LIBERAL DEMOCRATS BRIGHTON CONFERENCE - A PERSONAL VIEW
By Richard Morris
There were many excellent sessions, especially the Fringe and Training programmes. In the main Conference Hall I was particularly impressed by the speech given by Layla Moran MP, Spokesperson on Education. This showed complete command of the brief, deeply-held liberal democratic attitudes towards all aspects of education and a warm and confident presentational style. The Q&A session with Vince Cable was admirably conducted and elicited much wisdom from our Party leader across all areas of policy.
However, debates and discussions on the two most important issues - Europe and proposals to open up the Party - were disappointing.
On Europe, a mere one-hour slot on Monday, the third day of the Conference, was inadequate. The Motion had been cobbled together at short notice following invitations to members to submit their own motions in advance and it lacked both coherence and force. (Unfortunately the motion submitted by Sevenoaks, Dartford & Gravesham local party was lost by HQ and so never considered).
Our key points are:-
UK links with the EU are of paramount political and economic importance and have major implications in every area of policy.
Lib Dem policy on this is a rare example of clear yellow sunshine streaming between us and both major parties.
Most polls indicate that the current will of the people favours our policy. Not only are we in the majority, but the Leave vote is split between hard and soft camps. Given the three genuine options of deal, no deal and remain, and taking account of second preferences, recent polls show a massive 10 to 18 point preference for remain. With only a few months to go before the expiry of the UK's Article 50 notice, the urgency could not be greater.
This Conference was a unique opportunity for a passionate reinforcement of our remain policy, giving it the very highest priority, in the essential best interests of the UK. Instead, we heard a capable resume of current politicking from Tom Brake and a series of speeches, some from eminent long-standing party members. These showed few new ideas and tended to focus on procedure rather than purpose.
It was left to a non-party-member, Gina Miller, to inject some passion and broader thinking into the debate. Even this had drawbacks. She expressly declined any interest in joining or leading the Lib Dems (or any other political party), and arrived and left abruptly like a film star, with a vast retinue and barely time for a handshake with Vince Cable, leaving her audience unsure whether this had been a moral mission, a book promotion or an ego trip.
The lack of progress that the Party is making in recapturing the vacant central ground, so evident in UK politics generally and, most of all, in the context of Brexit, was no doubt the spur for Vince Cable's "Leading Change: Proposals to open up the Party", which he introduced on the first day of the Conference. This led into a lengthy Q&A session.
These proposals are procedural and can't of themselves influence hearts and minds. However, they offer a very sensible framework within which the Party can develop and communicate the broader and deeper messages which are essential for capturing that central ground. It was again disappointing that most of the questions put to Vince were on nitty-gritty detail rather than embracing the wider concept. The shining exception was Paddy Ashdown, who made a most stirring speech in support of his leader.