Opinion: The things to watch out for in Brighton

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I’m off this morning to Lib Dem Conference in Brighton. It seems to me that this has the opportunity to be one of our most interesting and engaging conferences for a while.

There are some really quite interesting discussions which it’s quite difficult to call which way they will go. It has been a criticism that I and others have made in the past of conference that sometimes too much of it could be predicted in advance and isn’t saying anything too much new. But that certainly can’t be said of this year, which contains plenty of new and strong thinking.

So some of my predicted highlights for the week are below. If you’re not coming to conference you might want to watch out for some of them.

But if you won’t be there, I wouldn’t trust too much to what the mainstream media will tell you about the conference, because I can tell you now what they will be saying.

They will be saying firstly that the Leader’s authority is on the line, pending a possible defeat on the conference floor on something, and secondly that everyone is talking about how the Lib Dems will position themselves in the event of a hung Parliament after the next General Election.

I know this because this is what the media have said people are talking about conference at each of the 13 previous conferences I have been to. This will not be true. These discussions are not on the agenda and will not be seriously discussed. But it is a standard feature of Lib Dem conferences (and for all I know the other parties’ ones too) that those who have spent the week at them come to home to find media coverage describing an entirely different event than the one they have been at.

The media also have their own news priorities which rarely coincide with a full and balanced approach to reporting this event. A journalist unwittingly put it very well to me last year when he said in answer to a question about what story his paper would be running the following day, “Well if Ming loses the vote tomorrow we’ll be writing about that; if he wins it then we’ll be running on what’s happening in Lebanon”.

So if you have find yourself hearing a reporter say that “all the talk in the conference bars tonight is of…” then trust me, it isn’t. I can honestly say that over the years I have devoted my fair share of effort into researching what people are talking about in the bars at conference, and I can tell you quite clearly that whatever it is on any particular night, it jolly well isn’t what the media are reporting it is.

So, what are my particular tips for interesting debates next week:

Well, one which is always of real interest is a debate on tax, to be held on Tuesday morning – this is a follow-up paper on this to last year’s big report which has already generated some heated discussion over at Lib Dem Voice, particularly on local taxation (very broadly speaking local income tax vs land value taxation).

Then there are a couple of events on community relations and immigration which should be interesting: later on Tuesday morning Nick Clegg MP and Simon Hughes MP have a wide-ranging motion down on immigration which should generate quite a lot of debate – the most controversial element of which I think will be the proposal for an ‘earned route to citizenship’ to people who have been here in this country without clear immigration status for ten years.

And on Tuesday afternoon we have a new kind of debate for conference: not on a motion but a discussion bringing together some of our party spokespeople (Andrew Stunell MP, Sajjad Karim MEP and Nick Clegg MP) with some outside commentators, Rachel Briggs of Demos, Sarfraz Mansoor, and Anthony Browne. I have high hopes that this format will throw up some interesting views on what is a fascinating and complex issue.

On Wednesday morning there is a debate on the new policy paper on ‘better governance’, ‘For the People, By the People’. This contains all sorts of very bold proposals for updating the British constitution and making it more democratic, putting in the context of the Brown government some longstanding Liberal Democrat principles and commitments. I hope it will be passed but I will be amazed if an issue like this gets past a hall full of Liberal Democrats without quite a lot of debate and disagreement on some of the constitutional issues it raises.

Straight after that debate there is a speech from David Laws MP, the new Lib Dem Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families. I think it would be fair to say that Laws, often quite a controversial figure within the party, was quite a surprise appointment to this role, so a lot of people including me will be looking at it to see what direction he wants to lead Lib Dem policy development in in this area.

On Monday afternoon there’s a speech from the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, which I think is the first time that an EC President has spoken to a UK party conference. I think this should both be interesting for itself and what he has to say, and also for the fact that such a senior figure is taking the time to come and talk to the party. I’ll be interested in what he has to say – I don’t suppose that such a senior figure is taking a day out to Brighton just for the good of his health.

Straight after that there is a Q&A session with Ming which is always interesting, and should be especially entertaining this time as it’s being hosted by Sandi Toksvig.

And of course the leader’s speech on Thursday to end the conference, for all the staged ritual of it, is always a major high point which is closely analysed and responsible for a lot of our press coverage.

There are two debates which I think promise to be particularly heated, on the Middle East. On Sunday afternoon there is a motion on the proposed academic boycott of Israel, which again has already generated a lot of very, er, lively discussion at Lib Dem Voice.

And on Wednesday afternoon there is a full debate on the Israel and Palestine issue, based on an innovative motion from the Lib Dem Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Moore. It will be my job to chair this discussion so I don’t think I can say more – except that I think it should be interesting.

I’ll also be involved in the ‘urgent issue’ discussion on Tuesday afternoon about the issue of Private Equity. This has been an issue that has been causing some growing disquiet, not least in the context of the current financial turmoil, so I suggested it as a topic for discussion and it’s now been confirmed. There’s no actual motion which creates policy in an urgent issue debate – it’s just an opportunity for Lib Dems to discuss our view on it openly, and I think it should be interesting, not least since it will be introduced by John Thurso MP, who has been actively involved in the Treasury Select Committee’s inquiry into this.

I’ll also be taking part in the fringe meeting on Sunday night on our manifesto for the next General Election – which if we really do have an election this autumn could take on some real significance.

So there are some interesting things up for discussion and I’m looking forward to them. They’ll be interesting in large part because it’s not possible to predict what will be said at them and what the decision will be. This certainly marks it out from the Conservative party which wouldn’t know open discussion in the conference hall if it came and belaboured them about the face, and even from Labour, which has a strong track record in closing down dissent, and if all else fails, in the final analysis, then ignoring it.

So I’m proud to be going to off to a conference where that isn’t the case, where people can actually express sensible, extremely well-informed and different views – and which should have some really fascinating discussion.

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