14 Sep 2013

No obvious alternatives to Cameron, Miliband … and Clegg

The most striking thing about the Lib Dem conference is the venue – Glasgow. The big three political parties are all great supporters of the union, yet their UK conferences are rarely held in Scotland.  The last time Labour did so was in Edinburgh in 1936.

The Conservative and Unionist party has  never held its annual conference in Scotland.  The nearest they came was Newcastle in 1924.  And yet they’ve often met in Wales in the past, and Llandudno was a regular venue until 1962.


The Lib Dems were also in Glasgow in 1995, due to a delicious cock-up.  The party thought it was going to Harrogate that year, then quite late on discovered that nobody had got round to booking the Harrogate venue!  And it was too late: Harrogate was already booked by another organisation, so there was a desperate scrabble to find somewhere else.  Glasgow was the answer.

The Lib Dems are coming to Glasgow next year too. They had been due to go  to Liverpool in 2014, but then Alex Salmond called his independence referendum in the middle of conference week, so the Lib Dems cancelled Liverpool and are now going to Glasgow in October 2014, and unusually it’ll be AFTER Labour and the Conservatives have met.  And after the Scottish result, of course.

Anyway, enough of this anorak stuff.  To business.  And there’s lots if it.  A party spokesman tells me this will be the “most policy-heavy Lib Dem conference in years”.  Lib Dem committees and commissions have been beavering away for years producing pages and pages of documents covering many, though not all, policy areas.  And day by day Lib Dems will vote and endorse lots of new policies.

The overall aim of course is to show voters as starkly as possible how the party is really distinctive from their Conservative coalition partners.  With an eye also to coming up with lots of goodies that will attract Labour in the event of another hung parliament in 2015. Those, I suppose will be the two themes to watch – distancing from the Tories, and possible flirtation with Labour.

The big debate will be on the economy when they’ll be debating contentious issues such as Vince Cable’s long-mooted mansion tax (which Labour also wants), and the question of whether the top rate of tax should go back up from 45 to 50 per cent.  Unusually, the debate will be “summated” (the party’s horrid word) ie summed up, by Nick Clegg, whereas normally the leader keeps his powder dry for his big closing speech on the Wednesday.  Perhaps the party decided their own cabinet minister in the Treasury, Danny Alexander, wasn’t the best person to do so (he speaks on Tuesday instead).

Some see the economic debate as potentially a crucial moment in Liberal Democrat history.  Does the party continue with austerity, tight spending and the coalition’s economic policies, as Nick Clegg would want?  Or do the Liberal Democrats turn back to the left and readopt a more Keynesian approach, as proposed in amendments from the Social Liberal Forum?  The latter, if passed, would make them more attractive partners to Labour.  Nick Clegg may well “summate” the argument in terms of being serious about power, as he has in previous speeches.

Clegg will be seeking a number of symbolic votes where he can defeat the grassroots critics of him and the coalition.”This conference will be very important,” says Simon Titley of Liberator magazine, “in deciding whether Clegg continues to determine the direction of the party, or the grassroots manage to assert some authority.”

Other big policy issues, where such symbolic moments might occur, could be the debate on education, which will include policy on university tuition fees (Sunday), nuclear power (Sunday), and Trident renewal (Tuesday).  Tues will also see the conference discuss whether to  match the Tories in offering a referendum on Europe.  It’s a list of debates which rather seems like we’ve been here before.  And many times.

There’s no set piece home affairs debate to enable Lib Dems to discuss immigration or various civil liberties matters.  People worried about such issues will have to hope they get lucky when the emergency motions are chosen for debate on Wednesday morning.

And there’s Syria, of course, where many Lib Dems are very unhappy about the way the party supported David Cameron’s proposed military intervention (though the plans were defeated in the Commons, thanks in part to nine Lib Dem rebels.  Syria’s been given a slot early on Tuesday morning, though there’s no specific motion on the table (bizarrely it’s too late to table an emergency motion).  So there won’t be a vote.  And that of course will make it difficult to quantify how much opposition there is within the party.

Of the big speeches, Vince Cable is bound to cheer delegates on the Monday,  and will no doubt produce a few more lightly-coded criticisms of George Osborne and Theresa May and their policies.

Of other party figures, Tim Farron and Ed Davey will no doubt tour the fringe as the most likely leaders-in-waiting (aside from Cable).  It will be interesting to see what reception Sarah Teather gets after he decision to stand down as an MP in 2015 and her despair over government policy on immigration, social policy and Syria. Will delegates be sympathetic, or feel she’s letting the party down?

Will the disgraced former couple Chris Huhne and his former wife Vicky Pryce make an appearance?  How will people treat Lord (Chris) Rennard after the exposure by Channel 4 News of his alleged sexual harassment of several women within the party?  Will David Steel turn up, and face questions from journalists about what he knew about sexual abuse by the party’s former MP Sir Cyril Smith?

Nick Clegg will rise to deliver his leader’s speech on Wednesday in a stronger position than he’s been for a long time.  Despite yesterday’s comments by Lord Matthew Oakeshott that Clegg should be replaced because his “ratings are poor”, there is no real challenge to his leadership right now.  That’s partly because, as with David Cameron and Ed Miliband, there’s no clear alternative who would be obviously better.

Campaign supremo Lord Paddy Ashdwon will no doubt tour the conference geeing everyone up for the 2015 election, but Lib Dems know that realistically the campaign will largely be about holding on to the seats they’ve already got.  That will be difficult in places where prominent and popular Lib Dems are standing down – such as Sir Alan Beith in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and Sarah Teather in Brent.  (Sir Ming Campbell in East Fife may well retire too).

In the polls the Lib Dem vote regularly gets less than half the vote they got in 2010.  But in practice they’re great local campaigners, and continue to do well where they target their forces, as we saw in the Eastleigh by-election.

I expect the Liberal Democrats  to emerge from 2015 with around three  dozen seats, which could mean they still hold the balance of power.

Oh, there’s one other small personal  matter.  At some horribly late hour at the Glee Club last year, I managed to fend off a clamour for me to go up and sing on stage (as Nick Robinson bravely did). The trouble is that I resisted such demands by foolishly promising to do a solo this year instead.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.