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Liberal Democrat spring conference 2011

I've just got back from a weekend in Sheffield, where I went to attend my first proper LibDem party conference. I did previously attend the Special Conference which was called to ratify the coalition agreement in Birmingham last May, of course, but that was in a rather atypical format, and besides I was only a very newly-fledged party member at that point - just there to get a sense of what it was all about, and of course witness a historic political event at first hand, really. I couldn't attend the autumn one, because it clashed hopelessly with Freshers' Week at Leeds, which is a point in the academic year when I really can't take time away from work unless it is for genuine academic reasons. So this was my first go at a normal conference experience.

I really enjoyed it. miss_s_b, who has been to many more of these things than I have, said that she found the actual debating and policy-making side of things a bit dull this time, because there weren't really any motions on the agenda that were particularly controversial. Every single one was passed, usually with overwhelming majorities, as were most (though not all) of the proposed amendments. So we have now agreed to press for:
  • Tougher action on banks and bonuses, including breaking up large tax-payer-owned banks into smaller units, greater pay transparency, and explicit measures to ensure that the poorest members of society have proper access to banking and cash-point facilities.
  • Reinstatement of the mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance.
  • A clear and absolute rejection of any marketisation or privatisation of the NHS, while supporting greater accountability and openness in the commissioning of services.
  • A dedicated leadership programme to foster and support LibDem candidates from under-represented minority groups planning to stand for election as MPs in 2015.
  • The protection of access to justice for those who need it most by preventing any changes to the Legal Aid budget that will limit that access.
That's not everything, of course - just the motions I found most interesting. But all of it is exactly the sort of stuff I joined the party to support, and it is great to be a member of an organisation where passionate, principled people put forward those sorts of policies, and the party leadership has to listen and respond. Nick Clegg now has to go back to Westminster and push for the policies which we have passed - and the Tory party leadership know full well that he will be deadly serious on all of those points. If he is not, he will lose the support of the party membership, and thus his position as leader - and David Cameron cannot allow that to happen any more than he can, because the Tories still very much need us as coalition partners. My personal judgement of him is that he will actually be pretty happy to have that leverage, giving him the back-up that he needs to push for the implementation of liberal policies. But I know not everyone sees him that way.

In practice, although the policy motions and debates in the main hall are the chief business of the conference, more of my time was actually spent either at fringe events or on the LBGT Lib Dems stall in the exhibition room. Partly, that was because I am still a bit too new within the party to be allowed to vote on the motions myself - you have to be chosen to represent your local party at conference for that, and I have only just started to get to know the right people for that to happen over the last couple of months. In any case, my main aim was really just to learn more about how the party works and meet some of the people involved, and going to the policy debates was only one amongst many ways of doing that. So what I actually went to myself was as follows:
  • A consultative policy-development session on ways to measure and address issues of inequality in wealth, work and political representation. (This is a way of exploring views and opinions with the aim of developing a fully-fledged policy motion for a future conference).
  • The opening conference rally, complete with absolutely excellent speeches from Floella Benjamin, Paul Scriven (leader of Sheffield council), Tim Farron, and Nick Clegg.
  • A Yorkshire and Humber LibDems reception, including a question and answer session with Nick Clegg.
  • Another question and answer session with Vince Cable being grilled by Evan Harris and conference delegates on post-18 education (including, of course, a lot of focus on the issue of tuition fees).
  • Yet another Q&A session with Nick Clegg, this time open to the whole party in the main hall and covering Lords Reform, tuition fees and the forthcoming May elections (podcast here).
  • The LBGT Lib Dems stall - probably spent about 4 hours here in total on the Saturday.
  • The policy debate on how to develop more diversity amongst our MPs.
  • A Yes to Fairer votes reception, with speeches from some of the major figures involved at different levels of the campaign, and again questions from the audience.
  • A main-auditorium speech on fairer votes, which actually also focused a great deal on issues of ethnic diversity and the engagement of disadvantaged groups in the political process.
  • The policy debate on access to justice.
  • And of course Nick Clegg's closing speech.


And in between I talked to people, getting to know people I normally only interact with online better, and meeting new people for the first time - including my local MP, who seemed very keen to consolidate the contact and get to know me better back up in Leeds. Everyone I encountered was just so amazing - warm, friendly, positive, active, passionate, interesting, articulate, thoughtful, hard-working, good-humoured and all very keen to make a new person feel welcome. What I didn't expect, though, as a humble Focus-leaflet deliverer still less than a year into my party membership, was to end up rubbing shoulders with the Deputy Prime Minister himself. But it did happen - twice, in fact.


The picture is from the first night, at the end of the Yorkshire and Humber LibDems reception, and it basically came about because I've got to know one of our local activists, Chris Lovell, and he seems to know everyone. So he was able to tap Nick's aide on the shoulder, and ask if he'd mind a quick photo-op with a new party member - whereupon I was ushered forwards, right past the umpteen other people crowding around him, to be greeted warmly, patted on the back and photographed by Chris. It was all a bit surreal, really, but definitely exciting! Certainly shows the truth of politics being all about who you know.

Then the second time was during his tour of the exhibition hall (where all sorts of specific interest groups within the party set up stands to talk to members about what they are doing), during which I happened to be manning the LBGT Lib Dems stall again. What he does is basically to circulate showing his interest in all the many and varied groups within the party, shaking hands and being photographed as he goes - so that's what happened on our stall, too. He asked whether we were getting plenty of interest, and posed this time for a photo with another of our activists (it was old hat for me by then). And although I don't have a photo myself to show for that meeting, it involved a bit more actual interaction with him this time - he remembered me from the photo the previous night, and was smiley and friendly, and joked that he was going to make off with the lovely jam and cream scone I'd been eating before he arrived. I know he's a politician, and it's his job to seem genuine and personable and friendly. But he certainly does it very convincingly.

Anyway, there's lots more I could say about it all, but it's bed-time now, and I'll be back into full-on mega-busy mode at work again tomorrow. So I guess I will leave it there. Definitely an experience I'm glad I made time for, though, and I hope I'll get to do it again before too long.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
matgb
Mar. 14th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
I know he's a politician, and it's his job to seem genuine and personable and friendly. But he certainly does it very convincingly

I think it's actually because he mostly is. I've met him three/fout times, first time in the lift at my first conference. He remembers me each time, and asked after Jennie once. I'm not that distinctive, especially for a Lib Dem, but...

He's climbed that pole because he's actually very good at doing what a political leader needs to be good at. Whether he's learned it over years or whether it's natural/education/background? Who cares, it works.

Glad you enjoyed it though, and many many thanks for giving Jennie & James that lift.
strange_complex
Mar. 14th, 2011 09:24 am (UTC)
Yes, I agree - I think it's basically how he really is, although probably also something he's been careful to develop in himself for political reasons.

No problems on the lift - I was glad to have people in the car who could help me make sure I took the right turnings without getting lost and confused! If Jennie suddenly disappears during the night, it'll be because I've kidnapped her to replace my SatNav...
diffrentcolours
Mar. 14th, 2011 10:43 am (UTC)
Don's going to e-mail me the pictures he took of Nick's visit to the stall; I'll send them on to you when I have them.
strange_complex
Mar. 14th, 2011 11:16 am (UTC)
Lovely! I'm not in them, because I was taking the photos, but they should make for good fodder to put on the LGBT LibDems website.
rmc28
Mar. 18th, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
*wave* We spoke briefly, introduced by pseudomonas, so I hope you don't mind me friending you.

(my blog is all on DW now, but I still read/comment on LJ, and I'm rmc28 on twitter too)
strange_complex
Mar. 18th, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC)
Hi, and thanks for the comment. I am friending you back and / or subscribing to your DW feed as appropriate. :-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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