Sunshine and rain, bright spells and dark clouds - typical Autumn weather conditions in a British seaside town, and an apt description of what awaits the Liberal Democrats as we gather in Brighton later this week for our annual Conference. Presented with as varied an agenda as we've had for years, Conference attendees will see both trouble ahead and much to be glee (or rather glee club)-full about. Social Liberals in particular will find much to cheer as conference debates routes out of the housing crisis, solutions to inequality and green economics. These bright spots will, no doubt, be accompanied by storm-clouds that are bound to follow a party still adjusting to the harsh realities of governing alongside the Tories.
Enough with the tortured weather analogy, more politics.
Following the gathering of evidence from experts in their fields, conference will debate several substantive motions on housing, socio-economic inequality, sources of sustainable prosperity and jobs and workplace democracy. There will be a mixture of policies proposed, all with a distinctive underlying theme: breaking from the neoliberal orthodoxies of the past 30 years or so, Liberal Democrats will back a participative democratic political economy in which the State frames the operation of markets and institutions such that they raise the capability of all to live fulfilling lives.
A grand claim perhaps, but how else to interpret commitments to near-universal childcare, wealth taxes, greater mutualism and democracy in the workplace and support for publicly owned investment banks? To say nothing of measures to ensure fairness in the private rented housing sector, or to tackle excessive pay and unfair working conditions.
The measures proposed will take the party beyond the failed doctrine of the State-as-a-remedy-for-market-failure, towards a vision of the State as an enabling force that frames how markets work and secures for all the conditions in which a dynamic economy can flourish. Tackling many political issues that speak directly to the anxieties faced by millions today, by proposing more just solutions than those from the right and less statist than those from the left. Or at least that's how it would be in an ideal world - in reality, the soaring rhetoric may come crashing down like so many waves hitting Brighton's shore, breaking upon the rocks of coalition compromise.
For the Lib Dems meet not in the comfort of opposition, or course, but as a party of government in a coalition that continues to be buffeted by the headwinds of economic stagnation and unpopularity - and with that comes the inevitable revelation of tensions both between the partners in government and amongst them. These tensions are most likely to manifest as debates over the future direction of fiscal policy, of wealth taxes and public investment in particular, and over reforms to the welfare and education systems.
The Social Liberal Forum (SLF) will use the conference debates on such matters to argue that wealth taxes are fair and economically efficient in their own right, not as a trade-off with further self-defeating and unfair cuts to welfare; that measures to boost the economy, including a more flexible approach to deficit reduction, should be prioritised over further spending cuts; and that green investment must not be sacrificed for narrow, short-term reasons. We consider vital not to allow the Tories to dictate the agenda on these issues and for the Lib Dem role to move beyond mere tinkering around the edges; on housing, inequality, and a green economic recovery it's high time we stood up for the core tenets of liberal democracy and showed the country how we can make a difference.
Discussion will of course continue beyond the main conference floor at the myriad fringe events. Here, the SLF will host a series of discussions on how ethical businesses can flourish, how alternatives to austerity must be considered, and perhaps most interestingly of all, how the Liberal Democrats can arrange an orderly disengagement with the Tories in advance of the next General Election.
For the latter is rapidly becoming a key issue for the party itself and for the nation at large to some extent. The UK is crying out for a commitment to reducing the inequality of capabilities that hampers our society, and for an economic strategy that puts investment and innovation at the forefront; having made such commitments in Brighton, the real test will be to what extent the Liberal Democrat leadership carry the fight to the Tories and what happens if and when they're knocked back. That's for a later time - for now, we gather in Brighton to enjoy the sunny optimism of progressive debate and contemplate how to drive away the clouds of c(C)onservatism.
Follow Dr Prateek Buch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/prateekbuch