UK Politics

Lib Dems face extra lobbying push

Image caption This year's conference is a new experience for the party in many ways

It is not only the party members at the Liberal Democrats' conference who are having to adjust to the new order of things.

While many activists are still coming to terms with their coalition deal with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems' place in government also poses challenges to pressure groups seeking to influence policy.

More than 6,000 people are thought to be here in Liverpool this week - up 40% on last year - and while plenty of these are journalists, many are lobbyists.

Visitors to past Lib Dem conferences will not be surprised to see groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and Citizens Advice Bureau sponsoring fringe meetings and seeking to catch the eye of members in the exhibition hall.

New friends

But groups such as the Tobacco Retailers' Alliance are not among those you would naturally associate with such a gathering.

MP Tim Farron made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the party's new bedfellows on Saturday, joking that he had never expected to see defence contractor BAE at a Lib Dem event.

But the nature of the coalition agreement and its uneasy compromises in controversial policy areas - such as tuition fees and nuclear power - means the picture is far from clear for outsiders seeking to gauge opinions within the party and to influence them.

"It is going to be interesting for us," said John McNamara, from the Nuclear Industry Association "It is in effect a governing conference. But it is still the Lib Dem party conference. They will run it how they want to run it."

Future nuclear expansion is a potential fault line for the coalition even though Lib Dem MPs - most of whom oppose the idea - have been given leeway to abstain in votes on the issue.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the department responsible for taking forward the plans is headed by a Lib Dem secretary of state, Chris Huhne, who is opposed to public subsidies for future civil nuclear development.

"Among Lib Dem supporters we are going to be a major talking point," Mr McNamara said. "For some Lib Dem supporters and activists, it has been an article of faith to be anti-nuclear."

Talking point

But any suggestion his organisation had "jumped on the bandwagon" by seeking to cosy up to the Lib Dems, now in office, was false, he said, as it had always attended the party conferences of all three of the largest parties.

"They [the Lib Dems] have always been a major target audience for us because they have never been convinced by nuclear."

Irrespective of the political differences between the coalition partners over the issue, the organisation says its objective remains the same - to put the case for nuclear and those working in the industry.

"We will be treating it [the conference] in the same way. We will be talking about the major boost that nuclear can bring to the UK economy."

The reality of government is that the presence of certain groups which once could have been ignored are now a potential headache for the Lib Dem high command.

The Anti-Academies Alliance, formed by unions, parents and teachers in 2005 to oppose Labour's academy building programme, now has its sights on the Lib Dems.

It wants activists to support a motion calling for local authorities to have oversight of admissions policy for academies and not to support the development of new "free schools".

'Closing ranks'

These are central planks of the coalition's education agenda but several Lib Dem MPs have already rebelled over the issue and deputy leader Simon Hughes has suggested the party would not be supporting the plans if it were not part of the coalition.

"Given the overwhelming need for Lib Dems to stay in the coalition, it would be surprising if the motion is passed," Alastair Smith, national secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance, said.

"I think the delegates will close ranks."

The Lib Dem leadership has indicated it will take note of party feeling over the issue but insists it is committed to implementing the coalition agreement.

The Anti-Academies Alliance says Lib Dem policy on the issue of more freedom for schools is confused.

"There is certainly a core within the party who are strongly against academies," Mr Smith said.

"It is not the key issue within the coalition but it is a flashpoint and, potentially, a big area of disagreement. And the issue is not going to go away."

This conference, which Nick Clegg will leave after his leader's speech on Monday to travel to the United Nations in New York, is breaking new ground in all kinds of different ways.

"We don't know quite what it will be like," Mr Smith added. "We don't know how much say Lib Dem rank and file members will have on the floor of the conference."

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