Lib Dem Conference preview: Tame in the hall, feral on the fringe

The disability reform debate in the hall and the NHS debate outside are seemingly the only bright spots during the Liberal Democrat conference.

The author worked for Liberal Democrat MPs in parliament for several years and now works for a national charity, so has remained anonymous so as not to associate his views with his employer.

So far, the only major battle we have seen within the Liberal Democrats has been over the NHS. This looks set to continue as the party starts to gather in Birmingham for its conference. A question session on the party’s progress amending the NHS reforms could get pretty heated in the hall. Dr Evan Harris and other members of the Social Liberal Forum will be at the forefront.

The main conference agenda has very little to get excited about. Motions from the most aggrieved activists submitted to the Federal Conference Committee that might have made waves did not make it to final selection – under pressure, it appears in at least one case, from the parliamentary party.

One exception is an excellent motion (pdf) on the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) from Liberal Youth. The WCA is the much criticised assessment for qualification for Employment and Support Allowance, which campaigners claim has led to the suicides of sick and disabled claimants.

The motion also includes a call for the party to oppose the time limiting of the contribution based form of the benefit.

This runs counter to a provision in the current Welfare Reform Bill to limit it to just 12 months, which will mean a multi-billion pund cut to support for sick and disabled people who spent years contributing National Insurance to pay for this protection.

The Liberal youth motion is therefore hard for the leadership to ignore, as the budgetary implications are so great. The bill has just entered the Lords, where there are strong signs of dissent from Lib Dem peers.

If this part of the motion survives they will have licence to vote against the government on one of the most controversial provisions.

With little in the main conference agenda to clash on, you will need to look to the fringe for signs that there may be any genuine revolt building in the party.

The atmosphere at last year’s conference fringe was strangely flat. Lib Dem MPs, especially minsters, were much more guarded and tight-lipped than usual, whist activists showed a new deference towards the first Liberal Minsters in decades.

If the mood is different this year and the MPs and Minsters are on the receiving end of flack from activists, we will know things are changing. Scottish members who saw a collapse in their MSPs, councillors who lost their seats last May, and councillors who fear losing their seats, could now be ready to speak out.

Any dissent on coalition policies from spokespeople in the main hall will be stage managed – perhaps even signed off by Downing Street as part of a joint agreement on the latitude each party will have at their conferences. But the most disgruntled parliamentarians may go more feral on the fringe.

Cable and Farron at least have a little form for occasionally finding some confidence and speaking out on economics and social justice respectively. On the home turf of the party conference, they will be encouraged to speak out further.

Fatigue and dutch courage often loosens lips by the end of conference too, so we may learn more of what the feeling really is among the backbenchers by the time everyone heads home. But we will not see any great change in direction from the party, which is being outmanoeuvered at almost every turn by its coalition partners. Witness the pride with which Lib Dems greeted Tory backbench claims that they have too much influence, not realising that it is a ruse to push their small influence back even further.

Clegg is also genuinely much closer to Cameron that the vast majority of his party, so the compromises feel far fewer to him than to activists.

Ultimately, all the party’s eggs are in Osborne’s basket. My own view has long been that the coalition’s economic and fiscal policy is set to push us into a double dip recession. But with Clegg and Alexander apparently genuinely bought into Osborne’s economic delusions, they are in denial about the economic doom that lies ahead.

If I am right about a double dip, then it will be next year’s conference that really counts, as the party will need to decide whether to remain in the coalition or leave it and force a change in the nation’s economic policy.

Doom appears to await the Lib Dem MPs themselves too. The concern this week about the impact of boundary changes on Lib Dems seats all seemed a little academic when the party’s polling figures have been stuck in the electoral annihilation zone for so long.

So we have a party that, at parliamentary level at least, seems to be in denial about the consequences of the coalition government for the prospects for the economy and about the prospects for its own future. Whether or not the activists share this denial will become apparent over the next five days

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