The Lib Dem conference is always a chance to see which side of the party is winning the debate internally. Normally, the Left dominates the grassroots - which is why the party leadership always makes a bigger deal of criticising the Tories than it does although last year the economic liberals in the party tried to assert itself a little more. This year, the motions that members are debating do suggest that the Left is still coming out tops.
Take a look at the text of this motion, passed yesterday afternoon, called 'Protecting Public Services and Making them Work', which includes the line:
'Ending the role of the Competition and Markets Authority in health, making the rules clear that the needs of patients will always come ahead of competition, and that services need not be put out to tender if local people are happy with them.'
This is a very interesting insight into the mindset of the party: that it passed a motion suggesting that competition and the needs of patients are somehow distinct and in conflict, rather than the former serving the latter by improving services.
There's more. Tomorrow's conference will debate a policy motion called 'reclaiming the people's game' which includes this worry about football:
'Conference is concerned that: A) Winning has become the primary motive in the sport - leading to financial risk taking, high debt levels and almost a hundred instances of club bankruptcy since 1992.'
It also complains about an 'influx of overseas investment unjustified on purely financial grounds, and some of these owners have shown a disregard for the heritage of the clubs they have bought'. And the motion calls on government to ensure the game is 'well-administered' through the formation of formally recognised supporters' trusts, enforced 'affordable' ticket quotes, annual publication by all professional clubs of how much they spend on player agents and so on. You can read the full motion here. It does include a passage on stamping out racism, homophobia and sectarianism at matches, which many will feel entirely comfortable with. And many of the other concerns are, of course, entirely reflective of the frustration that many football supporters feel with their clubs and the game. But the frustration with winning being the primary objective in a lucrative industry and some of the recommendations for obligations on clubs do not suggest a belief in a liberal government that leaves people to their own devices as much as possible, and rather a bigger state.
Tomorrow the party will debate its pre-manifesto policy paper on the economy, which includes these lines:
'Making deficit reduction fair by ensuring high earners and the wealthiest pay their share, including through the introduction of a banded Mansion Tax.'
Nothing surprising in that part of the motion: this is, after all, policy endorsed from the stage this week. But London Lib Dem parties were so worried that it would be too 'punitive' for London and would ruin asset-rich, cash-poor pensioners living in old properties. I understand that they proposed an amendment for debate, which would have changed the above lines to:
'Making deficit reduction fair by ensuring high earners and the wealthiest pay their share, including through the introduction of high value property tax bands, with these bands being uprated annually in accordance with regional house price inflation (including the starting band) whilst providing relief to those 'asset-rich, cash-poor' people on low income.'
This amendment was not accepted by the Federal Conference Committee, which decides which motions and amendments can go to the hall for debate. There is some bitterness in some parts of the party that so many members of the Committee are from the left-leaning Social Liberal Forum. But other amendments that should have been acceptable to the Left haven't been accepted, for instance one inserting a mention of the hated 'bedroom tax' into the motion passed on reforming the welfare system.
The party will always have a struggle over its soul, and its activists may not always have the same concerns as the leadership, and the fact that they can express and debate those concerns is a credit to the party, which is the only mainstream one to continue bothering to listen to its activists, albeit through the most confusing organisational structure ever. And these motions are an interesting insight into where the party grassroots are.