Conference 2010 Lookahead | Tuesday 21 September

The who, when and where of the Lib Dem conference.

Look out for

Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, will be speaking at 12:20. His appearance will be of particular interest to the media, owing to his status as the Lib Dems' most outspoken internal critic.

However, as Olly Grender pointed out in an update from the conference yesterday evening, the signs so far are that the "Simon-watchers" are going to be disappointed. In his fringe appearances, Hughes has refrained from overt criticism of the coalition, secure in the knowledge that one iota of perceived dissent could dominate headlines for days.

Nevertheless, Hughes' speech today will be worth watching, if only to see how he treads the line between offering support to his now-ministerial colleagues and while still addressing the misgivings of his audience.

Signs of trouble?

A policy motion this morning entitled "Ensuring Fairness in a Time of Austerity" should prompt some lively debate. James Graham, founder of the Social Liberal Forum, is to propose the motion, which seeks to ensure that "those with the broadest shoulders carry the greatest burden" during economically straightened times. But with the VAT rise and welfare cuts on the horizon, quite how this goal will be achieved remains to be seen. An amendment has also been tabled on the hot topic of "progressive cuts" -- it will be interesting to see how far delegates are prepared to defend their coalition partners' proposals.

On the fringe

Following on from yesterday's controversy over the Free Schools policy motion, the New Statesman is hosting a fringe event on this very subject: Will schools have too much freedom in a "big society"? Duncan Hames MP and Russell Hobby, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers, join the New Statesman's Spencer Neal for the debate. More details here.

Conference timetable

09:00 - 09:55 Policy Motion: Localism

09:55 - 10:15 Speech: Lord McNally

10:15 - 11:20 Policy Motion: Ensuring Fairness in a Time of Austerity

11:20 - 12:20 Policy Motion: Equal Marriage in United Kingdom

12:20 - 12:40 Speech: Simon Hughes MP

14:30 - 15:15 Question and Answer Session: Public Services and Benefits

15:15 - 15:35 Speech: Chris Huhne MP

15:35 - 16:05 Emergency Motion: Pakistan Floods

16:05 - 16:35 Topical Issue: Building A Low Carbon Economy

16:35 - 16:55 Presentation: Liberal Democrat Group on Fife Council

16:55 - 17:35 Reports: Parliamentary Parties of the Liberal Democrats

17:35 - 18:00 Constitutional Amendment: Election of Local Authority Councillors to Federal Committees, Constitutional Amendment: Substitution for the Leader on the Federal Policy Committee

Full conference timetable here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.