Conference preview: Saturday and Sunday

This year, the Liberal Democrat autumn conference has one day per theme, covering jobs, education, environment and tax.

Saturday is education day, with David Laws giving a keynote speech. For many party members he is more respected than trusted; recognised for his skills yet leaving people uneasy over quite what a David Laws manifesto would look like or whether it was right to bring him back into government this year. Saturday is his big chance to win over members.

If he chooses to take it, that is – as there are others who want to see him take a more confrontational approach, pulling and pushing the party into a greater emphasis on diversity of educational suppliers and freedoms for those suppliers, with a much less role for local councils as educational providers. Much therefore to watch out for in his speech.

The related education motion is very much in the mainstream of previous party education policy, putting a particular emphasis on supporting vocational education and also more support for the most disadvantaged children early in life. (The Liberal Democrat version of predistribution, as it were – tackling more of the causes of inequality before they start having their damaging effects.)

Saturday also sees the Federal Conference Committee report, an opportunity for those unhappy with conference accreditation policies to raise the issue – although much of the heat on that is likely to be displaced to this autumn’s round of party committee elections.

The evening rally is entitled, “Jobs, Education, Environment, Tax”. On message if not quite snappy.

One fringe meeting particularly worth a mention is the Liberal Democrat Forum for Africa’s networking event at 10pm. The possible benefits to the party from more and better bodies such as this has often been talked about. It’s great to see the work Michael Bukola and colleagues are doing with developing this one.

Alas, I won’t be there as there is an even better clashing event – the illustrious, glamorous prize-giving festival of delight that is the Blog of the Year Awards 2012. From 10pm in the Grand Hotel, Pavilion Room.

On Sunday, it’s the turn of the environment, with a keynote speech from Ed Davey, plus also Nick Clegg’s traditional Q&A session in the main hall. People will be listening closely for exactly what words Davey uses on topics such as wind power and nuclear, whilst Clegg usually gives at least one less than good-tempered answer in the Q&A sessions – making them rather more interesting than if all the answers were safely bland.

Sunday also sees Tim Farron’s speech and a motion on welfare. The text itself is carefully worded, mixing praise for some of the steps secured in government (such as the introduction of universal credit), criticism of Labour’s heavy involvement of private companies and implied attacks on the Conservatives. Speeches in the debate (and possibly amendments tabled) are likely to be much less muted, making this one of the conference flashpoints over relations with the Conservatives and how coalition is going.

The aviation motion is likely to see controversial issues aired, whilst the important – and also controversial, though not partisan – issue of medically assisted dying is debated amongst the other motions due that day.

Looking at the fringe, I suspect a lot of readers will be interested in the Department of Election and Skill’s lunchtime slot on the future of campaigning and Sunday evening sees the Lib Dem Voice fringe meeting on the 2015 manifesto. It also sees The Voice‘s own Nick Thornsby chair a fringe on tax policy with David Laws, Stephen Williams, Paul Johnson (IFS) and Ben Page (Ipsos Mori).

One footnote to Sunday – the party business includes the first of the new style report backs from the Federal Appeals Panel. Good news.

This is of course not a comprehensive summary of all the motions being debated, and depending on your interested the most important one may not be listed above. So it’s well worth taking a look through the full Brighton conference agenda and directory, which also has details of the time and place for the fringes.

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