Conference diary: the sideshow must go on

Alastair Harper is Green Alliance’s senior policy adviser on Political Leadership and roving party conference diarist.

Here his is second posting from the Liberal Democrats conference in Brighton, first published on Business Green.

There seem to be three approaches when taking a booth on the floor of a party conference. One is to go for a gimmick that has no apparent relation to your cause – one this year features a game of scalextric promoting guide dogs. Two is to have your stall manned by what other industries call ‘booth babes’, selling corporate wares or needs. The final option is the church fete approach: a fifteen-year old banner celebrating Liberal Democrat Friends of Happiness, manned by an octogenarian reluctant to use up their flyers on the potentially unworthy.

It’s week one and I am already feeling a little cynical about party conference season. The source of the ill feeling is not the fault of the conference but a broken shower in my room that leaves warm water nothing more than a pre-conference memory. And so I am jaded by the hotel bars in the secure zone where elderly men expense drinks for keen young lobbyists. Attendees hoovering up free croissants, coffees and, later, lots of wine – they go from event to event, harvesting in a speedy blur, like Sonic collecting rings. At least this shows a heartening interest in waste reduction.

I’d also like a higher ended discussion at the fringe events. There are the same questions and the same answers as every year on energy and climate change. Can we get green growth? Is it too expensive? Will the Green Deal bring about energy nirvana? All worthy questions, but I’d hoped we wouldn’t still need to be asking them.

One exception was the CBI panel on growth with Vince Cable, replaced halfway through, tag-team style, by David Laws. A good, honest discussion of what’s worked and what’s not. It’s worth noting that CBI director general John Cridland made very clear how vital he saw green in getting the nation back on its feet. Later he emphasised he was absolutely not against a carbon number in the energy bill, but to get him on board it has to pass two tests: first that it isn’t just another target but actually serves a role and, second, that it won’t delay the passing of the bill. Two very reasonable and, I believe, passable caveats.

It shows how the tectonic plates are shifting. The Lib Dems have done good work this week, with a raft of new green policy commitments which includes a carbon number. Now they need to make them government policy. Business, in particular, will rely on a carbon number to ensure a free market for our energy mix. Investors know they must escape the trap of binding the country to a “nothing but gas” future. I hope, with the politics almost, but not quite, in place, we start to hear more from industry on this. And, next week, from the Labour party.


Photograph: NCVO/flickr

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