Fairness dominates conference cuts debate

By Alex Stevenson

Liberal Democrat activists have sought to heighten pressure on their ministers by formally registering concern about the impact of spending cuts on their fairness agenda.

A motion at the party’s conference in Liverpool this morning sought to ensure that “the most vulnerable in society are not disproportionately affected by the government’s austerity measures”.

It called on Lib Dems in government to “prevent the emergence of a lost generation”, promote jobs, sustainability, good health and social mobility and “work towards ending child poverty in this parliament”.

The motion’s proposers made clear their intention to place pressure on Lib Dem ministers.

Martin Tod told delegates he wanted to “add a new frisson” to the coalition relationship “to ensure there is creative tension, not just compromise”.

David Hall-Matthews of the Social Liberal Forum summed up by playing up the electoral benefits such an approach could bring.

“If we combine cuts with protection for those who most need it, the Liberal Democrats will make a difference,” he said.

“And people will see it is the Liberal Democrats who make the difference, and will vote for us at the next general election.”

An amendment calling for child benefit to be protected clashed with Nick Clegg’s frequently repeated statements of willingness to cut handouts for middle-class families, but was passed by conference.

Ed Randall of Greenwich launched a personal attack on Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, saying he was “not confident” about Cabinet negotiations.

“Danny Alexander… employs rhetoric that disturbs Liberal Democrat like most of us who were brought up on [economist John Maynard] Keynes, he said.

“Danny’s rhetoric is hard to resist but it distorts the role of government in a modern economy.”

Colchester MP Bob Russell, the most openly disgruntled of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, spoke to support elements of the motion supporting child poverty.

He received a huge round of applause for addressing the party’s leadership’s argument that there is no future for the Lib Dems to the left of Labour.

“There’s no future for our party to the right of the Conservatives,” he began.

“I do not accept that cuts are fair – they are a contradiction in terms… I would urge our ministers and everybody to be careful of the language used.”

Other amendments, inserting concerns about the housing crisis into the fairness agenda and highlighting the importance of welfare benefits, were overwhelmingly passed before the conference backed the motion as a whole.