Liberal Democrat Newswire #11 is out: Liberal Democrat Birmingham conference preview

Liberal Democrat Newswire #11 is a special Birmingham Lib Dem conference preview, and you can now read it in full below.

It features The Three Doctors: Owen, Harris and Who.

The next will be a post-Nick Clegg conference speech edition, with the full text of his speech and post-speech analysis.

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Mark Pack

Newsletter 11: Conference preview

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Dear Friend

With the Liberal Democrat conference coming up in Birmingham from this Saturday today’s newsletter is a conference preview special, starting with the surprising return of David Owen to top-level Liberal Democrat thinking.

As ever, if you like what you read please do share it with others, either by forwarding it on or by sharing it via social networks.

Thanks for reading,


Welcome back, Dr. David Owen

Much of the pre-conference discussion amongst Liberal Democrats about the party’s Birmingham conference has been over the new security checks for attendees. Less mentioned has been the return of David Owen, or rather his political message presenting the SDP as the “tough but tender” party.

Given his record as leader of the SDP, ending up with it being beaten by the Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate in a Parliamentary by-election, it is no surprise that no-one is rushing to say, “let’s copy Owen”.

But in fact the Liberal Democrat message emerging over the summer has been a near carbon copy of his “tough but tender”, complete with emphasis on fiscal discipline and the use of choice to improve public services.

The language may be a little different this time round, with phrases such as “competent and compassionate” and “more financially responsible than Labour, fairer than the Conservatives” coming from ministers and special advisers, but the sentiment is very similar.

So one thing to watch out for through the conference, and in particular in Nick Clegg’s various speeches, is how this theme is being developed. What policies will be pushed to support it and what language will be chosen to express it?

2010 is the past, not the future

The other strategic theme to watch out for during conference is whether or not the party manages to move beyond praising and defending the events of 2010. Whether it is the positives – such as pupil premium, increased income tax allowances, fairer taxes on wealth (capital gains tax) and the Green Investment Bank – or the more defensive – such as pointing out how each new Labour memoir provides more evidence of how Labour was in no state to take part in a coalition – the party’s talk has consistently been of 2010.

Yet, unless you are Doctor Who, 2010 is the past, not the future.

It means the Liberal Democrats have been talking up the past (“look at all the good things which happened in 2010”) whilst also talking down the future (“lots of tough times to come”). Now, being optimistic about the past yet pessimistic about the future may be the natural habitat of a Telegraph letters page contributor, but it is also the exact opposite of traditional political messaging.

Conventional wisdom is that you talk up the possibilities of the future whilst emphasising how bad things were in the past. In this case, conventional wisdom has it right.

In theory the Facing the Future policy paper to be debated at conference will provide a positive vision for the future but with its own motion identifying seventeen, yes seventeen, priority areas it is much more about a comprehensive administrative plan for policy than the creation of a clear political message.

There is certainly scope for such administrative completeness – especially given the breadth of issues now covered by Liberal Democrat ministers. But seventeen priorities really makes for no priority. Moreover, whilst the agenda also has a motion about community politics and its importance to the party’s future, Facing the Future does not mention it at all. Where there should be a strong, consistent message there is a diffused, inconsistent mix of possible ingredients.

So there is much work yet to be done, both on the overall message of the party and also particularly on the question of tax, for as I wrote:

The word tax is not completely absent from the agenda, but aside from a reference in one motion calling for the party to look at its tax policy as part of a big policy review, there is nothing about what the country’s overall tax system should look like.

Yet even a cursory following of political news will notice how often the question of changes to the UK’s tax system come up. The big risk for the Liberal Democrats is that a relatively modest pace of policy development following that one brief reference on the agenda leaves the party caught flat-footed as events overtake it.

The risk flows from a simple coalition calculation: Conservatives by and large want to cut taxes and Liberal Democrats by and large want to increase taxes on wealth. There is therefore scope for a package which appeals to both wings of the coalition whilst also having whatever net fiscal effect that George Osborne and Danny Alexander agree is necessary.

That is just what happened last summer, when raising capital gains tax – normally an anathema to most Conservatives – was packaged up with increasing the income tax allowance to produce a bundle that everyone was willing to support…

However, amongst Liberal Democrats the question of what wealth taxes to support is deeply controversial. There is no simple consensus in the way there was over capital gains tax.

Some are very keen on a land value tax, but it is a concept that is often ridiculed by others in the party (perhaps unfairly, though it has to be said that some of the land value tax campaigners do little to rebut the view that it is an eccentric policy). Vince Cable’s talk of a mansion tax before the last general election was not helped by a rushed and bungled consultation within the party, but even a perfectly paced and conducted consultation would not have avoided opposition – especially from those in the party who prefer more bands on council tax to any sort of mansion tax, whether it is on their values or on profits from their sale.


Doctors seem to be the theme of this preview, for there is a third one who matters too: Dr Evan Harris.

Evan is a walking embodiment of how political power does not solely rest with those in political office having, if anything, gained more political influence since losing his seat in 2010.

A Q&A session on health politics is already scheduled for the conference. There may yet also be a debate on a health motion, either due to an appeal over the previous rejection of one or through the emergency motions slot. Whatever the procedural outcome, the group of campaigners of whom Evan and Shirley Williams are the most prominent figures will be pushing hard to get the party to secure further changes to the Health Bill in the Lords.

Prominent too will be another health-related issue, one that spills over into questions of individual freedom and attitudes toward crime too: drugs. A motion on the agenda calls for an independent review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That the motion takes 51 lines before getting to any specific demand shows the huge sensitivities around the issue, sensitivities that the chances are will not be reflected in some of the shock-horror media coverage of the debate.

The motion is however very likely to pass in some form – and I expect a speaker or two will point out that the views expressed in the motion have rather a similarity to those expressed by one Mr. D. Cameron before he became leader of the Conservative Party.

Motions and amendments I have a special interest in

Saturday at conference sees a motion I’ve helped put together on Lords reform, whilst Tuesday afternoon will see an amendment to the community politics motion.

Less high profile, but important in their own quiet way are two motions I have had a close involvement in, one to improve the transparency of the party’s Federal Appeals Panel and one to allow more campaigning in internal party elections.

Both are justifiable on grounds of principle – we should know what the Panel decides and we should only restrict freedom of speech in elections in the narrowest and most essential of circumstances. But they also come practical implications that should strengthen the party’s internal systems of democracy.

If you are at conference, I hope you can make it to these debates.

Who is this year’s Simon Hughes?

Over the years, Simon Hughes has acquired a – mostly deserved – reputation for ferociously double-booking himself for conference fringe meeting slots, shuttling to speak between more than one event being held at the same time. But who is this year’s Simon Hughes?

Who will be doing Usain Bolt impersonations as they dash along hotel corridors? And who is packing in the most fringe meetings in total?

See my exclusive league table to find out.

The pick of the fringe

As you’ll see from my league table, there’s one fringe meeting I am very tempted to go to, just to see how the person who is down as the sole interviewee at it will manage to also be talking at two other fringe meetings in the same slot. But as for the rest of the week…

I’ve selected some of the highlights from the fringe calendar with my five top picks (including Hugh Grant) and don’t forget also the Liberal Democrat Voice fringe meetings and the Liberal Drinks meetup.

A full list of all the fringe meetings is in the Conference Directory.

A new history of British liberalism

Party conference sees launch of Peace, Reform and Liberation: A history of liberal politics in Britain 1679-2011 (for which I’ve co-authored a chapter) at a fringe meeting on the Monday night featuring Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams.

As the blurb puts it:

A one-volume history of the Liberal Party and its antecedents, the alliance between the Liberals and the SDP in the 1980s, and of the Liberal Democrats. Drawing on the most recent scholarly research it sets out how the Liberal Party was formed in the mid-nineteenth century; the impact of Ireland and Gladstone s support for Home Rule ; the reasons for the Party s calamitous decline after the First World War; and the factors underlying the Party s unexpected revival in the second half of the twentieth century, culminating in the formation of the Liberal Democrats and the party s subsequent history. Currents in liberal thinking are explained and also included are biographies of key individuals, election results, and a timeline of key events.

Copies of the book will be on sale at the launch meeting, from the History Group stall at conference and can also be ordered from Amazon.

Useful conference documents and information

Whether at conference or not, you can follow the event via people’s tweets. The hashtag people use is #ldconf and you can always see what is being said with that here.

The official party Twitter account for conference, which will carry results of votes and so on, is @libdemconf.

Coming next…

The next issue of this newsletter will be a post-conference special about Nick Clegg’s conference keynote speech. Watch out for it in your inboxes on Thursday next week.

Until then – best wishes,


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