Friday, 28 September 2012

The best and the worst bits of conference

So, Lib Dem autumn conference is now over. As normal it was great fun though expensive (especially if, like me, you're on a student budget) and a fantastic opportunity to bump into friends and acquaintances old and new.

And I thought I'd just write this post to highlight my personal best and worst bits of conference.

The Best

As always, my favourite bit of conference was Glee club on the last night - a proud, decades old, tradition where we all get together, get drunk, and sing Lib Dem versions of many popular songs until 2am. My favourite songs this year were Lib-Lab Lie (to the tune of American Pie) and Policing The Land - a brutal pillorying of the conference accreditation system.

Another highlight was my good friend Natasha Chapman making her first speech at conference. Despite being rather nervous she did absolutely brilliantly and I foresee brilliant things in her future - if only she'll give up on her ambition to be a scientist and let me bully her into becoming Prime Minister instead ;)

And then there was the Equal Citizenship motion passing overwhelmingly and the incredibly heartfelt speeches made during the debate by sick and disabled people - if I ever needed reminding of why it's worth doing this their stories were all that anyone would ever need to realise why this injustice needs fighting.

Finally, there was conference overwhelmingly defeating the leadership in a vote on secret courts - more on this later.

The Worst

The worst and most depressing and simultaneously infuriating moment of conference was a rigged debate over economic strategy. Basically, Danny Alexander had a motion endorsing the government's economic strategy and calling for a few good, liberal, additions to it. Some people objected to the notion of officially endorsing George Osborne's economic strategy as party policy and so two amendments to the motion were put forwards.

As the Guardian accurately reports:
One amendment tabled by Linda Jack, the leader of Liberal Left, a smallish pressure group that has opposed the coalition from the outset, called for the fiscal mandate to be scrapped. Another amendment tabled by Prateek Buch, from the more centre-left Social Liberal Forum (SLF) opposed "yet more public spending cuts, which will be counterproductive, particularly if capital investment and welfare spending are targeted again". 
It also called on the coalition to "prioritise measures to boost demand through public and private investment, using all tools available to government including the flexibility in its fiscal mandate, over further spending cuts beyond those already in place that would suppress confidence and demand yet further". 
The first amendment from Jack had the support of only 13 signatories while the other, more subtle but still pointed, motion from SLF had 29 supporters.
And, with these two amendments put forward, the Federal Conference Committee decided to select the motion with fewer backers, and a fairly extreme anti-coalition motive, and completely ignore the more moderate one and block it from debate.

As a result, conference was presented with a choice between reluctantly endorsing the current deficit reduction strategy or completely rejecting the government's entire economic strategy. In short, it was no choice at all with the result that most voting representatives decided to back the motion and reject the amendment as most of them, myself included, felt that the amendment was too extreme and damaging to the coalition which, like it or not, most of us are still reluctantly signed up to.

We were helped to this view by a rigged debate in which the chair called hardly any ordinary party members to speak, instead calling MP after MP, one after another, to support the motion and to denounce the amendment. There was precisely one speaker called to support the amendment in the debate - something which I am sure was far from reflective of the balance of opinion in the speakers cards submitted to the chair of the debate.

The obvious effect was that you had party authority figure after party authority all saying the same thing, distorting the debate so that advocates of the amendment couldn't get a word in edgeways. Couple this with a whipping operation which saw MPs, peers and their staff flood into the hall just in time to cast their vote, and what we ended up with was a disgustingly partial and rigged debate which forced conference into voting for an endorsement of Osborne's economic strategy due to the lack of any real alternative. It was undemocratic and the chair of that debate (who I won't name) should be utterly ashamed of himself for so obviously distorting the party's democratic process.

Something similar also happened with a debate about the government's proposals for secret courts. Basically, the government wants to allow secret courts in cases where there is top secret evidence which can't be disclosed where the intelligence services deem it to be a threat to national security. Instead, the government's lawyers would have a cosy tete-a-tete with the judge and a government appointed "advocate" for the other side's defence team where they could all discuss the evidence in secret without the other sides lawyers even being able to communicate with their so-called advocate.

The party leadership wanted the party to back wording which would allow this to happen and, despite a similar whipping operation where popular MPs and peers were wheeled out to sacrifice their credibility to defend the leadership's position, the response from conference was a resounding "fuck no" with members actually cheering as they overwhelmingly voted for the secret court proposals to be scrapped. So, while the two attempts to rig conference were utterly disgusting, at least I can be proud of my fellow party members for not standing for it.

An Announcement

And all of the above brings me to an announcement I'd like to make. Given the failure of the FCC to protect debates from being rigged, and because of various other issues, I'd like to announce that I am standing for the Federal Conference Committee in the internal elections later this autumn. I'll have a more detailed manifesto up shortly.

6 comments:

  1. I'm sorry, how exactly is it "rigged" for MPs and Lords to come and debate policy? Similarly, staff members can't actually vote unless they are voting reps, so I think be careful in the accusations you make. I think you just have to face facts sometimes that some people disagree with you. This is what's good in the Lib Dems.

    Your point on choosing the amendments is fair enough, and FCC are the body who are accountable for this decision.

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    1. MPs and Peers are perfectly entitled to speak in debates. What I object to is when they are the *only* people called to speak - I only counted one speaker who wasn't a parliamentarian if we excluse proposers and summators. That's not right because if only parliamentarians are allowed to speak then that prevents ordinary members from being allowed to speak - it's about getting a balance and a mixture of speakers from all view points and from all backgrounds. That utterly failed to happen in the debate.

      Secondly, staff members can't vote unless they are voting reps, true, but I can tell you right now that because of their positions and their prominence as an MPs assistant, as well as the fact that they are almost certain to go to conference, makes them naturally more likely to be selected to be voting reps than ordinary members.

      Now, in fairness, there's nothing wrong per se with whipping people to come in and vote on something you consider important. What I object to is the entire mix of:

      1. Options up for debate being restricted to prevent a false choice
      2. Pretty much only people in favour of the motion and against the amendment being called to speak
      3. Pretty much only parliamentarians being called, preventing ordinary members from having a chance to speak
      4. A big whipping operation by the leadership to ensure that people who normally never even bother to attend debates came in at the last moment to vote the way the leadership wanted

      All of the above put together is utterly detrimental to the cause of free and open debate and is something that we should all be ashamed of.

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  2. George,glad to see you are standing for the Federal Conference Committee.

    We need people like you,a independent thinker who does not go for the,my party right or wrong attitude.

    I think the LibDems will suffer badly in 2015,and it will be the likes of You,and Linda Jacks,who will have to repair whatever is left.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What's the point of having a conference if only parlimentarians are practically the only people to speak. They could do that in parliamentary party meetings.

    And if you whip people to vote the way the leadership wants, then the whole democracy thing is a merely a meaningless word.

    OK. I'm not a LibDem, but if I lived in England, my natural political home would be the Liberal party.

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  4. I'd like to add a 'bad' point, that once again the conference wasn't particularly diverse. When are we going to have a gathering that reflects the society we aim to serve? Local parties need to be encouraged encourage more diverse members to attend, including BAME members.

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    Replies
    1. Accreditation has not helped one jot with this, sadly.

      Delete

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

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