Edition #38 of Liberal Democrat Newswire previews this month’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow. You can also read it in full below and I look forward to seeing many readers at conference. Possibly to sell a book to you...
Earlier this week I also published my annual fringe conference league table complete with the Simon Hughes Memorial Prize for Multiple Simultaneous Fringe Bookings.
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Liberal Democrat Newswire #38: conference
Welcome to the 38th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which this time previews the Liberal Democrat autumn federal conference in Glasgow.
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In this newsletter:
Conference’s reputation: both up and down
Early on in the very first Liberal Democrat federal party conference I attended, appropriately enough in Glasgow, I was sat far up at the back of the hall when a vote was taken over road building. I remember being both impressed and slightly baffled when I realised that I, putting up my hand one way in the vote, counted for just as much as Alan Beith MP, sat on the platform, putting his hand up the other way.
Of course, I’ve since seen the many ways that MPs can influence the outcome of a conference vote beyond those open to an ordinary party member turning up for the first time. However, the basic dynamic – votes at conference to settle policy, carried out on the basis of one member, one vote – remains a distinctive mainstay of the Lib Dem policy process compared to that of the other main parties.
Prior to 2010 such internal democracy was usually the cause of, at best, condescendingly quizzical looks from the media punditry and, more typically, snide comments. Within the party, by contrast, it was frequently a source of pride.
Since 2010 both views have shifted. For the outside world, the benefits of meaningful internal democracy have become more apparent, contrasting how the Lib Dems decided to go into coalition and collectively bought into the decision with the dissent in Conservative ranks from MPs who were barely asked. Within the party, however, there is increasing frustration that the simplicity of ‘motion, vote, policy made’ can now be followed by, ‘but then the government does something else’.
That all makes for a likely high-profile and at times fractious party conference when it convenes in Glasgow on 14th-18th September.
What the party officially would like Glasgow to be about
The official answer to what Glasgow Conference will be all about is there on the front cover of the Conference Agenda booklet: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”.
In case you didn’t get the message, the first page you see when opening up the agenda starts with the big headline “A Million Jobs… For A Stronger Economy” (a reference to the increase in private sector jobs under this government).
Nick Clegg then goes on to say in his opening piece in the booklet:
It is a sensible focus. Whether it is one that will be achieved is another matter.
Looking through the motions at conference, there are many which touch on jobs but in each case the controversial elements that will attract debating, party and media attention are not the direct jobs parts of them. For example, the environmental policy paper has a very pro-jobs sheen to it – Green Growth and Green Jobs is its title – but issues within it such as ‘nuclear power: yes or no?’ are going to get the attention.
Jobs matter and jobs will dominate keynote speeches such as Nick Clegg’s, but they are by no means the only thing that will get attention in Glasgow.
What the media would like Glasgow to be about
Those individual controversies (of which more below) will give the media plenty of opportunities to roll out clichés about crunch votes for the party leadership, judging the outcomes across a myriad of policy points simply by ‘was that what Clegg wanted?’.
For most of them, that would be a mistake as views on issues such as fracking and nuclear power are not about being pro or anti Clegg, coalition or the party leadership. People will be voting on other grounds.
The main exception to that is the economy motion, especially given Nick Clegg’s decision to be the final speaker in the debate, and civil liberties – where questions about his depth of support for civil liberties and his judgment are very much central to the debate within the party.
Civil liberties: politics is about activists as well as voters
As I wrote in Liberal Democrat Newswire No.37:
Events since then do not count as progress of even the most limited sort.
Instead, things have gone backwards with Nick Clegg’s support for the destruction of hard disk drives by The Guardian accompanied by the very slow reaction of himself and other senior party figures to David Miranda’s detention under Schedule 7. The bare bones of the view eventually expressed were not the problem – that Schedule 7 is an authoritarian measure introduced by Labour which the government is already planning to reform and which now needs further and quick independent review. The problem was that the views were lethargically and quietly expressed rather than promptly and loudly.
There are three occasions on the agenda when the David Miranda issue, and the civil liberties area more generally, may spill over. First, Sarah Ludford MEP is putting together an emergency motion on the subject. Second, it is likely to feature in the Nick Clegg Q+A session at conference and third, more obscurely but potentially more dangerously, it could be the cause of a move to reject one or more of the Parliamentary Party reports tabled at conference over the reactions of the Parliamentarians to the issue. Such a vote would make a usually obscure part of the conference agenda rather more interesting than usual.
More positively for civil liberties, they also get a mention in the manifesto themes paper (on which, see below), where an important commitment is made over secret courts:
The other likely flashpoints
F4 A Balanced Working Life (Sat PM) – contains many interesting policies on issues such as childcare, parental leave and work-life balance. It also calls for an official ‘living wage’ level to be set and for central government always to pay at least this. There may be moves to make a living wage more widespread, going beyond the encouragement in the motion to local government and the proposed extra transparency for the private sector. Even without any such changes, the policy paper sets out a very different set of social policies and priorities from those of the Tory right.
F10 Green Growth and Green Jobs (Sun AM) – some of the proposals in this are controversial with the public, but not so within the more environmentally-focused Liberal Democrats. The two likely to provoke serious debate however are nuclear power (where the motion offers up a choice between rejecting the building of all new nuclear power plants and providing heavily caveated support for some new ones) and fracking (where the motion is rather lukewarm about its realistic prospects in the UK but does talk of “permitting limited shale gas extraction” – making an amendment that takes a more hostile approach to fracking is likely).
F16 Learning for Life (Sun PM) – this education policy paper touches on the hot topic of tuition fees. That is bound to attract attention and anger but my feeling of the party mood is that however much people feel tuition fees should have been abolished, they nearly all also recognise that it isn’t a politically practical option to make it a red line commitment at the next general election. The mood therefore is regret over the past rather than a determination to see abolition in the 2015 manifesto.
The motion pragmatically calls the current tuition fees system “the best deal for students and taxpayers currently available” and calls for a further review of its working in the next Parliament. That wording will raise some grumbles but they are unlikely to turn into a successful call to return to the policy of abolishing tuition fees.
F17 Protecting children from online pornography (Sun PM) – the protection in mind – widespread use of opt-in filters for explicit material – raises many controversies over its technical feasibility and practical impact. Add to that a phrase in the motion about it being the job of government to protect young children which makes no reference to any role for parents or teachers, and this is likely to see a lively debate over both liberal principles and technical practicalities. Oh, and be beloved of Daily Mail journalists who will, I’m sure (hello @dailymail.co.uk readers!) report the debate accurately.
F19 Strengthening the UK Economy (Mon AM) – complete with Nick Clegg down to make the final speech in the debate, this very much is the official party line on the economy, containing a strong emphasis on prioritising deficit reduction. Stephen Tall has christened this debate ‘The Big One‘, while the Social Liberal Forum has been talking up its importance and using it as a hook for a rare financial appeal to its supporters.
The motion contains some pops at George Osborne by implication with its calls for action such as more freedom for local council borrowing to build houses, expansion of the Green Investment Bank and further investment in renewable energy. However that is unlikely to assuage internal critics of Osbornomics who view the party as being too closely tied to George Osborne’s approach.
The economy debate at the last party conference was not much of a hot potato as the speeches attacking the party line were weak and few in number. This time expect the spuds to be much hotter – though as Clegg has the trump card up his sleeve of also getting Vince Cable to speak in the debate, a defeat for the party leadership would be surprising.
F26 Fairer Taxes (Mon PM) – 50p tax rate or not? The motion offers two options, either of sticking with the current 45p top tax rate for income tax or moving back to a 50p rate provided a review concludes that this would raise more money.
F32 Defending the Future (Tue AM) – what to do with Trident? Replace it in full, replace it with a slimmed down nuclear deterrent or go unilateralist? The party has a tradition of closely voting for multilateralism over unilateralism, so a well-argued and tight debate is likely once more.
I have not included the ‘anti-bedroom tax’ motion in this list as its demands –such as an evaluation of the policy’s impact and better guidelines for local councils on the use of support payments – are in tune with the sorts of reforms that Lib Dem minister Steve Webb has been fairly open about supporting himself. Unless handled really badly, Lib Dem ministers should be able to ride this out as a list of things they want to push for in government rather than being the victims of a minister-bashing session.
And finally… if you look back through my record at predicting likely flashpoints, past performance suggests that a reasonable number of the likely flash points will turn into damp squibs. Conversely, a clumsy or overbearing use of party rules may turn one flash point into something that is rather more bad tempered and important. And a very smartly worded economy motion amendment (viz. one that quotes back at Clegg and Cable their previous public pronouncements, making it hard for them to oppose it effectively) could lead to all sorts of drama.
Turning policies into votes
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The manifesto themes paper
This too is going to be debated at conference. The nature of papers setting out broad themes means that the debates on them tend to be very general and wide-ranging and it is rare – though not unknown – for such themes papers to trigger major debate or dissension.
Both the contents of the paper itself and the motion being put to conference means such an exceptional controversy is unlikely this time. More relevant will be the overall tone of the debate, coming near the end of conference. Does conference overall feel confident and united about where the party’s policies are headed or not?
Worth noting is that whilst the motion is being moved by David Laws, the man whose appointment to chair the manifesto working group caused some controversy (though more than it should, as I pointed out in Liberal Democrat Newswire #31 on the manifesto process), it is being summated by Duncan Brack, one of the party’s leading social liberals before even the Social Liberal Forum existed. Between them they span the two different wings of the party – and their presence bookending the debate will be a public display of the inclusiveness evident so far in the manifesto process.
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