Sunday, 18 March 2012

A belated conference update

This is nearly a week late but I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to write about conference until now.

I arrived in Newcastle on the Sunday and I have to say it's a very pretty city - surprisingly so in fact. Then again, that could be my inate home counties bias and negative stereotypes of the north.

Anyway, here are a few key moments of conference for me:

The first was on the Friday night when a friend and I attended a fringe on the UK's space industry - a sector which has been growing at 10% a year for well over a decade. Given that I'm studying space technology related engineering at uni it's really not surprising that this is something I'm interested in. The panel was composed of the CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, or SSTL, (a company specialising in building cheap, small satellites and which was founded by students at my university back in the 80s), a guy from EADS Astrium (the biggest space technology company in Europe) and Vince Cable.

It was absolutely fascinating and Vince made some very interesting comments about his strategy for helping to rebalance our economy - with an emphasis on high tech, niche manufacturing of the type that the UK space industry illustrates. As part of this the government is creating thousands of new apprenticeships and has set up "centres of excellence" located in areas where there are existing concentrations of British scientific and technical enterprise. All in all it was very encouraging to hear and certainly Vince seems to have the right idea of how to boost our economy - creating the correct regulatory framework and providing small, targetted amounts of assistance to manufacturing in order to create the right situation for growth. One example of this was SSTL building a constellation of disaster monitoring satellites which were funded by a consortium of several countries - but the non-UK countries only put in the funding once the UK had guaranteed it's participation, giving the other countries confidence that this was a safe investment.

So, as I said, very encouraging.

I also interviewed Tim Farron - the party president - as part of a group of young bloggers in a session organised by Liberal Youth. I should have my interview up on the LY Libertine early this coming week and I'll cross post it here. Suffice to say I got some interesting answers to the three questions I was able to ask (sadly there wasn't time for any more than those).

But the two big features of conference were my attempt to kick the leadership in the unmentionables (figuratively speaking) over the Welfare Reform Bill and the commotions over the NHS bill.

Sadly I failed to achieve much over the WRB. The best we could manage was to move that the report by Lib Dem MPs to the party was rejected on the grounds of failing to justify their voting record on the WRB and the NHS reforms. We were only able to do this because of a very good, very awesome friend of mine called Natasha Chapman. Only a voting rep is able to request that a report is rejected and, as I'm not a voting rep myself, she was brave enough to volunteer to do it - what's even more impressive is that she stood up and publicly called for the report to be rejected despite having never spoken at conference before. She told me that she was so nervous that her hands were shaking but she certainly didn't come across as nervous when she spoke.

She doesn't normally read this blog which means she won't be able to contradict me when I tell you she is a much, much better human being than I am and far more principled.

Sadly, we lost the vote on rejecting the report - partly because we didn't have the connections to mobilise people for the vote and partly because the party's whip, Alistair Carmichael MP, is a very charming and very humorous speaker (which he used to his advantage when making the case for the report being accepted), but mainly because he was able to claim that the vote on the WRB took place after the deadline for the submission of the report and that's why it was left out. Given that Jenny Willott MP was the party's disability spokesman and had been heavily involved with the WRB, and that it was obvious that our MPs were going to be voting on the Lords amendments to the WRB before conference, this argument doesn't really convince me but it was good enough to get the benefit of the doubt of conference at 9am on a Sunday morning when most people were still hungover from Glee Club the night before.

The only victory I can see from this is that a) we disrupted Alistair Carmichael's morning, and possibly gave him a very nasty shock for a moment, and b) Natasha got a very large round of applause from conference after requesting the report be rejected - my guess is that we had a lot more sympathy than those who voted for the report to be rejected. And, of course, Carmichael's argument about the deadline certainly won't apply when we come to autumn conference so I very much look forwards to having another go then. Not to mention proposing various constitutional amendments (which you will hear more about when I have finished my plotting).

Immediately after our failed gambit came the big showdown over the NHS reforms. Here's basically what happened:

There's a slot on the last day of conference for one emergency motion to be debated. This conference there were four contenders for the slot. One was on Syria, one was on the justice system and two were about the NHS reforms. One of them was the one by the Social Liberal Forum (SLF), backed by Dr Evan Harris (a very great man in my humble opinion), to kill the NHS reforms, and the other was by the leadership and was called "Defending the NHS: the Shirley Williams motion".

There was a ballot to decide which motion to debate. Lib Dems use a preferential voting system for these matters and the SLF motion got most of the first preference votes. However, once the Syria and justice motions were eliminated and the votes transferred, the leadership's motion won the ballot - my guess is that people who didn't know much about it saw Shirley William's name attached to it and thought that if Shirley was backing it then it must be good. It's important to emphasise here that, until last week at least, Shirley was a Lib Dem divinity. Much loved, much admired and much cherished she was and is credited with immense wisdom and led the charge against the NHS reforms at the Sheffield spring conference last year.

But now she's switched sides.

On the Sunday, conference debated the leadership's motion which basically said that our parliamentarians had done a brilliant job getting amendments made and would have made it party policy to support the NHS reforms. Thankfully, conference wasn't having that. Members of the SLF moved for certain lines of the motion to be deleted - specifically the lines calling for the party to support the reforms.

The debate was relatively short but highly charged and fascinating. The Federal Conference Committee had been deluged with speakers cards by people wanting to speak against the motion (a card by yours truly amongst them) and, following procedure, called speakers in proportion to the number of cards for and against the motion. This meant that there were far, far more speakers against the NHS reforms than in favour of them and some very, very good points were made - particularly that the government had welched on its promises to implement the amendments demanded by Lib Dems last year.

At the end of the debate Shirley Williams went up to make the final argument in favour of the motion - apparently she only saw the speech she was to make a few minutes before making it. She said her piece and duly received a muted round of applause for it but that was it. Personally I didn't think she'd made any new arguments or had made any convincing arguments in favour of the NHS reforms. She certainly lost a hell of a lot of credit when she made that speech.

Then we had the vote. Let me tell you, the conference hall was absolutely packed. There wasn't a single seat empty. There were more people attending the vote than attended Clegg's speech later on that day. I actually gave up my seat to a voting rep as the rules say that only those seated can vote. Unfortunately, said voting rep then voted with the leadership - making it all rather counter-productive from my point. Still, I suppose that morally I did the right thing as it wouldn't be right to have blocked his right to vote simply because I disagreed with him and was too lazy to give up my seat.

Anyway, long story short, conference voted to delete the lines supporting the NHS reforms and then passed the motion. So essentially conference said well done to our parliamentarians for the work they've done so far and then kicked the ball back to their court.

I'll tell you this though, the leadership definitely lost face.

They were symbolically defeated by conference and only managed to avoid complete humiliation through using Shirley Williams as a human shield. The excellent Caron Lindsay has some interesting points about that on her blog. Her view of Nick Clegg and the reforms is different to mine but I think she shares my dislike for the way the leadership handled this and the arguments they made. She was also a great source of moral support in opposing the Welfare Reform Bill so she gets major kudos for that.

And that pretty much concludes my account of conference. I met some old friends again and met a lot of interesting new people (such as Political Parry - a social liberal, a feminist and a brilliant blogger). I had great fun at Glee Club, went drinking with Liberal Youth and got to have a first hand look at one of the jewels of the north. And, on top of that, I saw the membership give the leadership a bloody nose. They might still ignore us over the NHS reforms but, if they do, they will not be acting in our name.


  1. I read this after hearing that Lord Owen's amendment to the third reading of the NHS Bill got trounced. Number of Lib Dem peers voting for it: zero, nada, zilch, zip.

    Enough said?

  2. Please can one of the constitutional plots be to stop them using people's names in motions to manipulate us?


I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

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Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

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