Liberal Democrat Newswire #45 is out: what happened at York?

Voting at Liberal Democrat conference. Photo courtesy of the Liberal Democrats. Some rights reserved http://www.flickr.com/photos/libdems/9783764414/sizes/m/in/photostream/Edition #45 of Liberal Democrat Newswire looked at what really happened at the party’s spring conference in York. You can read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Liberal Democrat Newswire #45: spring conference 2014

Welcome to the 45th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, reporting on what happened at the Liberal Democrat conference this weekend in York.

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Thanks for reading and, as ever, do please let me know your views.


It’s all about jobs

A tin of spamJobs have become the spam of Liberal Democrat conference. Whatever you want, it comes with jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs, just like Monty Python’s spam.

Conference opening rally about Europe? That was a rally about how Europe is good for jobs in Britain. Debate over immigration? That was mostly a debate over how to maximise the positive economic and employment benefits from immigration. Speech from a minister at the podium? That was a speech about jobs.

Jobs with everything.

It may sound obvious that a political party would major on the economy, but the last few of my 49 Liberal Democrat conferences have seen a significant change in tone. Previously the economy was frequently given relatively little attention. Now it’s consistently centre stage and justifying a policy based on its impact on jobs is the most common debating point heard.

Overall, the policy making at York was largely a matter of filling in a few gaps ahead of the big business of writing the 2015 general election manifesto. The major decisions will be made later during this year by first the manifesto drafting group, then the Federal Policy Committee and finally the party’s autumn conference. York was about filling in a few gaps from the range of party policy for that process to draw on.

The tone of debate was also moderated by the controversial items not being seen as particularly ‘from’ the party leadership. For example, the controversies over devolution and MP job shares (on which, see below) were about what a policy working group had come up with, rather than with what a minister had supported in government.

Immigration: good when it’s good for the economy

British passportsIn the end, the immigration debate was passionate but straight-forward, with the party’s new proposed policies getting through conference debate safely. (There was one part that I had sunk at a meeting of the party’s Federal Policy Committee previously; the party’s rules ban me from telling you what it involved – save that naked men featured.)

As Britain Future’s Sunder Katwala said, “Effective party management by leadership on immig. New #ldconf policy marks pragmatic shift, yet seeks liberal progress on rights causes”. Or, ‘we like immigration where it benefits the economy, we’re comfortable with multi-culturalism, but we’re worried about some of the direct costs’. Hence the party saying new immigrants from EU countries should not be able to claim benefits until after they have been here for six months.

Dropped was the party’s 2010 policy of earned citizenship for illegal immigrants, sunk by a combination of those who didn’t like it in principle, those who concluded that the administrative details couldn’t be made to work and those spooked by how hostile much of the media was to it in 2010.

The new immigration policy will doubtless however give the media plenty more to be outraged at, for at heart it is about the circumstances under which people can come to the UK, not whether or not more people should be allowed to come here.

OMOV – the Liberal Democrat version

Liberal Democrat autumn conferenceParty conference saw a consultation session over whether the party should shift the electorate for key party committee elections from being conference representatives to all party members.

In the past, such proposals have been very controversial and not got very far. At the consultation session (admittedly a self-selecting sample, but of people who came to conference) there was widespread support for this change, and also for the point that I and others made, that democracy is not only about the franchise.

Issues about how the voters get to find out about the candidates and then what those who are elected get up on the party committees to were raised by several people, and the consultation group promised these would get greater study in the next step of the process.

An intriguing answer from Nick Clegg suggests something is afoot with the minimum wage

Nick CleggDuring his customary party leader Q+A session at the Liberal Democrat conference in York, Nick Clegg repeated his usual support for increasing the income tax allowance to £12,500, which is what someone on the minimum wage earns in a full time job.

This time, however, he slipped in an intriguing caveat.

That he thought the party’s target should be £12,500 and leave it at that because, he said, it would be expensive to get there and that if the figure was pegged to the national minimum wage levels it would get more expensive if the national minimum wage went up, especially if it went up by large amounts.

That’s not a caveat I’ve heard before, and it’s not a caveat added in the past by others such as Danny Alexander either.


The missing applause

Andrew Duff MEPThe highly pragmatic pro-European line on show at the conference – in Europe because it’s good for jobs – was also on show when Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff took to the rostrum, describing himself as the party’s uber-federalist.

Cue keen applause from some in the audience, but only some (around 1 in 10, judging from my vantage point at the side).

Most of the hall was polite rather than enthusiastic on hearing this.

Two enter the race for Party President

Sal BrintonUsually campaigns for party president start to break cover rather later in the year, but this time York saw two would-be Presidents off to an early start in the contest to succeed Tim Farron, who is term-limited and cannot restand when his current term of office ends.

Out brandishing campaign badges was Liberal Democrat peer and key person in the party’s Leadership Programme was Sal Brinton, with a wide range of party members wearing her badges by the end of the weekend.

Also in the race with leafleting and a website was Pauline Pearce, known as the Hackney Heroine after confronting rioters during the London riots and a previous Liberal Democrat council candidate.

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The full versions…

For the full text of all the motions, policy papers and some of the speeches from York, see the party’s revamped website www.libdems.org.uk/conferencelive.

Now read on for more of my analysis…

Political reform

The Scottish ParliamentThe big set piece debate over political reform saw the proposed policies pass through safely in the end with little change.

The plans for multi-speed, multi-track devolution on demand within England went through, as did an amendment reinstating the party’s support for STV for European Parliament elections. Also safely passed was support for allowing people to stand for Parliament on a job share basis, something many Parliamentarians in the hall voted against but which Tom Brake MP argued effectively for during the debate just as he has before.

What was clear from discussions elsewhere around conference, including at a CentreForum fringe meeting, is that the party’s main expectation for electoral reform in a hung 2015 Parliament is for electoral reform for local government in England (STV is already used in Scotland and in Wales it’s a devolved matter).

For the Liberal Democrats, it is an important policy, especially given the number of local councils long dominated by just one party. It also has the pragmatic benefit that persuading MPs and peers to change the election rules for other people is always going to be easier than persuading them to change the election rules which directly affect themselves.

Nick Clegg speech: a passionate internationalist

Nick CleggPreceded by a rerun of the party’s last TV political broadcast about Europe, Nick Clegg’s concluding speech was bookend by standing ovations. In between, it was a highly internationalist speech.

Not the standard fare about how the rest of the world threatens Britain and we need to change to keep up – the usual political fare from across the political spectrum. Rather, an internationalist speech about the benefits of an open world and with the first policy achievement to be trumpeted that of raising Britain’s international development aid budget to 0.7% of national income.

Internationalist, yet also patriotic:

I love Britain.

I love it for all its contradictions.

I love that we are as modest as we are proud.

I love the way we can cherish our traditions yet innovate relentlessly, churning out one ingenious invention after the next. The telephone, the steam engine, the jet engine, the world wide web; the same nation that came up with stainless steel is now developing graphene – the strongest material the world has ever seen. Oscar winning visual effects; cutting-edge design; theatre, fashion, music, film – you name it, we do it, and we’re up there with the best.

I love that a country capable of extraordinary pomp and ceremony can still retain a spiky irreverence towards its establishment. A country where we line the streets waving our Union Jacks wildly to welcome the arrival of Prince George, and the next moment we’re chuckling at Private Eye’s front page: ‘Woman Has Baby’.

I love that we insist on queuing when we go abroad, even when the locals don’t.

I love that the BBC and NHS are known and respected across the planet.

I love that our cities are home to every race, religion, colour and language in existence.

I love Miriam telling me that the feeling of freedom you get in Britain simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.

I love that the shipping forecast is listened to by insomniacs of all ages, right across the country, miles from the sea.

I love how excited we get at the glimpse of any sun, insisting on staying out in our t-shirts and flip-flops – even when it’s obviously still cold.

I love living in a country synonymous with human rights and the rule of law.

I love that it was British lawyers who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights and a British Prime Minister who helped launch the Single Market. And I enjoy reminding my Coalition partners that it was a Prime Minister from their party at that.

I love that we do respond – the cliché is true – to every problem no matter how big or small with the same thing: a cup of tea…

Above all I love that, while we may be an island, we have always looked beyond our shores.

Then it was on to the usual crowd-pleasing and familiar lines on the economy (income tax cuts) and coalition (it’s good when it produces liberal policies). One thing was clear from the audience reaction – if there is another hung Parliament, the Liberal Democrats as a party will be happy to seek another coalition and not a more informal arrangement.

Conference snippets

  • Most promising party financial statistic: Lib Dems have raised more from private donors than Labour in 16 of the last 18 quarters.
  • Attendance up: the headcount was the highest for a Liberal Democrat spring federal conference this Parliament.
  • Best line heard from someone entering the conference auditorium: “I’ve lost a husband”.
  • Scariest line heard at York conference: “We need a new guillotine”.
  • Best sound bite of conference: “More Tory MPs signed the anti-Romanian/Bulgarian amendment than there were Romanians and Bulgarians who actually arrived” – Julian Huppert in the immigration debate.
  • Number of minutes elapsed from start of conference before Julian Huppert made his first speech from the conference podium: 9.
  • Best ministerial statistic of conference: total time spent in ministerial cars since appointment as a minister by Simon Hughes: 3.5 minutes.
  • Best moment of nostalgia: walking past the road I first canvassed as a local election candidate two decades ago. (I didn’t win. I finished a glorious third. And no, the person who put three crosses next to my name on the ballot paper wasn’t me.)
  • The perennial chair shortage: very popular venue, despite the huge number of fringe meetings which were standing room only. The venue is already not that far off being too small for the party.

Thank you – and please forward

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