Almost a year on from first joining the Liberal Democrats, this weekend I found myself in York attending my first conference. My thoughts on what was no doubt an overall wonderful experience follow below:
The Party Rally certainly served its purpose of firing up the members for the weekend ahead, with both Tim Farron and Nick Clegg in imperious form. Clegg in particular, in his only appearance on the auditorium stage all weekend, was both extremely articulate and highly amusing. It’s imperative that the party does it upmost to persuade him to stay on as an MP post-2020; he may well feel that the highpoint of his political career is already behind him, but I for one am sure that, particularly in light of his almost unique grasp of the Brexit problem, there is still plenty ahead of him to achieve.
I spent the majority of Saturday in the auditorium listening to and voting on the various policy motions. On the whole, I was pleased with the outcomes. Whilst I was not able to attend the motions on either “A Rational Approach to Harm Reduction” or “Tackling Overcrowding in the Prison System”, but I was none the less pleased to seem them pass, in particular due to my support for the decriminalisation of both sex work and drug possession. Similarly, I was delighted to be in the room as Liberal Democrat members passed the reintroduction of nursing bursaries into policy, as part of the “Crisis in Health & Social Care” motion. This for me is just simple economics, as when the demand for nurses is so much higher than the current supply, the last thing the government should be doing is scrapping the very incentives in place to try and combat the problem.
The emergency motion on “Britain and the EU” was a rather damp squib, as the almost unanimous agreement both amongst the speakers and on the conference floor meant that, whilst the policy itself is no doubt important, the hour spent discussing it felt less like a debate and more like an exercise in prolonged virtue signaling. This led me to question whether more could be done at future conferences to avoid spending so much precious time on policy motions that seem absolutely destined to pass weeks out from the actual event.
On the other hand, “Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was a particular conference highlight for any fan of high intensity, adrenaline-pumping democracy, and the conference staff and stewards must be praised for their handling of the whole process. Whilst I voted both against the amendment and the policy as a whole, believing it primarily to be a hard sell to voters, both in terms of its complexity and its relevance in the age of Putin and Trump, I was at least relieved to see the amendment defeated, believing that a unilateralist approach to nuclear disarmament to be not only harmful to the party, but to the country as a whole.
Due to family commitments, I was unable to attend much of what the fringe had to offer, however the one event I was able to attend was Radix’s “What Does 2017 Hold in Store for Liberalism?”, which consisted of a panel including Mark Pack, Caron Lindsay, Sarah Olney and Nick Tyrone. Sarah Olney in particular shone at this event, giving perhaps the most confident and assured performance I have seen from her yet. Whilst I’ve had my doubts in the past, this performance proved to me that Sarah has all the potential to be a real star of the parliamentary party in the future.
Working on the assumption that the emergency motion on child refugees would go much the same way as the motion on Britain and the EU, I arrived at conference just in time for the debate on the role of faith in state-funded schools. This was another highlight of conference for me, not least because Lib Dem members for once managed to look past the temptations of the half-baked, wishy-washy nothingness of a policy that was on offer, and opt instead for a hard hitting, short and to the point policy of ensuring that selection in admission on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over the course of 6 years. Whilst the debate was strong from all sides, I feel confident that members came to the right conclusion.
Following another delve into the echo chamber that was the motion on “Associate Membership of the European Union”, (don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these policies are not important, they are, I’m simply not sure whether spending an hour discussing what ends up being a formality is at all worth it), came Tim Farron’s closing speech. This, I thought, was superb. Within the first 15 minutes I heard from Tim things I’ve been desperate for him to say for a while, calling out to businesses, liberal-Tory voters and MPs, offering them a new home as Theresa May takes them for granted. As a member more or less aligned with the economic liberal wing of the party, the commitment to free market economics was always going to be good to hear too.
Tim’s speech made it feel as though the Liberal Democrats are a party that is going places, however as I left the conference hall I checked Twitter to notice that it didn’t seem to make anything like even a small blip on any major political commentator’s radar, and the only references to the speech on my timeline came either from within the Lib Dem Twittersphere, or from the same old Lib Dem friendly sources. This therefore is evidence of how much work is still to be done before it can be argued that the party has successfully fought back from the depths of 2015, and that whilst recent successes can be looked back on with pride, in reality the hard work is only just beginning.
Overall I shall look back on my first conference with great fondness, and indeed as I sit and write this I can already feel the onset of post-conference blues. I look forward to hopefully being able to attend Autumn Conference in Bournemouth later this year, and in particular welcoming fellow members to embrace the many wonders that the south coast has to offer, indeed I’m already considering investing in a yellow and orange bucket and spade.
See you all in September,