The last Autumn Conference before a General Election always looks a little different, perforce. Eager Parliamentary candidates queueing up to make a campaigning point to win a few votes, perhaps to save a local post office? Check. Debates more about nuances of strategy than big issues of policy? That too. An absence of major controversy from the agenda? Frequently.
But not a bit of it this time: the electoral cataclysm of May saw to that. So we have a number of big ticket policy items, some controversy, and perhaps most surprisingly quite a lot of introspection of a sort that will neither win votes nor address some of the most challenging issues facing the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation. That this is sponsored by the Federal Executive (which wanted more, on the Interim Peers Panel, but was denied on grounds of time and sending the wrong message) says a lot about that body and is in itself a matter of concern. Perhaps it is the Blairist desire of some of those around the leadership to find a ‘Clause 4 moment’, misinterpreted to a spectacular degree.
But in fact for social liberals there is much in the detail of the agenda to be pleased with. In particular, a welfare motion set not around Government expediency but Liberal values – a motion sponsored by SLF and not the one we were expecting. While the motion could be amended to be stronger – particularly on the totemic issue of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – it at least helps the party to reclaim its narrative of concern for the most vulnerable; it is hoped the leadership does not try to defeat it. The message on economics has also, belatedly and with plenty of residual concern, become more palatable to those supporting the strong SLF stance. And – hey presto – longstanding concerns about how to provide the homes we need to tackle social exclusion and build the economy in a stronger way are addressed in a motion moved by Party President Tim Farron and summated by Vince Cable.
Elsewhere there are four policy papers and the pre-manifesto. Taking the policy papers in turn, they are a mixed bag. The Crime & Justice paper in particular, co-chaired by Geoff Payne and Duwayne Brooks, is an excellent piece of work, while the Age Ready Britain group has put together a comprehensive set of ideas to preparing for demographic change… with one exception. There is plenty of controversy around the proposal to enshrine the pensions ‘triple lock’ in law, with many deeming it unaffordable.
More controversial is the Public Services policy paper. A bitter argument has broken out about how the working group was run, well documented in Liberator. The paper is an odd document: far from being visionary like its predecessor the Huhne Commission, it is tactical and technocratic; uninspiring and not particularly coherent in presenting Liberal values. It is also very disappointing on the NHS in particular, making no clear statement about how to address the criticism of the Health & Social Care Act with all its baggage. Of greater concern still is the existence of a comprehensive alternative paper, endorsed by at least six members of the working group (but not mentioned in the paper). While views may vary on how to address the NHS sections in particular, the paper can expect a rough ride.
Elsewhere the agenda seems more rounded, with a welcome number of debates on environmental topics and – by contrast – a debate on football which will provoke some controversy and most likely generate outside interest. Internationalist topics, by contrast, are relatively underrepresented – although an emergency motion touching on the suffering of the people of Palestine is inevitable.
Attention, however, will focus on the pre-manifesto debate. There will be more to be said on that, in the two-and-a-half hours of debate and before. That reflects the number of contentious issues contained within it. Lightweight it is not; but it is not perfect. However, due to the contrived delay to its release, detailed comment on that will have to wait for now.