Taxing times, and a high-profile guest

Clegg was supportive of the idea of accelerating the move to a £10,000 personal allowance.

Today marked the real start of conference, with a full day's worth of debates and speeches in the auditorium, and a packed schedule of fringe events.

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was one of those who made a speech, announcing the government's plan to employ an additional 2,000 tax inspectors to tackle tax evasion and raise revenues.

He also announced that the party is considering going into the next general election with a pledge to increase the threshold at which people begin to pay income tax even higher than the £10,000 which the party promised last year and which the government is currently implementing.

Coincidentally, it was on the topic of the income tax threshold that I questioned Nick Clegg when I joined three fellow bloggers to take part in an interview earlier today. Given the squeeze on living standards that is currently taking place, it strikes me as an excellent idea for the coalition to move faster on this policy than was originally planned.

Not only would such a move assist those on low incomes who feel the effects of inflation most acutely, but it would also help the economy by stimulating demand. Clegg was sympathetic to the idea: "In an ideal world we would accelerate the shift to £10,000, for economic reasons [and because] it is socially the right thing to do".

However, he cautioned that this is something that the government is not currently planning, though I think that's undoubtedly more to do with the naturally conservative nature of the Treasury - particularly in times of fiscal crisis - than a lack of desire on the part of Liberal Democrats in government to make such a change. I wouldn't rule it out altogether, though, particularly if inflation remains high.

I also managed to get a seat in an excellent fringe event on the topic of phone-hacking and other related privacy and media issues, at which the star guest was Hugh Grant. Last time we held our conference in Birmingham in March 2010, the most high-profile guest I spotted was Clare Short - how times change.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here.

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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