Shine A Light

Conference season: Lib Dem and Green perspectives

This week, OurKingdom is examining whether UK party conference season changed anything. Today, Lib Dem Naomi Smith is worried by policy votes in her party, and Green member Josiah Mortimer is skeptical of Miliband's supposed move to the left.

Naomi Smith and Josiah Mortimer
30 October 2013

The SECC in Glasgow, where the Lib Dem conference took place/wikimedia

Naomi Smith: “The policy that was passed commits the Liberal Democrats to fighting the next election backing Osborne’s cuts agenda wholesale.”

As the only major political party to retain any semblance of internal democracy in the policy making process, delegates were understandably keen to, and successful in blocking yet another attempt by the Nick Clegg’s office to prevent them from selecting emergency motions for debate. Looking at other positives, Conference sent a strong anti-bedroom tax message to their ministers in government and successfully fended off attempts to dilute the Living Wage policy. They also managed to inject some social liberal values in to the manifesto themes document and secured concessions on student finances by calling for a freeze to any rises in tuition fees over the next parliament. Tory attacks on legal aid were also very firmly opposed.

However, the debate on the economy, summated by Nick Clegg himself, left many activists deeply frustrated. MPs, including Steve Webb and Tim Farron - both previously considered darlings of the party’s progressive flank - spoke in favour of further austerity and against amendments from the Social Liberal Forum that called for more house building, investment in jobs and taxes on wealth. Even the champion of Keynesianism Vince Cable was in the end persuaded in to the hall where he, I’m told reluctantly, voted in favour of his leader’s economic position. The policy that was passed commits the Liberal Democrats to fighting the next election backing Osborne’s cuts agenda wholesale.

While the Party’s deficit hawks may have reeled slightly at Clegg’s concession in his closing speech that he is “against 100 per cent spending cuts” the sad truth is that the economics motion he summated called for just that, by ensuring that the government’s current fiscal mandate stays in tact as is. Indeed, many on the Party’s social liberal wing left Glasgow wondering whether the 2015 general election will essentially become a referendum on economic liberalism.

With reform of public services next on the political agenda, it is now even more imperative for progressives in all parties to engage in dialogue and identify areas of common ground. As pluralists, Liberals are naturally inclined to do this. Given Liberal Democrat ministers’ propensity for collaborating very naturally with Tories, it will be up to progressive back benchers and the Social Liberal Forum, to foster engagement with Labour. Both efforts will of course be in vain, if Liberal Democrats don’t secure sufficient seats in May 2015 to be involved in coalition negotiations.

Naomi Smith is co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum

Josiah Mortimer: “Many believe Miliband has taken a social democratic turn. He hasn’t.”

Party conference season is over, at last.

Monday marked the end of the SNP’s conference in Perth. It was hardly a game-changer. Salmond was policy-light, despite a good speech. Enough to overturn the 2:1 opposition to Scottish independence? Unlikely.

But it was Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months if elected that made the spotlight. Yet the party is hiding from the fact that tinkering around the edges of the market can leave the oligarchs with just as much power – capital flight (or threats of it), vociferous press attacks, ramped up lobbying and anticipatory price increases all point the way to the real need – to renationalise our energy supply. That, of course, wasn’t on the cards, despite mass popular support.

But Miliband’s pledge, however insufficient it may be, has shifted the debate. The main parties been rudely awakened to the fact that 60% back the freeze. And it’s the Daily Mail, including its elusive editor Paul Dacre, that has come off worse in the battle after publishing its now-infamous ‘Man Who Hated Britain’ article. 72% of the public backed Miliband – and 57% of Mail readers thought their paper should apologise.

The Mail did no such thing of course, but the chain of events has solidified the leader’s press-slating reputation. Perhaps more interestingly, many of Ralph’s most famous tracts sold out in the following days. The Mail may have just revived socialism, more than Ed would ever want to himself (see his awkward ‘get-round-the-negotiating-table’ talk regarding recent strike action).

For the left, the Labour conference is unsettling. Many believe Miliband has taken a social democratic turn. He hasn’t. As Labour’s Michael Meacher pointed out, Ed newly reshuffled team shows his true inclinations, the shadow cabinet ‘now composed of 12 Blairites, 4 Brownites, plus 9 centrists, and 6 on the left or left-inclining.’ Out went Dianne Abbott, in went quasi-neoliberals like Tristram Hunt. The New Labour vanguard still comprises a majority. You can forget renationalising the Royal Mail and our crumbling rail system (despite the wishes of delegates and the public).

As for the Tory and Lib Dem conferences, Cameron put out a passionate defence of the boss class with his ‘profit is not a dirty word’ speech, while both Clegg’s ‘million jobs’ gambit, and Cameron’s pledge to remove benefits for under 25s – can only be enacted on after a general election. With the Lib Dems, that probably means never at all.

For Greens, conference season is more inspiring – votes actually count for a start. Did Green Party conference shift politics? Perhaps not monumentally. As a ‘UKIP of the left’ however, we may have forced Labour ever-so-slightly towards us (Caroline Lucas’ billboard ad could be responsible…). If so, there are serious implications for both parties. For the moment however, there remains a large divide between Labour and the Greens – from supporting renationalisation of the utilities to opposition to Trident (and, indeed, nuclear generally).

It may be too soon to call the result of conference season. But this year does feel different, not least with UKIP humiliated themselves, the upcoming Scottish referendum, and Miliband actually laying out some policy (however flawed it may be).

Above all though we must remember - politics is made not in keynote speeches but in action. Party leaders remain much better at the former.

Josiah Mortimer is a Green Party member, writer, activist and politics student at the University of York.

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