It’s the penultimate day of the Liberal Democrat conference and the agenda is not quite as heavy as the previous days. It is, however, a good example of how broad discussion at a party conference can be: next to the big issues that affect us all, such as the motion on defence policy and the one on Europe, are smaller issue that are no less important to the people concerned.
Take the motion on legally recognising British Sign Language. This year marks the tenth anniversary of BSL being recognised as an official minority language in the UK. Campaigners are now trying to go one step further with this motion by calling for recognition of BSL as an official language, on par with Welsh or Gaelic. It is interesting because it is an example of how Lib Dem activists (as the party calls its active members and campaigners) can get an issue on the agenda. This can influence ministers as they choose topics to push for in Government. Former Equalities Minister and now International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone credits the motion calling for equal marriage at the 2010 party conference with giving her the support needed to pursue it in Government – and three years later it’s law.
The debate on defence will be the big debate of the day. Most of it, like more support for veterans across government, will not be contentious. The main battle will be on the Lib Dem alternative to like-for-like renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Chief Secretary Danny Alexander led a review in Government of the different options and the review’s main recommendation is part of this motion. It will endorse the end of continuous-at-sea deterrence in favour of a contingency model, where nuclear warheads can be deployed in a short time frame if necessary. It’s a big fault-line between the Coalition parties and the reason why the decision to replace Trident has been postponed to after the next general election. Today’s debate is likely to feature people who will want to go ever further and unilaterally disarm.
The other big debates will be on Europe (likely to pass, favouring a strong Britain in a reformed EU) and on home care. This is an issue that will affect all of us, perhaps when our parents or grandparents have to go into care or when we reach that age ourselves. The Coalition Government has made big strides already in reforming the current system to make it more affordable by adopting recommendations from the Dilnot review. Lib Dems today are focusing on addressing some of the abuse scandals of recent years, by calling for improved training and oversight.
In addition to the above, there will be speeches by Danny Alexander and the Leader of the Lib Dems in the European Parliament, Fiona Hall, ahead of next year’s European elections, as well as debates on PFI contracts in the NHS and a debate on high street gambling. In other words, it promises to be a diverse day today.
Henk van Klaveren