In the run up to party conference you get all kinds of media stories. Usually what happens is the party identifies some key issues and pushes those hard. Meanwhile the media looks for a few key stories and goes for them. Most of the debates will be overlooked in the quest to find a simple narrative which is usually about which side is winning, who’s up and who’s down.
You could be forgiven for thinking that party conferences only ever debate one or two topics and that only a handful of people ever say anything.
One debate however is crucially important for the party (although I suspect the media will by then have already made their decisions about the stories)
On Wednesday (18th) we’ll be discussing the manifesto.
Obviously we won’t have hundreds of people attempting to write it (a sort of nightmare committee meeting). But we will be looking at themes and emphasis.
And themes and emphasis are important. So are tone and style.
Up to now our manifestos have on the whole been stuff about what we are against and stuff about what we would do (although written knowing we probably wouldn’t get to do it.) As a Parliamentary Candidate I sometimes felt odd saying “A Liberal Democrat Government will…..” because I had no experience of there being one.
Now though the game has changed and this manifesto has the potential to be more significant, and more difficult to write, than any of its predecessors.
And this is why emphasis and tone matter more than ever.
Do we want to be seen as a party that can govern? Obviously we do.
Do we want to be seen as a party with its own independent values ? Obviously we do.
Our problem is that our evidence for the first statement risks contradicting the second.
And that’s why this debate, although it does not write the manifesto, is key in sending a very clear message to the writers.
The motion as written contains a lot of statements that make me want to ask “and what does that mean?”
What actually does “open, accessible and high-quality public services” mean for example?
But there are also clear specific statements of intent such as a commitment to introduce a Mansion Tax.
So this debate is a clear opportunity for social liberals to be loud about the sort of things the party ought to be saying and doing.
The good thing about general statements around fairness in motions like this is that they provide a frame for key points about what being fair really means.
And they provide a chance for setting the tone.
At a previous conference I remember saying that politics is as much about perception as reality. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your detailed approach to (for example) student funding is if in fact you come across as mean to students.
That’s why tone matters.
There are two ways this debate can go.
We can have a self congratulatory session at which PPCs get up and say good things about what we’ve done in Government.
Or we can focus on what we actually need to do as Liberals to put our values into
Action in a way which promotes Liberal Democracy and underlines our independence.
The motion begins by , quite rightly, reaffirming the words in the preamble to our Constitution. It’s our job as conference representatives to send a clear message that these are not just words on a card.
The motion on the Manifesto Themes paper is being debated on Wednesday 18th September in the morning. All the conference motions are available on line at www.libdems.org.uk in the conference section (look for Autumn 2013).
Paula Keaveney is a member of the Social Liberal Forum Governing Council and a conference representative from Garston and Halewood (Liverpool).