In Government and at conference
For Liberal Democrats, conference will never be the same again. All those late nights plotting against the leadership, passing motions that had no hope of being implemented and debating in bars late into the night how we were going to change the country are behind us. Now we are helping to run the country.
Past conferences have been liberating. I still remember Eastbourne in 1986 when I was just about still a Young Liberal and voted on the winning side in a debate on an Independent nuclear deterrent. This was a major defeat to the leadership by twenty-three votes (652 votes to 625) and a visible snub to David Owen, the then leader of the SDP..
The Liberal Democrats are a Federal Party, so we are well-used to dealing with the vagaries of the devolution settlement. The motions we will be discussing will identify which elements relate to England, which to Wales and Scotland and which parts are Federal.
The big difference from before the General Election is that to attend conference we first have to be vetted by the police, and the motions that we debate and pass could actually be put into practice. It is all a bit of a culture shock. But that does not mean that Conference has lost its radical edge.
Whereas decades of being in a similar position have led Labour and the Conservatives to turn their annual gathering into a carefully controlled rally, the Liberal Democrats have not yet succumbed to such control-freakery.
Admittedly, we have increased the number of sessions with set-piece speeches and question times, however members and local associations are still able to submit motions, they appear on the agenda and they are voted on. Sometimes the leadership even act on them.
What has not changed is the status of Conference attenders. We are representatives not delegates and as such we exercise our own judgement as to how we vote. Our object is not to embarrass the leadership but to reinforce their position within the coalition.
Motions will underline strong Liberal Democrat policies that distinguish us from our coalition partners and in some cases reinforce the position of our ministers by making it clear that the whole party is behind them in seeking to implement our policies in the coalition agreement. We are also in the business of developing policy for the 2015 manifesto.
Thus in a few weeks time we will be debating aviation policy asserting that we should have no net increase in the number of UK runways. We will also discuss a motion on changes to Welfare Reform that calls for a full review of the assessment mechanisms for DLA, ESA and PIPs and for additional support to be targeted at enabling sick and disabled people to remain in work and at removing barriers of access to work.
We will debate medically assisted dying, mutuals, employee ownership and workplace democracy, and a motion submitted by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and South East Cornwall opposing regional pay. There is also a major policy paper on housing that applies to England only apart from a provision to reduce VAT on renovation.
There are many more motions in a conference that still relies on its membership to make policy. The sandals and the beards of yesteryear may have been replaced by men and women in suits but the Liberal Democrats remain a democratic party that belongs to its membership. Long may it continue.
Peter Black AM.
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