Theresa May’s failing hostile environment: immigration checks by landlords breach human rights

File 20190306 100781 1e24lwb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The evidence is against her. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The “right-to-rent” scheme was a cornerstone of Theresa May’s hostile environment, which she put in place during her time as home secretary to curb illegal migration to the UK. Since 2016, the scheme has required landlords to check the status of their tenants by reviewing identification documents – a passport, for example. If landlords fail to comply, they can face fines of up to £3,000 or up to five years in prison.

This controversial policy has been criticised by campaigners, who are concerned that it could cause discrimination and prevent migrants, ethnic minorities and vulnerable people from finding a home in the private rental sector. Now, the UK’s high court has found that the scheme leads to discrimination against some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens breaches human rights.

In his verdict, handed down on March 1, 2019, Justice Spencer also blocked the roll-out of the policy across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, the government has the chance to appeal and this is probably not the end of court cases on this policy. But a growing body of research indicates that the policy is not only ineffective, but also could be harming UK citizens.

Mounting evidence

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association in 2017 found that landlords’ concerns over prosecution due to this policy caused them to discriminate even against legal migrants, with 42% of landlords saying that they were less likely to let to someone who did not have a British passport.

One year on, in further research for the RLA, my colleagues and I found that this had increased to 44% of landlords. This shows that there is still pressure on landlords to discriminate, for fear of prosecution if they get something wrong.

These findings are consistent with those of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). In mystery shopper exercises, the council found that British Black Minority Ethnic (BME) citizens without a passport were more likely to receive negative responses from landlords than those who could provide a passport.

But, the council also found that there was no racial discrimination between non-BME citizens and British BME citizens who could provide a passport, when they applied for tenancies. The JCWI argued that this proved the discrimination was due to the right to rent policy, rather than any underlying racism.

The UK government itself had found that 25% of landlords were unwilling to let to those without a British passport. All of this evidence underpinned the arguments which helped to decide the high court case, where Justice Spencer ruled that the right to rent scheme breaches the Human Rights Act because it causes landlords to discriminate when they otherwise would not have.

An ineffective policy

The case not only found that the policy was causing discrimination, the judge also said that the government had failed to demonstrate that the policy was effective at encouraging undocumented migrants to leave.

In 2018, the policy came under criticism from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. In his report, he criticised the Home Office for failing to evaluate and assess the impact of the scheme and concluded that the right to rent policy was failing “to demonstrate its worth”.

Major failures.
Willy Barton/Shutterstock.

In the government’s own impact assessment, it estimated that 830 civil penalty notices would be issued to landlords as a result of the right to rent policy each year.

But in our research for the RLA we found that, since 2016, there had been fewer than 700 reports to the Home Office by a landlord that their tenant did not have the right to rent, while the Home Office itself had only issued just over 400 civil penalty notices to landlords across England. So far, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the policy.




Read more:
‘Hostile environment’ in Britain hasn’t put off irregular immigrants – but it’s increased their suffering


Given that the scheme is estimated to cost £106m the low levels of enforcement by the Home Office raise serious questions about the scheme’s effectiveness.

Unintended consequences

The purpose of the policy was to create a “hostile environment” for those living in the UK without leave to remain, by preventing them from accessing the basic necessities for a normal life, such as a home. But government data shows that both voluntary and forced returns have fallen each year since 2015.

The evidence shows that this policy is causing discrimination and deep divisions in society, while actual enforcement by the government has been lacklustre. What’s more, the scheme is also likely to lead to further unintended consequences, which affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.

At the last census, 17% of the population were found not to have a passport. This means that some of the most vulnerable (such as those who are homeless) or those without documentation (such as the Windrush generation) who do actually have the right to rent, have been unfairly locked out of a home because of this policy.

The case has confirmed previous research findings that the hostile environment is causing deep divisions and discrimination across communities. If the UK is to reunite after Brexit and create a more inclusive society, the government must abandon this ineffective, discriminatory approach.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ambitious leader speech sees Vince Cable aiming for the top job

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As the Liberal Democrats met for their first conference since the 2017 general election, many were feeling disappointed at the state of things. The party came away with a mere 12 election victories after mistakenly believing the Brexit referendum had given it a branding which would help it capture more votes. Yet despite disappointment, party managers reported a higher than average conference attendance and membership numbers remain high.

Members met to reflect on the past, look to the future and begin working on how to take the party forward in an increasingly muddled political environment. Lib Dem conferences are a mix of decision-making votes and key note speeches and the leader’s speech is traditionally the final session of the event. This year that fell to Vince Cable.

Leaders’ conference speeches are difficult at the best of times. They have to communicate to party members in the hall, to (often) cynical journalists who have “heard it all before”, to members of the “political community”, and to potential voters, members and others who will only catch bits of the speech on the news. And whatever the leader wants to say, there will be questions which need to be answered and fires which need to be put out. Anyone reading the Alastair Campbell Diaries, or indeed the accounts of John Major’s time as Conservative party leader, will know just how fraught and last minute the speech preparations can be.

And of course if it is your first run out as Leader, the pressure is worse.

So today Cable had a lot to do. He had to look and sound like a leader, positioning both himself and his party in the most beneficial way. And he was certainly ambitious about it.

When, a few days before his speech, he told an interviewer that he does genuinely believe he can become prime minister, some may have thought that this was simply the answer to expect from a politician. But a theme which sprung out from Cable’s speech was government. “We are the government of the future,” he said at one point. And he ended with a call to head “back to government”.

This is actually quite risky. Many will remember David Steel’s rallying cry at the Liberal Assembly in 1981 when he called on members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Government for the Liberals, now the Lib Dems, didn’t arrive until 2010, and only then because of the need for a coalition. The Steel phrase is often recalled with raised eyebrows at party conference. (It also became a regular in sketches at the Liberal Revue or the conference Glee Club.) And of course when Steel made his speech, the SDP Liberal Alliance was riding high in the polls.

So for Cable, head of the group of just 12 MPs, to make such a bold statement is a risky piece of positioning. But it is also necessary. For Lib Dems to have an obvious purpose, they must be seen as working towards that end. And that end must seem possible.

Safe pair of hands

Another theme of Cable’s speech was the need for people with experience who could take a grown up approach to things. He devoted significant time to talking about ministerial work and achievements. This is not an unknown practice for a political leader but it is a little unusual to look back more than two years. However, if Cable’s pitch is about being able to govern, there will be an ongoing need to stress examples of this work by key people such as Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, both MPs, and Lynne Featherstone, now in the House of Lords.

As ever in a Leader’s speech there were short points on issues which would go down well with the party and also garner soundbites. Donald Trump’s state visit should be cancelled, the hall was told. Votes at 16 would be the centre of the party’s campaign for political reform.

The ConversationIt’s never clear how to measure the success of a conference speech in a non-election year. Is it about membership increase, good media coverage, more donations, poll ratings? For this piece of positioning however, what will matter is whether the message can be credibly sustained over the years to come.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A council has been intercepting emails to elected officials – here’s why that matters

File 20170912 3778 8k82xj
Terry Kearney, CC BY-NC

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Emails from local people to elected councillors have been intercepted by officials at Liverpool City Council. It’s not clear whether this involves a large or small group of people, but a recent example, and the council’s response to it, has shown that this is a practice that has been going on for some time.

The issue came to light when a particular email was stopped and gained an addendum before being passed on. The story appeared in the Liverpool Echo and has led one group of councillors to refuse to use the official council email system. In fact, reaction by some has been pretty fierce.

While this might look like a “little local problem”, it actually raises a host of issues about the relationship between politicians and citizens – and between corporate state bodies and elected people.

Local councils in the UK vary in what they do. But they all exist to run services for people in their area. They are also democratic organisations, with individuals elected as decision makers and representatives. This means the council has a legal existence as an organisation, but also that there are councillors who are the political side of things and who have votes at meetings. In all but the smallest council, the paid staff (often referred to as officers) will considerably outnumber the political “elected members”.

It’s not clear how many emails have been intercepted and over what period of time. I fully expect individuals and organisations to now make use of Freedom of Information laws and subject access requests to find out more. Anecdotally, I have heard that people are already contacting local councillors in Liverpool to ask whether their email communications have been intercepted.

In the particular case that brought the issue to light, an email intended for a councillor was diverted to the chief executive’s office, read and then added to with a suggestion of how the councillor might like to reply. It was then forwarded on to the councillor.

Most of us imagine we have a good idea of what members of parliament do but public understanding of the role of a councillor is much vaguer. Yet there are many more councillors than there are MPs. So this group makes up the majority of those elected to political roles. And given that councils are responsible for issues like planning, roads, schools and waste collection, the decisions they make have a very direct effect on people.

The Liverpool incident raises two very important questions. Should citizens expect to be able to communicate with an elected politician without interference? And should councils, as corporate bodies, be able to control the information of the people elected to effectively be in charge?

Liverpool City Council’s defence in this case was that it was trying to protect email recipients since a local citizen had been behaving “unreasonably” in her communications with councillors and officers at the council. Her actions were described as a “scatter gun” approach and the council system was then set up to divert all emails from her address to a central point. The council also said that it applied this approach in a “small number of cases”.

This argument might work for an organisation wanting to protect its staff. The problem here is that councillors are not staff. They are not employed by Liverpool City Council. They are accountable to the electorate and it is reasonable to assume that if I send an email to Councillor X, Councillor X is the person who gets it.

Councillors do receive money but it comes in the form of allowances, not pay. And there are none of the things we expect from an employment contract such as performance reviews, progression pay and so on. So a relationship between a resident and an elected member is a direct one. It is not mediated by an employer.

It is clear to me that when a citizen makes contact, there is an expectation of confidentiality and privacy. The issue of confidentiality is vital here. Some citizens pass on sensitive personal information when requesting help. Others may be asking for assistance in pursuing a complaint about part of the council.

Some issues are difficult neighbour disputes. Others may be lobbying for a particular decision which runs against the policies of the ruling group. In my time on Liverpool City Council, I experienced all of these situations. And in all cases it would be difficult to have trust in the casework and representative system if it was felt that communications were likely to be read by other people.

Of course, it is possible that some incoming emails could be threatening, I have had some myself. But elected representatives can still take their own decisions about how and who to block. And many threatening communications are surely issues for the police anyway.

The issue of control is an interesting one. Clearly councils have to have rules about how they operate. But it’s also clear that there have to be some standards.

Constitutionally, elected members come together to make decisions which staff then carry out. Even where there are elected mayors with executive powers, councillors make a range of other decisions. And although many decisions are delegated, the responsibility for oversight rests with the elected individuals, not the staff.

The ConversationWhen I was a councillor, I used to roll my eyes at those few elected members who refused to use the central email system because they didn’t want staff to interfere. I now know they were right to be wary.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Abuse of women MPs is not just a scandal – it’s a threat to democracy

Julia Gillard in Australia: another high-profile victim of online abuse. EPA

Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Following the intense election campaign of 2017, Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott spoke out about the racist and misogynistic abuse she received online.

Abbott revealed that she was subject to a litany of abuse on Twitter. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she described the comments she received as “characteristically racist and sexist”.

Abbott’s experiences are not just depressing on a personal level – they pose a threat to democracy.

The BBC recently reported that a huge number of women MPs are experiencing abuse on social media. The problem was so bad during the 2017 election, with several MPs making complaints to the government, that Number 10 asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.

Comments during the 2017 campaign included: “stab the c*nt”; “nazi witch” and “repatriate the b***h back to Africa”. The prime minister herself was called a “whore” by some Twitter users.

In Australia, the former prime minister Julia Gillard was subjected to twice as many abusive online comments as her Labor party rival Kevin Rudd between 2010 and 2014. Many of these statements were of a sexual nature.

Similarly, in the Democratic presidential primaries in the US, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive comments as her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

These types of comments have started to become the norm for women politicians. Gillard has said:

As a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sicking dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.

With so many people subject to online abuse, many are choosing to withdraw themselves from social media. In fact, a campaigner I recently interviewed about the online abuse she received was advised by the police to shut down her social media accounts.

But advising a woman to remove her online presence if she doesn’t want to be abused is akin to telling a woman that she needs to behave a certain way if she doesn’t want to be raped.

Rather than engaging in victim blaming, we should be tackling the behaviour of abusers. We need to be sending stronger messages to individuals that online abuse will not be tolerated. A full, in-depth inquiry is needed to establish if social media companies need to take more responsibly for what is posted on their platforms; or, if in fact, we need more specific legislation to govern social media. The likelihood is that we are now at a point where the law itself needs changing.

Who’d be a woman politician?

Online abuse may be seen as an everyday part of being a politician, but it’s a threat to democracy. Constant abuse aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens to reduce the plurality of voices essential for a modern democracy. As conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently said, online abuse is “designed to intimidate”. If that intimidation is successful, women will be dissuaded from becoming politicians. Already, only 23.3% of politicians worldwide are women.

Abbott has said:

Other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly let alone getting involved in political activity.

The ConversationIf we want to live in a world of true equality, we need to start tackling online abuse. Simply concluding that such abuse is an everyday part of life is clearly a threat to the political system.

Laura Bliss, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Voters with learning disabilities are being excluded from this election

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

There are more than 1m people with learning disabilities in the UK and the number is expected to increase. These are people who face exclusion from society more than ever – particularly when it comes to voting. Not enough is done to enable their participation in the most basic democratic right available to British citizens. The Conversation

The charity Mencap recently found that 70% of people with a learning disability said they want to vote in the future. However, of those surveyed, 64% didn’t vote in the recent local elections, of these 60% because it was too hard to register and 17% because they were turned away from the polling station. This does not amount to being a fair way for thousands of voters who want to be part of the political processes.

People with learning disabilities are often denied paid employment only to face accusations of benefits scrounging when they seek state support. The ruthlessness of the bedroom tax, “fit to work” tests, unescapable poverty, high energy bills, cuts in care and underemployment have ensured that people with disabilities are facing terrible times like never before. So hearing their voices is critical – not least in the run up to a general election. So many of the austerity measures implemented since 2010 have affected their lives, it’s surely only right that they are given the opportunity to deliver their verdict on them.

Voting with a disability

Before the last election in 2015, the Electoral Commission made it clear that there should be no barriers to anyone with disabilities who wished to vote. In fact, any voter with a disability is entitled to request assistance to get to their local polling station and help to mark the ballot paper. They can be provided with a large print ballot paper or a tactile voting device, which is fixed to the ballot paper so the visually impaired can vote in secret.

But these are all measures to help with physical disabilities. Where are the specifics for people with learning disabilities? This is unusual considering people with learning disabilities have the same right to vote as anyone else. The Electoral Commission is clear that a lack of “mental capacity” is not a reason to prevent someone from voting. Nor is it for anyone else to decide how someone with learning disabilities should vote.

Voting can be extremely difficult for people with learning disabilities. The form to register is not accessible to all, particularly if you cannot read or write. The struggle to get to grips with political jargon and the complicated political leaflets stuffed through the door can also make people with learning disabilities feel alienated.

The stereotypical perception of people with learning disabilities is that they don’t have the capacity to understand what is happening in the world around them. Frankly, this is an old-fashioned, false perception. In fact people with learning disabilities have knowledge and experience to share about politics, real life experiences, family life, education and healthcare. It’s really more the disabling impact of wider society that ensures people with learning disabilities don’t always have the voice they need and have a right to express.

Opening up the vote

There are ways to change this. Easy read manifestos would be a good start. It would also help if they were published in good time, so that people can spend time considering the proposals the political parties put forward. There should also be more events and hustings that are accessible for people with learning disabilities.

For people with learning disabilities to have a say in their future, access to knowledge, resources and people in politics is vital. This may go some way in turning the dire life situations many of them face into something better.

Overall, for an equal and respectable vote to take place in the general election, marginalised groups, particularly people with learning disabilities, need to be able to fully engage in the political process. People with learning disabilities have knowledge, skills, experiences and perspectives to share like anyone else, and this should be reflected in a vote that effects the lives of everyone in Britain.

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Britain’s first post-Brexit by-election a triumph for Liberal Democrats

Robert Courts won for the Conservatives but on a dramatically reduced majority. PA/Chris Radburn

For those who like to read the runes of politics, parliamentary by-elections are a gift. Each local area of course has its own characteristics but these contests offer a snapshot verdict on the government and major parties between general elections. It’s also a chance for those parties to try out and refine campaigning techniques.

The Witney by-election, caused by the resignation of former prime minister David Cameron, has certainly given us something to pore over.

By all accounts this is one of the safest Tory seats in the country – Cameron took 60% of the vote in the 2015 election. West Oxfordshire Council is Tory run and, although there are pockets of relative deprivation, the constituency is generally rural and affluent.

And indeed, the Conservative candidate won the by election on October 21. But the significance in Witney lies less in which party won than in the performance of the parties that didn’t.

Back in the game. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

After being almost totally wiped out in the 2015 election, the one-time coalition partners increased their vote share by 23% in Witney, beating Labour to come in second place behind the Conservatives. There was a swing to the Lib Dems of just over 19%, denting the Conservative majority by around 20,000 votes.

The Lib Dems have a reputation as a formidable by-election fighting team. Actually this reputation is based on events quite some time ago. Since 2007 the party has performed relatively poorly with tiny increases and some falls in percentage vote share. Even Eastleigh, which the party held in 2013 after Chris Huhne’s resignation, saw a large drop in vote share.

So party organisers will be extremely satisfied with this result. It indicates that the Lib Dem campaign machine is working again. Considerable effort went into encouraging activists to making phone calls to voters – or making the journey to Witney – and at times it was hard to walk down a street without seeing a Lib Dem campaigner. Labour was less obvious on the ground, although the party had clearly worked in its areas of strength, as demonstrated by the number of posters in some pockets of support.

It also shows that there are Conservative supporters who will swap to the Lib Dems. That may indicate that they are unhappy with the whole Brexit saga (Witney voted to remain) or with new prime minister, Theresa May.

2015 election results in Witney

Lib Dem slump. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

For Labour, I am sure the party forums will carry arguments about Corbyn’s failure to deliver a challenge to the government here. Witney is not a seat Labour could conceive of winning, but there must be some anxiety at a failure to make progress. The Labour candidate was, after all, a local councillor with a core of support.

As for UKIP, it will not be happy to have been beaten into fifth position below the Greens. We’ll never know how much the fight between two of its MEPs and the ongoing saga around the leadership has affected this vote. But common sense tells us that the party is facing not just a series of rows but a crisis of identity. It is impossible to do well in this kind of battle without a clear sense of purpose and message.

The Liberal Democrats clearly approached this race with a clear purpose and have achieved it. A full recovery is still a long way off but the Witney result has brought some much-needed cheer.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What my students saw when I took them to the Labour party conference

My students meet shadow education minister Angela Rayner. Author provided

As a political activist, I am used to conferences. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that fresh eyes are changing British politics. I took a group of second and third year students to the Labour conference in Liverpool this year and asked them afterwards what stood out to them.

We went along on the day the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, delivered his speech about the importance of winning elections.

It was also the day Labour was embroiled in a ferocious row about the arcane rules of its National Executive Committee. It was noted on the floor that rarely do procedural votes attract so much attention, but for a party as divided as Labour at the moment, the composition of its ruling body is a pressing matter.

For these students, our trip was a first glimpse at the kind of idiosyncrasies on display at a party conference. Here’s what they spotted on the ground.

Multi-tasking speakers

Media coverage before the conference suggested there were fears of violence and intimidation. There were reports that party staff were being briefed about how to handle bad behaviour. But we saw nothing like that. Security was in fact very light in Liverpool.

Nevertheless, my students noted that MPs rarely walk alone – but probably for different reasons. At least one accompanying aide is required at all times, preferably more. They should all look frightfully busy.

Lisa Nandy must possess roller skates, given the number of simultaneous meetings she seemed to be speaking at. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee must have a pair, too. She seemed to speak at more fringe events than anyone. Owen Jones also seems very popular. We didn’t spot Owen Smith at all.

And while there may not have been huge demand to see MP Duncan Enright speak, the impending by-election in Witney made a high-profile appearance inevitable. You can guarantee your candidate will get a chance to speak at conference if he is about to take on a Tory – and as Enright is fighting to replace David Cameron, he got pretty high billing.

Debating

Watching conferences on TV is fine but it only gives you half the story. We visited the conference hall while debates were going on – a central part of the event that is not often seen by the world outside as mainstream broadcasters have a habit of “cutting away” for more chat with commentators.

Delegates know what topics are being debated well in advance. The actual text of the motions, however, is very last minute (in technical terms, it is the result of compositing earlier at conference). This makes it hard for anyone to focus in detail on a particular line but easier for people to make general speeches. Labour conference is not, as a result, particularly pedant friendly.

“Debates” are short. In one session there were only five speakers. People used to attending other conferences, like the Lib Dems’, where a debate can go on for 90 minutes and include one-minute interventions as well as three-minute speeches, would be amazed.

Conference hall proceedings sometimes get delayed by “points of order”. Frustrating for journalists and fringe meeting organisers but evidence that members do still have some power to interrupt with objections. I hope my students don’t adopt this tactic though.

When debating rule or constitutional changes, there will always be a speaker who complains that time spent on the debate is time not spent “taking the fight to the Tories”. That speaker is of course himself adding to the length of the debate.

It is noticeable at conference this year how many speakers said they were first-time delegates when addressing the room. Is this, perhaps, a sign of the changes in the party?

Fringe benefits

The very many fringe meetings going on in parallel to the main debates are a great way to hear more and explore ideas. At these sessions, you can often hear from quite high-profile people on discussion panels, and you can generally look around the packed (generally tiny) room to see an MP or shadow minister watching with you.

Discussion can get quite heated at these sessions and there is a certain type of delegate for whom the phrase “short question” translates as “long analysis of history”. Chairs of fringe meetings need to find ways to become more ruthless. Anyone remember the gunk tank?

Good doggy

Every party conference features a large exhibition and significant competition for the best stall. There are free gifts galore from think tanks, unions and campaign groups. I am not sure why they bothered at Labour this year, though. The clear winner was the guide dog area, complete with an exercise course, toys and a dog to meet. Sorry Falklands stand, Rover gets my vote.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Liberal Democrats in Brighton – why their party conference still matter

Tim Farron hearts EU. PA/ Jonathan Brady

Party conferences are strange beasts. They can be a mix of sales conference, rally, social event, training course, decision-making forum, networking opportunity and job interview. And there will always be several “conferences” going on at once. For a charity campaigner or trade union lobbyist, the conference will be very different to that experienced by an MP or an activist.

But while us outsiders only get a glimpse of everything that goes on, there are ways to read party conferences that offer insight about the party and its people. The Liberal Democrats are at a particularly interesting period in their history, so the party’s meeting in Brighton offers particularly interesting fodder.

Who is on the podium?

A key issue at conference – and particularly this year – is who speaks. The Liberal Democrats only have eight MPs but they can’t all have keynote speech slots. The choice of speaker is significant.

This year, apart from the obvious Leader’s speech by Tim Farron, keynote MP slots have been given to Norman Lamb (Farron’s challenger for the leadership) and Alistair Carmichael (MP for Orkney and Shetland and home affairs spokesperson).

Carmichael could do with some good PR. PA/David Cheskin

The choice of Lamb, given he is health spokesperson, is not surprising. Health always yields plenty of topical material. Carmichael, however, is a less obvious choice. His inclusion could of course point to the party’s ongoing desire to stress the sort of civil liberty issues covered in his portfolio. Or it could suggest the need to provide him with a positive platform following a recent scandal in his constituency, during which he did not exactly cover himself in glory.

What’s on the agenda?

In politics, timing is key. At conference this means how much time is given to a topic and at what point. Scheduling matters. Has a topic been given a prime slot – such as mid morning or in the run up to one of the leader’s appearances? How much time is being given over to discussing the topic? That gives us an indication of how important the issue is to the party.

The selection of topics up for debate on the conference floor also tells us a lot about what is important to the wider party and about what it wants to promote. When an election looms, party leaders see it as more important to be seen making soundbite-laden speeches. With limited time, that can mean less time for votes put forward by the members. But since the next election is probably years off, there is plenty of time this year for voting on the nitty gritty of policy.

High on the agenda is Europe – an issue which has been given a prime-slot motion. The party has deliberately scheduled an opportunity for this highly pro-European group of people to discuss the fallout from the referendum and, more importantly, what comes next.

One of the problems faced by the Lib Dems in the past has been a certain fuzziness. Polls often showed voters were not clear about where they stood on certain matters. However, Europe provides a massive opportunity for the party. Brexit may well mean Brexit for the majority of voters but there is a clear advantage when it comes to the remainder for whichever party keeps the pro-European flame alive.

Both in post-referendum comments and in those closer to the conference, party leader Farron has managed clearer statements and more defined positioning than Labour. Now, a large chunk of the Monday morning session at conference has been allocated to Brexit discussion.

Less prominent this time, but important none the less, is a session on Trident and nuclear weapons. There will be no vote on this. Members are taking part in a “consultative session” in the run up to an actual vote in the spring.

These consultations are part of a rather lengthy policy development process which the party uses on some topics. And while this will get less attention than conference floor proceedings, it is important. Lib Dem policy is currently not unilateral nuclear disarmament but there is a strong seam of unilateralism running through parts of the party.

What does success look like?

Given how much political media coverage is based on speculation and preview, there is a real risk that coverage of the Brighton event will be drowned out by guesses about Labour’s annual conference later in the month. So one measure of success for the Lib Dems will be a decent level of positive coverage.

Externally the party will want the event to deliver profile and positioning. Internally it will want to bind members in more strongly to the shared efforts of the next few years. It will be interesting to see, next time there is a TV interview on Europe, whether broadcasters are more likely to pick up the phone and call Farron. If they do, then this year’s Brighton conference will have achieved at least one of its goals.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.