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by GK Strategy 20th September, 2013

Lib Dem Conference Round-Up

The Lib Dems’ Autumn Conference in Glasgow followed another rollercoaster of a year for the junior Coalition partners. With the resignation and imprisonment of former Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, allegations of a cover-up over sexual harassment allegations against their former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, and a number of high profile disagreements between the Party’s grassroots and leadership, it is fair to say things have not run as smoothly as they would have hoped.

It hasn’t, however, all been bad news for the Lib Dems. Their victory in the Eastleigh by-election in tricky circumstances was a spirit-raiser and helped to reunite the Party after a testing few years. A backdrop of an improving economy and a number of recent policy “wins”, including the adoption of the Party’s flagship policy of raising the income tax personal allowance threshold to £10,000, also helped to ensure the troops arrived in a more cheery state that might have been expected.

Policy-Making To the Fore

The Conference was the busiest – in policy terms rather than attendance numbers – in years. The Lib Dems have an unusual policy-making structure in that all of their party policy is debated and voted on by its members at their Spring and Autumn conferences. An enormous list of policy motions was debated in Glasgow including ones on taxation, the economy, higher education and skills, domiciliary care, Syria, the European Union, cycling, and the impact of PFI on the NHS – to name just a few. All of the policy motions discussed were passed, including some controversial measures such as the retention of the 45p top rate of income tax.

The Party’s “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” mantra was at the core of all of the policy motions, and this theme is set to dominate further policy developments in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.

Another key theme was the promotion of coalitions: the Lib Dems aim to position themselves as the sensible, centre-ground Party which can temper the extreme wings of Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed, during his keynote speech, Party Leader Nick Clegg reeled off a list of 16 “heartless Tory policies” he claims the Party have fended off in Government including inheritance tax cuts, bringing back O-levels and ditching the Human Rights Act.

Although there were no landslide policy announcements at the Conference, thousands of parents will have been pleased to hear that all pupils in infant schools in England will receive free school lunches from next September. In a fiscally-constrained political context, this £600m a year initiative will help the Party to promote itself as an investor in ‘early intervention’ alongside its £2.5bn a year ‘Pupil Premium’ policy.

There were also some conference hiccups, however, notably with reports of a row between Clegg and Business Secretary, Vince Cable, over the Party’s policy on the economy, which were half-heartedly denied. On a more amusing note, the accidental leak of the Party’s “top lines” document through an email to the press competes with some of the best Thick of It-style moments in recent times.

Sandals Off, Workboots On

Party members will return home broadly satisfied, and the party leadership will be pleased to leave Glasgow after a week which was largely mishap free.

Calls for Nick Clegg to step down were limited to those from ‘rent-a-quotes’ Lembit Opik and Lord Oakeshott, and we can be fairly sure he will lead the Party into the next General Election. Not only is there an absence of any high-profile Lib Dem calling for his departure, there is also an agreement in the parliamentary party that he is the best – and perhaps only – credible candidate for the job at the moment.

But despite the chipper mood of the Party themselves at the end of the Conference, there is a big question about whether this will translate to the public, as poll after poll shows the Lib Dems still suffering a lack of support. With the European Elections on the horizon and the rise of anti-European sentiment, as documented through the growth in popularity of UKIP, the pro-European Liberal Democrats are likely to have a rocky year ahead, with a 4th or 5th place on the cards.

Now the real work begins and the penning of the Party’s Manifesto will be all but complete by next year’s Autumn Conference.

For the Lib Dems, the challenge is to be able to set out their own distinct array of attractive, credible policies which allow them to fight both Labour and their Coalition partners in an election, and then govern with one or the other after. The Party has matured since 2010 and the Lib Dems are more realistic in their approach to policy, highlighted in the Conference’s approval on issues such as nuclear power and the Government’s deficit reduction strategy.

It remains to be seen whether they can convert the mood of the conference, and the long list of policies set out, into public support.

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