One of the Lib Dem leadership’s key aims for this conference in Glasgow is to move the party into a pragmatic mindset that involves accepting and moving on from certain contentious policies such as tuition fees, the Coalition’s economic policy, and nuclear power. So far that strategy seems to be working, with a number of votes already going in Nick Clegg’s favour. This morning, activists backed a motion on green growth and green jobs that included ‘permitting limited shale gas extraction’, and supported an option within that motion that accepted ‘that in future, nuclear power stations could play a limited role in electricity supply’, rather than ‘rejecting the construction of a new generation of nuclear plant’. Even the leadership were quite surprised that activists were largely happy with these options, even though the debate included impassioned contributions about the alleged dangers of fracking.
And this afternoon, in a continuation of what one supportive MP described to me as ‘the party’s scab-picking’, the conference debated higher education policy, including tuition fees. Vince Cable was drafted in to speak on this motion, and used his address not just to defuse tensions over a motion from Liberal Youth calling for a review considering whether it would be feasible to scrap fees, but also to encourage the party that the debate had moved on.
The Business Secretary told the conference that the Liberal Youth amendment had been put forward ‘in an impressive and constructive way’, and that it should be accepted. He added that the debate showed ‘how we have moved on as a party from the rancour and the damage around the pledge to the fact that in government we have been able to craft good policies that are significantly more progressive than those we inherited and have made a difference’. ‘We have moved on,’ he said. ‘We have had a traumatic episode as a result of the pledge and what happened to it.’
The conference backed the motion, which says ‘the current system of Higher Education funding represents the best deal for students and taxpayers currently available’.
So Team Clegg are pleased that today has gone well, and are reasonably confident that the vote on the economy will also go their way tomorrow morning.
But one slight thorn in the flesh is that Cable, so happy to support today’s fees motion, won’t be present at tomorrow’s economy debate. He’s apparently busy prepping his own speech, which comes an hour after the economy debate finishes. But it’s also perhaps convenient, given he has some sympathy for the amendments tabled by the Social Liberal Forum that try to set out a more distinctive vision from what the SLF calls ‘Osbornomics’. It’s being billed as a big split within the Lib Dems in some quarters. A charitable reading would be that Cable is being curmudgeonly and deeply unhelpful.