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Liberal Democrat Newswire #39: conference update
Welcome to the 39th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, a quick update to the Liberal Democrat autumn federal conference preview that featured in edition 38.
Amendments published: two flash points likely to be averted
Earlier this month I did a full newsletter previewing the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow (which you can read online here). Since then, the list of amendments taken for debate, the emergency motions to go into the ballot and other agenda updates have been published (which you can read in full here).
The key amendments are those to the motions on education and the economy, and in both cases they make a flash point and potential defeat for the party leadership less likely, if handled sensibly.
First on education and a tuition fees amendment tabled by Liberal Youth. Its key wording is:
A commitment to a review within the next Parliament on the current system of higher education finance, which will examine its impact on access, participation and quality and consider both the pressure on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement from unpaid loans and progress made on widening and increasing participation, with a view to reforming the system to address these challenges if possible or if necessary for fees to be eliminated in a feasible and cost-effective way.
That toughens up the 'we don't like tuition fees but...' sentiment in the original policy motion and makes firmer commitments to changing the system. Crucially, however, it doesn't call for the party to simply repeat at the 2015 election a call for fees to be axed. The reflects the political reality of how difficult it would be in 2015 to say 'vote for us; we'll abolish tuition fees and this time we really mean it'. It does so in a way that means the amendment is likely to win wide support, and so avoid a significant tuition fees yes or no flash point.
On the economy, the two key amendments are both from the Social Liberal Forum. Both seek to increase the differentiation between the party's economic stance and that of the Conservatives. They do so, however, in a way that does not force Nick Clegg to oppose them. For example, by calling for more investment in housing and a greater use of tax rises (rather than spending cuts) after 2015, the amendments are not that out of line with what Vince Cable, and even Nick Clegg, have said previously.
With Nick Clegg due to be the last speaker in the debate (but only with a 4 minute speech), he has a choice. He can embrace the amendments, avoid confrontation and get a fairly easy ride in the debate as a result. Or he can deliberately seek confrontation regardless of the details of the wording at stake, and take a high-stakes risk that he wins the resulting votes.
The previous conference debate over amendments to an official economy motion saw the leadership win easily. But that was up against far more critical amendments, with far less organisation behind them and - when it came to the debate - a pair of weak speeches in their favour. So the easy victory last time is a poor guide to this time.
The smart move by the party leadership would to be avoid confrontation and instead let the debate and conference concentrate on what the party does agree on and is achieving in government, such as the huge increase in the number of apprentices.
The emergency motions
The emergency motions have also been published, and conference representatives will be voting to pick two from seven which will then be debated at conference. They are generally a pretty critical lot, not only of the Conservatives in government but also of what Liberal Democrats have done or agreed to.
The seven are on the Home Office's 'Go Home' vans, legal aid, the Lobbying Bill, national ranking of pupils, Royal Mail privatisation, tobacco plain packaging and the David Miranda case and anti-terrorism legislation. Whichever are selected, expect plenty of criticisms to be aired.
The ballot between the seven will however also shed an interesting light on what most aggravates party activists at the moment.
Coming to conference? Say hello!
Turning policies into votes
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