What to expect on Sunday at the Liberal Democrat conference

The first full day of Conference will get underway today with some housekeeping in the form of reports and the membership levy. The big motion of the day is on the green economy, the Lib Dem vision for a zero carbon Britain. It’ll be keenly watched by the renewable energy sector. With accusations that the Conservatives are retreating from their green credentials and Labour largely silent on this issue, it’s another way in which the party will want to distinguish itself from the other two.

The motion focuses on the jobs and growth an advanced green economy could bring Britain. This allows the debate to move away from the need for green policies because of climate change, which is contentious, and instead showcase a clear economic argument for moving away from fossil fuels. The Lib Dems will hope that this will draw more people into supporting the green agenda.

It would have been a fairly uncontentious motion, were it not for the fact that it gives the membership an option to move away from opposing nuclear power. The Coalition Agreement allowed for the Lib Dem opposition to nuclear power by ensuring any new nuclear power stations would not get public subsidy.

However, it was probably felt that the time was ripe to revisit the party’s previous position. There is a very vocal group opposing any form of nuclear power within the Liberal Democrats and the party has many historic links with the CND. However, I imagine that most members are largely ambivalent to nuclear power but recognise that, as the UK decarbonises its economy, nuclear has an important role to play to create a secure energy supply. This will be the first fiery debate of the day, in other words. It will be interesting to see how the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, responds to it in his speech at the end of the morning.

After amending the constitution at the start of the afternoon in light of the Morrissey review into the policies of the party to deal with sexual harassment, the party moves on to the second big debate of the day on education. The big bone of contention will be around the proposal to keep the current loan system but to review it in the next Parliament.

This will be the final confrontation on the issue of tuition fees. On the one hand, there will be Business Secretary Vince Cable and other ministers, MPs and party members believe that the new system is an improvement on the old student loan system. Cable oversaw the changes and has made it very clear he believes it’s essentially a time-limited graduate tax. On the other side there will be those who hark back to the principles of providing free education to everyone, which the Liberal Democrats had always supported.

Last on the agenda is the motion on protecting children from online pornography, which supports David Cameron’s proposals to introduce an automatic block on accessing pornography online unless people opt-in. This is where the Liberal streak of the party is expected to put in a strong showing: if you aren’t doing anything illegal, the state shouldn’t stop you from doing it. I have a hunch that this motion will get amended to remove any reference to an opt-in procedure as part of a debate about freedom of speech and choice. It will be a major upset for Lib Dem peer Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has been pushing for this for a very long time.


Henk van Klaveren