A slice of Britain: Lib Dem guerrillas plot their next move

The Social Liberal Forum, which triggered the party's revolt against the NHS reforms, is made up of renegades with a mission. Matt Chorley joins the SLR at City University London

Sunday 19 June 2011 00:00 BST

Who runs Britain? In the windowless lecture halls and Escher-esque stairwells of City University in London, a group of political renegades put down their cloth bags, scratched their facial hair and plotted their next assault.

Welcome to the first annual conference of the Social Liberal Forum – the home of "proper" Liberal Democrats. Not the quasi-Tory, Oxbridge-educated, Orange Bookers such as Nick Clegg, David Laws and Danny Alexander. It's the lefty lot who despise the Tories more than sandals in a downpour.

Its director, Mark Blackburn, insists they are not "anti-coalition", nor are they the nutty fringe of the party. "We are trying to make sure that mainstream liberal values continue to be shown in mainstream party policy." By mainstream he means social democratic.

The SLF was the driving force behind the Lib Dems' Sheffield conference motion that triggered the rewriting of the Government's NHS reforms. Next is banking, inequality, housing and tuition fees. They are ready to take on the Tories.

The beard count was moderate. A white goatee, a couple of ginger full facials and some youthful unshaven types. Key demographics were represented. Young tweeters watching their iPhone batteries drain. Spectacles on a chain. Crazy, unkempt hair. One character teamed bulbous black leather trousers with matching waistcoat, bleached hair, earring and a plastic carrier bag.

Two sympathetic ministers had been booked. When Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, arrived there was a smattering of applause as if a pub cricket team had scored a solid single. He insisted he had to be "remorselessly on message these days", but demanded responsible capitalism (bash rich bankers), curbing executive remuneration (pay cuts for the mega-rich) and progressive taxation (tax the rich).

Land and property was "fundamental" to a progressive tax system. Social mobility meant both the poor "going up" and people from privileged backgrounds "coming down". The audience liked that.

Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, loves winding up his coalition partners. Yesterday he had in his sights red-tape "zealots" who want to tear up all regulation, good or bad. A lack of regulation meant our roads get dug up 500 times a year by every utility firm in the land. He said the Government's Red Tape Challenge had "mistakenly" given the impression that key laws such as the Climate Change Act were to be scrapped. He said the Lib Dems had to find a place between Labour's "obsession with micro-management and target-setting" and the "fixation with deregulation and scrapping rules" of "right-wing ideologues".

Star turn was Evan Harris, a former doctor and Lib Dem MP who lost his seat last year and has been a menace for the party leadership ever since. He was here to claim "victory" in the battle to rewrite the NHS reforms. He dismissed last week's NHS Future Forum report as "cliché-ridden, trite nonsense" and held out the prospect of further revolts. Gulp.

It is easy to dismiss them all as irrelevant eccentrics. But who else would read the Health and Social Care Bill and spot the contradictions and dangerous consequences? The SLF are determined to make their voice heard (an endeavour hampered yesterday by flat batteries in the stage microphones). A man called Nigel Quenton claimed the Lib Dems were not getting their message on the environment across. Neville Farmer, from Wyre Forest, felt "hoodwinked" about health reform. A woman said public-private partnerships were "modern piracy". And the big policy issue of the day: "Could you turn the air conditioning down? It's like a fridge in here."

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