Economy motion carried: Nick Clegg wins overwhelming backing from Lib Dem conference

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Lib Dem conference has spoken — and it has overwhelmingly backed Nick Clegg. Before the debate I had a hunch the result would be somewhat different. Though Nick had shrugged off a reported split with Vince Cable as “a storm in a tea cup”, I thought Vince’s obvious discontent with the decision to make this vote a test of strength, together with the assiduous ground-work and careful drafting of the Social Liberal Forum’s amendments, would pose a real problem for the party leadership.

And for the first third of the debate I thought my hunch might be fulfilled, with warm, loud applause greeting SLF’s Naomi Smith urging the party to vote against an “ideological merger” with the Tories. But throughout the week the leadership has been confidently predicting victory, and today it became clear why. The speeches by Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb, and in particular the passionate backing of party president Tim Farron — both MPs known to be on the social liberal wing of the party — proved decisive.

Tim’s scathing argument that there’s “nothing progressive about bottling out of hard decisions”, his invoking of those liberal lions Keynes and Beveridge, and his play to members’ fears that after three years of pain the party was about to turn its back on the gains of recovery (“what an irony at the eleventh hour if the Lib Dems get the jitters”) transformed the debate. From that moment on, there was little doubt that the party would back the leadership — both current and future.

It was a serious-minded debate, though not without its lighter moments… SLF’s Gareth Epps’ accidental entendre, “I want to touch on Ed Balls” triggered a tension-relieving snigger; Brian Matthews popped up to plug his fringe event. First-time speakers such as Katherine Bavage and Nick Thornsby gave confident performances.

With the clapometer in the hall showed him winning, Nick Clegg could afford to relax a little. But there was still a lot riding on his closing four-minute speech. Even a word out of place that suggested triumph or irritation and the win would have been tainted. But as “Nick Clegg from Sheffield” (as he was announced to the stage) began it was clear he’d made the right choice to conclude. He offered a quite masterful summing up: generous to those who’d tried to amend his motion, in control of the detail, passionate in his defence of Lib Dem values and independence. It reminded me (and I hope reminded the watching journalists who relish their sneering) quite how impressive he can be when he’s given a platform.

Nick Clegg deliberately ramped up this debate, made it a test of strength — not so much of his leadership, but of the party’s steely commitment to seeing the Coalition through to its logical conclusion. The Coalition Government’s economic policies have changed markedly since May 2010: the initial austerity has been relaxed to an almost Plan B extent. That’s partly the inevitability of the economic situation. It’s also in good part due to the influence of Lib Dems in government. And it’s that which Nick wanted the party to recognise by voting for the motion.

The public will barely notice the Lib Dem conference, still less which way we voted on the economy. For them, we are already associated with the decisions made within this Coalition Government, for better or worse. What Nick Clegg wanted to ensure is that the party re-affirmed its commitment to that process, lock, stock and barrel, that we stay all in it together. And he got his way.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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10 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Sep '13 - 12:56pm

    ‘The Coalition Government’s economic policies have changed markedly since May 2010: the initial austerity has been relaxed to an almost Plan B extent. That’s partly the inevitability of the economic situation. It’s also in good part due to the influence of Lib Dems in government.’
    – But the public (particularly those bits of it that might vote Labour or LD) do not get this nuance, and that’s not how George and Dave want to present it either.

    ‘The public will barely notice the Lib Dem conference, still less which way we voted on the economy. For them, we are already associated with the decisions made within this Coalition Government, for better or worse. What Nick Clegg wanted to ensure is that the party re-affirmed its commitment to that process, lock, stock and barrel, that we stay all in it together. And he got his way.’
    Well, OK, I guess, but now Labour have a vote against some perfectly reasonable policies which they can use to bash LibDems with in 2015 and persuade the left-wing element of LD support that Clegg and co are Tory appeasers.

    I don’t know what would have been a good outcome out of this, to be honest, and I suppose it’s good that the leadership is so far undivided and reasonably well-supported by the membership. But for those of us who feel that longterm Tory governments are damaging to the nation’s society andculture because of their asset-stripping, privatising, centrallising tendencies (and I’m not denying that Labour flirted with the same tendencies and can be even more centrallising at times), the outlook is at best grey.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Sep '13 - 1:15pm

    I am glad this was defeated almost purely because of the severe damage it would have inflicted on some pensioners. I do not know anyone personally who would have been disadvantaged by this, in case anyone suspects vested interests.

    I have written to the Social Liberal Forum, but unfortunately some damage might have already been done. Even talking about increasing inflation can increase the government’s borrowing costs. Analysts are always watching and this effect will become more prevalent as hopefully we gain influence and grow as a party.

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Sep '13 - 1:50pm

    Nick Clegg supported an amendment that he previously opposed. Were we all at the same Conference – the one in Glasgow?

  • Why is Clegg now against councils borrowing, when in 2011 he announced & seemed so proud of a policy allowing councils to easily borrow against projected future income ?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Sep '13 - 5:15pm

    This is on the front page of Reuters: “UK’s king-maker Liberal Democrats reject call for more stimulus”.

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/09/16/uk-britain-economy-libdems-idUKBRE98F0BE20130916

    This has a direct influence on our daily borrowing costs and the fact conference didn’t appear to understand this reminded me of what the Russians said about the US recently: monkeys with a hand grenade.

    People shouldn’t be worried about discussing economics if it makes sense, but when something sounds too good to be true, which Stephen Tall rightly spotted, stay well away!

  • The interesting thing, as has been pointed out in another thread, is how much ground Clegg had to give to get Conference to back him. Basically he seemed to saying ‘ I’ll accept most of amendment one and amendment two is good too, but please not yet…’ As Stephen has said, the rebels are getting cannier, and better organised.

  • @Eddie Sammon – there are many in the markets who agree that austerity has been severely overdone, to the extent that it has stifled growth and delayed the recovery, and left borrowing higher than it would have otherwise been. It was Osborne (and by association, Clegg) who lost our triple A rating, remember.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Sep '13 - 12:54am

    Terry, I am sympathetic to the argument that austerity has been overdone and I agree entirely that the way it has been implemented, with its burden disproportionately placed onto the backs of the poorest in society, has not only been bad socially, but also bad for the economy. However what I believe certainly has been overdone is loosening the money supply.

  • Nick Thornsby did give a confidence performance but I felt I was in 1867 and Gladstone was soon to become Prime Minister. Nick clearly must be an economic liberal of the Gladstone school and hasn’t recognised that Great Britain is different now than it was when Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I couldn’t believe anyone today would say what Nick said. I also wonder if Nick is aware that some of the time when Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer the percentage of the national debt was over 100% of GPD, even in 1868 it was about the percentage it is now!

    Personally I liked Helen Flynn’s and David Grace’s speeches.

  • Michael Parsons 18th Sep '13 - 11:43am

    Gladstonian free-trade and free-market economics prevailed in the era of the Great Depression from the 1870’s to the rise of Lloyud George and social liberalism. It smashed our farming ability and presided over Great Britian’s loss of industrial leadership, sending us into the Great WEar unable to provide basic food for ourselves, make aero-engine magnetos, or tank-track steels, or fire a shell at the Germans without owing them royalties.
    In 1945 the opposite policy saw the revival of UK, since squandered yet again by “monetarism” and a ruling clique that sees only the turn to be made by exploiting cheap labour anywhere. With £billions used to revive the decriminalised banking system and our real industry and youth left to rot, the share-owing and landed classes (including rich-kid Clegg) are having a field day and calling it “revival” at the expense of the mass of us. Once the wealthy had some sense of responsability, now they sell out and Cadbury-type social conscience is destroyed: everything sacred is profaned, everything traditional is despised. Undertakings from Clegg and his “concessions” are as trumepry as his pledge on student loans: false-flag politics. The LibDem fish is rotting from its head downwards.

    Any apparent

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