19 September 2013 | Barry Johnston
To Glasgow, for the first of this year’s party conferences. Christian Aid headed off to the blustery SECC conference centre - and with us came the Russian dolls from our campaign to reveal who really owns companies.
The poor Lib Dems. Their gatherings always seem to be marked by dreadful weather, like some Shakespearean harbinger of the drama to come.
As it transpired, aside from the odd umbrella popping inside-out (no such problems for me, my sturdy Christian Aid umbrella is a veteran of four party conferences), the climate at this year’s conference was more temperate.
The Liberal Democrats seem ever more at ease as a party of Government – the main theme of Nick Clegg’s speech.
Yet the Lib Dems remain colourful - and conference reflected that. Blue-sky thinking, green policies, coalition red lines, Nick’s purple ties and everywhere the garish yellow and orange badges and stickers that mark out the ardent activists.
Tessa Munt, Somerset MP and friend of Christian Aid’s beneficial ownership campaign, proved her popularity with her badges selling out first.
Amid this jumble of colour and conversation, there was much of interest to Christian Aid supporters.
The Lib Dems came to conference determined to show their distinct contribution to Government and the need to keep them there after 2015 – whether to soften the edges of the ‘nasty’ Tory party or stiffen the resolve of fiscally irresponsible Labour.
It seems the Lib Dems will go into the next election presenting themselves as the lesser of three evils.
Lib Dem supporters especially want their party to stand out on green issues. The Lib Dems were stung by a recent assessment by our partners at Green Alliance, which concluded that their green record in Government was ‘patchy’.
Consider the alternative, Ed Davey argued at conference. He pointed to the pitched battles being fought across Whitehall with Conservative colleagues whom he portrayed as ready to set fire to anything that burns to reignite the UK economy.
In his speech, Nick Clegg said, 'We’ve had to fight tooth and nail... to keep this Government green.'
Yet the Lib Dems have not delivered their own policy of a decarbonisation target in the current Energy Bill, and they voted to support fracking and unsubsidised nuclear power at this year’s conference.
There are also difficult negotiations to come, both domestically (the Government’s fourth carbon budget) and internationally (the European Union 2030 climate package). The world is about to enter the crunch phase of United Nations talks about tackling climate change, too.
The Lib Dems' desire to refocus on green issues - including promising signals about initiatives on clean energy in developing countries - is to be welcomed. But their ambition must not be dimmed by political bartering.
More recently, the party has also focused on fair taxation. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto put them ahead of the curve by calling for greater tax transparency to help the poorest countries collect the tax they are owed.
From conversations we had in Glasgow, and the contents of a forthcoming Lib Dem tax policy paper, it is clear that the party rank and file care very much about tax justice and expect their Ministers to deliver.
Christian Aid took along its Russian dolls (like those that open up to reveal several smaller dolls contained within the largest) to highlight our campaign for greater transparency on who really owns companies.
At present, criminals use their companies to evade tax and commit other crimes, safe in the knowledge that the taxman and police will find it hard or impossible to trace them.
We weren’t the only people who wanted to talk to the Lib Dems about tax. Speaking at an ActionAid event, I was confronted by representatives from the Jersey Government, who claimed their island had been unfairly described as a tax haven.
While there have been some modest moves towards greater transparency by UK-linked tax havens, with some territories worse than others, we are still a long way from shutting down ‘shady places for shady people’, as Vince Cable colourfully described tax havens.
However, the G8 summit hosted by the UK in June has opened up the space to achieve just that, and the Lib Dems have a pivotal role to play.
On the international stage
Nick Clegg also used his speech to reaffirm the Lib Dems' internationalist credentials. He included the realisation of the 0.7 per cent aid target among the party's list of achievements.
Elsewhere at conference, in an extended debate on Syria, Martin Horwood, MP for Cheltenham, called for ‘herculean diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to build a political solution and a regional peace’.
Finally, many of our events and meetings at conference were cross-cut by discussion of the Government’s new lobbying bill.
Lib Dem officials were at pains to reassure charities that they were not the target of the new legislation but privately and publicly, many MPs expressed concern with both the content of the bill and the speed with which it is being rushed through Parliament.
To date, it is unclear whether the Government will make significant amendments.