The Liberal Democrats are kicking off the Conference season from tomorrow, in Glasgow. While they are still languishing in the polls, they remain a party to take seriously. There is a high chance that the 2015 General Election returns another hung Parliament and then it could well be the Lib Dems who hold the balance of power again. If they are needed to help Labour or the Tories to a majority in the Commons, the mood music for those negotiations will be set here in Glasgow.
This is the Conference where the party will start putting together their vision for the UK after 2015. More so than with the Conservatives and Labour, the Lib Dem Conference still plays a big role in setting the party’s official policy: everything that will be included in the manifesto has to be approved by conference delegates first. So this will be a vital conference to get most of the “housekeeping” done to allow the Manifesto Working Group, chaired by David Laws MP, to have enough recent policy to draw on. There’s still Spring Conference 2014 to fill any gaps but, as it’s much shorter, the bulk of the work has to be done now.
It is clear the Federal Conference Committee has set the agenda around the party’s focus on “a stronger economy, in a fairer society”. The main debates will be on the economy, taxation, higher education and Europe. Given the big developments under the Coalition on nuclear power and defence (Trident), those will be important touchstone debates for the membership and we can expect particularly heated debate on the former of the two.
The big show-stopper debate could well be the motion on the economy, which is on the agenda for 10am on Monday. Nick Clegg will be the last speaker, highly unusual for the Liberal Democrats, and I imagine Business Secretary Vince Cable will contribute as well. The majority of the motion is full of the things that the party membership will like, including a focus on the green economy and a focus on improving bank lending. However, it will be an opportunity for members who disagree with (elements of) the Coalition’s deficit-reduction strategy to voice their concerns.
It’ll be interesting to see which amendments will get debated and voted upon. Lib Dems are a party that thrive on debate and disagreement on policy is almost a condition of membership. But having endorsed the Coalition’s economic policies previously, it seems unlikely that the party will vote to significantly alter the motion in a snub to the leadership and we can expect a continued commitment from the party to the Coalition’s founding principles.
All in all, a very interesting Conference is coming up: one well worth watching.
Henk van Klaveren