Note: If you’re catching up with this post after it was published, read it from the bottom up.
Final result – both amendment and motion passed overwhelmingly. The overall tenor of the debate was more good-natured than might have been expected – people did not take the opportunity to express any unhappiness in strident tones, and the party being in coalition with the Tories until 2015 was accepted and expected, explicitly or implicitly, by all speakers. Tuition fees and NHS got mentions, but brief ones. Norman Lamb’s comments about the health debate (see below), however, were unexpected and welcome.
James Gurling, giving the final speech in the debate, ends with the line, “No pacts, no deals – just Liberal Democracy”.
As is often the case in such debates, the importance of liberalism has been mentioned frequently but both Evan Harris near the start of the debate and David Abrahams towards the end mentioned the importance too of the party’s social democratic heritage, pointing out how much poorer the party would be without the contributions of people such as Shirley Williams.
Tim Farron’s speech was good, but… it was rather like a Christmas repeat special, with the best lines from his previous speeches at Sheffield conference. Emphasises importance of effective campaigning; “we will not define ourselves by passing conference motions”.
Norman Lamb’s contribution to the debate emphasised that last year’s special conference was not a one-off agreement on coalition, but rather there needs to be ongoing involvement of the party in the working of coalition. “The party needs to be fully engaged” in drawing up the policy programme for the second half of the Parliament, and he promises that future major new policies that fall outside the coalition agreement must go through the party’s democratic processes.
Norman Lamb also makes very emollient comment about NHS debate yesterday – saying such a debate should never have to happen again as in future party should not have to debate a major departure from coalition agreement after, rather than before, the event.
In his speech, Simon Hughes talked about the benefits of being in power – the way that party members can influence government decision making and the way that it provides an opportunity to reach out to new audiences. (As an aside, that helps explain why the party’s fundraising is doing well and the next budget forecasts very strong results from larger donors.) Calls for a “closing [of] the gap between the rich and the poor”. Party should still aim to replace Labour as the radical alternative to the Tories.
Suzanne Fletcher from Stockton called for better information to be available about what the party is doing in government and why – and got a very warm response (and not just from the Lib Dem Voice team for her name check for the site).
Series of speeches calling for the party to be distinctive, but none criticise the party being in coalition and many praise the coalition agreement’s content. That’s been a consistent them through conference – plenty of calls for things in government to be done differently, but coming out of coalition isn’t one of them.
Former MP David Rendel: “Our party’s policy is still to abolish tuition fees … and we should not be afraid to say so”.
David Matthewman is providing a detailed commentary on the debate on Twitter.
The amendment, accepted by the movers of the motion, calls for a review of the party’s triple lock arrangements with any proposals for change to be put to the party’s autumn conference. In moving the amendment, Evan Harris both made the point that the Federal Policy Committee is not formally involved in the triple lock, even though policy is at the heart of post-election negotiations. That proposal is a good one (for the reasons I outlined in Wanted: one party locksmith).
As Gordon Lishman moves the party strategy motion the conference hall is reasonably full, but even allowing for it being a Sunday morning, it is not as full as it would be if people were expecting a contentious debate. Issues about party independence and no pre-election deals are important, but there’s unlikely to be much of a showing for any views disagreeing with those in the motion.
UPDATE: Seven years on, there’s another strategy debate in the party, which is notably less about political positioning and more about vision and organisation.