What is conference for?

At a fascinating fringe meeting this lunchtime at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, four parliamentarians from various parts of the world (Sweden, the Netherlands, Lithuania and New Zealand) expressed their admiration for our conference, or congress, as they preferred to call it. Clearly we must be doing something right. For those of a more reflective nature it can be a bit difficult to work out what it is all about, and therefore how it should be developed. Today’s debates have not made things much clearer.

But let’s start with yesterday. We had two debates of particular importance. First there was one on energy policy. At its heart conference was presented with a choice between two options, one ruling out the use of nuclear energy in all circumstances, and the other a grudging maybe. This went rather narrowly in favour of maybe, in a break from previous party policy, though there has always been a substantial body of opinion sympathetic to nuclear power. I voted with the maybes, but only after changing my mind several times during the debate. But this looked very good; two well rehearsed positions, each backed by weighty figures slugged it out. I was not alone in my dithering, but gave the leadership the benefit of the doubt. But it felt like a valid decision process and debate.

If that looked good, the same could not be said about the second important debate, on education policy, which covered student finance. This, of course, is the issue that has caused more grief to the party than any other over the last few years, with the party spectacularly reneging on a pledge to abolish student fees as soon as it entered coalition government. And yet there was no real debate. The leadership’s main critics had been headed off at the pass with a compromise. The motion was 108 lines of rambling detail, including 26 of preamble. This was cue for a series of speakers to talk about their particular hobby horses, consisting of a few lines each and no controversy. A couple of speakers who complained about this got quite a bit of sympathy.

And so to today. This morning’s debate on the economy had been widely billed as a key challenge to the leadership, underlined by the fact that party leader Nick Clegg himself “summated” in the ugly conference jargon. The motion was another quite long one, at 76 lines, carefully crafted by the leadership to head off various lines of criticism. There were two amendments, equally carefully crafted by opponents of the leadership. What the party was trying to do was resolve a deep controversy over the coalition’s economic policy, which has not been accepted by large swathes of party activists. This controversy has been headed off at previous conferences by what looked like shady political manoeuvring. Critics of the leadership were led by an organisation called The Social Liberal Forum (SLF).

Regular readers of this blog will appreciate that I have been generally supportive of the government’s austerity economics, notwithstanding widespread criticism. But credit is due to the SLF. Their criticism, focused by the intelligent Prateek Buch, in spite of a lack of formal economic training, has been measured and careful. They have not fallen for the naive Keynesian arguments so popular on the left, but instead focused on investment, research and housing. Apart from a flirtation with loose monetary policy, which unfortunately infected one of the amendments, it is intellectually pretty sound. It is not very far from the official leadership position, and I am disappointed that the leadership of the party did not do more to include them in the way they did for their critics on student finance. Instead they engineered an artificial confrontation.

What they should have done was to coopt these moderate critics and instead turn their firepower on the full-blown Keynesians. These were represented by just one speaker, Helen Flynn, who actually made a good, intelligent speech, but who was completely ignored by pretty much everybody else. No ordinary party representative would have understood why it was these arguments had been rejected.

Thanks in large part to a very able final speech by Mr Clegg, who responded to the debate rather than trot out pre scripted sound bites, the leadership easily won. But the whole episode was highly unsatisfactory.

This debate was followed by a motion on cohabitation rights, which amounted to 49 lines of preamble to one of actual policy, which was the adoption of proposals made by the Law Commission. Still it was admirable policy which inspired no real controversy.

The next big set piece was on tax policy. This motion was backed by a more detailed policy paper and was a model for future policy resolutions. This huge area of policy was covered by just 67 lines, with just 5 lines of preamble. The economy of verbiage worked because it was clearly strategic. At the centre of the debate was another choice: this one on the top rate of tax, whether it should stay at 45% or return to 50%. This was clearly something the party needed to get get out of its system. The leadership favoured the former option, but did not overplay its hand; they won by a very narrow 4 votes. Not that this matters all that much. If the party is lucky enough to be part of another coalition government after the next election this will clearly be up to whichever party it teams up with. What is clear from both this and the energy policy debate is that offering conference this type of Option A or B choice greatly improves the debate and gives the membership a feeling that it is helping to decide something. Amendments to motions, by contrast, rarely provide satisfactory debates.

The day concluded with a motion highly critical of the Bedroom Tax, about which I blogged yesterday. The party leadership were completely absent, clearly giving the impression that they thought government policy was indefensible, but without having the guts to confront it openly. The motion was passed unanimously, but it was entirely unclear as to whether this would have much effect. A bit of a lame end to the day.

Lib Dems tend to be very self congratulatory about this supposedly democratic way of adopting party policy by a biannual meeting of self appointed activists. Scepticism is in order, but I think the process is of real value in keeping members and activists involved. But this does not inevitably follow from the constitutional processes. It matters a lot how the party’s various leadership bodies choose to use them.