An awkward day for the Liberal Democrats

The Monday of conference will see motions on free schools and nuclear power, as well as Clegg’s spee

If you're looking for days likely to prove awkward for the coalition, you might want to circle Monday 20 September in your diary.

It is the Monday of the Liberal Democrat party conference, and also happens to be the day that motions on both nuclear power and free schools are scheduled. Both are areas of tension among the left of the party, and the matters on which many feel the Lib Dems have compromised the most.

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice, however, Mark Pack explains that it is unlikely to blow up, as the sore points have been cleverly buried:

Nuclear power gets a mention in the motion on green taxation, but as the motion is about taxation rather than energy it will be hard for anyone to submit a valid amendment which makes the debate into one of "nuclear, yes or no?".

Likewise, the wording of the motion on academy and free schools minimises the chances of a direct flashpoint as the motion is clearly hostile to them, restates the party's belief in the key role for local authorities, calls for an equal financial playing field for schools -- and then goes on to urge people not to take part in free schools, rather than directly criticising the government for introducing them.

The 20 September is also the day of Nick Clegg's speech, which has been moved forward from its usual slot on the final day of the conference because he will be representing the government at the United Nations on the Wednesday.

There might be a strategic reason for jamming this all into one day, says Pack:

In the worst-case situation, all the bad news would be be concentrated on the one day and Clegg will still get the final word (or rather, many words) on the day with his speech coming after the possible flashpoints.

Will it erupt? If nothing else, expect to hear some strongly expressed opinions from those in the party who do not agree with all the coalition's policies.

UPDATE: The New Statesman will also be hosting a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference on 20 September, with Vince Cable discussing the economics of progressive austerity. It will take place between 1pm and 2pm at the Liverpool Hilton, and could be another chance to hear a senior party figure express concerns about the coalition.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.