The atmosphere in Brighton was stormy. Not, as journalists would have you believe, inside the hall but on the Brighton seafront.
It had started well. On Saturday, with temperatures soaring into the 20s, delegates debated early years, schools and House of Lords reform – all solid Lib Dem territory. Excellent speeches from a succession of mothers and grandmothers highlighted how childcare costs skew the economics of working, and delegates overwhelmingly backed investment in free early years education when finances allow. Debating Lords reform, Conference endorsed Nick Clegg’s withdrawal of support for constituency boundary changes, and Lord Tyler put forward a popular suggestion that any MPs who voted against Lords reform should be barred from future elevation to the second chamber.
That evening the rally highlighted key Lib Dem priorities in Government: Jobs, Education, Environment and Tax. The star of the show was Jo Swinson, newly promoted Minister in the Department for Businesss, Innvoation and Skills. Introducing the Conference theme of “Fairer Tax in Tough Times” she showed how the party is delivering tax cuts for people on low incomes, while aiming to shift taxation away from income and onto wealth.
Changing weather on Sunday brought debates on aviation (no to ‘Boris Island’ and expansion at Heathrow/ Gatwick/ Stansted; yes to evidence-based identification of a sustainable ‘hub’), food sustainability, international environmental co-operation and a keynote speech from Ed Davey, Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. That afternoon, Nick Clegg fielded questions from the floor about his tuition fees apology, commitment to ‘the Greenest Government Ever’, HS2, Leveson, and Government surveillance of electronic communications. Predictably, the press only seemed interested in a throwaway remark about his 12th wedding anniversary. The day ended with an impassioned debate on medically assisted dying with delegates overwhelmingly passing a resolution calling for legislation on this issue with a free vote in Parliament.
Monday saw the big debate the media had been building up to: “Generating Growth and Jobs in a time of Austerity”. The motion, put forward by the Federal Policy Committee, sought Conference’s endorsement for Lib Dem economic policies in Government. Amendment 1, put forward by ‘Liberal Left’ called for a move away from deficit reduction, while Amendment 2, supported by FPC, sought to bolster investment in low carbon technology. With speeches against Amendment 1 from five MPs including Pensions Minister Steve Webb’s memorable opening gambit (“People often ask me ‘What’s a nice Social Liberal like you doing in a Government like this?’”) it was clear where the party’s top brass stood. After Jo Swinson’s summation (“I care about numbers because I care about people”), Amendment 1 was overwhelmingly defeated – and the media had to re-write its script (literally: I’d been lined up by Radio 4 PM to argue the FPC position, but producers spiked the interview when the motion was overwhelmingly carried). Monday also saw a keynote speech from Conference favourite Vince Cable, as well as policy motions on mutuals and employee ownership, science, employment, and 20 mph zones.
Tuesday began with a motion reaffirming the party’s commitment to a “Rehabilitation Revolution” in prisons, equipping offenders with the skills for a life away from crime. A motion on “Tackling Inequality at its Roots” advocated a systematic approach to breaking down barriers to opportunity, encompassing not just income and wealth but also health, education, living conditions and political power. Danny Alexander’s keynote followed on cue with a stern warning to wealthy tax avoiders: “we are coming to get you and you will pay your fair share”. In the afternoon we heard an impassioned speech from Sharon Bowles MEP warning: “there is no escaping international regulation of financial services in today’s world. Either Brussels does it or Washington does it. What would the City prefer: regulation from Washington without the UK, or regulation from Brussels with the UK?” After a debate on regional pay came the most electrifying debate of the whole Conference. Moving “No Government Above the Law” Jo Shaw laid into proposals for ‘secret courts’ in a Government bill currently before Parliament. The mood of Conference was with her: “Civil liberties are not like the economy where we may have to make compromises” said one speaker. Despite efforts by three MPs and a peer to defend the Bill, the motion was overwhelmingly carried.
Wednesday closed the Conference with debates on mental health and housing before Nick Clegg’s widely reported speech. Like their party, delegates left Brighton calm and determined in the face of strong headwinds – political as well as meteorological.
* Dinti Batstone is a member of WLD and Acting Co-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.