In eleven days time Liberal Democrats from across the country, including myself, will be gathering in Sheffield for the Party’s Spring Conference. I thought I’d preview what we will be discussing.
In the main hall
I would hope to be in the hall for the debate on the new policy paper on the voluntary sector early on the Saturday morning. Later that morning is the first of the potentially controversial items as conference debates a motion that attempts to bring Liberal Democrat policy in line with the approach to the NHS announced by the coalition government. Although myself I am not expecting it, if there is going to be a big policy row at conference this is where it is going to be.
In the afternoon we have a policy paper on youth justice and the latest in what seems to be a regular series of debates on the diversity of our candidates and MP’s. This latter item is conference putting into action recommendations from the report written by the newly ennobled Sal Brinton on this issue. The main part of which is the creation of a ‘Leadership Programme’. While this debate does have the potential for people to get exercised, I hope conference does the sensible thing and endorses the proposals.
Also on Saturday afternoon will be a question and answer session with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. I am not expecting Clegg to have any difficulties with this session, he does this sort of thing very well, but the topics and tone of the questions asked could be an interesting indicator of the temperature of the party.
Sunday morning begins with reports from the Liberal Democrat parliamentary parties. While these reports usually go through without incident there is the potential for some pointed questions about our record in government so far. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes that opportunity.
This is followed by a debate on party strategy. A few journalists have declared this to be controversial. Mainly because the motion includes the lines;
“The Liberal Democrats will fight the next General Election in Great Britain as an independent party without any pacts or agreements with any other party…”
But in reality I expect this to go through with very little fuss. There are some interesting things going on this motion, not least the request to conference to endorse the Federal Executive’s five key strategic goals, and I may write more about it in details if I get the chance.
The final business of conference, at around Sunday lunch time, will be Nick Clegg’s speech.
While last year’s spring conference speech was in the run up to the General Election and had to make the Liberal Democrat’s pitch to the voters, and his speech to last year’s Autumn conference was about steadying the party’s nerves as we adjusted to the coalition, I don’t think there is anything that Clegg has to do in this speech. There is no obvious requirement, so he gets to choose what to do with it. I wonder what use he will make of it.
Pick of the fringe
I know it is the spring conference, not the main autumn one, but even so I think the fringe programme looks a little light. We are in government after all.
This is exacerbated by the fact that as is usual for Spring many of the fringe meetings double as the Annual General Meetings for various party groups. However, there are some opportunities to put questions to Liberal Democrat ministers.
At Saturday lunch time you get “your chance to question the Business Secretary” as the Social Liberal Forum present Vince Cable MP talking about on post-18 education. A chance to pick over the bones of the tuition fees issue with the man responsible.
Those who have been following the developing tensions between the national government and local government parts of the Lib Dem family might be interested in the event organised by Centre Forum and the LGA Liberal Democrat Group. The Liberal Democrat minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell MP, goes head to head with the leader of the Lib Dems on the Local Government Association, Cllr Richard Kemp.
The early part of Saturday evening seems to be the time for introspection and weighing up the party’s prospects. You can chose from CentreForum’s “Breakthrough or breakdown?” with Chris Huhne MP and Professor Paul Whitely from the University of Essex or the Social Liberal Forum event with journalist David Aaronovitch that is asking how the party should demonstrate its differences from the Tories. Maybe Party President Tim Farron MP has the answers to those questions, as he is jumping between these two meetings.
Indeed Tim Farron is the most popular speaker on the fringe programme with his name down for several fringe meetings. Also popular is the previous Party President Ros Scott and former MP Dr Evan Harris who pop up a couple of times each.
Chris Huhne MP also has a second outing, this time in his role as Minister for Energy and Climate Change, as he is the key speaker at a Green Liberal Democrats fringe on energy market reform, later in the evening.
My plans are the Liberal Democrat History Group meeting on Lord’s reform on Friday evening, local government at Saturday lunch time, and, depending on my mood, wandering into the Glee Club late that evening.