Ten things from Brighton

September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Here’s a short list of reflections and thoughts from autumn conference, which I enjoyed but which was nonetheless quite frustrating at times – unlike last time’s ten from Spring conference, this time they’re not all criticisms of Federal Conference Committee. Just quite a lot of them are….

1. The social security motion was a grievous missed opportunity, but averted from being a tragedy. I’m glad that we passed amendment one and that we’ve thus committed the party to the complete abolition of the benefit sanctions system. I’m doubly glad that amendment two was heavily defeated, meaning FCC’s proposal to scrap the benefit cap will become party policy. However, I am little short of livid that so many aspects of the policy paper went unchallenged. With three amendments to discuss, the debate gave only a very cursory overview of most of the issues. The new proposal for unemployment insurance was barely discussed, and the key problem of the working paper – the fact that the working group had been constricted to coalition era spending levels – went very literally unmentioned. Sadly we now can’t return to this policy area until 2018 or 2019; the policy we have is certainly an improvement, but the party has missed an opportunity to give itself something distinctive to say on this key issue and, moreover, has done so with a debate that consisted more of working group members throwing the amount of work they’d done at delegates rather than adequately explaining or defending their position.

2. Far more work is still needed on quieter and calmer spaces at conference. I don’t know to what extent I’m unusual in really struggling to socialise in very packed, noisy rooms, but that one was able to do so seemed to be a general assumption. Additionally, the removal of the main area of tables & chairs on Monday was pointless – there was space for them elsewhere – and further restricted seating around the exhibition area, which was already at a premium. Decent seating areas and discussion rooms are not a nice to have at a conference, they should be a must-have. I’m likely to keep going to conferences because I’m driven there by policy issues, but I’ve often found the two I’ve been to thus far really quite lonely experiences at times, and it doesn’t feel like they’re well set up in general for catering for that.

3. The Radical Association is getting into gear, and thank goodness. Whilst the RA campaign this conference to block the social security motion failed, getting 202 members behind it and hundreds of flyers out was definitely a solid start, not to mention a good inaugural pub meetup. Getting a distinctive identity for the party – and not just as an “EU-KIP” response party to Brexit – is going to be crucial to rebuilding a core vote and winning Westminster seats. People need to be hearing about a distinct liberal vision, especially on the economy and public services where our identity has been blurred by coalition – we need to be talking about alternative business models, land value tax, how to revitalise the rural economy, and other areas where we can sharpen a distinct place for ourselves and reconstruct our natural voting coalition along with it. Stay tuned for more on this one!

4. The Europe debate wasn’t a debate – and that was a pity. The party membership is mostly united on the principles that a) EU membership is good and b) we should therefore fight to continue it. But we should have had a debate on strategy rather than a rubber-stamping rally for HQ’s policy. Whether we promise a referendum on the terms of the deal or not is a genuinely good an open question, and it deeply disconcerts me that we’ve waddled into the former camp without a serious debate. Most of the speakers in favour of the motion did not actually address the substantive issues of strategy; it was a rally rather than a debate. It was a damn good rally at that, but that’s not what we needed right now.

5. The structures of conference debates are skewed. For one thing, they’re very heavily weighted to the proposition; those proposing the motion get to frame the debate at the start *and* get the last rebuttal at the end completely for free. It concerns me as well how much power the individual chairs of the debates have; in the social security debate it was inappropriate to call three members of the working group to speak in favour of the motion and not call anyone from the working group who was opposed to it.

6. No, really, do double check inclusiveness, it’s important. There were still some binary-gendered speakers cards out in the main hall, and some binary gendered intervention cards in the auditorium. This, after it had been complained about last time, is a very serious error indeed on the part of FCC and should absolutely not have been allowed to happen.

7. Also, all the other things wrong with Spring conference that weren’t acted on are still problems. Most prominent among these being the party’s pre-leader’s speech fundraising, which, repeating myself from last time, SHOULD NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES be phrased and put out in such a way that it could shame poorer activists into giving money they can’t afford. Conference IS expensive, it’s very hard for younger and worse off activists to get to, and it’s a basic inclusiveness issue that what people are asked to give for our party should be linked to what they can reasonably afford – both financially and in terms of their health. We break too many activists and supporters by pushing them too hard, and this is just one facet of that.

8. We spend far too much time debating points of agreement. We really need a system where if, say, less than 20 or 25 people register their opposition to a conference motion between the motions being published and the conference timetable being written, it’s allocated a 15-20 minute slot rather than a full debate slot. This would dramatically increase the efficiency of conference and mean we could both get more business done on the conference floor, and have longer debates on important areas like social security which could easily have occupied an hour more than it had. We just don’t need to be spending conference telling one another how wonderful we are for all the things we agree on.

9. We should get primers on the procedural rules or otherwise help people understand them. The procedures for referral back and for calling for a counted vote, for example, were both used in the social security debate – I’m willing to bet that 70% of the audience at minimum had no idea how to use or trigger either of those procedures. If only a small minority of conference delegates actually have the full procedural toolkit for use in debates, there’s clearly an issue of equality among the delegates there.

10. All that said, it’s nice spending time with Lib Dems. Indeed point 2 wouldn’t be frustrating for me if I didn’t enjoy people’s company and didn’t want to be able to spend more time with and meet more people! Meeting new people may be a slow process for me, but it’s a worthwhile one, and I’ll certainly do my best to be back for spring if I can afford to get up to York. Who knows, I might even run third time lucky and actually get a speakers’ card picked out next time round…

So there are some thoughts, some probably more coherent than others. Some of the problems with conference are easily fixable, and the fact that I know many people raised some of these concerns after Spring only to have them apparently ignored in Brighton certainly makes me extremely disinclined to lend any incumbent member of FCC my vote when elections come around (FCC members who wish to grovel or attempt explanations, the comments section is below!) There are nonetheless many great people and many important things going on at conference; that’s why it’s so vital to get it right, and that’s why I’m sure I’ll be back, voting pass in hand, in the future.

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