So I thought I’d report back to the world at large about what it’s like being at Lib Dem Conference right now.
While I’ve been a member of the party for eleven years, for various reasons I’ve very rarely been able to attend conference in the past, but given how much everything is changing politically right now, I thought that this time I *had* to go along, and I’ll probably be going to future ones.
The weekend started with a bit of extra Lib Demmery for me, as we went to the official opening of Jackie Pearcey’s constituency office. I’ll be talking more about Jackie’s by-election campaign in coming weeks, but suffice it to say here that I *do* think this is a winnable campaign. We had two Manchester by-elections in the last Parliament — Manchester Central and Wythenshawe & Sale East. My sum total effort for those was saying “good luck John” and buying a raffle ticket for Central, and I didn’t even do that in Wythenshawe, because those weren’t worth the effort. I’ve delivered five hundred Brexit surveys and a hundred and fifty tabloids in the last week, and allowed my house to be used as a temporary storage space for thousands more while they were setting up a proper HQ, and the writ for the by-election hasn’t even been moved yet. That’s the difference in how I see this by-election.
Unfortunately, when I got home after the office opening, I had some very bad news — my grandmother had died on Thursday night. We knew it was coming, and I’d had a chance to see her the day she died, but it was still very, very saddening, and that plus a cold I was already dealing with left me in no real state to travel or deal with people. So I apologise now to anyone I spent time with at conference, because I had no spoons at all left for anything like social skills. I wasn’t as fun as I could be.
Fortunately Lib Dem conference is, along with Thought Bubble, about the best place to be in that state. At both of them I get to spend time with a handful of my very closest friends, and also get to see another thirty or so great people I otherwise know online — and everyone’s busy enough that you can’t possibly run out of things to say to them, because they have to be somewhere after thirty seconds. Both conference and Thought Bubble are the closest thing you can get to social spaces that actually recharge me, rather than make my mental health worse.
Luckily, the first day wasn’t too busy, and I ended up going to the rally. Normally conference rallies would be something I’d avoid at all costs, but Jackie Pearcey, the Gorton candidate, was speaking at it and I wanted to support her as she’s a friend.
Actually, though, the speeches were surprisingly good — Tim Farron’s always a good speaker, but now that the party’s strategy has gone from being bland fence-sitting nothingness to actually standing for proper liberal values again, he’s been able to speak a lot more freely than before.
(It’s interesting to compare the conference decor to that of 2014, the last one I was at. There, everything was in Tory-aping “aqua”, and we seemed desperately to be trying to make policies that said nothing at all. This time, the colour scheme and look is back to the orange diamonds…)
Even Nick Clegg’s speech was good. Anyone who knows me knows I am not Clegg’s biggest fan by a long way, and I thought he was utterly useless as a public speaker as leader, but given the European brief he managed actually to *shine*. He was funny, clever, and passionate, talking about something he actually knew and cared about. If he’d been foreign secretary rather than Deputy Prime Minister I think he’d be looked on very differently.
But the main function of conference is to make policy. And this is where I was very, very worried. The Lib Dems switched, a couple of years ago, from having only selected representatives of each local party vote for policies to allowing any member who turns up at conference to vote. And shortly after that, the Brexit vote happened.
The party has doubled its membership in the last eighteen months or so, taking it to its highest membership this century; and given that we’re now on one member one vote, I was worried that this would lead to real problems with new policies.
I’m not talking about entryism, as such — I think everyone who has joined the party is committed to what they think the party stands for. The problem is that the party has been so poor at messaging for the last few years that I had no idea if what the new members think it stands for is anything like what the older members think.
There was a real, real, danger that we’d have got a lot of people who thought they were joining the Coalition And Liking Europe Party, and that the party would be in the reverse of its normal historical position. Normally the leader has been a centrist, trying to get a party full of radicals like me to compromise enough to be even vaguely electable. Now, though, we have a leader who is definitely part of the radical liberal tradition that is the party’s heart, but did we have a membership of soft centrists whose idea of liberalism was Ed Miliband or David Cameron?
Again, if we did, the fault wouldn’t be in those new, enthusiastic members signing up to be politically active, but in the party that hadn’t made its principles clear enough before they joined.
I shouldn’t have worried. From talking to a handful of newbies, and from the way the votes went on the policy motions, the new members (at least the ones who turn up to conference and exercise their voting rights, which is what really matters here) are the kind of people who one would normally expect to be reminiscing about campaigning with Jo Grimond at the Orpington by-election. They fit both culturally and politically.
The first evidence of this was on Saturday morning. The first policy motion seemed like it should be a very controversial one — it was on sex work, and the policy was created after a process of consultation with a lot of sex workers. The policy motion supports decriminalising the buying and selling of sex, and quashing all historical convictions related to it. It says that policing should instead be focussed on preventing harm to sex workers, in particular preventing anyone being coerced into sex work, and that the police should support them. It explicitly criticises the Nordic model, argues against the government’s current plans around pornography, and takes what to my mind is the only decent, humane, attitude — that if sex workers are being abused, raped, and murdered, the problem is not with their work but with the abuse, rape, and murder.
It may well be the most Lib Dem motion I’ve ever read — it starts “Conference endorses the enlightenment approach of rationalism and science”, and by a quarter of the way through it’s talking about “the complex and intersectional nature of sex work, in which all genders and sexualities engage”. It’s part philosophy lecture, part Tumblr post. Several people gave great speeches, in particular Dave Page pointing out that *everyone* sells their body under capitalism, and that the sex workers he knows view their work as both compassionate and creative, not something to be protected from.
It passed unanimously. I knew then that we would be OK.
Next up was a motion on prisons. Less radical than the sex work one, but a good, decent policy — basically we need to cut prison numbers, by decriminalising drugs, a presumption against imprisonment wherever possible and providing support for people not to reoffend, and releasing all prisoners on indeterminate sentences who’ve served their minimum tariff, along with getting staff numbers up to a decent level. Someone from Lib Dems For Seekers of Sanctuary gave a very moving speech about the tens of thousands of immigrants who’ve committed no crime and who are imprisoned for immigration purposes, and who would be freed if this motion became law. The motion passed.
Lynne Featherstone gave a good speech, and then there was a motion on the EU, which I didn’t bother attending — it was just reaffirming that we like it and that we also like good things that are nice and don’t like things that aren’t nice. I assume it passed, but I spent an hour talking with Richard Gadsden about the demographics of the Lake District and eating a burger, and that was a much better use of my time.
Next up was a motion which called for more funding of the NHS, and a programme to do for social care what creating the NHS did for healthcare. Basically a call for a new Beveridge Report, and a tax rise to pay for improved care. A couple of interveners took the opportunity to moan about how we should have a European-style insurance system instead, but the motion still passed. There is one part of it — “Any EU citizen working in NHS and care services to be guaranteed the right to continue to live and work in the UK, following Brexit” — which I don’t like at all, and nor do several of my immigrant friends, as it seems on its own to be separating “good” and “bad” immigrants, and saying only the good should stay. Fortunately, in at least two other motions this weekend the party reiterated its view that *all* EU citizens should be allowed to stay, so I could vote for the motion.
After this was a Q&A session with Tim Farron. Mostly decent stuff, but it was nice that during a question about housing policy he talked about lack of skills and specifically said “immigration is good”, with no caveats or hedges, and got the biggest round of applause of the conference. Our policy on immigration needs improving, but we have the rhetoric right and that’s a good start.
After this came the Traditional Trident Fudge. As nuclear weapons policy isn’t a matter of purely *liberal* principle, but involves other principles and other factors, the party is split almost exactly between those who think nuclear weapons are great and those who want to get rid of them. So every two years there’s an almighty row and we end up compromising on a policy which makes no sense at all to anyone (and which gets satirised at Glee as “we believe in a part-time submarine” to the tune of Yellow Submarine). This happened again — Julian Huppert’s “delete the whole motion and replace with ‘get rid of nukes'” amendment was voted down, and a meaningless fudge voted for.
I left early to go back to the hotel and have a nap, unfortunately missing Glee Club as I wasn’t feeling well, and discovered that Chuck Berry had died, aged 91. I won’t be writing here about him, because I still can’t find a proper way of acknowledging both that he was the most important musician of the last seventy years, without whom almost none of the music I love would exist, and that he was a serial sex offender who caused incalculable harm to women (many of them underage).
The next morning started with an emergency motion on child refugees, calling on the government to restore the Dubs commitment and let unaccompanied child refugees into the country. I made a special effort to get to the conference centre early in order to vote for this. It passed unanimously.
Then came the Traditional Faith Schools Argument. Like nuclear weapons, faith schools are a sore point in the Lib Dems, as for historical reasons the party has more than its fair share both of extremely religious Christians and of strident atheists (this makes more sense than it sounds — Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the real division isn’t between the atheist and the religious believer, but between those who consider the questions of religion important and those who don’t — the atheist and the evangelist may have come to different conclusions, but they’ve considered the question, and that in itself makes them rare).
The party were presented with four different options, including an amendment by Julian Huppert which would essentially delete the whole motion and replace it with “no faith schools, ever”. There was an option to say “yay faith schools we love you”, a fence-sitting fudge that made no sense, and an option to say “faith schools can exist, but if they’re getting money from the government they can’t select pupils by faith, they can’t discriminate in hiring, and they can’t force any pupils to take part in worship or religious instruction, though they can offer those things if they want — basically churches can run state schools if they want, but they can’t force any religion on the pupils and have to serve all the community as equally as any secular school”.
The pro-faith-schools people lost the debate, and I do mean they lost it. It is possible to make a good, liberal, argument for faith schools, but the people who spoke didn’t seem interested in doing that. They kept saying things like “if we’re fine with businesses running schools, why not churches?” (to which the obvious reply, from Huppert, was “we’re not fine with businesses running schools either”), and in one case actually complaining of “liberal extremism” (not something that would go over well in a Liberal Democrat conference, of all places). There were also complaints that a Sunday morning slot for the debate discriminated against people of faith, which backfired rather spectacularly — if those people actually *meant* “people of faith” rather than “people of *my* faith”, then they’d have noticed that Friday and Saturday are hardly convenient for certain other faith groups either.
(I’d actually have been *very* interested to hear what Tim Farron had to say on the subject. It’s understandable that as leader he doesn’t want to step into that particular minefield, but given his strong religious convictions and equally strong liberal ones, I bet he’d have had something interesting to say, and would have said it well.)
More interestingly, all the arguments on the pro-faith-school side talked about the rights of parents, while those arguing against faith schools talked about the rights of children. In particular, Sarah Brown gave a speech (apparently very similar to one from Christopher Ward, which I wasn’t in the hall for) talking about her experiences at a faith school, being taught she was an abomination and would be damned to hell for eternity for being a trans lesbian. She was in tears, and the trauma of that experience is clearly still with her. Less moving, but equally persuasive, was someone whose name I didn’t catch, who talked about having taught for decades both in normal schools and in Sunday schools, and about his strong belief that only the latter should be used for religious instruction with the former being kept secular.
In the end conference rejected Huppert’s “scrap them all now” amendment, but voted for the “state-funded faith schools can’t force religion on pupils” option, which is a surprisingly strong position for the party to take, but one which is I think in line with our longstanding commitments to disestablishmentarianism and to true freedom of religion. There is a difficult balance to be made between having a secular state and wanting faith groups to participate fully in the community, and I think the motion as passed strikes that balance well, and manages to do so without fudging the issue.
There was then another Europe vote, this time on the proposals by our partner parties in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe that UK citizens be offered an associate EU citizenship, with all the rights of other EU citizens. I voted for this, but only because the motion specifically said that any costs must be minimal, and many speakers for the motion made the point which concerned me most, that this should not be a life-raft for the middle class to climb on while leaving poorer people to drown. The motion passed, as did an amendment insisting that reciprocal rights be granted by the government to EU citizens living here.
After that was the leader’s speech, but instead I went to Not The Leader’s Speech, always the best bit of conference (before now I’ve travelled *just* to that, and not bothered going to the conference itself). This consists of Jennie Rigg and her friends going to the pub and ostentatiously ignoring the fact that the leader is talking in the conference hall. About thirty of us were there, and it was great to spend an extended period with friends old and new.
This has been an *extraordinarily* hard few weeks for me, with my grandmother’s death being by far the worst thing but with several other things affecting my mood rather badly. But there’s nothing that could have done more good for it than sitting in the pub for seven hours with a group of liberals (including several of my best friends) after a conference that reaffirmed for me that yes, I’m *definitely* in the right party, and that the party is definitely on the right course. I won’t mention everyone I saw this weekend, because I know I’ll miss someone, but there’s very little in the world like being around a group of intelligent, liberal, passionate, good people to convince you that maybe the world isn’t all bad.
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