Many Liberal Democrats will no doubt wish that fixing the nation’s finances would be as easy as fixing their own party’s finances. For flicking through the details of the reports and motions published ahead of the party’s September conference in Birmingham you find a positive financial tale for the party. 2010 may have seen a £335,000 deficit, but that was a general election year and 2011 is set to see a £325,000 surplus, all but cancelling out last year’s deficit and set to be achieved despite significant one-off costs for moving party HQ from the SDP’s old 4 Cowley Street venue to Great George Street.
Not all the financial news is good, with future party spending plans still needing significant trimming and the ever-present danger of another stock exchange plunge opening up large pension fund deficits. But at an organisational level, with membership up, budget in surplus, new party election database on the way, a new HQ just about to be occupied and plans to double the number of mailings posted out each year to all party members, the is much for the party to be happy about.
Politics is not, however, about making a profit on your annual accounts and the question of how the party is doing in government runs strongly through the motions. The tone of motions is generally polite and positive – welcoming some government policies, asking for others to be refined and pushing for some new Liberal Democrat ones. There is very little in the way of outright rejection of what the Coalition Government is doing proposed, though – as with the now famous NHS debate at the party’s spring conference – some of that may come with amendments yet to be submitted.
An early chance to catch the mood of the party will be the session on Saturday morning looking back on May’s elections and AV referendum. Unhappiness is to be expected. What to watch out for is who speaks out and where their comments are directed.
A common theme is likely to be the need for the party to present itself as distinct from the Conservatives, a sentiment echoed by Party President Tim Farron in the committee report under his name which says, “We all need to work harder to promote the Liberal Democrats as a distinct Party”. He also has his name to a motion promoting the party’s traditional community politics philosophy as central to its future.
It is therefore not the most joined-up piece of party management for Farron’s call for community politics to appear on the same agenda as a weighty motion and policy paper (cliché alert: titled “Facing the Future”; better than “Facing the Past” at least), complete with an introduction from Nick Clegg – and all of which do not mention community politics at all.
This is not so much a case of Farron and Clegg being at odds over the party’s future direction; more a case of unfortunate juxtaposition and reflecting Clegg’s long-term instinctive choice of a different vocabulary from that of community politics. The Facing the Future policy paper suffers somewhat from having 17 “priorities” but is designed to ensure that the government’s policies for the second-half of the Parliament, when much of the Coalition Agreement will have been completed, have a strong Liberal Democrat flavour.
Unsurprisingly, NHS reform is on the agenda, but in the form of a Question & Answer session, including both Paul Burstow and Shirley Williams on the panel. That is a format well-suited to avoiding confrontation as Liberal Democrat conference audiences are very different from those of BBC’s Question Time.
Tuition fees too are unlikely to cause much tension at conference with the motion chosen for debate being about fees for part-time students, a group who actually come out very well from the government’s controversial proposals.
More headline catching already has been the motion proposing a review of the UK’s drug laws, including considering the decriminalisation of possession for personal use. Given the party conference’s previous track record on such issues, it is likely to pass. Expect too for speakers to point out how closely the motion matches some of what David Cameron himself has called for in the past – before he became party leader.
Another headline catcher will be the motion on wellbeing. It proposes a national wellbeing index along with numerous policies to promote wellbeing. Perish the thought that any journalists who complain about their own work-live balance will pen any pieces mocking politicians for saying there is more to life than work…
In other motions, there may be a chance for conference representatives the chance to reject Chris Huhne’s half-embrace of nuclear power and concerns are expressed about the impact of the recession and slow recovery, particularly on women, young people and regions outside London and the south east. Also up for criticism are some of the government’s welfare proposals where, following the party’s success in getting housing benefit plans changed earlier in the year, this conference targets the Work Capability Assessments (WCAs). The motion wording is moderate in tone but it is an issue on which feelings run high.
Two other issues are likely to be divisive within the party at conference. First, there is a motion attacking the security checks the party agreed with the police for conference, including the implication that the final decision on who can attend is down to the police rather than the party. Second, there is a much-needed motion to update the party’s digital policy. However, there has not been agreement on what should be done with the Digital Economy Act and its provision on web blocking and online piracy with even the party’s Parliamentarians split on the issue. As a result, the motion has two options, offering up differing amounts of the Digital Economy Act for repeal.
Finally, one for the lovers of political irony: the party’s Federal Executive reports that the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association is set to be suspended for failing to get its paperwork sorted.