Coffee House

Key lessons from the Liberal Democrat conference

26 September 2012

Now the Lib Dems have finally reached the end of their autumn conference in Brighton, here’s a summary of the most important points from the week:

1. The Lib Dems will struggle to work with Ed Balls in the event of a possible Lib-Lab pact in 2015. Nick Clegg made this clear in his speech this afternoon, repeatedly attacking the shadow chancellor by name.

2. Nick Clegg wants to pull his party with him into demonstrating that coalition works. The proalition-style announcement in his speech about catch-up tuition for school children was a demonstration of how two-party government can be very effective, while his tough talking on the party no longer being a comfortable protest vote was designed to scold those on the outside – and any unhappy delegates on the inside – for wailing that the party is in government.

3. The Liberal Democrat party is united on pursuing the government’s plan A for the economy. Clegg’s team are very keen to remind us all of the vote earlier this week which endorsed that policy, and of the resounding defeat for the amendment which called for a change of course.

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4. All the language at this conference has suggested that if the OBR figures suggest that the government will not meet its debt target without stringent cuts, then the Lib Dems will want to drop that target rather than going for more cuts.

5. The leadership has opened up what could become a bitter divide with the grassroots on the Justice and Security Bill. MPs and peers have been instructed by members to oppose the legislation in parliament, but the three parliamentarians who spoke in the debate yesterday all suggested that the legislation should pass. It will be interesting to see how the grassroots campaign on the issue of closed courts grows, and whether the leadership has learned any lessons from the row over the Health and Social Care Bill.

6. Clegg and his colleagues are aware of the horror with which the grassroots regard any future welfare cuts, and there is continuing disquiet about reforms to disability benefits, too. The Deputy Prime Minister’s words on the 45p rate of tax being the lowest the government will go in this parliament shows that the party will now push for a mansion tax or a wealth tax in exchange for further welfare cuts, rather than as quid pro quo for tax cuts for high earners.

7. The party’s 2015 manifesto may well include a pledge to reform universal benefits such as the winter fuel payment and free bus passes in some way. Clegg made it clear that it would be difficult to end universal eligibility for these benefits before then, but as we’ve already reported, work is underway on how the winter fuel payment could become more efficient. The party is clearly positioning itself as one that can make public spending productive, and abolishing welfare payments to rich pensioners will be one example of that.

8. The reason that the mood this week has been surprisingly upbeat is that there is still a good chance that the Liberal Democrats could end up back in government again. In many ways, they would be far more frightened if the Tories were 10 points ahead in the polls rather than Labour.

9. The environment is a key area of differentiation between the two coalition parties. That Ed Davey was king of the fringe meetings, popping up everywhere for panel discussions and interviews, was one indication of how important the party feels it is to hold its nerve against the Conservatives on this area. Clegg roused a good cheer and many appreciative laughs in the conference hall when he joked that ‘to make blue go green you have to add yellow, and that’s exactly what we’re doing’. They are also clearly making a pitch to lost Cameroon voters who wonder whether voting blue to go green in 2010 was a waste.

10. The leadership positioning has started in earnest, though none of it was actively disloyal this week. Ed Davey’s omnipresence at the fringe was one example of his attempt to make a name for himself, as was his interview with Gary Gibbon. Vince Cable was also clearly setting out his stall a little more in his own speech this week.

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  • Noa

    I trust you took a spare pair of stilettos with you to the Lib Fest, Isobel.

    The leadership has clearly identified a need for their urgent acquisition and use.

    • Dimoto

      Well, sandals aren’t much use, are they ?

  • Coffeehousewall

    As the Spectator comes to the end of its LibDem love-in here are a few lessons that we have learned.

    i. It doesn’t matter how many young, white girls are being brutalised by predatory Pakistani Muslim gangs, multi-culturalism must never be tarnished and so passing over such matters in silence will be adopted.

    ii. There is nothing outside the Westminster bubble which could be considered as having any relevance to the agenda of the Spectator and the interests of its staff. Just write about what you know.

    iii. When short of something to write about, write about the LibDems

    iv. Solid internal research provided by the Brothers has shown that most Spectator readers want to hear about the LibDems as much as possible. So company policy is that we give the readers what they want.

    v. More British soldiers than ever before have been murdered by Afghanistan ‘colleagues’ but write about the LibDems, it keep people docile and directs their attention away from the ugliness of the world outside Westminster.

    vi. The LibDems are a minority party, slowly becoming extinct, whose parliamentary members are among the most self-serving of all politicians, but if they are constantly described as world-statesmen, bestriding the world with their policies (such as paying schools to fail children), then eventually people will believe it,

    • Noa

      An bravura alternative summation.

  • telemachus

    Any thoughts that Ed Balls would give these jokers the time of day is laughable

    • AnotherDaveB

      Or need to. Hung parliaments are rare things.

      • Noa

        As opposed to some well hung individuals within them, and many more that should be.

      • trevor21

        I would imagine that,following this hung parliament, the very last thing the electors will do will go for another one. Baring ‘events’ Labour are on course for a hundred seat majority and the Tories for two decades in opposition and,if a two decade long series of Labour administrations should push PR,then this might very well be the last ever time the Tory party forms a government. For me that means its always darkest before the dawn.

        • AnotherDaveB

          Thus far only one Labour PM has ever served two consecutive terms, Tony Blair. I don’t see many similarities between Ed Miliband and Mr Blair.

    • ToryOAP


    • anyfool

      Ed Balls is a man without any redeeming features, the only thing laughable is the idea that anyone could be so stupid as to think otherwise.

    • 2trueblue

      Desperate men do desperate things. Anyway what has Balls got to offer?
      During their time in office child poverty grew, educational standards dropped, teenage pregnacies grew, teenage unemployment grew, the list is not good.

    • Noa

      Amazingly, I agree.
      There will never be room for duplicitous toadies in Comrade Balls’ antichamber.
      No doubt he would find them a round from a chamber though.

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