Sunday, August 08, 2010

I am "bamboozling" Labour councillors

At the last full council meeting in Gateshead, Labour put in a motion about the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme. BSF was launched with a great fanfare by the Labour government with the aim of rebuilding or renovating most secondary schools in the country. And whilst some great school buildings were constructed, the programme turned out to be slow, vastly bureaucratic and schools often came in above the initial price. The end of BSF affected 5 schools in Gateshead.

Labour's motion was all about shaking a fist at the government. It demanded the immediate restoration of BSF. It didn't actually ask for anything that was likely to be granted or was realistic in the circumstances. After all, the government were not likely to implement a complete and immediate u-turn on a high profile issue just because Gateshead Council demanded it in a motion. Our amendment focused on the real world. The government have announced a review of school building plans that have been put on hold to decide which should go ahead. Our amendment called on the Council to influence positively the review in favour of the Gateshead's rebuilding plans. Our amendment was rejected by Labour. The debate highlighted the state of denial in which Labour operates and also demonstrates they are now putting party political interest at the forefront of their actions.

I moved the amendment on behalf of the Lib Dem group. I pointed out, as did our amendment itself, that the previous government had brought forward from 2011 to 2009 capital investment worth £3 billion. This includes £800 million of investment in schools - removed from spending plans for 2011 and spent in 2009 instead as a way of boosting the economy. I also pointed out that the previous government had agreed to cut by nearly two thirds the proportion of GDP spent on public sector capital schemes by 2014. The problem we have, I reminded the members opposite, was that in the run up to the election, Labour continued to make spending promises that were supposed to be financed from a capital budget they had already spent.

Labour however were having none of this. They angrily denounced us and claimed there would be no cuts had Labour won the election. Interestingly, none of them decided to respond directly to what I said, other than Cllr Mick McNestry, who merely claimed I was trying to "bamboozle them with figures." Other than that, he made no attempt to address the issues I raised. And since the figures I gave them were direct quotes from the Budget and Pre Budget reports of the last Labour government, this allegation says more about the ability of Labour to understand what they themselves have done rather than anything about the content of my own speech. It brings me on to the point that Labour are in complete denial about the state of the country's finances and their role in government. All this from a party that claimed just a few months ago that even under them, cuts would be worse than under Mrs Thatcher.

Labour speeches almost all claimed in some form or other that our amendment represented support for cuts. I don't know how many of them had read it but it says explicitly that the council should be pressing the government's review to support the go ahead of Gateshead's school rebuilding plans. As is often the case with Labour, they take the view that if you are not for them, you are against them. However, by the end of the meeting, Labour were the only party on the council to vote against calls to the government to go ahead with school rebuilding in Gateshead.

Labour leader Mick Henry did what he does nearly every time we put forward an amendment: he demanded we withdraw it. He claimed the council needed a united front. So we offered such a united front: after consulting colleagues I suggested we withdraw our amendment and Labour withdraw their motion. We would then be happy to have a joint approach to the government. Whilst I could see many Labour members at least were interested in considering the proposal, Mick Henry rejected it out of hand. He argued that compromise was needed - and the compromise was Lib Dems abandoning their position and voting with Labour. So much for plurality and cross party cooperation. No wonder it was not possible to form a coalition with Labour when their ranks are full of Mick Henrys. Despite this, my message to Labour members is that the offer remains on the table, with or without Mick Henry's agreement.

The debate reminded me of attacks on us by Labour a few years ago when we had the policy of the 1p tax rise for education. Labour made all sorts of claims and allegations that the policy would lead to the end of Western civilisation as we know it, and also alleged incorrectly that we were spending the same money twice. So Labour, you would have thought, would know that magic money pots that keep filling themselves with money of their own accord from which anything can be financed just don't exist in the real world. Having heard what they said in the past about such sources of money, it seems all the more remarkable that they can pretend that money they have already spent on new buildings can be spent a second time on more new buildings.

Under Blair, Labour spent a great deal of time and effort in changing perceptions of the party on the economy, spending and taxation from one or irresponsibility and recklessness to one of responsibility and sensible judgement. An image that was carefully built up over a long period of time has been demolished in a matter of weeks. No one likes cuts, but no one likes an irresponsible party that will flush the economy down the pan.
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