Liberal Democrat Party Conference – the first day

It’s the first day of the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference. As the party is also a Federal party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be kicking the day off with their own Conference. It’s an important one, given that the independence referendum is only a year away. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have already made it clear that they will be vigorously campaigning for the Better Together camp.

Willie Rennie’s speech is one to look out for. He actually gets two speeches this Conference season, one at Scottish Conference and another one on Sunday during Federal Conference. I expect he will focus very much on the party, ahead of the European elections, in his speech today and perhaps on Sunday focus more on the Scottish independence debate for a wider audience.

The Scottish Lib Dems will want to show how a vote to stay in the UK will not be a vote for no change. At the end of last year, the Scottish Liberal Democrats published their Home Rule Commission’s report. It set out how they want to see further powers transferred to Scotland as part of the UK, with Rennie promoting real home rule for all nations in a federal UK. That would include fiscal autonomy, meaning the money that is raised in Scotland is spent by the Scottish Parliament.

The afternoon will see the opening of the Federal Conference. It’s rare for a national party to hold their Conferences in Scotland. The Lib Dems did so in the 1990s and again now, while Labour last had a national party conference in Scotland in 1936. It shows the importance that Scotland has for the Lib Dems – unsurprising, given the party’s eleven MPs there. Glasgow will be quite happy too, as Conference brings an estimated economic benefit of between £8-12m for the city.

The first day is always a relatively light day, with consultation sessions in the morning for party members, followed by reports from different parts of the party. The main meat of the day will be a motion on a balanced working life.

This motion contains a number of updates on the 2010 General Election policies on childcare and the raising of the Income Tax threshold to £10,000, which were put into law by the Coalition Government. With the continued squeeze on living standards, it’s clear the party needs to do more to show it remains focused on the issue that concerns people most. The motion looks at introducing a Living Wage for central government and extending the provision of free childcare. It also seeks to improve some of the nuts and bolts of the “fairer society” part of the Liberal Democrat slogan, by bringing together different market regulators, for example.

With the Conservatives supporting changes to workers’ rights, like the proposal to introduce “no-fault dismissal” suggested in the Beecroft report, this will be an important dividing line come the next general election. I’m sure Tim Farron’s speech won’t resist a pop at that. The Alternative Queen’s Speech put forward by some Conservative backbenchers will mean he’s got plenty of material to please the crowd.


Henk van Klaveren