Conference: the half-time score

At the start of conference, I blogged the ten issues that I thought would shape conference. Half-way through, how are things looking on the ten?

  1. Strategy: the party’s official line of loving our coalition partners in public has been firmly stuck to by the party’s senior figures, and argued for by Nick Clegg during Q+A at the weekend. Bubbling under the surface are many questions about whether this is the right strategy and if the party could and would be better if it more often made public its disagreements, such as over the opting out of the EU directive on sex trafficking. There has been little direct debate on the topic, meaning that so far conference is a missed opportunity for the party to come to a settled view on this matter.
  2. Free schools: debated on Monday morning, conference made clear its dislike of what the policies are doing.
  3. Political reform: a powerful speech at the “Yes to fairer votes” campaign rally by Nick Clegg more than made up the ground lost over his previous comments about comparing the party to the Electoral Reform Society, even though there are still many questions about whether the coalition really will end the dirty little secret of politicians.
  4. Welfare changes: Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and others have been working from the same script – emphasising the liberal roots of an emphasis on helping people out of poverty and pairing up welfare changes with talk of action on tax avoidance and evasion. It has gone done well with audiences but consistently presenting the pair of policies will be much trickier outside conference.
  5. Trident: the importance party members attach to this is reflected in a motion on the topic winning the emergency motion ballot. The motion will be debated later this week; watch out not only for the result but also the size of the audience in the hall at the time.
  6. The spending review: rather than the message getting clearer as the spending review publication nears, it has got more muddled: is the message ‘Big cuts to sort out a massive financial mess left by Labour’ or ‘It’s only a small trim each year, and as a proportion of the economy spending will be higher than it was in the first years under Labour’? Trying to talk up the latter whilst having shouted the former just doesn’t work.
  7. Party President election: Susan Kramer has edged into the position of front runner, with a well organised conference operation that has seen almost every collection of conference representatives hanging around in the main conference venue worked by her campaign team. Top organisational marks too for the simple, durable badges being handed out. Online, Tim Farron has got off to the stronger start and he has picked up an endorsement from Liberal Youth. It looks like the contest will be race between these two.
  8. How much will how many journalists have learnt? So far, not a lot it would appear. Some good, insightful coverage (such as that highlighted by Stephen) but still plenty of splits, doomed and unhappy clichés presented without evidence or examples and giving all the appearance of being pre-written last week.
  9. Has any minister gone native? Generally very little sign of it.
  10. A joker in the (emergency) pack: no shock issues so far.

So overall? Conference pretty calm, with a general mood of desire to see coalition succeed but thinking that more Liberal Democrat policies need to be delivered for that to be the case. The lack of a proper debate on love your coalition partner or not is the big missed opportunity. Next up at conference is the big event – Nick’s keynote speech starting at 4pm.

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This entry was posted in Conference, Op-eds and Party Presidency.


  • Lots of interest already in fringe events questioning the need to replace Trident and spend money on new nuclear weapons. The Greenpeace / YouGov poll has already told us how strongly members feel on this issue, and this is a reflection of broader public opinion. Spending billions of pounds on new nuclear weapons is not a popular option at a time when big cuts in spending are due – regardless of what Liam Fox may think!

  • The trouble politically, Mark, when you have made a wrong decision (on how urgent / vital etc the deficit and its reduction is, in this case), is how do you make the case for a change of mind before it is publicly announced, or deibbled into the public arena. I think we could easily see the CSR being a lot less harsh early on than the previous messages have shown. There are two major problems for “change of mind” here:
    1 The reaction of the Tories, many of whom may well want to use it as an excuse to “shrink the state”.
    2 The reaction of the “markets”. We still haven’t got to the point where we can ameliorate (“control”) panic reactions there in defence of democracy and the public realm. This is where our discussions should be going, quite frankly. To start comparing the situation to personal credit card debts, as I heard this morning, is foolish and simplistic, and also talk of intergenerational shift of blame and payment is pretty simplistic too.

    These issues may be coming up at fringes, but have not heard as much as I would have liked as an absent observer this year.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Sep '10 - 11:28am

    The party leadership have played this very badly. What is happening at this conference is what I thought would be happening at next year’s conference – not outright opposition, but a lot of unhappy grumbling. Even if the leadership were all Tory stooges, common sense and knowledge of their own party (if they had it – their problem is they don’t) would have led them to have played this differently to keep the party satisfied. Many of us in the party have been involved in coalition situations at local level, so we know how to do it. There are ways of acting which more clearly keep the arms-length distance from the coalition partners, and signify that what is being done is a compromise which involves much one would not do were one governing alone. Those of us who have been in local government also know how important it is not to be sucked up by the officers, and by the leaders of the senior party if one is in the junior coalition party, into seeing one’s primary job as being emissaries from them to the party more generally and the people rather than the other way round.

    They really do not seem to see how “isn’t it great, we’re in government?” comes across to the punters as “all we really wanted was comfy jobs, and we’d say anything we’d think would fool you to get them, now we’ve got them, so f*** you”. And that’s despite the PR men who are supposed to be experts in fooling the punters who are advising them. Are they ever going to realise that it’s the people who do the work at grassroots level who really know how to get through to the punters?

    The big problem is that the LibDem successes in government are on things which while important to us don’t mean much to ordinary people. So, yes, some constitutional reform is an important gain, but in 90% of the houses when one’s canvassing it will hardly be known about, let alone appreciated. ID cards, and civil rights issues, yes again, but these are the preserve of society’s elite who are otherwise very comfortable. It’s very good that it should be so – civil rights issues are not seen as important here because most people take their civil rights for granted and we don’t live in a society where most people run up against serious civil rights problems hitting them hard. What is hitting people hard right now is fears about their job security, about their income, about whether they will ever be decently housed, about having to pay for education now deemed essential to get a job and still not knowing whether they will get one or will get worthwhile eduction, about whether they will retire with a decent pension, about what other sacrifices will have to be made to appease the fat cats in the City. We are offering nothing to people to alleviate their fears on these issues, partly because the Tories have the run on the central aspects of government.

    The funny thing is, I can actually to quite a large extent accept the position of those LibDems in government. I can see very well that the situation in 2010 meant a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only realistic option, and that because our hands were tied we didn’t have much negotiating power in it. So, yes, the point that we have a Tory government on economics, but we can slip a few LibDem things through where it doesn’t hurt the money-men who back the Tories, is fine. That’s what’s been done, and I can see it’s the best that could be done. But just don’t give the impression that it’s all we ever wanted. Is that really so difficult?

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