This blog is a political blog from a left-of-centre perspective. This is not specifically a party political blog, but does have a Lib Dem orientation. Constructive enagement with radical liberals, social democrats / democratic socialists and greens is particularly welcomed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Conference in rude health ?

This Autumn I attended my first Liberal Democrat conference. I enjoyed many a fringe meeting, attended a couple of training events and a fair few of the debates in the hall. The thoughtful nature of the debates, irrespective of outcomes, revealed the party to have a lot of talented people within it's ranks.

However, being the curmudgeonly sort that I am, I have nagging doubts as to how vibrant and important conference is.

1) Can anyone tell me when the party leadership last 'lost' a vote at Conference ? That should happen at least occasionally at a democratic conference. The much talked about 'tax debate' was swung (I believe) by the great and the good - that being largely senior parliamentarians being wheeled out to ensure representatives voted the 'right' way. Don't get me wrong it was a high quality debate and, as a democrat, I accept the result of the vote.

Now this wasn't a one-off either. The part-privatisation of the PO debate was similarly 'won'. I suspect a debate on 'choice' [for some] in school provision could be next. Anyone want to bet David Laws wont seek to further undermine the comprehensive ideal and promote Academy Schools as the way forward ? If Lib Dem News and conference fringe meetings are any guide, albeit an unscientific one, there is no great appetite for re-organisation of the school system, be that via Academies or 'free schools'. More importantly, there is no great demand in the country for such. As ever, especially if you live in a small town / rural area, the key is a good school in your own locality. Now there's an unfashionable idea to strive to realise !

Sadly David Laws seems to be one of the few 'fans' of Lord Adonis....

2) Again thinking of the taxation debate, but also a fair few others, there was relatively little activist participation. Instead it seemed more like a stage-managed display of the leading parliamentarians, PPCs and Euro PPCs. Too harsh ? The diversity of the party and the country as a whole seemed rather under-represented at Bournemouth.

3) Possibly most important of all there were so very few debates / motions resulting from local party and / or conference representative submissions. Take away FE / FPC inspired debates, there was little much evidence of a politically engaged party in the country. Again, possibly harsh, but is there an element of truth to this ?

4) What a clever ruse to have the Bones Commission Report scheduled first up when many delegates are not in the Conference hall. Further, why was the debate only consultative in nature ? Oh what irony, the proposals to centralise a decentralising party !! There may be good reasons, but to a non-seasoned LD conference-goer I'm not sure what they are !

5) I think there should be a sliding scale of conference fees levied. Frankly when added to accomodation costs, for a family man on a limited income like myself, the cost is prohibitive. For the previous two years I've been elected to be a conference representative from Torbay, but cost has ruled out participation. I'm sure I'm not alone in such circumstances. The move to start conference on a Saturday is a good one and allows more people to participate. Reducing costs for those on low(er) incomes might help achieve a more representative conferences too.

Don't misunderstand me. I did enjoy Conference overall, but in conclusion, whilst our Conference may still be soverign and votes do matter, it isn't quite the demonstration of a vibrant and engaged party that we'd like to pretend. Anyone else feel this way ?

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Anonymous Neil Walton said...

I have been going to spring and autumn conferences at regional and federal level since 2002 and have always enjoyed them. My responses to your doubts are below. Hope they help you.
1) The Post Office motion was defeated the previous year. Andrew Stunnell came back to conference with a better policy and it was passed.
There have been several times when official policies created through working groups have been defeated by conference but generally the big ones do get through, although they are sometimes amended by conference. There can be very heated debates, see the European policy and Economic policy debates this year as good examples.
2) It is down to the chair and aide of the debate who gets called and everyone has to fill in a speaker's card. They are under orders to keep the debaters as broad as possible and reflecting as wide a range of views as possible. The conference committee do record those who get called and may be able to provide some stats if requested.
3) Items for deabte are determined by the Federal Conference Committee and the regular complaint from the FCC is that the motions put forward by the Local parties are not good enough. They do provide plenty of advice to LPs to write a good motion.
4) I was the 2nd person to speak at the Bones consultation session! I based my response on the full report rather than the executive summary. I do think that the release of the Bones report has been very, very badly handled. SO badly that I suspect that any vote on Bones would have been lost! It has not been sold to the party yet. The changes are being put through as test changes and anything permanent would have to be voted on at conference.
5) The longer you are at conference and the later you book, the more it costs. I too welcome the move to a Saturday start. I think that haaving weekend and weekday bookings as well as full week and single days would be good.

2:07 am BST


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