Liberal Democrats special conference, NEC Birmingham. – Sunday 16th May

After the General Election, the country fell into a period of uncertainty, when it became clear that no one party could command a majority in the House of Commons. This was the “hung parliament” which so exercised journalists in the election period, so they always asked what would the LibDems do. They avoided asking the question of the other two parties – in spite of the example of Grand Coalitions of left and right in Germany (or more extremely Sinn Fein and DUP in Northern Ireland). In fact, many people had got into the way of assuming that the LibDems, would, in some way support Labour, as people tend to think that they have more in common. This is in spite of many of the Labour government’s policies in recent years being seen as illiberal and too centralising and hence condemned by the LibDems.

Over the weekend after the election, it was clear that both Conservatives and Labour wanted to talk to the LibDems, but it soon emerged that the talks with Conservatives were much more fruitful and an agreement was announced.

The LibDems have a constitution, so the decision had to be ratified. Firstly ratified by the Parliamentary Party and then by the Federal Executive. Because both those bodies had approved it, the third and more difficult step was not really necessary – of getting it approved by a full conference. LibDem conference delegates listen to speeches and think for themselves. Sometimes they then vote in ways that the leadership didn’t want, but we are a democratic party. (The Tory leadership doesn’t have these restraints.) In 4 days the conference was set up; the Agenda and Directory was available over the internet, containing the resolution that would be debated from 1 pm to 5 pm on Sunday. Followed shortly after by a supplement containing 9 amendments to tie our parliamentarians even more closely to LibDem policies within the coalition.

So on the Sunday morning, I was on Harold Wood station Platform 1 waiting for the 7.35 train. I reckoned I wanted to be at the NEC with plenty of time to spare before the 1 pm start and had booked my tickets and collected them in Harold Wood in advance.

In standard class on the train from Euston, I found myself sitting two rows away from two designated members of the new government – Danny Alexander (Secretary of State for Scotland) and Alistair Carmichael (Deputy Chief Whip). Nice to see members of the government travelling like normal people!

LibDem conferences usually have an exhibition and fringe meetings, but obviously these were absent at the special conference. However, there was, as always, the chance to meet up with old friends in the party from elsewhere in country, and somewhere to lunch and have the inevitable coffee.

In an early speech, the local MP, Lorely Burt, welcomed us to Solihull. About 30 years before she won it for the LibDems in 2005, Solihull was the second safest Tory seat in the country, just like Romford is today.

During the afternoon, a consistent theme emerged across the speeches:
The Conservatives had been serious in their desire for a coalition and had been prepared to make policy concessions to get it. Labour, on the other hand, were in the position that a coalition with the LibDems alone would not give them a majority, and seemed to already have resigned themselves to opposition; this also meant that there were less flexible on policies. The country desperately needs a period of stable government to tackle the money problems. Any serious political party which is put in the position of a chance of a place in government can not turn it down out of hand. The coalition agreement gave us a chance of seeing many cherished LibDem policies into law.

There were a number of dissenting voices, mostly based on the unpleasant experiences that those speakers had with Conservatives in their own localities. In spite of this, some such speakers were generous, including Sal Brinton, the candidate in Watford, who had been subjected to a campaign of harassment by a Tory. It is clear, however that a Coalition at Westminster does not mean that our party policies change or that we cannot oppose Conservatives in Town and County Halls. (Or, for that matter make coalitions with Tory or Labour, if that seems best for the people in a particular place.)

A particularly inspiring speech in support of the motion was made by Simon Hughes, not in the government, and definitely a radical figure in the party. This received a standing ovation. Other senior figures, which in the past have been quite ready to oppose the leadership, such as Tony Greaves and Evan Harris, also supported the motion.
By about 5 p.m., the debate was concluded and votes were taken on those nine amendments, intended to keep the leadership on the true LibDem path, and the motion itself. All were passed overwhelmingly.

Then it was time for speech by the senior LibDem figure who had so far not made an appearance – the Leader, Nick Clegg.

Many others have reported on this conference, so I will add one reference – to Jonathan Fryer, Chair of London Region Liberal Democrats and an experienced radio and print journalist.
Article in Jonathan Fryer’s blog


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