Ten questions for conference

Doomed!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.

  1. 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.
  2. Free schools: the trigger for one of the first rebellions from Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians, this topic is being debated on the Monday morning.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The spending review: it’s coming, what will it bring?
  7. Party President election: how do the runners fare with gathering nominations and winning applause?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • it is not the press you need to worry about it is those who will vote on what they see. Yes, like mcdonalds they are ‘loving it’. Yes the spending review will crush the vulnerable. You get out by losing seats at the next election or even worse give themt to the tories. How do the public see things. If you act like a tory you are a tory.. Electoral reform- link it with boundary changes without consultation so that you can hold on to power for as long as possible to dismantle the welfare state, including the health service. that you have missed out is the fear and anger that people will feel in October, the vast waste of lives with no work, the children who will never reach their potential. My authority has sacked most of the services for them this week, along with vast cuts in public transport. People on minimum wage have to pay for taxis to work. I am sick of academic justification, devoid of any empathy for the plight of millions.

  • Before I read the article a couple of points for people at conference. Please hassle any jounalists you meet. Ask them why they dont talk about our rise in membership, Labours £20Million debts or Labours divisions over AV ?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th Sep '10 - 10:23am

    “Please hassle any jounalists you meet. Ask them why they dont talk about our rise in membership, …”

    Wouldn’t the first reaction of any journalist worth his salt be “What is the current membership of the party, then?” That seems to be a question the party is unwilling to answer.

  • Here’s a No 11, especially for Mark – which faction will you be part of when the party splits over this vile coalition?

  • Foregone Conclusion 17th Sep '10 - 11:29am

    “Wouldn’t the first reaction of any journalist worth his salt be “What is the current membership of the party, then?” That seems to be a question the party is unwilling to answer.”

    Well, we’ll find out very soon. Every member gets a ballot for Party President, so we just have to count the number of ballots issued. Given that the Party had to compile an electoral roll last time (which I joined too late to get on – bah!), I suggest that Cowley Street probably doesn’t know.

  • @ Mark.
    I agree that the how do we get out of the coalition question is still premature. It is a shame that there is not a motion about the coalition itself how we should try to make it better and what policies should be red lines for us in the future. otherwise the press have no option to try to read between the lines .

    The real problem with the coalition is that our goverment members do not seeem prepared to reign the tories in. (One of the key arguments they made for making the coalition in the first place) Some are even using rhetoric that makes people sense they have found fellow bed mates. Whether there are nice people in the tories or not we should never forget that we are dealing with one of the most extreme right wing mainsteam parties in Western Europe. It can never be a meeting of minds.

    I remeber one of the main arumenst put for this arrangement was a self assured assumption that otheriwse the Tories would get a huge majority in an Autumn election . It thought this was a cowardly arument by people who suddenly thought themselves to be fortune tellers.

    Its the autumn now and any election would be too close to call.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th Sep '10 - 12:45pm

    “Well, we’ll find out very soon. Every member gets a ballot for Party President, so we just have to count the number of ballots issued.”

    That had not escaped my notice.

  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '10 - 3:48pm

    Apart from the elements due to being in coalition for the first time this list is pretty much business as usual in that with only minimal changes it could have been written at almost any point in the last 10 or 20 years.

    Which leaves the elephant in the room.

    We in Britain have not been earning our way in the world for a long, long time. For many years this was disguised, first by the bonanza of North Sea oil then by an elaborately disguised Ponzi scheme based around banking and property that has done/is doing untold damage to the real economy and over the last two years by unsustainable government spending – which works for individual businesses but not for UK plc. Absent profound changes our position can only continue to deteriorate as the world economy gets ever more competitive with the rise of China, India and the rest.

    That is the background to the cuts. Whether they are well managed or badly managed, sooner or later spending will have to adjust to what is affordable. Either we work out how to rise the bar or, like limbo dancers, we will have to do ever more contortions to fit within the possible with the poor and weak most exposed as usual.

    But there is no cause to panic. The answers are out there; we can turn this around. But we can only do so if it’s on the agenda, if we are actually looking for the answer and if the Lib Dem leadership understands that it must hold the Party’s collective feet to the fire on this (they don’t themselves have to have an answer – only to sponsor a search).

  • Peter Chegwyn 17th Sep '10 - 5:15pm

    If I was going to Conference (which I’m not) I’d like to ask why, when we’re committed to abolishing the Standards Board, we’re currently allowing it to continue spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on suspending and disqualifying Lib. Dem. Councillors?

    I’m lucky. I’ve beaten two (Conservative) attempts to disqualify me in the past year, one through winning at an Adjudication Panel and one through appealing successfully to the High Court, but other Lib. Dem. Councillors have not been so fortunate. One Lib. Dem. in Wigan has recently been suspended for six months (simply for saying, politely, that he could not work with a particular Council officer) and my own ward colleague in Gosport faces another hearing (his third in two years) early in October.

    Each case that reaches a Panel hearing costs the public purse in excess of £25,000. The Government could save this money simply by ‘freezing’ all outstanding cases until the future of the Standards Board regime is known.

    So if we’re committed to abolishing this deeply unpopular, unelected and undemocratic quango, why are we allowing it to continue as if nothing has changed for at least another six to nine months?

  • John Stevens 17th Sep '10 - 5:48pm

    I agree with Liberal Eye. On his specific point Peter Chegwyn is quite right too.

  • Chris Gilbert 17th Sep '10 - 6:17pm

    I feel that the split because of the coalition will have a profound effect on many party members. As a first year Liberal Democrat whose local party wanted me to stand as borough councillor I feel somewhat cheated by the party leadership? Why? Because what I felt was a unique political identity and ideology is being absorbed, and watered down by the free-marketer side of the party, who are happy to do business with the Tories.

    Coming from a Labour area which a lot of which spent a great deal of the last 25 years recovering from Thatcherite anti-union and miner policies, I feel the same kind of thing coming over again.

    The single worse thing, other than unfettered right–wing polices, is right-wing policies than can be blamed on the Liberals. We make magnificent patsies for the Tories. Once something doesn’t work, it can be blamed on us. Something goes well, we jointly get the credit. It’s clever, and it will backfire and severely damage the party. This might be called pessimistic by some – I call it realistic. Watch where the power really falls, and it will begin to become clear in a year or so.

    There are certainly achievements to be celebrated, but the elephant in the room for me is the tirade like attack on the public sector. Everyone knows cuts are required, but where is the investment? If we are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public sector, where are the private sector jobs magically appearing from? If we are to be encouraging efficiency, how do top-down budget cuts do that? If we are to be encouraging people off benefits (by, what looks like, just refusing more people benefits in the first place) how are they going to get jobs, when these jobs don’t exist?

    The problem is, too much ambition, too little thought. Too much, all at the same time. It’s a classical example of power overruling good sense. Everyone wants to see better things for the country, but slashing a quarter off each budget and expecting magical efficiency savings, whilst simultaneously cutting benefits but without providing any proper investment into the education sector or high-tech economy is foolish.

    It’s Thatcherite ‘the market will provide’ thinking at it’s worst. The Lib Dem cabinet have been taken in by big plans which are short on detail, but big on rhetoric. I shudder to think what things will be like in a year or two if this slasher-film epic on the public sector is allowed to continue.

    I’ve heard the technocratic nonsense about the public sector being too large – it’s written in the Tory manifesto. That’s not something I signed up for as a Lib Dem. I want a public sector that works for people, not an lesson in neo-liberal economics. Perhaps that’s where we are getting the ‘liberal’ part of our coalition policies from..

  • @ Chris Gilbert

    I pretty much agree. For the Tories the coalition is a great way to decontaminate their brand. Actually I don’t think it will work because, although they certainly have a liberal wing I can get on with, too much of the Tory party is still horribly toxic. The flip side is that it’s guaranteed to contaminate the Lib Dem brand. Had we gone with a confidence and supply agreement then we would have been far more publically visible restraining the mad axemen. The presentation would have been so much better though lacking ministerial cars.

    For the policy dimension there may eventually be some good out of all this. For 20+ years the Lib Dem establishment has been comfortable to coast, staying in familiar territory and remaining the third party. Polling 25% in any election is deemed a ‘victory’. Perhaps this will eventually bounce us out of this complacent mode and get us thinking seriously about what the nation needs instead of the rather uninspiring question of how to pile up enough votes to get a good third place yet again.

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