The Lib Dems have published the agenda for our autumn conference — I’ve uploaded it to read at the foot of this post. It’s a pretty meaty agenda, too, with big issues up for debate. This, after all, is the penultimate autumn conference before the 2015 general election, which means it’s important for determining what makes it into the party’s manifesto.
I’ve skim-read the agenda this morning. It seems it can be read in alternative ways. My main impression was “How different is this to what a Conservative agenda would look like?” I don’t just mean that Lib Dem conferences give our members a real say in our policy-making (compare that with the Tories who won’t even publish their official membership numbers). I mean that if you look at the topics being discussed and the recommendations arising you wouldn’t for a moment confuse this with a party that’s a sub-set of the Tory party. Which is more or less the impression you’d get if you relied on Patrick Wintour’s reporting in The Guardian.
Anyway, here are 15 things which caught my eye based on a quick skim-read (so apologies in advance if I’ve missed out the bit you think’s most important):
1) Commitment to a living wage:
Saturday afternoon’s debate on policy motion F4, A Balanced Working Life, calls the establishment of an official living wage, one that it is paid by central government (with local government encouraged also to lead by example), and making companies that employ over 250 people be transparent about how many of their employees are not paid the living wage.
2) Extending free childcare:
The same policy motion also proposes increasing the allocation of free childcare, starting with the current gap between maternity pay and free entitlement at age two, with 10 hours for babies between the ages of one and two, rising by 5 hours a week per year, so that there is 25 hours for 4–5 year olds. It also advocates doubling the entitlement of parental leave for fathers from 2 weeks to 4 weeks (the so-called Swedish ‘Daddy Month’).
3) Nuclear power: for or against?
Sunday morning will see the party debating policy motion F10, Green Growth and Green Jobs, with controversy likely over whether the party commits to nuclear power as part of the future mix of low-carbon energy sources. There’s a clear choice on offer:
Either Option A:
i) Rejecting the construction of a new generation of nuclear plant.
Or Option B:
i) Accepting that in future, nuclear power stations could play a limited role in electricity supply, provided concerns about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and cost (including decommissioning) are adequately addressed and without allowing any public subsidy for new build.
When LibDemVoice asked about the role of nuclear in 2011, its use was backed by a 2:1 majority of members who responded. We’ll see what conference thinks next month.
4) And what about shale gas?
Fracking’s hit the headlines in recent days. It receives a cautious welcome in the same policy motion:
Permitting limited shale gas extraction, ensuring that regulations controlling pollution and protecting local environmental quality are strictly enforced, planning decisions remain with local authorities and local communities are fully consulted over extraction and fully compensated for all damage to the local landscape.
5) A cycling target!
Also on Sunday is policy motion F11, Cycling reform. Can you imagine the Tories devoting a 40-minute debate at their conference to the subject? As a non-driving cyclist myself, I’ll be interested to hear the arguments put in favour of setting a national target for increasing cycling journeys:
The Government to further improve cycling in the UK by aiming to raise the number of journeys made by bike to 10% in 2025, rising to 25% by 2050.
6) Bullying code of conduct for all members
Though The Morrissey Report (set up by the party following allegations of sexual impropriety made against Lord Rennard (which he denies) when he was Lib Dem chief executive) isn’t specifically mentioned, there is a response in the form of constitutional amendment F14, Responsibilities of members:
As a Member of the Liberal Democrats, you must treat others with respect and must not bully, harass or intimidate any Party member, member of Party staff, member of Parliamentary staff, Party volunteer or member of the public. Such behaviour will be considered to be bringing the Party into disrepute.
7) Tuition fees to stay
Policy motion F16, Learning for Life, is about a whole lot more than tuition fees: pathways to work within school, further education, apprenticeships, etc. But it will be the recommendation of the party’s working group not to scrap the Coalition’s £9k tuition fees which will dominate the coverage. Having investigated other options, including reducing fees to £6k as well as an explicit graduate tax (the current fees scheme is a quasi-graduate tax), they stick to the status quo, albeit reviewed within the next Parliament:
The current system of Higher Education funding represents the best deal for students and taxpayers currently available. Further, that alternatives such as a Graduate Tax have a number of obvious failings, which would place an additional burden on low and middle income students and graduates, as well as a substantial extra cost to the state.
8) Internet porn filters: the Lib Dem version
David Cameron’s published his proposals. The party has now published its, calling on government (in policy motion F17, Protecting Children from Online Pornography) to:
Work with the software industry to introduce opt-in filters to explicit material on all new internet enabled electronic devices. Ensure that those adults wishing to view pornographic material should be required to opt in to websites containing such material by providing verifiable proof of age.
9) The Big One: the economy debate
Monday morning sees the big debate on the economy — F19, Strengthening the UK Economy — the one the party craftily ensured wasn’t discussed at the Spring 2013 conference. If our recent survey of party members on this issue is a guide, the leadership is likely to win this motion which broadly backs the Coalition’s current economic strategy (which is itself substantially adjusted from the original Plan A). Certainly the stakes have been raised by announcing that Nick Clegg will summate (ie, make the final speech) the debate. If amendments are carried it will be seen as a personal rebuff.
10) Tax cuts for the low-paid; tax increases for the wealthy
While the morning deals with the economy, the afternoon (F26, Fairer Taxes) focuses on taxes. The party re-commits to its policy of raising the personal allowance, ensuring that no-one paid below the national minimum wage equivalent of a full-time job (currently about £12.5k a year) will pay income tax. This is the equivalent of a tax cut of up to £460 to millions of other workers.
Alongside that is an emphasis on raising more in wealth taxes:
a) A Mansion Tax, applicable at 1% on the excess value of a residential property over £2 million.
b) Lifetime tax relief for pensions being limited to a pension pot of £1 million.
c) Non-dom tax status being more tightly restricted, and prevented from becoming hereditary
11) But what about 50p top-rate tax?
As with nuclear power, members are faced with a clear choice:
Either Option A:
c) Maintaining the existing rates of income tax, including the additional rate of 45% for income over £150,000 per year.
Or Option B:
c) Maintaining the existing rates of income tax, apart from the additional rate for income over £150,000, which should rise to 50%, subject to an independent review concluding that the additional income from this change would be likely (on the balance of probabilities) to exceed the costs of introducing it.
Option B is carefully worded to see off those who argue (without much evidence) that scrapping the 50p rate actually raised more money.
12) Bedroom tax: Lib Dems say no
While Lib Dem minister Steve Webb has consistently defended the ‘Bedroom Tax’ (social renters eligible for housing benefit only for the number of rooms they’re judged to need) the party has always been sceptical. Policy motion F27, Making Housing Benefit Work for Tenants in Social Housing, urges a complete overhaul of the Coalition’s policy, including:
An immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy, establishing the extent to which larger homes are freed up, money saved, costs of implementation, the impact on vulnerable tenants, and the impact on the private rented sector.
and, crucially, given the need to match social housing stock with the needs of those requiring it, the:
development of practical strategies to encourage pensioners to downsize where a single person or couple lives in a three or more bedroom home
13) Trident: leadership facing defeat?
If there’s an area on which I’d predict the party leadership being defeated it will likely be this one: Tuesday morning’s policy motion F32, Defending the Future – UK Defence in the 21st Century:
Conference remains wholly unconvinced that Britain needs to renew its submarine-based nuclear weapons system on the same Cold War scale as the system designed in 1980, nor do we believe that the nation can afford to do so. The proposed full-scale replacement, Successor, might in time account for as much as 10% of the UK’s defence budget. Conference therefore resolves that Britain should end Continuous-at-Sea-Deterrence and instead adopt a realistic, credible ‘Contingency Posture’
I’m not sure who came up with the name ‘Contingency Posture’, but I suspect it’s one the leadership may need to adopt if activists vote for an amendment calling for Trident to be scrapped outright.
14) Europe: yes to principle of an in/out referendum
I was asked recently when Lib Dems had last had a big debate on Europe: 2005 was the most recent I could recall (apologies if I missed a more recent one). Tuesday afternoon’s policy motion F35, Prosperous, Sustainable and Secure, will see a range of issues where cooperation with our neighbours is key — for example, a commitment to adopting an EU emissions reduction target of 50% by 2030 on 1990 levels, and applying a proportionality test to the European Arrest Warrant. It also would commit the party to an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU the next time there’s a new treaty:
Requiring that when the EU Act triggers a referendum for the first time, there should be an ‘In or Out’ referendum in which citizens across the UK can have their say on the new Treaty settlement and our relationship with the EU as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, the motion also commits the Liberal Democrats “to campaign strongly for the UK to remain in the EU.” Which will at least put us on the same side as David Cameron, if not the Tory party.
15) A united end to conference?
As you’ll see from the above, there’s plenty of scope for dispute and disagreement at conference. So on Wednesday morning a pre-manifesto debate will attempt to draw it all to a close and invite the party to unite behind what’s been democratically agreed. Policy motion F40, inevitably titled A Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society, will be moved by David Laws MP, as Chair of the Manifesto Group, and summated by Duncan Brack, Vice Chair of the Manifesto Group. I’m sure it’s no coincidence they’re two figures generally regarded to be at opposite ends of the party’s spectrum.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.