coalition government feels the need to consider all possibilities when it comes to tackling the deficit and I would - along with many other people - reluctantly accept axing child benefit payments to the better off if it could be demonstrated that such a political risk would make substantial savings.

David Cameron and George Osbourne have presented the child benefit reform as a painful necessity, essential to the long-term financial recovery. That's how they've sold it to the public and that's how it's been sold to MPs and even their own party.

It is, of course, plainly wrong of the Prime Minister to have done this. He's been disingenuous at best, at worst intentionally dishonest. Because, to put it simply, his sums don't add up.

Ensuring that their sums add up has not always been the Conservatives' strong point. However, given the current economic situation and the government's determination to press ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, it would be hoped that the Prime Minister would have some idea of the costs and savings involved in implementing policy.

Having sold us the child benefit cuts as vital, the government announced that it expected to save £1 billion (out of a total of £100 billion structural deficit to be recovered). Essentially this amounted to an admission that the government was willing to compromise its election pledges and take a huge political risk to make a saving of 1% of its overall target. However, after investigating further I discovered that no allowance has been made to assess the potential increased costs of administering the new child benefit system - bringing into question even this statistic.

This really is back-of-an-envelope stuff. An first year economics student would struggle to get a 2:2 for that one. I can only imagine that there may have been some opposition to ending universality, with the Tories responding by patching together a policy over a few drinks on Sunday evening that creates so many unfair anomalies.

That isn't the worst of it. As I wrote yesterday, I read in The Herald that the projected cost of the married person's tax-break - being promoted by Cameron as helping to compensate some of the projected loss of income from child benefit - is £550 million. This would mean a mere £450 million saving.

Except it doesn't. This figure appears to be yet another statistic plucked out of the air lacking in any quantifiable evidence base. Reading the same newspaper, I discovered that Michael Settle had uncovered some interesting analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that reintroducing the married couples' tax allowance would cost £1.6 billion per year.

So we're not talking about savings at all, but a £600 million loss.

The whole premise that the child benefit cut was about making savings vital to economic renewal was a false one. We have been deceived, misled and lied to. I can accept it when our own, well-meaning MPs like Tim Farron and Menzies Campbell talked about the need to cut child benefit because they were doing so out of a conviction that this was regrettably necessary to make inroads into tackling the deficit.

But it is quite a different thing when it becomes apparent that the Conservatives' motivation in pressing ahead with such a risky policy is merely so it can claim credit for introducing one of its most backward-looking and illiberal manifesto pledges. I have no problem with making tough decisions aimed at alleviating poverty when the national deficit urgently needs to be reduced; I do, however, have a significant problem when policies marketed as doing just that are in fact little more than a smokescreen for implementing Cameron's ill-advised pet project to "reward marriage within the tax system".

Ignore the Tory sums. This is not about making savings, but about moral motivations and a Tory obsession with a misguided and outdated ideology that doesn't sit very comfortably with those of us whose instincts are by nature liberal. Cameron's ambition to "reward marriage" is - if we accept the calculations of the IFS - likely to cost us at least £600 million. It's hard to know how much dialogue has gone on within the Cabinet about this (not very much it would seem) but I resent the way in which Lib Dem ministers, bound by collective responsibilty, may now have to defend a cut on a completely dishonest basis.

Whether Cameron and Osbourne are guilty of deliberate dishonesty or just plain incompetence, one thing is clear. These decisions, combined with an unexceptional speech from the Prime Minister at Conservative conference, point to a leadership unsure of its direction and already out of touch with its own party. As Michael Settle noted, Cameron has succeeded in "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory".

Or, for a more blunt interpretation, how about this one from a Tory delegate: "the words ‘up’ and ‘cock’ spring to mind.”

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Child benefit to be cut for higher earners; Cameron "sorry"

A couple of weeks ago, I argued in favour of maintaining the universality of child benefit (The future of child benefit?). I was even caught on camera by the Daily Politics making this point, and I'm not going to apologise for it now.

Earlier today, in a facebook discussion started by Jo Swinson, I repeated my arguments. It goes against my liberal instincts to make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving. The views of various charities and support networks, who work on the frontline and have an understanding of the realities many politicians lack, should be listened to. The amount of money "saved" is questionable as the system will now become more complex and, by reason, more expensive to administrate. And, finally, the Liberal Democrats have a historical position, founded on solid liberal principles, which I don't feel should be so easily surrendered in the name of austerity.

In response to this, one man wrote: "Great contribution, though it looks like many historical positions are being surrendered all too easily!" This is an oversimplification, but it is true that here is an example of pragmatism overtaking principle.

Yesterday's Guardian led with "Cameron 'sorry' child benefit cut was not in manifesto". Cameron is reported as being "forced to apologise for breaking an election promise with his decision to withdraw child benefit from 1.2million higher rate tax payers". He is quoted as saying: "We did not outline all those cuts, we did not know exactly the situation we were going to inherit. but I acknowledge this was not in our manifesto. Of course I am sorry about that."

It was a remarkable admission. Firstly, it made him look rather stupid for apologising for what is now Conservative policy. Secondly, as Iain McWhirter observed in today's Herald, it appears the Tory tactic is "to antagonise the middle classes and, therefore, make it easier, in future, for Mr Cameron to soak the poor." And that's exactly how it will come across to Average Joe. It's as if he wants to get this one in early, ahead of announcements about deeper cuts, to counter claims that such cuts will hit the poorest disproportionately. Cameron might want to be seen as not overty protecting his own, but the potential political costs - not only of cutting benefit entitlements but of going back on manifesto commitments - are likely to be great.

Labour have already condemned the move. That much is to be expected. But, as McWhirter accurately discerns, it is a rare achievement indeed "to unite the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and the Daily Mail. Ms Toynbee likes child benefit because it goes to the mother direct and therefore can’t be “drunk by the husband”. The Daily Mail likes child benefit because it helps mums to stay at home. Both use antiquated images of domestic life to argue for a form of universalism that is long past its sell-by date. I have difficulty disagreeing with Iain Duncan Smith’s remark that giving child benefit to people earning over £50,000 is “bonkers”. But under the Tory scheme, er, they’d still get it if they split their incomes."

It is this inherent unfairness that most Tories object to. A family with two adults earning £80,000 would still be eligible for benefit, but a family with a non-working parent living on a single income of £44,000 will get nothing. Not only is this inately unfair, it suggests that very little thought has gone into the detail of how this will work in practice. This lack of planning is acutely embarrassing. The suspicion that the planning behind the policy was classic back-of-an-envelope stuff seemed confirmed when culture minister Jeremy Hunt confirmed on Newsnight that "I did not know about the timing of these announcements. I did know these options were being discussed." He then, unhelpfully, went on to argue that those having "too many children" should be denied support: "The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits...it's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices." This unguarded statement hinted at motivations beyond mere savings.

I have been watching parts of the Conservative Party conference, and much of the discussion was stimulating and relevant. Unfortunately, the timing of the child benefit announcement overshadowed some of the many positives to come out of the conference. Even the Prime Minister's emphasis on "fairness" seems empty and hypocritical when the government pursues policies that are plainly anything other.

The Guardian speculated that the "government has made [its] first big mistake". "Is this the coaliton's 10p?" asks Jonathan Freedland. It could be, especially if it hits the core vote of either of the coalition parties. However, a YouGov poll found 83% of people backed the cut and a Daily Politics survey of Lib Dem members at conference revealed similar results. MPs Tim Farron and Menzies Campbell stated their belief that higher earners should not receive benefit and no-one blinked an eyelid.

I fully understand the arguments in favour of ending universal entitlement to child benefit in hard times. Even although I am opposed in principle, I fail to comprehend the furore, which seems based on certain misconceptions.

What I find most difficult to stomach is that it appears to be being made, in part at least, to fund the regressive, unfair and utterly discriminatory tax break for married couples. The government claim the child benefit cut will save £1bn (of the total £100bn structural deficit), but what is the likely cost of introducing the marriage tax break? I haven't looked at this in any detail, but yesterday's Herald reported the cost of introducing this tax break to be around £550 million, rendering any savings from the child benefit cut so minimal as to defy belief.

This in turn raises questions about the government's judgement. Does it really make so much sense to sacrifice principle, or to risk so much politically, to save a mere £450 million and fund a backward-looking, discredited tax break?

I can just about grasp the notion that, in certain circumstances, reducing entitlement to child benefit for higher earners could be considered fair. Offsetting that with a Tory plan to "reward marriage" is plainly not fair and makes a mockery of Cameron's credentials as a man motivated by a sense of fairness.

As for whether "rewarding marriage" in this way will take some of the bite out of the child benefit cuts - come on, David. Even Daily Mail readers won't fall for that one.

Cameron’s speech fails to inspire; emphasises “Big Society”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday was something of a call to arms. Repeating the theme of togetherness he has persistently used during the last few months, Cameron urged the nation to get involved: “your country needs you” he said, invoking memories of Kitchener and appealing directly to the kind of nostalgics whose ideas of Britishness stem from Daily Mail editorials.

He turned to his ideological vision of “the Big Society” as the solution for taking the country through the “difficult times” ahead. Referring to the pending Comprehensive Spending Review, Cameron admitted unapologetically that there would be tough decisions to be made. But, he added, “the Big Society” would see Britain emerge stronger, as ordinary people with “the spirit that will take us through...step up” with a sense of “national unity and purpose”. “The spirit of activism...dynamism...to get things done...the spirit of social responsibility that drives [us].”

To emphasise the point, Cameron explained that Britain should be “a country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say – I am not alone, I will play my part, I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

He frequently beat this drum throughout his speech. He pledged to fight bureaucracy, assist the transfer of power from the state to society and create a fairer and more prosperous future. He was particularly keen to emphasise the need to “work together in the national interest” and praised Liberal Democrat contribution to government.

As a liberal, it isn’t hard to identify with a rhetoric that promotes decentralisation and smaller government. I don’t want to see the return of heavy-handed government. I broadly agree with the PM that, whichever way the election result is interpreted, “Statism lost, society won.” It’s also a measure of how far the Conservatives have come since the days of Thatcher that Cameron is so willing not just to recognise that society exists, but to promote an ambitious vision to engage with and empower it. “Society is not a spectator sport”, said Cameron. “This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it.”

However, this heavy emphasis on his “Big Society” is unhelpful. I appreciate the ideology behind it. But it isn’t something that is resonating with the public, which in fairness doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “Big Society” largely because the Conservatives have been ineffectively selling it. And, although the Prime Minister argues to the contrary, as far as the public in concerned this looks like nothing more than a cover for cuts.

I know, and I’m sure you know, that the average person in Inverclyde – or Inverness or wherever – is far more concerned with the Big Issues than the Big Society. We’re interested in employment. We’re interested in public services. We’re interested in health, in education, in fairness. To be honest, we’re probably also more interested in the economic situation than we have been for many years, and have more than a passing concern about whether the government’s strategy to reduce the deficit will actually be...fair. Many of us are more worried about just making ends meet and already do a fair amount for our society and communities, and so it is hardly surprising if the “Big Society” is greeted with a certain amount of cynicism.

Mr Cameron did talk about fairness. “Fairness means supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency...[it is] giving people what they deserve”. Quite right, David. Unfortunately, in again trying to appeal to Daily Mail types, he then went on to use the example of “taking more money from the man who goes to work...so that the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working” rather than provide ideas about how to empower people to break free from benefits dependency. Going for the easy target, he preached: “if you refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others”.

He didn’t seem to have much to say about how to create a fairer society, other than a vague reference to “sorting out the banks”. How they were going to be "sorted" and what that will mean in practice he didn't say. Yes, he wants a better deal for small businesses. But that’s about it.

He had little to say about the pending cuts, which surprised many people inside the conference hall. He made the obligatory criticisms of Labour for having created the problem and for delaying cost-cutting. While he was unlikely to discuss detail ahead of the all-important announcement on 20th October, I might have expected a broad examination of the financial situation and an overview of how the government might reasonably deal with it.

At times, Cameron showed he remains a tribalist. He turned on Ed Balls for being “anti-inspirational, anti-success [and] anti-parents”. His cheap parodies at Labour’s expense might win laughs from a Tory audience, but were regrettable in that they ensured – as Eddie Barnes points out in The Scotsman - “the speech fell short of being above politics”. He would have been better resisting the temptation to show his tribal side, something Ed Miliband seemed to recognise last week.

One thing Cameron seems to have learned from the Labour leader is to be positive. It would have been understandable for him to have been pessimistic and defensive; instead what we witnessed was a welding of optimism and ideology.

The Prime Minister regrettably said nothing about Scotland, other than reinforcing his position as being pro-union. He did, however, for reasons best known to himself, refer to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. This was wrong, said Mr Cameron, “and undermined our standing in the world”. He pledged this would “never happen again”.

I found this intervention to be objectionable on two counts. Firstly, one of my friends lost his sister in the Lockerbie disaster and I find it distasteful for politicians to make either moral judgements or political mileage in this way. But, secondly and more importantly, it also betrays an attitude of distain towards the autonomy of Scotland’s parliament. Lest we forget, this was not a decision for the UK government to take but for the SNP government in Holyrood. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, Scotland must be allowed to make its own decisions; Cameron seemed to be suggesting that as Prime Minister he would be willing to interfere in matters of Scottish justice. If that really is how this man thinks and what his approach will be towards Scotland, he has clearly learned very little from previous Conservative mistakes.

For the second year in succession, Cameron’s speech was extremely light in terms of policy. He touched on ending the universality of child benefit, explaining that “it's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load”. He won applause for re-affirming the Tory position on Trident and, in a move hardly consistent with the government’s austerity drive, promised a tax break to “recognise marriage”.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, wryly commented: "The big society should be part of our message alongside welfare reform, growth and dealing with the debt, but to make it the pre-eminent theme is a mistake and a missed opportunity."
For all the positivity, this was a speech that failed to inspire and was – in a word – forgettable. The detail of the Comprehensive Spending Review, set to be announced in a few days, will guarantee that.

The full speech can be found on the BBC website.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Campaign for fair ticketing practices

I'm a passionate Scotland and Albion Rovers supporter.

Next week, the Scottish team face Spain at Hampden. The Tartan Army v The World Champions. Hmmm...should be close.

I'd love to be there. I do go to some games, but I'm not currently a member of the Scotland Supporters Club because it's currently so well subscribed it's not taking new members. This is a shame really, because it's only members who get the tickets for the big games like the Spain match and only members who can buy tickets for away matches.

Which seems fair enough. Until you look on eBay and see three tickets for the Scotland v Spain fixture (with a face value of £105) bidding for £7,600.

It's easy to see how SSC members can abuse current arrangements by purchasing tickets for matches they will not attend and selling them on for huge profits. This abuse (or privilege, depending on your perspective) must be challenged.

And this isn't an isolated incident. There were other tickets for the same match bidding at far in excess of their face value. This was also the case when Scotland took on Italy and France in recent years. Add the large number of Old Firm and Scottish Cup tickets that find their way onto eBay each year and you see both a pattern and a problem developing.

I believe there have been people "wrecking" auctions by placing bids of £1million and this has forced sellers to remove their tickets from eBay. This is welcome, and I salute the efforts and motives of such people. However, this does not prevent the individual from selling the tickets elsewhere and hardly constitutes a long-term strategy.

Section 166 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 actually prohibits the resale of tickets for all league matches and games involving the national teams. It has done a reasonable amount to combat the problems associated with touting. Unfortunately, however, it does not apply to Scotland.

I have written to Shona Robison MSP, the SNP Minister for Public Health and Sport, and provided evidence of the problem in addition to requesting action is taken to legislate for a fairer and ethical ticketing system which conforms to the SFA's philosophy of "football for all". I have also contacted the relevant spokespersons of the other parties in Holyrood, urging them to help facilitate a long-term solution to the problem.

I am optimistic that there will be a consensus of opinion on this across the political spectrum and that overdue action will be taken. In the meantime, I would be grateful for interested persons to sign the petition: (link to follow)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Martian speaks out

I am an alien from Mars who has recently come to visit earth for an extended vacation. I have only been here for 160 years but it’s a fascinating place. I’ve really taken to your politics and I’m a virtually permanent presence in the public gallery at Westminster. I also go to all your party conferences – they are so entertaining! Some of you will make fun of my pastimes I am sure, but compared to the British hobbies of stamp-collecting, trainspotting and attending half-empty stadia to watch humans kicking around a bag of air it’s positively thrilling!

I went to Liverpool the other week for the Liberal Democrats conference. It was great. I had a good time in the gay bars and met some of your MPs (not necessarily in the aforementioned bars). It’s a fabulous city; my old friend Billy Gladstone came from there, although what he would have made of the conference is anyone’s guess. Still, Michael Meadowcroft is almost as old and he seemed to be enjoying it.

I read your newspapers and they really aren’t very good. It’s no wonder people don’t get interested in politics. In fact, they’re so bad that even I was taken in by them, and went to Liverpool expecting some pretty major protests at conference like burning effigies of Nick Clegg. Or at least some show of defiance from the party membership who were said to have deep reservations about the coalition. I didn’t see any of that. I had only been in the place five minutes (it took me two and a half hours to get through security, though – maybe next time I’ll leave the plutonium energy drinks at home) when I was whisked into a rally for “fair votes” which was the most fun thing I’ve been to since by Uncle Levnok’s 6000th birthday party. Except Levnok’s budget didn’t extend to a comedian of Tim Farron’s calibre. All the people I spoke to were very supportive of the coalition even if they weren’t comfortable with everything the government was doing. Which, when you think of it, makes a lot of sense. You go into coalition with a party who wants to do things you don’t like and you have to, you know, kind of compromise.

I heard some Liberal Democrat members saying that people just don’t understand the coalition. That is true. I met a man in a pub in Liverpool and asked “what do you think of coalition?” and he said that it was perfectly reasonable for unmarried people to be able to live together if they wanted.

But it’s actually an easy thing to understand. I blame the papers. It seems that journalists must go through some strange education in which they are conditioned to believe that single party rule is the natural form of government. Well, not in Mars it isn’t – we currently have a coalition of seven different parties, one of whom has no members – but I won’t bore you with the details of Martian politics. I may be being presumptive, because I often see things that people with only one brain can not, but doesn’t it make sense for people to work together, to be able to co-operate and collaborate without being accused of “selling out” and to share ideas instead of cynically manipulating the electorate to claim a so-called mandate for unpopular policies?

I think you guys in the Liberal Democrats have done very well so far. My friend Vince Cable is providing some real direction. I have to give it to you, you’re the most humble and modest lot. Any other party who had achieved so much in a short time really would be making a bigger deal about it.

You’re a party that leads. I was so impressed with the debate on marriage equality. You had the courage to stand up and do the right thing, not only in passing the motion but providing some overdue moral leadership. It was excellent. Now, all we have to do is make it law and Britain will finally be making progress with the rest of the galaxy. (In Mars, we passed this kind of thing only 4,000 years ago, but it’s a bit more complicated up there as we Martians have four genders. FOUR! Makes for some interesting nightclubs!)

The best thing about your conference was Clegg’s speech. It wasn’t so much what he said, although it was utterly sensible and I’m pleased to say was also both optimistic and non-defensive. No, it was sitting behind Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams and hearing the praise they offered to their leader. Look, if these left-leaning giants of the past can see Nick’s doing the right thing, why can’t everyone else?

I also went to the Labour Party conference. My Labour friends were as optimistic as you Lib Demmers. I thought that this is a bit unusual, especially as I have been going for the last 86 years (I missed 1924 due to a bad case of peritonitis). I suppose this is the first chance they’ve had to choose a new leader since they made the mistake of choosing some guy called Blair, so presumably they wanted to make amends. Everyone was surprisingly upbeat, even when Young Millie Band spoiled his brother’s party so horribly. The Christmas family get-together will be a bit interesting this year!

I was a bit annoyed that there was nothing on the agenda about exploring the possibilities of multi-lateral interplanetary governmental dialogue, but I suppose that’s the way you earthlings work. I was interested in the debates about health and education which were quite good although for some funny reason the Labour Party really thinks it invented both.

I liked Millie Band’s speech. I was very pleased to find out that he isn’t at all like that other son of the Labour Party, Millie Tant. He said some very sensible things for a new leader, like “wisdom is not the preserve of any one political party”. Very interesting tactic, and obviously also very true. It’s as if he’s trying to leave behind the arrogance of so-called “New” Labour. If that’s right then he should be commended. I also admired his honesty on spending cuts as well as warning the unions about irresponsible behaviour! Nice one!

Some of my Labour friends have got very excited this week and carried away with the euphoria of having the first democratically elected leader since...well, they don’t exactly have a democratic system for electing a leader do they? Even the Vatican’s tradition of election by coloured smoke is easier to understand than what passes for democracy in the Labour Party!

On the final day I asked a lot of union types from the CWU what they thought of the coalition government. It was a bad move. One of them called me a pathetic Tory and as the conversation became more heated they all started to turn on me. They noticed I was wearing a blue tie and became very threatening. They gave me chase, but I managed to find a bottle of ketchup from a hot dog stall and squirted it all over myself. Disguised in red, I just about made it out alive.

So I’m now in Birmingham at the Conservative conference. I thought these guys would be a happy bunch. You know, having won most seats in the election, having their leader as Prime Minister, helping take the country forward...it's a good excuse to celebrate, right? How wrong can you be? I printed some “I love the coalition” badges and tried to give them out to delegates. No-one was taking them. “Look”, one guy said, “I love the coalition, it’s just the ****ing Liberals I cant stand”. Nice. Another was very disparaging of the PM, saying that he had “sold out” the principles of Conservatism. (Hey, haven’t we heard that kind of thing before?). I offered a badge to another smart young besuited man – Humphrey, Crispin or something his name was – and he turned on me very quickly. “Whenever I see Nick Clegg, something inside of me snaps” he informed me. The little that passes for a brain, perhaps?

I was quite surprised at how many Tory activists aren’t such huge fans of the coalition. Still, they’ve always been a funny lot to understand – I mean, how can anyone take seriously a party of government that consistently promotes the interests of a small minority of individuals with a vested interest in the status quo?

I’m looking forward to listening to what Cammy Ron has to say though. I’ve never really liked him but in the last few months he’s shown some real courage and leadership. Some people say that Nick Clegg’s done well to keep his party on board, but the truth is that old Cammy has an even tougher job on his hands to keep his party together. If there’s anyone who needs to be convinced about the value of the coalition, it’s the rank and file Conservatives up and down the country who believe in a divine right to govern without the inconvenience of “support” from a non-compliant “partner”. Or at least that’s my take on it.

I’m very excited by the campaign for “fair votes” though. I’m going to be putting all my energies into it and my friends back on Mars will do their best by blocking all the satellite signals when the “No” campaign are broadcasting their lies. Ha! I was encouraged by the attitudes of you Lib Demmers and some of my Labour friends at your conferences, who really want positive change. Not so with the Tories though. But then, leopards don’t change their spots (well, they do, they move from one spot to another). As my old friend Billy pointed out over 120 years ago, “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.” Not bad for an earthling, was he?

Zut-Zut Manyaro, Mars

Friday, 1 October 2010

The real influence of the Liberal Democrats

In recent weeks, it's been impossible to escape from the well worn and surely exhausted arguments from the media and sections of the Labour Party that the Lib Dems have "sold out", etc. Yes, its tiresome. But there seems to be a determination by some to prove the theory correct that if you repeat a lie for long enough it eventually becomes accepted as truth.

After Ed Miliband's surprisingly responsible speech at his party's conference in which he refused to yield to the temptation to hurl accusations of betrayal at Nick Clegg, other Labour delegates have been less restrained. Some, clearly unable to grasp the basic concept of coalition, spoke of "a Conservative government being propped up by the Lib Dems". Others repeated the predictable line over "cuts"; one delegate was critical of our supposed "sell-out...for twenty-two government jobs". One went so far as to suggest that "we can never forgive [the Lib Dems]". Hmmm.

From the reasonable high of Ed Miliband's interesting speech, the Labour conference reached a low on Wednesday morning as meaningful political discussion was replaced with the most juvenile criticism of the Lib Dems. Some of it was plainly vitriolic; almost all of it ill-considered and lacking in factual basis. Labour has never been noted as the party of intellectual rigour but this was verging on the embarrassing. What could have been a stitmulating "debate" on free schools provided many delegates with an opportunity they couldn't refuse - the chance to stick the knife into Nick Clegg and his colleagues.

At least they've got over their pathological hatred of the Conservative Party.

It's counterproductive to argue with these people. But I would like to direct all those skeptical of the coalition to something that appeared last week on The Guardian website. It provides some pretty compelling evidence as to the reality of Lib Dem influence in government that even the fiercest of critics should take seriously.

The Guardian has conducted an audit of the coalition agreement. The findings confound those whose impression of the Liberal Democrats is a weak, ineffective minor partner in a Tory-dominated government. Admittedly, much of this is subjective. Also, the programme is ongoing and therefore can not be judged properly at such an early stage. The Guardian concludes that "certain areas are clearly dominated by the Liberal Democrats, notably civil liberties, while a number of other areas are a landslide for Conservative policy. Some areas, like foreign policy and defence, look to be completely Conservative, but it is likely that this is more due to omissions in the Liberal Democrat manifesto than contrasting ideas." Having examnined the data in more detail, it also seems the Lib Dems have contributed significantly (and disproportionately, given our status as a minor partner) to shaping government banking and business policy.

Amazingly, of the 399 policies in the agreement, 174 are originated from the Conservatives and 91 are from the Lib Dems. 80 were policies of both parties. Raw statistics don't tell the full story, of course, but this is a useful indicator of Lib Dem input. It is plainly folly to argue that the Lib Dems are lacking influence in shaping policy; actually, I imagine this will almost certainly anger those on the right of the Conservative Party who dislike the coalition and begrudge our party's role and involvement in government.

I know some Tories who are so livid that Clegg, Cable, Huhne, Alexander and Moore are in the cabinet that they've considered resigning their membership. They're appalled that Cameron was so generous during the coalition negotiations. Given this, I find it strange that the media has been so keen to repeat the unfounded, shallow arguments of the left rather than give any credence to the fears of the right that the Lib Dems might actually be doing far more in government than our numbers suggest we should. There are far more Tories concerned about "concessions", "compromises", a diluted programme for government and Cameron's closeness to senior Lib Dems than there are Lib Dem members critical of their own leadership, but this reality if repeatedly and conveniently ignored.

In fact, if anyone doubts the influence of the Liberal Democrats, I suggest they should attend the Conservative Party conference next week and ask seasoned activists their opinion of Nick Clegg - a far better guage of Lib Dem achievement than either crude statistics or the views of Labour supporters.