At the start of Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool, I blogged the ten issues that I thought would shape conference. Half-way through, how are things looking on the ten?
- Strategy: the party’s official line of loving our coalition partners in public has been firmly stuck to by the party’s senior figures, and argued for by Nick Clegg during Q+A at the weekend. Bubbling under the surface are many questions about whether this is the right strategy and if the party could and would be better if it more often made public its disagreements, such as over the opting out of the EU directive on sex trafficking. There has been little direct debate on the topic, meaning that so far conference is a missed opportunity for the party to come to a settled view on this matter.
- Free schools: debated on Monday morning, conference made clear its dislike of what the policies are doing.
- Political reform: a powerful speech at the “Yes to fairer votes” campaign rally by Nick Clegg more than made up the ground lost over his previous comments about comparing the party to the Electoral Reform Society, even though there are still many questions about whether the coalition really will end the dirty little secret of politicians.
- Welfare changes: Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and others have been working from the same script – emphasising the liberal roots of an emphasis on helping people out of poverty and pairing up welfare changes with talk of action on tax avoidance and evasion. It has gone done well with audiences but consistently presenting the pair of policies will be much trickier outside conference.
- Trident: the importance party members attach to this is reflected in a motion on the topic winning the emergency motion ballot. The motion will be debated later this week; watch out not only for the result but also the size of the audience in the hall at the time.
- The spending review: rather than the message getting clearer as the spending review publication nears, it has got more muddled: is the message ‘Big cuts to sort out a massive financial mess left by Labour’ or ‘It’s only a small trim each year, and as a proportion of the economy spending will be higher than it was in the first years under Labour’? Trying to talk up the latter whilst having shouted the former just doesn’t work.
- Party President election: Susan Kramer has edged into the position of front runner, with a well organised conference operation that has seen almost every collection of conference representatives hanging around in the main conference venue worked by her campaign team. Top organisational marks too for the simple, durable badges being handed out. Online, Tim Farron has got off to the stronger start and he has picked up an endorsement from Liberal Youth. It looks like the contest will be race between these two.
- How much will how many journalists have learnt? So far, not a lot it would appear. Some good, insightful coverage (such as that highlighted by Stephen) but still plenty of splits, doomed and unhappy clichés presented without evidence or examples and giving all the appearance of being pre-written last week.
- Has any minister gone native? Generally very little sign of it.
- A joker in the (emergency) pack: no shock issues so far.
So overall? Conference pretty calm, with a general mood of desire to see coalition succeed but thinking that more Liberal Democrat policies need to be delivered for that to be the case. The lack of a proper debate on love your coalition partner or not is the big missed opportunity.
Next up at conference is the big event – Nick’s keynote speech starting at 4pm.