Saturday 12th March
After a decent night's sleep the missus and I headed off to the conference pausing only for a quick breakfast of pastry, cheese, ham and orange juice. The supposedly ten minute walk from the hotel to the conference took double that time - but only because of my complete inability to use a map and the sat nav on my phone concurrently. That and what my girlfriend charitably described as "a complete lack of a sense of direction". Still, Sheffield is a very pretty city and walking through the city centre was a very enjoyable experience.
Arriving at the City Hall was an interesting experience as we had to pass through the 'Ring of Steel' (by the way, if anyone decides that would be a good name for a band - tough. I've bagsied it). The Ring of Steel, plus the dozens of policemen scattered about the place did seem like overkill given that there were no protesters there when we turned up. Mind you, there were some lovely local public health workers outside to hand us leaflets as we went in and to urge us to back Shirley William's amendments to the motion on NHS reform. Sadly I couldn't vote as I was a non-voting rep - but I supported the amendments all the way.
When we got in, after having our passes checked four times and our bags once, we decided to go downstairs to look at the stalls before the motion on NHS reform was due for debate. Both Natasha and I picked up loads of leaflets and I ended up buying the following:
- Set of Lib Dem cuff-links x1
- Lib Dem lapel pin x1
- Lib Dem tie x1
- Lib Dem badges x1
- Lib Dem branded fleece, black x1
- Lib Dem wooly hat (too small) x1
I also had just enough time to join the Liberal Democrat Disability Association before we went upstairs for the NHS motion. Quite simply, the motion originally was supportive of the proposed NHS reforms. Thankfully, two well crafter amendments torpedoed it and transformed it into a condemnation of the plans. We also has a motion against the government's proposals to withdraw the mobility component of the Disabled Living Allowance. Both of these motions passed overwhelmingly and made me proud to be a party member. More detail can be found here.
We then set off for the Mercure St Paul's Hotel where Vince Cable was due to have a debate with former MP Evan Harris over higher and further education. As we left the conference we got hassled by three protesters who chanted "shame on you" very half heartedly. We were very disappointed in their lack of conviction. If you're going to bother to stand outside and insult people you could at least have the decency to put some effort into it.
Unfortunately, after getting to the hotel and having a very expensive lunch, we found out that the venue had been moved back to the City Hall to avoid protesters. This meant that by the time we got back the event had already started and was completely packed. As a result I didn't get to meet Vince which made me very sad.
Incidentally, when we got back to the City Hall the protest had finally got underway. I still don't see where the five thousand figure came from though. I've been on protests and I reckon the most that could have fitted in such a small area was 1,000. A bit disappointing really given that Sheffield has 60,000 students.
Anyway, we decided to head off to a training session about being a parliamentary candidate (I got us lost on the way, again) and then we went back to the City Hall a third time for the diversity motion debate. Ways to improve the diversity of our MPs is a long standing argument within the party. In the 2001 conference there was blood on the floor (metaphorically) after the debate on whether to introduce all women or all BAME (black and minority ethnic) shortlists*. At the autumn conference last year there was a motion on whether to introduce mandatory places on shortlists which was halted by amendments. There was a lot of bad blood as a result of that as well.
Thankfully, this motion was much more measured. I'd opposed the motion last year but I supported this year's motion. Last year would have meant bringing discrimination on the basis of race into the selection process, something which, as a liberal, I am completely opposed to. This motion set out a method for improving diversity without resorting to such methods and so I supported it wholeheartedly. This was an issue that had divided the party for too long and we needed to finally do something. That said, I understand the position of those who oppose it, and those who don't think it goes far enough. Though, in fact, I think the fact that this was a compromise measure is probables a good thing. A balance between the two positions had been struck and the party will be the better for it. The motion was passed by a large majority and essentially does the following:
The new provisions for the party will be to establish a Leadership Programme which will give them access to parliamentarians, a comprehensive training and support package, as well as mentoring and coaching. Those on the list will – if they apply – be guaranteed a place on shortlists before going ahead to be voted on by local parties who are selected. The list will have at least 30 people in it by the end of 2011, and will be made up of at 50% women, 20% from BAME backgrounds and 10% for those with disabilities.There's an article over on Lib Dem Voice about it which is well worth a read.
Finally, after a long day, we went back to the hotel, dumped our stuff, went to an excellent all you could eat Chinese food buffet and then went to the Glee Club.
Now, a word on the Glee Club. The Glee Club is an ancient Liberal tradition and always takes place on the Saturday of conference. It combines Liberal humour with singing and our other great tradition of drinking. It took place in a large room with a bar at one end and seats at the other. I'd say about 200 of us crowded in there to sing songs from the Liberator songbook. The songs come from every era of the party and are very tongue-in-cheek. For example, we had "the Pink Flag", "Iraqi Cokey Cokey", "Losing Deposits", "Twelve Days of Coalition", "The Lib-Lab Lie" and "Commons People". It was great fun and, despite the fact that my beer tasted of piss and that I went to bed extremely late, I loved every second of it. I even composed by own song in honour of the protesters which I shall submit to the Liberator in due course.
Well, that pretty much covers Saturday so I'll say goodnight and finish my write up tomorrow. Night night.
* - Shortlists are the term given to the list of candidates approved by interview by a local party to be a candidate. The local party as a whole then votes on which candidate from the shortlist should be their candidate.