Bournemouth Lib Dem conference report - Brexit and so much more besides!
By Alan Bullion
2017 Autumn Conference in Bournemouth - Andrew Michaelides reports.
The strong presence of new members at conference is impressive, and I understand this was the best attended conference ever, with the highest number of first-time attendees as well. The reassuring voice of tradition was still there: it's always a pleasure to hear from Tony (Lord) Greaves, who I think must have joined in the same year as William Gladstone.
This conference was relatively light on new policy; Paddy Ashdown said in a fringe meeting that we need to be a hotbed of new ideas as we used to be. That is down to us members. The party provides many opportunities for policy discussion and there is a huge range of experience and knowledge among our members. This showed up strongly in a debate about the flaws with Universal Credit, when a number of speakers showed how this new system is making life very difficult for many of those who need to claim the benefit.
Conference organisers were keen to avoid coming across as a single-issue party obsessed by Brexit, and there were plenty of other issues on the agenda. Many of the fringe meetings were about Brexit, how we should respond and what it means for our country. Our MEP, Catherine Bearder, seemed to be everywhere! Brexit provided the single piece of real controversy during the conference. The original agenda set by the Conference Committee, had no debate on Brexit.
However members requested a vote right at the start of the conference, at 9am on the Saturday morning, to replace the planned "consultative session" on Brexit with a debate.
The motion chosen for debate sought to overturn the current policy of a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations with a new policy that the party would reverse the triggering of Article 50 if elected. The debate on this motion was held on Sunday in a packed hall and there were impassioned speeches on both sides. Opponents of the 'referendum on the deal' thought that referenda were a bad in principle and that our policy would be stronger if we simply said we would reverse Brexit through Parliament on a democratic mandate.
I was persuaded by the supporters of the current policy who felt that a referendum on the Brexit deal, once it is clear, gives us the best chance of a different outcome. Among other things it allows the opportunity to work with anti-Brexit MPs in other parties. The vote, at the end of an excellent debate, was clearly for the current policy of a further referendum.
The 2018 Autumn Conference will be in Brighton. I urge members to attend at least one day of the conference while it is relatively close to us. The next one might be in Glasgow! Going to the conference gives a much broader view of what our party is about and there are fascinating fringe meetings and training on how to be a local activist. The problem is how to fit everything in!
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