It’s a fair bet that much of the media coverage of Liberal Democrat conference will be of the form ‘THEY’RE DOOMED!’, with the more subtle coverage for the more discerning journalists being ‘Are they doomed?’.
That has, after all, been the standard media fare since long before the Coalition, since before Nick Clegg became an MP, since before David Cameron became an MP, since before Tony Blair become Labour leader and since before John Major became Prime Minister. My money isn’t on the old standard formula changing this time round for much of the media.
There is of course rather more to the party and conference than this one oft-repeated refrain, so here is my stab at the ten (other) issues which I think will shape conference.
- Strategy: there are three strategic questions about coalition: do you go in, or not; how or why do you get out; and when you are in, how much do you love your coalition partner? The first question was decided at the Special Conference and there’s no drive to reopen it in Liverpool. The second question is quietly being discussed but premature. The third question however is one that, in my view, should be discussed much more. Nick Clegg has clearly taken the “love them lots” view, arguing that it is the only way to make the coalition last (and so give time for economic policy to work and to demonstrate that hung Parliaments can be good). Generally the Parliamentary Party has been happy with this. There is though a steady rumble from elsewhere in the party that we should be making more clear which policies are being supported on sufferance, because we are in coalition and we don’t have a majority of MPs ourselves, and which we really are keen on.
- Free schools: the trigger for one of the first rebellions from Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians, this topic is being debated on the Monday morning.
- Political reform: for many activists the package of reforms (referendum on fairer voting system for the Commons, elections by PR for the Lords, more devolution in Scotland, referendum on devolution in Wales, recall for MPs, fixed-term Parliaments) is a major reason for the coalition. The Saturday night rally will kick-start the party’s contribution to the referendum ‘Yes’ campaign. With the Electoral Reform Society taking part, look for a bit of gentle rowing back from Nick Clegg’s previous comments about the ERS.
- Welfare changes: although the front page of Thursday’s Times rather over-egged what Nick Clegg had actually written for the newspaper, this is an area that goes to the heart of whether the coalition will be fair and economically successful over its lifetime.
- Trident: as we have been covering on The Voice, it is an important policy issue for the government and also one that is very important to many Liberal Democrat members. It will likely have a significant impact on how the coalition is viewed. There may be an emergency debate on the topic; there certainly will be debates on the fringe.
- The spending review: it’s coming, what will it bring?
- Party President election: how do the runners fare with gathering nominations and winning applause?
- How much will how many journalists have learnt? I’ve been a bit dismissive of many journalists because, well…., the lack of quality of their coverage of the party deserves it. Weirdly The Guardian often has the best and worst – wise insights from, say, Julian Glover mixed up with the bizarre, such as the attempt by Alan Travis to talk up Mike Hancock as having special significance to the party because he was a former member of the SDP. You hear people talking all the time about Mike like that. Not.
There is a group of journalists who have traditionally neglected the party because their media priorities were elsewhere and who have been dashing in recent months to learn more about the party. Quite possibly out of this group we will see others join the ranks of the likes of Greg Hurst with good sources, sound judgement and an ability to write stories that tell you more about the facts than about their own personal views of the party.
- Has any minister gone native? Do any ministers look like they’re enjoying power rather too much and pushing Liberal Democracy rather too little? The opportunity of conference is particularly important for those outside the Cabinet who are also mostly (and wrongly) off the internet. Without much media coverage or their own online presence to tell members what they are up to, conference is a very important occasion for them to tell their story.
- A joker in the (emergency) pack: I would be amazed if I have got my list 100% correct, so expect at least one issue to flare up – perhaps as a result of an emergency motion criticising the decisions of a Conservative minister.