April 19, 2017 § 2 Comments
I’ve seen a lot of speculation about coalitions in relation to the election, and especially in relation to the Lib Dems. So I’m going to set out my own position here, and explain why my position matters (which it wouldn’t if I were a Labour or Conservative member).
A coalition deal including the Lib Dems requires the consent of two thirds of Liberal Democrat conference delegates, under Article 22 of the Lib Dem constitution. We are a democratic party, and for example in 2010 we held a special conference that endorsed the coalition deal. Times have changed since then, though, and instead of the collection of delegate-bigwigs who made the call in 2010, the party has moved to one member one vote. That’s the system that any coalition deal would have to go through. I suggest to any of you reading this that you take speculation on Farron’s motives or comments regarding coalitions with a strong pinch of salt – it’s emphatically not his call to make in a democratic party, and in the (exceptionally unlikely) event of a hung parliament the Lib Dem members would make their voices clearly heard.
So, speculation over a Lib Dem-Tory coalition. Short version: it’s nonsense and no more likely than a Labour-Tory one at this stage. I do not think such a coalition deal would be possible to begin with, as an immediate change in the electoral system and commitment to retaining membership of the European Economic Area would likely be the party leadership’s minimum red lines. In the unlikely event that the leadership reneged on these red lines, they would have to try and force a deal through an energetic, belligerent conference floor. Even if these lines were met (in which case the Conservative party would be collapsing internally), it would be up to any prospective dealmakers to convince conference that such a proposed government could save the NHS, rebuild our education system, and deliver on liberal values in other areas. I don’t think that this scenario is possible, let alone likely.
But I’ll be clear for my own part: I think, and I think most of my party agree, that the Conservatives lack the moral authority to run our country. They are a ramshackle party clinging to their internal unity at the expense of the country, mired in corruption allegations, with an incompetent record on the economy and an immoral one on social policy. Whilst I am sure that such a conversation won’t happen, I would not vote for (and would campaign to oppose) a proposed government that was led by the Conservative party, under any terms, and I am confident that a majority of Liberal Democrat members would not do so either.
March 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
As usual, I wish I had better words – but will probably make up in volume what I lack in wisdom.
This is the largest setback for progressive forces in Britain in my lifetime, perhaps in a half-century. There should be no confusion about that – even if there had been last June, the scale of the damage that the Conservative government will do under cover of Brexit is now increasingly apparent. Brexit itself is, I have always thought, a bad move – but it has been the choices of Conservatives that have created this catastrophe.
In ruling out both freedom of movement and the oversight of the ECJ for trade relations, May has made two choices (and we must see them as choices, being by no means inevitable parts of Brexit) that will hurt people across the country. A city of London without financial passporting could see billions wiped off our GDP and thus be used as an excuse to further dismember our NHS and social services; small businesses who export to Europe in a wide variety of areas could face tariff barriers that they have no room on their balance sheets to absorb. The economic impacts of this will be very real for people’s livelihoods, and will largely be the result of the choices of the Tory hard right.
But there the choices do not end. The hard right have won their victory, and are only now discovering that they cannot tell one end of a ministerial briefing from the other. What a Brext Britain needs would be a radical, effective economic strategy – active, effective support for our creative industries and massive investment in science & technology in order to make the most of Britain’s knowledge economy, meaningful support for SMEs, and big steps in adult education to fight poverty traps and improve the dynamism of our labour market. And yet, only deafening silence reigns. Creatives and academics are at critically low morale and are checking their options for work visas elsewhere. There is no plan. The Conservatives have hammered down what they are against, but what are they for?
It is a question they have chosen – chosen – not to answer.
The choices of Conservatives must not, cannot, be unaccountable to the electorate. It is both our right and our duty as citizens to call our government out when it takes a wrong turn, when it fails to represent our interests. The choices of Conservatives through this process so far have been, for many of us, to not only fail to represent our interests, hopes, and aspirations, but to actively and aggressively attack them across a wide range of policy areas. For me, at a time like this, parading false unity and failing to take on the government would be a betrayal of my values, of my friends, and of myself. People – many I’ve never met, many I care about, many I love – will have to face the choices of Conservatives. I will not stop fighting their corner. I cannot.
I do not believe, and will not allow myself to believe, that this fight is futile. Brexit is a hammer-blow, but standing up for people’s jobs and aspirations, for their freedom to move and love and create and hope, goes far beyond it. A radical, liberal future for Britain has never been more needed; restoring our battered standing in the wider world, giving people real effective choice in elections, caring better for people’s mental and physical health, giving people opportunity through education and security through minimum incomes, and much more. It’s a future that we need to articulate – not so much to oppose a Conservative vision of our future as to fill the void that the choices of Conservatives look set to leave our country in. We deserve better than that. We deserve hope.
Finally; I know there will be some people particularly upset today – fresh uncertainty over whether families will be able to stay together or jobs will continue to exist, whether they’ll be able to stay in their adopted country of residence, feeling a stranger in a country they thought they knew, or simply exhausted by the absurd allegations and attacks on those of us who have fought an internationalist corner in these difficult times. If you’re one of those people – stay strong, take care, and look after yourself. Thinking of you all.
February 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
Hello friends! This is a blogpost officially announcing that I’m going to be running to be the first elected chair of the Radical Association.
So, the RA. What is it and why is it? It’s a ginger group – an internal pressure group, that is to say – with the Liberal Democrat party. Its aims are to support specifically radical and blue-skies policy creation, with a view not only to working on a policy research level but determining how we can get new ideas through into party policy and out to the public at large.
Why’s this needed? The big answer is because for generations in the UK, people have had their lives changed, for the better, by big liberal ideas and reforms – implementing pensions, writing the blueprint for healthcare free at the point of use, leading the way on seeking more cooperation with our continental neighbours, pushing for equality under the law in marriage and a host of other areas. As the 21st century continues we’re seeing a wide range of new or continuing problems facing our society – low political engagement in some parts of the community, automation permanently changing the way we interact with work, a changing population structure meaning radically different pressures on public services, the need for clean energy self-sufficiency in the face of climate change, and more. The RA’s specific focus on campaigning to get bolder ideas onto the table is, I believe, a necessary part of building a Liberal Democrat party that’s capable of standing up to the challenges of the coming years and winning people back behind a more open, more egalitarian, kinder political agenda than the one being pushed by our present government.
So, what am I doing? The Chair of the RA is essentially what it says on the tin – it’s a role distinct from that of the director, who runs day to day operations, and is responsible for overall final decision calls, direction, and public engagement. The organisation is new and small so this “election campaign” is likely to be mostly about ensuring that we can get all positions contested and encouraging people to vote, but I’ll be doing my best in the coming fortnight to set out some aspects of my vision for the association and where it should go next.
If you want to help and are a Liberal Democrat member, please join the Radical Association and vote in the elections (voting starts roughly March 5) or even consider running for a post – we have some non-portfolio positions that still could do with people expressing interest. If you want to help and are not a Lib Dem member, I’ll probably have some horrendous Facebook page for campaigning knocked together soon which you can like and things like that.
I’ll be adding one or two more blogposts in the coming days hopefully to further set out my ideas for the Association and where we can take it going forwards 🙂
February 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
The UK and US have both set a national course along similar trajectories recently. Brexit and Trump may not be precisely the same phenomenon, but the resulting governments have some distinctly similar features; a traditional right-wing party being led by its most nativist, nationalist elements, pushing anti-immigration policy and sentiment without regard for the potential economic or political damage, a disregard for innovation as an economic driver, and the heavy rhetorical use of “real” (as code for an idealised vision of “masculine/manufacturing”) people being played against a caricature of “elite” city-dwellers. The similarities go on, but the point is made.
We and our media, however, may be so wrapped up in our current situation that we are missing the patterns and trajectories in other countries, assuming too quickly that they are simply waiting or threatening to follow us along that road, or at the very least that their more centrist politicians will have to give significant ground to the nativist right in order to withstand the tide. Such a view is by no means stupid – the hard right has been resurgent across Europe as well as the Anglosphere – but if one looks beneath the surface, Europe may be about to take a hard tack in the opposite direction altogether.
There are three key elections coming up in Europe this year – France, the Netherlands, and Germany. As three of the EU27’s largest economies, these countries (especially France and Germany) have a huge rule in dictating the future of the European Union. Closer union cannot realistically happen without their consent; their leaving the European project would be far more fatal than Britain’s exit, were it to take place. A quick examination of these three countries gives us a very interesting, and very real, glimpse of the Europe that the Anglosphere might find itself dealing with by the end of 2017; it may not be what some in our commentariat, enthralled by the potential success of hardline populists like Le Pen to match that of Trump, seem to expect.
So, how are these three elections shaping up? The Dutch election is probably the least consequential and hardest to predict of the three. With a plethora of parties likely to gain seats in parliament, and the hard-right PVV likely to come first but with no plausible coalition partners, an unwieldy multi-party coalition is a near certainty, probably led by the current right-wing VVD, who have themselves been moving to try and head off PVV support by moving away from their pseudo-liberal roots towards a harder-right stance on Islam and migration. The resulting government, if it hangs together at all, will struggle to take any definite position on anything whatsoever given that it may need at least five parties to form a majority. Nonetheless, with the PVV having seemingly peaked in the polls and sliding back down towards the VVD, and the latter needing support from left and centre parties to govern, the hard right is likely to stay locked out of power in the Netherlands.
It is in France and Germany that things get far more interesting. Germany, not so long ago, looked nailed down for the CDU, with a likely continuation of the centrist “Grand Coalition” – but that was before Martin Schulz, a popular former bookseller and veteran EU politician, took the helm of the lesser coalition partner, the Social Democrats. On January 23 a poll suggested that the SDP were on 21%, behind the CDU by over ten percent. A fortnight later, Schulz had them on 31%, with a narrow lead. Merkel’s position is unexpectedly under threat, and not from the hard right AfD at all (whose “surge” of the last two years has brought them only to a distant third place in Germany, and whose positions on issues like immigration, unlike those of their UKIP counterparts, have been resisted and rejected by the centre-right). Instead, the challenge comes from a resurgent centre-left.
In France, the dice have been favourable to the long-shot candidacy of former economy minister and centrist liberal Emmanuel Macron. Not so long ago, he was clearly well behind Les Republicains’ Francois Fillon (a Russophile, soft-Eurosceptic with economically Thatcherite leanings), and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (whose success in painting a veneer of merely “hardline authoritarian” over the fascist core of her movement is remarkable, but whose party is still too unpalatable for a majority of French voters to consider). Whilst Le Pen is still clearly likely to win the first round with around 25-27% of the vote, scandal has descended on Fillon’s campaign and Macron is now the narrow favourite to sneak into the second place spot. In France’s two-round system, second place can be every bit as good as first – the top two candidates book a place each in the second round, and polling clearly shows Macron as an easy winner there, crushing the National Front by as much as a 2:1 margin.
Macron and Schulz have some obvious commonalities. Both are of the centre and centre-left, for one thing – but more importantly, both are passionate about one thing perhaps above all else. And that thing is Europe and European integration. Schulz has been president of the European Parliament for five years; Macron encourages his supporters to fly the Union’s golden crown of stars along with the French Tricolour at his rallies. If these two men end up forming a future axis across the heart of Europe, it could put rocket skates beneath the EU’s ability to integrate policing, defence cooperation, budgets, and far more.
Perhaps more pertinently for the Anglo-American “Trumposphere”, it could set Europe’s foreign policy on a path of dramatic opposition to Britain and the US. The Macron-Schulz EU, if it happens, will in all likelihood be trying to forge forward with international trade deals just as America and Britain retreat from them; it will, perhaps dragging a less-willing US behind it, perhaps not, take the lead in a bullish pro-democracy stance against Putin in Ukraine and Georgia. As for Brexit, the thought of facing Macron and Schulz across the table should be keeping Conservative negotiators up at night. The two men will not seek to humiliate or needlessly damage Britain, but they will certainly ensure that it cannot get benefits reserved for members of the European club; defending the indivisibility of the “four freedoms” (people, services, capital, goods) will be more of a priority. More so than their more naturally cautious Conservative alternatives, they may be prepared to stomach a brief economic punch for the potential gains of industries and services relocating into their own countries.
How have we got here? Ironically, perhaps because of some of the very dynamics that brought Trump and Brexit to the fore. With an isolationist Trumposphere having formed, a gap now opens for a populist opposition in Europe to an exceptionally unpopular US president and an increasingly disliked and chaotic Britain whose reliability as a partner seems in question and whose platitudes about trade cannot mask the cosying up to Trump or the wholesale sacrifice of Britain’s hard-won trade deals in order to curb the bogeyman of immigration. Being able to run against two increasingly disliked foreign governments is a gift to politicians like Macron, who despite his inexperience can already look the part of a Europhile statesman.
Whether this stance is likely to be successful in government is a question far beyond the discussion here, but it may have significant electoral appeal for playing to centre-left voters. It may also provide opportunities in domestic policy – Macron’s vision of France sees the country taking over as the capital of entrepreneurship and innovation, benefiting from an Anglo-American “brain drain”. He will find such a project difficult for France specifically in some respects, but the potential gains for the Eurozone as a whole in providing a strong pull for US/UK researchers are clear. With Trump having both declared fair game on sharp-elbowed economic diplomacy of a sort not often seen nowadays, and having alienated some of his most mobile labour and capital forces, Europe has an opening to snap up potential gains by ramping up the “pull” factors without seeming churlish on the international stage. The integrationists have every intention of doing just that; the Trumposphere’s loss may yet be their gain.
One final note: all the above is a possibility, not a statistical prediction. There are as yet many things that could prevent any of the above coming to pass, the most obvious feature being the fact that both Macron and Schulz are in no better than a statistical tie with their rivals (Fillon and Merkel respectively). The scenario discussed is however considerably more likely than a right-populist wave overtaking the core western European EU states, with Le Pen faring ill in all second-round matchups that have been polled, Wilders lacking partners to govern with, and AfD languishing in the polls and the CDU sharply distinguishing themselves from their policies. Rather than the question “who’s next?” being first to mind when looking at Europe, it may yet be the case that Trump and Brexit have handed the integrationists the last laugh.
January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
I hadn’t been intending to write this post, but my twitter feed has been flooded with comments all day on this issue after I commented on a tweet of Nate Silver’s about it; voting percentages, that is to say, the % of the time a legislator votes with a certain leader or leader’s position. How useful are they, what can they tell us, and how do they tell us that?
Nate has set up a section of his (fantastic and worth reading) FiveThirtyEight website to deal with the question of how much certain legislators do or do not vote alongside Trump. You can find the figures here. He also gave a (presumably sarcastic) congratulation to CA Senator Feinstein for her place at the top of the chart, with a surprising 100% vote-with-Trump score despite a very liberal constituency. Looking at the data more closely, however, something is very obvious – there haven’t been many votes so far since Trump’s inauguration. So how much should Feinstein be singled out? Does that 100% score represent a unique betrayal of her fairly leftwing constituents? How different actually is her voting record to other senior Democrats?
I will add a further disclaimer before answering these questions – my intention, when I queried the wisdom of Nate’s singling out Feinstein, was decidedly not to defend any of her specific votes. It is already retrospectively clear that any Democrat backing John Kelly made a poor choice and one they should be held to account for; Mattis may be the most defensible of Feinstein’s votes, though he seems likely to be sidelined in the administration (and it’s not a defense I’d like to make myself!). Many enraged leftwing Democrats and other US leftists assumed nonetheless that defending Senator Feinstein was my intention and piled onto me, including in one case my being accused of “using logic to enable fascism”, which is a new one. My only point was to discuss whether a table of percentile figures was, in this case, reasonable and whether singling out Feinstein as uniquely pro-Trump for a Democrat made sense.
The answer is; no, it wasn’t, and no, it doesn’t. The Senate has made six votes so far, Feinstein has voted in five of them. The one she missed thanks to illness is the only one that’s gone on dead-partisan lines so far, regarding the budget for the Affordable Care Act. She voted in favour of James Mattis as defence secretary (2 votes), and Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador, and John Kelly for Homeland Security. She’s not the only Democrat to have backed those four cabinet picks; fourteen others have done so. So the only reason for singling Feinstein out is… that she was ill for the ACA vote. That’s it. She’s one of fifteen Democrats who’ve OKed Mattis, Pompeo, Kelly and Haley, but those are votes that right now are better attacked on the (extreme lack of) merits of those particular candidates. When you can just read a list of all Feinstein’s votes without even scrolling your mouse wheel, that’s the point at which the difference between Schumer’s 83.3% score and Feinstein’s 100% score is meaningless. If you think supporting any Trump nominees is a problem, it’s a problem that a small caucus of Democrats (and Angus King) has, not a Feinstein problem. In fact there are zero Democrats or Dem-caucusing independents who’ve attempted to block all of his nominees – the lowest score being that of NY’s Senator Gillibrand, who voted in favour of Haley only.
Clearly, there won’t continue to be no data – the Senate’s work continues, and more votes will pile up and we’ll actually get a more sensible picture of how much different senators back or don’t back Trump’s policies and appointments. So how much will those percentages be worth then? More, clearly; we’ll actually have a percentage figure of how often a senator or congressperson votes with the Trump administration. How meaningful that is, though, is also debatable.
Take the following crazy proposition: Trump puts forward an extremely unqualified candidate for a cabinet post who’s likely to be very divisive, has no idea what they’re doing, and is solely there thanks to being wealthy or being a Republican bigwig. Now take a different proposition, which is probably equally crazy, and therefore apparently likely in the current climate given the first one has literally happened multiple times already; Trump at some point puts forward a significant infrastructure bill that includes actual state spending, which may need to be amended a few times, relying on bipartisan support to push it past fiscally conservative republicans. This may take, say, six votes all told including amendments etc.
So you (if you’re on the left, in the centre, or otherwise anti-Trump) might think that it would be bad to pass either of these things, you might think the Dems should back the infrastructure bill to create jobs anyway. Whatever your personal opinion, consider this; is my hypothetical infrastructure bill worth six times as much in terms of Trump support as backing, say, Betsy DeVos as education secretary? Either to you, or to Trump? This is the problem with raw vote metrics from a legislature; every vote is on at least subtly different subject matter, and not all votes can remotely be considered equal. The percentages, after a significant amount of time, may show trends to look at in more depth, but they need very careful handling, as some minor issues can require a large raw number of votes and some single-vote issues can have massive significance for a president’s authority and legislative agenda. The unpredictability of Trump and his unusual political positioning, especially on some areas of economics, makes this an even harder calculation to make in advance.
So in short, be careful when using these figures either to praise or damn lawmakers – and if you think you’re seeing a pattern, look closer than the topline data. It’s great that Nate has built this tool, but it’s a tool for enabling proper analysis not a morality score readout. It would be nice to see the option to, for example, divide votes by topic added to the system, so people can get a closer view not just of how often a legislator agrees with Donald Trump’s white house, but on a far more difficult (and probably more important) question; on what?
November 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
This is an issue I’ve wrestled with a bit recently. The individual steps on the Brexit process will all be difficult for us to work through, and I think it’s important to respect the result of the referendum and the desire for change. I’ve nonetheless come to the conclusion that my party should vote against Theresa May’s article 50 motion when it comes to the House of Commons, and believe that’s the democratically right and reasonable course of action to take.
The first and most important point is that the vote will be on allowing Theresa May to invoke article 50. Read that again and let it sink in. The vote will be on will be on allowing Theresa May to invoke article 50. In other words, this parliamentary vote is not as simple as automatically triggering the results of the referendum. Voting for the A50 bill, or abstaining to permit it to pass, will be a passive endorsement of Theresa May’s government as capable and ready to start these negotiations on behalf of the people of Britain. That’s clearly something that Liberal Democrats should actively oppose. If you’ve been told to go out to the shops to pick up something to eat, it doesn’t follow that you’re obliged to get a pizza. The fact is that May’s stance on Brexit is not the only possible stance, and indeed is about the most illiberal and uncompromising Brexiteer viewpoint possible. In such circumstances, endorsing her as our Brexit leader would be a strange and alien action for a liberal party that believes in internationalism and liberty.
But doesn’t this potentially override the democratic referendum? Well… no, it doesn’t. We only had the referendum in the first place because there’s a Tory majority in the House of Commons. Endorsing the Tory Prime Minister to act upon its results is the job of her MPs, not of the opposition. If she can’t get a majority in the house then she should put forward a vote for an election to receive a specific mandate for her post-Brexit vision (indeed she should arguably do this anyway, given that vision seems to be significantly in breach of the Conservative 2015 manifesto that committed them to supporting Britain’s membership of the single market). This is in any case a hypothetical argument, given we know that the A50 bill will pass thanks to the Tory majority and support from the UUP, DUP, and probably Labour. The job of a credible, sensible opposition is holding the government to account, and the specific UKIP-style Brexit of Theresa May’s government needs to be held to account very badly indeed. In such circumstances, it is vital for the Lib Dems to remind the country that May is seeking a specific, hard-right wing form of Brexit, and it would be irresponsible not to oppose it and remind the country that the loss of, for example, single market access is a choice made by this government not just an automatic impact of the referendum vote.
The Lib Dems could certainly set out reasonable guidelines for assurances that would, if given, allow Theresa May to win their support for her triggering Article 50. The retention of full single market membership as the primary and overriding aim of negotiations should be foremost among these, along with the retention of British participation in all EU-wide science and education schemes and continued free movement to allow British workers to take advantage of opportunities across the continent. She will of course not give these assurances thanks to her anti-immigration zealotry, but they are in no way incompatible with Brexit (see also Norway and Switzerland, both of which are very noticeably not EU members). Once again, pointing out that this is her choice (and that of her supporters in Labour and other parties) will be important in the ongoing arguments on this issue.
Brexiteers themselves should be happy to see the Liberal Democrats providing a functional opposition to their proposals. The wholly sovereign parliament they so cherish is only weakened if the executive arm of government is allowed to use a tight referendum result to bludgeon the legislature into submission. Not only that, but it is vital for both sides that Europhile, pro-trade, and pro-migration voices are still heard in this debate, to prevent further disaffection and division in the country as the 48% of voters who chose Remain face increasing exclusion and alienation from the political process. If the Brexit camp are as confident and optimistic as they wish to project about Britain’s future, they must surely as part of that welcome discussion and debate over our direction of travel.
So with that, I urge our Liberal Democrat MPs to do the right thing and not give Theresa May the unanimous validation she craves for her agenda. It would be both undemocratic and a travesty if almost half the country went without being spoken for on this matter, and would give a significant boost to the hard right-wing of the Tories who are eager for parliament to shrink back and let the executive rule without distractions like democracy getting in the way. The liberal and the democratic choice is to be the voice for those who would otherwise go unspoken for, to speak truth to power, and to hold the government to account. On all those counts the case is clear; the Liberal Democrats should vote against Theresa May’s future motion to invoke Article 50.
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.