How the "negotiating" factor will change conference

What a coalition minister says at their party conference is no longer just a message for their membe

Anyone, especially a senior politician, speaking at a party conference is used to being torn between the pull of two different audiences: the internal party one and the external public one. What interests one often does not interest the other, and what appeals to one can put off the other.

Throw in the way the media filters coverage seen by both the public and by party members around the country, via well established clichés (it's always a split, never a polite disagreement, and rebels are always vocal or senior, never eccentric and irrelevant), and it is no wonder that many a politician has returned from party conference cursing the failure of their message to get across to the right people in the right terms.

Many a speech that has gone down well in a conference hall generates negative headlines, and many a speech -- especially one from a Labour leader -- that has met with hostility in the hall has gone down well with the wider public. The walk-out during Neil Kinnock's famous 1985 anti-Militant conference speech, for example, if anything helped its wider popularity.

But now we have a coalition government, there is an extra factor to muddle the communications mix even further: negotiation between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. What a minister says at their party conference is not only a message for their members and their voters, it is also part of a public negotiation with ministers of another party. And just as in negotiating in any other job, simply stating your bottom line and leaving it at that is rarely a good negotiating strategy.

Cynics may already be applying several pinches of salt to the words of ministers, whether given at party conference, in Parliament or on breakfast TV at some ungodly hour. But however many pinches you currently apply, add an extra one for the new negotiating factor.

Mark Pack is co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and in his third decade of conference-attending.

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.