Tomorrow I’ll be travelling to join thousands of Lib Dems from across the country in Bournemouth for our party conference.
Last night, Islington Lib Dems previewed the conference debates at our latest Pizza & Politics evening.
The Liberal Democrat party conference is unusual among the 3 main parties in that we do actually set party policy; it’s not just a rally for the faithful. That means ordinary members can shape the policy of the party; and it also means that occasionally we have a row. Or if not a row exactly, a genuine debate.
On most issues, unsurprisingly, Lib Dems tend to agree with each other, even on issues that are divisive between the parties (and within other parties). We’re generally against ID cards, against Heathrow expansion, and pro Europe, to pick three examples. So what’s there to debate?
Well, the media will no doubt try to talk up a potential row over the Fresh Start paper. In fact, it’s a clear and in my view unconcentious statement of Lib Dem priorities for the General Election manifesto. (The most dodgy aspect is the Somerfield-type colour scheme. And don’t they have a ‘fresh’ slogan too?)
The agenda has lots of heavyweight debates, on globalisation, climate change, civil liberties – big issues, but no big rows.
So last night we teased out three smaller issues where we might have a bit of a barney in Bournemouth.
The first is whether the Advertising Standards Authority should have rules requiring that airbrushed images are identified as such: and whether such images should be banned in publications aimed at young people. The former is not a problem – it’s recently become the rule for those mascara ads that showcase false eyelashes – but the latter caused a real debate. Yes, young people’s self-image is fragile: but is it right to censor pictures in response? And is this really the biggest issue we face? We remain divided on that one.
The second is whether employers should adopt the practice of blanking out the names of job applicants to weed out sexist and racist judgements. Generally we saw no harm in that, although there was some scepticism as to whether it would do much good. Attending a a girls’ school or being on the committee of your local mosque could also be a bit of a giveaway.
Both these proposals are part of a package of ideas in the Real Women policy paper.
Then there are Mosquitos, the machines that generate a highpitched sound causing distress, and possibly damage, to younger eardrums. Should they be banned? Although Islington Council has tried it once – and decided against it in future – I think using Mosquitos is a terrible idea. And I’m not alone.
My own home has been under siege from groups of youths in the past, and we’ve often had the neighbourhood police on speed-dial, so I don’t deny there’s an issue; but I just don’t think indiscriminate torture techniques are the answer.
Other communities have found that shining pink light or playing Mozart is just as effective, and a considerably more humane way to discourage young people from hanging around. Not that hanging around in a public place is necessarily a problem in itself – as long as they are not a nuisance to others.
I think it’s another symptom of the current obsession with the idea that technology can solve essentially human problems. It’s not things that help people, or change people; it’s other people. It’s not mosquitos we need but bluebottles.
What mosquitos and air-brushing have in common, of course, is that they are at the crunch point where protection and freedom conflict. They also show some of the very mixed messages that our society sends young people. We’ll protect your eyes while assaulting your ears. Should be an interesting conference….