Nick Clegg is, on balance, starting his party’s conference in a reasonably strong position. There has been an amusing bitch fight today between party grandees, with Paddy Ashdown saying that ‘Matthew [Oakeshott]‘s self-appointed position as a sort of vicar on earth for Vince does neither of them any good’, but largely Clegg can expect to at least arrive in Glasgow without any suggestions that this is a crucial conference for him.
There will, however, be some bumps in the road over the next couple of days. The Lib Dem leader isn’t facing a leadership challenge, but he still has challenges to his authority as leader to weather: and they come from his own party. Activists are a bit grumpy at the moment for a number of reasons. The first is that some of them suspect the Lib Dem leader is patronising them rather by telling them to grow up. The party’s spring conference in Brighton had a theme running through it of Clegg telling his activists that they couldn’t just be a party of protest any more, as many of them protested loudly about the Justice and Security Bill. Since then, he has delivered a number of speeches that have reminded his party that 2015 can’t bring a return to the heady days of being an opposition party with high ideals and no pragmatism. I wrote about the party’s plan to encourage its activists to be pragmatic about its general election manifesto for the Telegraph recently, too.
The main confrontations in Glasgow will be over the economy, tuition fees and nuclear power. The leader tabled his own motion on the economy, which has a long section highlighting the improvements in the economy, and reaffirms the party’s support for the Government’s fiscal mandate. But it does call for action on youth unemployment and changes to the definition of Public Sector Net Debt to fund further housebuilding. This motion has upset the left-leaning Social Liberal Forum, which has tabled an amendment. The SLF argues that ‘unamended, the motion basically asks Conference to endorse Osbornomics as our own party policy’.
On fees, conference will debate a motion for the party’s education and skills from upper secondary to lifelong learning policy paper, which includes this line:
‘The current system of Higher Education funding represents the best deal for students and taxpayers currently available, Further, that alternatives such as a Graduate Tax have a number of obvious failings, which would place an additional burden on low and middle income students and graduates, as well as a substantial extra cost to the state.’
Clegg’s team think this argument is on pretty solid foundations as Ucas figures have so far shown there has been no effect on applications from pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, in spite of some of the wild predictions bandied about. But this is still an emotional issue for a number of activists, Liberal Youth have tabled a number of amendments which call for fees to be eliminated if possible.
Meanwhile Ed Davey will speak in favour of a motion which accepts ‘that in future, nuclear power stations could play a limited role in electricity supply, provided concerns about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and cost… are adequately addressed’.
One thing worth looking out for alongside these confrontations is the balance the leadership decides to strike between talking about the party keeping the Tories from doing various things Lib Dems get upset about, and talking about the party’s achievements in government. Certainly recently the balance has tipped in favour of ‘the Lib Dems in government have done’ x, y or z. But the chances are that we’ll hear one or two shopping trolley analogies too over the next few days.Tags: Lib Dem conference 2013, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, UK politics