Liberal Democrat Newswire #4: special Sheffield Lib Dem conference edition

As we’ve just had the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Sheffield, I’ve done a special mid-month edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire (#4) which you can also read in full below.

In an experiment in publicising the existence of the newsletter further, I’ve tried setting up a Facebook page for it. So if you like the newsletter and would like to help let other people know about it, please “Like” the newsletter’s Facebook page.

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Mark Pack


Sheffield Conference special edition

Sunday 13 March 2011

Dear Friend

Welcome to the Sheffield Conference special edition of my newsletter – a mid-month bonus extra given all the news there is to share about this weekend’s party conference.

I hope you find it as interesting and useful as the regular newsletters – and if you do, perhaps you would be so good as to “Like” the new Facebook page I’ve set up to promote these newsletters? That will help advertise their existence to other interested people who are friends of you on Facebook. Thank you.

Nick Clegg’s Sheffield speech
As the stage set was prepared for Nick Clegg’s conference speech, there was not simply the usual glass of water placed within easy reach for the speaker. Nor even two glasses, but in fact three – a hint that Clegg’s voice was turning hoarse and copious hydration required. In the event, only half the water was drunk but it was no half-hearted speech.

Liberal Democrat conference representatives responded very warmly to a speech that mixed both some of the best efforts of him and his speech writers with one of his strongest personal performances. Helped by the more intimate setting that Sheffield City Hall gives compared to many conference venues, the Deputy Prime Minister displayed the sorts of communication skills that worked so well in the TV debates last year.

The speech’s most common refrain was the buzzword bingo winning phrase “tell them”, with Clegg repeatedly returning to the theme of being proud of what the Liberal Democrats are achieving in government and encouraging people to spread the message. Perhaps he had picked up on the often made comments on the margins of conference from people saying things such as, ‘When I’ve been out canvassing it’s been much better than I feared, but too many of my colleagues are reluctant to knock on the first door’?

The principle of coalition and the plans for it to last until 2015 got relatively little in the way of mentions, but then the assumption, sometimes explicit and often implicit, of nearly ever speaker at conference in the different debates and fringes was that the party would stay in coalition – and do so until 2015. Not even critics of tuition fees or the NHS White Paper talked of coalition with the Conservatives being wrong.

Clegg worked that internal party audience well in the speech, praising conference darling Shirley Williams, talking about what the party collectively had and is achieving, thanking party members for their working in bringing it about, making copious references to the traditional liberal idols such as Mill and Beveridge and promising to listen to the concerns expressed in the health debate.

That echoed the words of both Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb earlier in conference, though it was Norman Lamb who had gone the furthest in the strategy debate. Lamb promised that a debate such as Saturday’s on the NHS should never again be needed because significant departures in or additions of policy to the coalition agreement would first go through the party’s democratic processes.

Labour was roundly attacked in Nick Clegg’s speech, not in personal terms but on policy grounds – their failures in government and their current apparent opposition to every cut as if Labour would not have cut anything. These parts of the speech were extremely well received.

And the Conservatives? There was a polite but firm insistence that Liberal Democrats are not Conservatives and Clegg is not Cameron, but no attacks on that party save for its previous hostility to hung Parliaments.

Unlike the party’s autumn conference where ministerial speeches had their new announcements scattered through them, this speech – and the speeches of other ministers – was not about providing new information. Even the heavy hint of a further increase in the income tax allowance in the Budget was about timing rather than direction of policy.

Instead it was a speech about why coalition was and is the best course for the party – and that was a message conference agreed with.

Criticising government plans: health and benefits
It was notable during conference that being introduced at a meeting or in a debate as a “Minister” is still a plus point, often triggering a round of applause. Concerns were over what we are doing in government, not that we are in government.

Saturday morning saw two debates in which government plans, coming from Conservative ministers, were heavily criticised by conference: changes to the Disability Living Allowance and to the NHS.

On the former there was widespread acknowledgement that the Liberal Democrats have been successful in government at making the Conservatives think again. On the latter there were many demands for the same to be achieved on the NHS, with a particularly forceful speech from Shirley Williams. She got two long rounds of applause before she even started – and a third at the end after a barnstorming speech.

There was a common theme to the party’s official reactions to both those motions – welcoming the party staking out its own views on the issues, even where they clearly contradict those of Conservative ministers. That was for two reasons.

First, it more clearly sets out where the coalition partners disagree on policy. As having a relaxed, adult approach to admitting in public that people in government don’t always agree on everything is something I’ve talked about in the past, this is certainly good to see – and makes a very welcome contrast to the way the Blairite vs Brownite divisions in the last Labour government were played out via off-the-record briefing and unattributable personal spite dripped into the ears of friendly journalists.

Second, votes at Liberal Democrat conference strengthen the position of Liberal Democrat negotiators in government as it makes clear they need to secure further changes to win the party’s support. So although, for example, Norman Lamb and Paul Burstow have expressed less hostility to the use of private provision of services within an NHS framework than some of the speakers in the health debate, those views make it easier for them to secure more changes in the NHS bill as it goes through Parliament – especially considering the balance of voting power in the House of Lords.

Banking and diversity
Two other notable motions at conference were an emergency motion calling for much tougher action on bankers’ pay alongside banks having their speculative investment arms split off, and a motion setting out a series of positive actions (but not positive discrimination) to make our Parliamentary Party more diverse.

The banking motion was passed overwhelmingly, though in practice (as the motion acknowledged) an awful lot rests on what the Vickers Commission, the independent committee considering banking regulation, recommends.

It was a promising sign recently that all its members threatened to quit if George Osborne interfered in their work – which suggests they are taking the “independent” part very seriously and planning significant recommendations.

I briefly contributed to the diversity debate, pointing out how the proportion of Lib Dem local councillors who are female has stayed static for more than twenty years. So doing nothing and simply hoping for the passage of time and wider social change to sort things out would be foolish. A podcast of the full diversity debate is available.

Other conference highlights
Tim Farron gave more speeches during conference than I ate bars of chocolate, with his speech at the Friday night rally particularly well received:

My vision for my time as your President is to give us a voice that is distinctively ours, to give you the belief and passion you need to win hearts, minds, votes, seats and referendums at this challenging time. My focus will be on being a critical friend to the coalition, a champion of Liberal Democrat principles, a voice for our ideals, committed to the coalition but besotted with my party…

I joined the Liberals out of a desperate desire to see Britain run fairly, to see economic policies that served the interests of the people, especially the poorest. I joined a party that was unmistakeably a radical, social liberal, progressive, internationalist, green party. In the old language, some people might even say that I joined a party of the left.

And that is the party I still belong to.

Nick Clegg also gave an extensive Q&A session on Saturday afternoon which you can listen to here.

Nick Clegg’s speech in full
A full transcript and also a full audio recording of Nick Clegg’s speech are available.

As ever, please do let me have your feedback. I personally read every reply sent back in response to these newsletters. If you liked this newsletter, I hope you will “Like” the new Facebook page for this email list.

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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