Posts Tagged conference

LibDem Blog of the Year nomination – thank you!

This weekend I’ll be off to Liverpool for LibDem conference, leaving Richard in charge of the kittens. Or vice versa.

Conference will be different this year. With LibDems in government, we’ll be mingling with Ministers – once we’ve got past the extra security. Recent conferences had become dominated by candidate training and networking. Now I’m looking forward to having more time to join the debate, and relax with fellow campaigners.

Nothing could have been less relaxed than Spring conference. By the time we got to March 2010, I hadn’t intended to go at all. Then came the campaign on the Digital Economy Bill, and a last minute dash to Birmingham to get our emergency motion passed.

Most of that campaign was done online, using this blog, as well as LibDem Voice, Facebook & Twitter – the medium aligned with the message. Now my blogging’s been shortlisted in the LibDem Blog of the Year awards.

Thank you to everyone who nominated me. Even more reasons to look forward to conference!


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After conference

We’re back from Bournemouth, and all the long reports I’d intended to write will have to wait, possibly for ever.

This was just such a busy conference for me that I was too busy doing to document it. But here is some of what I got up to as part of Islington’s delegation.

IMG_0075On Sunday, I moved the Islington amendment in the globalisation debate, pointing out the crucial role of Europe in providing us with stability in a changing world. The difference between Iceland and Ireland isn’t one letter but two: E and U.

Also on Sunday, I was part of the panel at the End Fuel Poverty Fringe, speaking on how important this issue was to my constituents. The Lib Dem proposals would tackle fuel poverty, unemployment and climate change through a programme of home insulation: but Labour killed off the Bill. Shame on them.

I had meetings with many groups including the National Deaf Children’s Society, who are doing some important work on improving acoustics in schools, Breast Cancer Care, and the British Lung Foundation who are supportive of my campaigns on air quality. I spoke at a lively fringe meeting organised by the Lib Dem Friends of Turkey on Turkey’s future in the EU.

Housing is always a big issue in Islington, and I fitted in a breakfast meeting with Hyde Housing as well as a briefing with Shelter (appropriately enough we were ‘evicted’ from one room when our meeting ran on).

I also took the chance to raise some very local issues. At the candidates’ reception, I buttonholed a senior Tesco exec about their lorries parking at Islington Green – and later in the week raised it with the Freight Transport Association as well. And I quizzed Network Rail bosses about the vexed issue of access to Kings Cross station.

Most debates at conference are foregone conclusions – for example, we all love the NHS – but sometimes there are really distinct positions within the party, which makes for an exciting session. On Saturday we debated air brushing in ads (my PPC buddy Katy Gordon made a fantastic speech) and later in the week it was the turn of energy policy to go to the vote. I spoke in the debate against the pro-nuclear power amendment, and was pleased that I helped win the day for investment in truly renewable energy.

There were many impressive and some contentious speeches. Sarah Ludford proposed Islington’s amendment in the torture debate, reporting on her work exposing illegal rendition flights. Vince Cable controversially refloated his mansion tax idea (not yet party policy, and may never be). I signed up to support campaigns on a whole range of issues, from the Royal British Legion to Vote Cruelty Free.

And I was lucky to be one of the key seat PPCs (presumed future MPs) to be chosen to sit on the platform behind Nick for the leader’s speech.

I say lucky. First there was the briefing on do’s and don’ts. No eating, drinking, yawning – or live blogging. Then the clothes advice. Must not clash with backdrop or each other. Cue panic jacket and blouse buying by anxious female candidates with what’s left in their conference budget…. never say LibDems don’t have practical policies to stimulate the local economy. Then there was the hour-long wait backstage in cold and darkness, before emerging into blazing light on stage. Then we took our seats and were plunged back into near total darkness while Nick spoke. Is this a metaphor for life as an MP?

As ever, the conference reported by the media (anxious divisions over policy) and that experienced by delegates (sunny in every sense) were quite different. Although the new media like Tweetminster were happy to get their reports direct from the twitterer’s mouth.

We had great fun, but in a greatly serious cause. This is our last major party conference before the General Election. As Nick told us,

“Labour is lost. They haven’t the ideas, energy or vision to start again. If you voted for them in the past, you have a choice. You can give away your vote to a fringe party. You can stay at home in despair. Or you can join with the Liberal Democrats and make the difference.

“If you supported Labour in 1997 because you wanted fairness. You wanted young people to flourish. You wanted political reform. You wanted the environment protected. Or you simply believed in a better future. Turn to the Liberal Democrats. We carry the torch of progress now.”

Now back to the campaign trail!

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Eve of conference

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….

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Harrogate day 3: from faith to hope

I’m back home, feet up, and reflecting on Nick Clegg’s speech.

A typical leader’s speech slags off the other parties, makes a few jokes, ticks some policy boxes, and ends with some feelgood promises and election-ready tub-thumping. Nothing wrong with that. But this was something different.

No jokes. This a brave move. In a leader’s speech, jokes aren’t so much the icing on the cake as the sugar on the pill – they keep the audience entertained as well as thoughtful, and they give the journalists an easy hook for their story. No jokes means we all have to work harder. This may have been Sunday morning, but it wasn’t easy. Nick was embodying the message: serious responses for serious times.

No easy answers. Nick did outline our policy highlights: but he made it clear that things will get worse before they get better. We have tough times ahead and we need to be clear-sighted and tough-minded to get through them. He challenged us to see the recession as a challenge and a chance to rebuild, like rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

No short-termism. Politicians are normally short-term – not our fault, the electoral cycle gives its rhythm to public policy – but Nick was thinking long-term. This is partly the impact of his paternity leave: he’s looking on the world as the place his precious children will live their lives, not some policy-testing ground.

No policy boxes. Politicians are great at putting policies in boxes so we can tick them. Again, not entirely our fault, it’s the way government departments, council services, the media, parcel things up. But Nick made connections: between the Government’s attitude to borrowing and the failure to tackle climate change, between a partisan electoral system and a failed economic regime.

No unrealistic promises. Getting out of Westminster, on his visits and his paternity leave, has kept Nick grounded: “the people I’ve met don’t want handouts. They don’t imagine government is the answer to all of their problems. They just need a break.They just want someone to take a little of the weight off their shoulders. It’s the difference between a burden you can carry with your head held high and one that brings you to your knees. It’s the difference the Liberal Democrats will make.”

No partisanship. Nick rightly attacked the other parties on their records and their policy errors. But he spent remarkably little time talking about them at all. Instead he looked beyond party and national divides, calling on people to work together in Britain, and in Europe.

A year ago, I wrote about how Nick evoked faith.

Today, it was hope: “We are the only party that will put money into people’s pockets with fair tax cuts. The only party to offer universal childcare and smaller classes in our primary schools. The only party that will use Gordon Brown’s wasted billions to create thousands of jobs today by investing in homes, hospitals, schools and public transport to build the green economy of tomorrow. The only party that will rebuild the jobs, homes and hopes this recession has destroyed. So don’t believe the doubters, the nay-sayers, the professional cynics. This time it can be different.”

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Harrogate day 2: crime, women and song. And histopathology.

The final debate of the day was on criminal justice and prisons.

Islington members Greg Foxsmith and Sarah Ludford were among the speakers. Islington has the unusual distinction of two prisons, although as far as we know there are no plans to float Titans on the Regent’s canal.

Then on to the NUT fringe on education and the recession. One of the (few) silver linings in the financial crisis might be that ambitious graduates now stay in research and development or move into teaching rather than heading for the City. We debated the merits of funding ‘leisure courses’ (something Labour ministers sneer at). One delegate pointed out that the UK is facing an acute shortage of histopathologists. No, I’m not sure either, but make your career plans now.

Then it was off to dinner with Women Liberal Democrats (appropriately for the weekend of International Women’s Day). There are a number of unwritten conference rules, one of which is that at some point you end up in Pizza Express, as we did, and indeed some of the group had already eaten there the night before. No wonder the waiter was so cheery.

There was a great range of women there, from MPs and veteran candidates, to first-time delegates. Jo Swinson MP was, as ever, inspiring: with more MPs like her, we could challenge the findings that young women have no role models in politics.

We discussed some of the issues in the women’s policy paper that’s now out for consultation, rehashed the faith schools debate, and swapped time- and stress-management tips. Mine is singing (it reduces my stress, not sure about the effect on those around me). But on this occasion I skipped the traditional Glee club for an early night. Sleep, after all, is the best and rarest treat of all.

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Harrogate day 2: keeping the faith

Saturday was the day for the schools debate and the controversial topic of faith schools. The daily announcements showed 3 different amendments on faith schools. I put in a card to speak – so had everyone else.

But that was for the afternoon. First I went to hear Simon Hughes on the fight for fairer fuel bills. Then according to my reminders, it was Lorely Burt launching the small business survey on level 4 of the conference centre. Except in my text, she’s Lordly Bust. And level 4 turned out to be on the ground floor. Strange are the ways of conference.

Then it was over to the Holiday Inn with our Euro candidates, to meet up with Vince Cable. Anyone who says Lib Dems don’t do religion should see the queue for Vince.

Then back to the main hall for another cult figure, Howard Dean. Ed Davey reminded us of Howard’s early opposition on Iraq, and his breakthrough use of the internet in campaigning. Every speaker seems to reference Obama this conference, but Howard is entitled. He made the point that Obama deliberately reached out to groups like evangelical Christians on issues of common interest: poverty, climate change, Darfur. And that nothing beats repeated face-to-face contact.

In search of the same, I trotted across town to make it to the candidates’ meeting with Governor Dean (venue turned out to be called the William and Victoria. And there was me asking for the William and Mary). Governor Dean developed his theme of no no-go areas: and he urged us to fill the void left by a failing Labour party, as we filled our void with some lunch.

Back to the hall for Chancellor Vince. And then it was the schools debate. Our schools policy proposes radical action – freeing schools from Whitehall control, cutting class sizes, extra money for the poorest with the pupil premium – which will transform schools and reactivate social mobility. So far so good. But how do we handle faith schools? Often our conference debates are interesting but rarely a genuine conflict. This time there was a real decision to make.

The motion proposed requiring faith schools to phase out any selection by faith within five years. That wasn’t enough for the secularists who wanted no faith schools but too much for others who found it offensive to their Lib Dem faith of localism. Why would we pass a policy that decentralises all education decision making except admissions policy for some schools? And then imposes a single option that local communities might not want. Would a faith school with no members of that faith community within its walls in either staff or pupils be more than a soulless logo? As Jonathan Davies argued, I do not want to impose my faith on you, but do not impose your secularism on me.

We had many Islington voices in the debate. James Kempton proposed the policy, with Farhana Hoque in support (she pointed out that as a Muslim girl in a Catholic school, she had ended up an atheist: so much for the brainwashing power of faith schools). Arnie Gibbons spoke for the secularists, Meral Ece for those who value the faith element in schools. After a nail-biting counted vote – literally too close to call – the amendment allowing councils to decide was passed. I’m happy with that: the real enemy of equity in our schools not faith, but class.

Social mobility has gone into reverse under Labour. And I’m proud that our party is doing something to change that.

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Harrogate day 1; trains, training and twenty-one again

It’s spring conference time, so there I was up at silly o’clock yesterday to get the 7am train to Harrogate.

The train was excellent: free power and wifi for our laptops – in standard class; drinkable tea; pretty countryside. What’s not to like?

Change at York: our next train is on platform 8. We have signs for platforms 1-7, 9 and 10-12. Platform 8 is cunningly hidden, but we find it, and get the bus-like train to Harrogate. I love this bit of the journey: pretty little stations that evaded Beeching with names like Poppleton; the stunning view of the river at Knaresborough; and then Harrogate itself.

Harrogate is a great conference venue, a place you’d be happy to visit anyway. The centre is very compact, which is great for conference, but can make finding accommodation a challenge.

My hotel is strategically placed between the station and the conference centre (and nearly opposite Betty’s tea rooms). Some folk are commuting from as far away as Leeds. Although not our intern James. He not only blagged a first class train ticket from an Islington member whose travel plans had changed, but then swiftly relocated from Leeds to Harrogate, taking up the room of another Islington delegate who’d suddenly fallen ill. Clearly a man to watch.

Conference proper started last night, but we arrived early for training. Long hours listening scribbling top tips, collecting handouts, shuttling from one classroom to another. (Why are the training rooms called suites when there is neither loo nor drinks for miles?) I kept expecting to find myself back in double Maths with Miss Wyeth. Quite appropriate for an education-themed conference. The training is excellent and we headed for the rally full of new ideas.

The pre-rally reception was such a tight squeeze that the host speaker could barely get in. They say the secret of a successful party is too many people in too small a space, with plenty of drink. The reception was working on the Meatloaf principle (two out of three ain’t bad).

The rally itself was a celebration of 21 years of the LibDems, elegantly reviewed by Alix here: jazz, videos, uplifting speeches, and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I remember those dire years after merger, the party coming 5th in a Euro election, our unofficial theme song “The only way is up”. And now we are the most successful liberal party in Europe, and Labour is down to a 484 majority in Islington South. Lord Rennard suggests our new theme should be “you’ll never walk alone”. It’s a great tune, but not one we’ll be singing on the Arsenal-loving streets of Islington.

Then dinner with friends and onto the local government reception – in time to see Islington council win the award for regeneration. Not a bad start to the weekend.

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