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22 September 2010

Disagreements and debates abound at the Lib Dem conference

The leadership no longer have an iron grip over proceedings at conference – and it’s better for it.

By Olly Grender

Thinking back over the last five years of party conferences, it is striking that this has been the least managed of them all. Party managers have not done the usual work behind the scenes to ensure that the leadership view prevails.

The leadership learned the bitter lesson of defeat when Norman Lamb lost a vote at conference on privatisation of the Royal Mail in September 2005. From that moment on, there was a determined effort to manage the controversial moments.

Leaflets to delegates, ensuring the right speakers are lined up, gentle persuasion in the bars in the evenings, plenty of phone calls – these things had become part of the process of managing conference in the preceding weeks. But in Liverpool, very little activity of this sort has taken place.

Why is that? One reason is that, as a result of the coalition, it has become more acceptable to disagree. There are reconciliation processes, designed by Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland, where conflicts in policy are brought to a committee and resolved. Of course there are limits, but open disagreement no longer feels like the threat it used to.

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Another reason is that, like a pressure cooker, this conference had to let off some steam. On future strategy, on free schools and on Trident, there was a clear need for the party to assert itself. Vince Cable in his speech today said that he expects conference to keep him and his colleagues “honest”.

A final reason is that a democratic process has the potential to strengthen, not weaken the Lib Dems who are in government. Because decision-making is open and democratic, the ministers in government know that behind them are some powerful policy agreements and the full agreement (or sometimes disagreement) of a political party.

The question I have is: post-CSR, what will happen next year? Will less still be more? Or will the party managers be back in action?

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.