This weekend, Liberal Democrats from across the country will flock to their annual autumn seaside retreat. Every year, they choose either Bournemouth or Brighton to host the longest of their two annual conferences. These are affairs of excitement and sleepy wonkery for the party, with political barnstorming and detailed policy both featuring in the main auditorium and surrounding fringe venues.
The main occasion to watch at the conference is of course the Cratus Reception with Focaldata, which will take place at West Beach on 25 September at 19:00. I am confident that I and the rest of Team Cratus will be able to brief you there. If for any reason you might miss this event (I’ll forgive you later) then read on for my summary of what is worth a watch.
My eyes are first drawn to what looks to be a major tug of war within the party – their housing policy. A short time ago in 2021, the Liberal Democrats committed to a national housing target of 380,000 homes per year. Since then, some local campaigners have complained that this gives the Conservatives a means to brand the Lib Dems as too YIMBY.
The Liberal Democrats formed the Homes and Planning Working Group, some councillors and volunteers who were tasked with drafting a policy paper to inform a new party policy which would go before conference. We now see the fruits of their labour; a 68 page paper carrying the title ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis’ and a robust call to scrap national housing targets altogether. The policy produced as a result of this paper has been scheduled for an hour and a half members debate in the main auditorium on Monday afternoon.
The policy that Lib Dem conference will ultimately consider calls for a scrapping of national housing targets, replaced with a new target of 150,000 social homes per year and targets determined by each local planning authority with the Planning Inspectorate taking an oversight role. The policy currently considers newbuild homes to be of lower quality, with developers incentivised by profits and market forces rather than housing needs.
Ditching national housing targets is supported by leadership, with Helen Morgan MP, the party’s spokesperson for housing, bringing the motion to the conference floor. Party leader Sir Ed Davey has told BBC South East that the target could be scrapped and that he hopes activists back the move. Though this change in policy is looking increasingly like it might be a headache for the party leadership, with party insiders reporting that they are expecting a scuffle on the issue.
Since their founding, the Liberal Democrats have been divided into two big ideological camps, each represented by an internal campaigning group in the party, Liberal Reform who are generally on the pro-market side of the party, and Social Liberal Forum who are on the more left-leaning side of the party. Both of these groups, each influential in its own right, have opposed the party’s bid to scrap the targets. The Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor has also opposed the move, followed by a series of members including the party youth wing which has a policy of its own in favour of the targets.
In 2021 the leadership was defeated by an amendment which added the 380,000 homes per year target in the first place, now campaigners hope to inflict the same again by simply reinstating the 380,000 national target, as was the policy passed in 2021. Ed Davey and his team will be hoping they can get the policy through, but it could be a bumpy Monday.
Other policies at conference will be far less controversial among the Lib Dems, with policy on… period poverty, childcare, industrial strategy, wellbeing in the armed forces, the ministerial code, community policing, transport, scrapping voter ID and support for Ukraine. While housing looks to be the most fraught and high-profile debate coming to conference, we will have an eye on all of these and what they mean. Keep an eye on Cratus social media for all our highlights.