Lib Dem spring conference: your guide to the highlights

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 9 March 2012 in Diary
Expect health, welfare reform and the mansion tax to dominate a packed agenda for spring conference, says Mark Pack

The traditional pre-conference rally at Liberal Democrat conferences seems more lively and informal than the main set piece speeches during conference, so expect even more football references than usual from party president Tim Farron this evening when he speaks in Gateshead.

Nick Clegg’s speech rally speech will feature an attempt to set a different message for the party, looking much more positively to the future:

“We’re in government, and it is a better government for it. Fairer, freer and greener.

“Lower taxes for working people. Fairer chances for our children. And the beginnings of a new, green economy that benefits everyone in every city, not just a few in the City of London.

“So: no more looking back. You can’t drive if you’re only looking in the rear-view mirror.

“We have to look forwards, to the better future that we are building for our children.”

Even the most tumultuous conferences in the past have seen the party leader receive an enthusiastic standing ovation after his rally speech, so head to the bar afterwards to get a better sense of the mood of conference ahead of the weekend.

The rally is preceded by a pair of policy consultation sessions, which are likely to lead to more detailed policy being put to future conferences. One is looking to expand Nick Clegg’s call for a John Lewis style economy, the other looks at sustainable development.

Party committee reports are usually a fairly quiet corner of conference, scheduled for low-profile slots. However, early Saturday morning sees the party’s Federal Policy Committee report, giving the opportunity for members to raise any issue that is not coming up elsewhere on the agenda. Expect welfare reform in particular to feature.

Other worthwhile but uncontroversial and unsurprising items fill up most of the rest of the morning, such as restating the party’s pro-European credentials.

There will however be wider interest in the motion on the tax system, setting out in detail the party’s proposed Mansion Tax. The party needs to settle its approach to wealth taxes but the motion clearly worries what some journalists will make of it, pre-emptively pointing out that only 0.1% of people would be hit by the proposed Mansion Tax.

Outside of the conference main hall, a lengthy Q&A session is scheduled with the party’s health team. Given the differing views expressed by Shirley Williams, Paul Burstow and John Pugh amongst others, seeing them all on the same panel answering the same questions will throw up where the real divisions are and how good natured or not the fallout from the conference is likely to be.

Saturday morning also sees one of the training sessions that I used to do when working for the party, “Staying out of jail: basic election law”. No Chris Huhne jokes please.

As with party reports, constitutional amendments do not normally attract that much attention (listen to the chair’s introduction last time and you’ll see what I mean). This time the ‘triple lock’ procedures to be followed in the event of another hung Parliament are up for amendment and there are signs of controversy over them ahead of the Saturday afternoon debate.

The headlines however will go to a keynote speech from Vince Cable and a Q&A session with Nick Clegg, where the NHS and welfare reform are likely to feature strongly.

Other agenda items include the environment and pensions and outside the main conference agenda, Saturday lunchtime sees the launch of the new Liberal Democrat leaning think tank, Liberal Insight, with a discussion on land taxes.

Saturday evening sees the launch of Liberal Left, a new anti-coalition group of Liberal Democrats. With controversial Liberal Democrat peer Jenny Tonge amongst the panel, it is likely to be a lively meeting although the recent surveys of party members suggest their viewpoint is very much the minority in the party. (The more economically-liberal and pro-coalition minded Liberal Reform has a launch at conference too, a Saturday night drinks reception in its case.)

Wise people should make an early start again on Sunday, for similar reasons to Saturday. This time it is the Parliamentary Parties who are reporting back and can face questions on any policy issue. Shortly after is the emergency motion slot – when it will (almost certainly) be the NHS debated, with Shirley Williams trying to win over the party’s grassroots.

Motions on policing and civil liberties then act as the warm-up to Nick Clegg’s keynote closing speech to conference.

Tags: John Pugh, Lib Dem spring conference, NHS reform, Nick Clegg, Paul Burstow, Shirley Williams, Welfare reforms

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