Monday, 7 March 2011

Review of Scottish Spring Conference

To read The Herald or The Scotsman, it would be reasonable to assume that the Scottish Liberal Democrats' spring conference was something of an irrelevance, a mere prelude to the conferences of the SNP and Labour. If you're a Daily Record reader, however, you would be excused for not knowing there was in fact a conference at all.

But the Perth conference was both positive and purposeful. In spite of what some commentators assumed, there were no mutterings of discontent among the party faithful, no fear of the annihilation that is supposedly inevitable in the May election. Total Politics correspondent Caroline Crampton arrogantly asserted that "the major topic of the muttered conversations between events will be about the wisdom of entering into this coalition" but she was both wrong and not even present at the conference. The emphasis was instead on reforming public services, achieving results, promoting the local dimension to politics and shaping, in the words of Tavish Scott, a "sustainable future...[and] a prosperous Scotland".

The talk wasn't about either Nick Clegg or the coalition, but on how we can maximise the Lib Dem vote on May 5th with a vision for Scotland which is liberal in character but distinct from the direction of the UK government. This was very definitely a Scottish conference, with the emphasis on "getting Scotland working".

The conference kicked off with an endorsement of the party's policy platform for the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections which was followed by an admittedly tame question and answer session with Danny Alexander. Then the real business started: a radical discussion ensued over a package to create jobs and boost employment. Here were Lib Dems bringing liberal solutions to Scotland's most pressing problems. While the economic growth measures are a key priority and were agreed universally, one delegate reminded conference that the public don't get excited about "economic growth"; perhaps we should focus on promoting the job creation and elements of our policy committed to tackling unemployment? Fair point - and a reminder of the need to keep in touch with public thinking.

Friday concluded with conference agreeing to establish a special commission "to consider the replacement of business rates with Land Value Tax". A very sensible suggestion, as such a change would in some measure stimulate urban renewal and protect greenfield sites from overdevelopment. Perhaps it wasn't the most exciting issue to get our teeth into though. Fortunately, this was followed by a "members' policy pitch" in which a "dragon's den" style panel, including Ross Finnie MSP and Malcolm Bruce MP, responded to ideas from delegates. While most of the suggestions were well-received from the floor, the "dragons" were generally dismissive of most of the suggestions - obviously they're harder to please than the Lib Dem membership.

Tavish Scott's speech was the obvious highlight of the day. It was well considered, sensible and realistic while providing plenty of reasons to be positive. Emphasising "solutions for Scotland", he talked of "real change", building a new government and outlined a package of reform to boost the economy, create new jobs, support small businesses and promote innovation. There was also welcome commitment to renewable energy and to social mobility. Liberal Democrat policy is guided by three key principles, stated Mr Scott: "local people know what's best for their [communities], not bureaucrats in for Scotland that last...every Scot, whatever their background, should have the chance to make the most of their lives."

Notably, he didn't mention Nick Clegg once. This is, no doubt, a deliberate tactic. Tavish Scott did not appear to wish to distance himself entirely from Nick Clegg, but he seemed determined to make clear that the Scottish Liberal Democrats have their own position on key issues, their own agenda and - hopefully - after the May elections will have their own mandate to govern. He all but ruled out tuition fees in Scotland. He also turned on the logic that dictates "that saving money is always about centralising power". This was Tavish's conference, not Nick's. He delivered a patently Scottish message which should resonate with the Scottish people.

There was also an emergency motion on the subject of a centralised police force, being proposed by the SNP and supported by Labour. This drive towards a monolithic, centralised service will surely be a factor in the Holyrood elections, especially in the Highlands and other rural areas. Aside from the obvious concern that such a move would deprive communities of locally accountable services with the necessary knowledge of their areas, there is also the very real risk that a single police force could be subject to greater political interference. Conference agreed that power should be delegated as locally as possible and was overwhelmingly opposed to the SNP's proposed unitary force. Tavish Scott took up this matter in his speech: "The chief constable will owe their job to the Justice Secretary. They will be in and out of each other's office and never be in the communities they are meant to serve." Liberal Democrats, he observed, do not want "every idea, initiative or spark stripped out of local services".

Saturday began with a passionate discussion on sentencing for drug possession, with notably intelligent contributions from Callum Leslie and Alexandra White who, at a mere 14 years, has a surprisingly strong grasp of such a complex issue. Fines for possession of drugs, they noted, were ineffective and counter productive as offenders often resorted to further crime to pay the fine. The current system, Alexandra observed (referring to the experience of a friend) did nothing to relieve the social consequences of drug misuse, something echoed by Alex Cole-Hamilton, who argued that "we should work to treat the problem of drug abuse, not lock addicts away and condemn them to a life of crime." Surely Community Service Orders and Drug Treatment and Testing Orders are a more appropriate pathway whose use should be maximised? (I noticed that the normally responsible Herald took the Daily Mail's line on this one, interpreting the Lib Dem position as one of "giving addicts free heroin".)

Unfortunately, as I was stewarding at conference this year, I missed the Questions and Answers session with Jeremy Purvis and Michael Moore's speech. I had more important things to do ahead of Nick Clegg's speech, such as sitting outside a secure door and sending people in directions they didn't want to go in.

The afternoon session was dominated by Nick Clegg's speech (of which more later) but there was also time for an emergency debate on the future of Scotland's RAF bases with Menzies Campbell stressing their continuing strategic relevance as well as the inevitable effect closure would have on communities and the local economy. Iain Smith, MSP for North East Fife, also stressed that RAF Leuchars "can provide a rapid response to air threats to tier one targets as stated in the National Security Strategy, such as Torness, Grangemouth, Faslane and Scotland's major cities". Conference, for the most part, shared their view. Following Mr Clegg's speech, a lively discussion on socio-economic duty determined that Lib Dems should call on the Scottish government to "introduce a robust socio-economic duty to ensure that...spending decisions contribute to efforts to reduce...inequalities in Scotland."

I would have preferred Nick Clegg's speech to have taken place on the Friday, with Tavish addressing conference on Saturday. That would have allowed the emphasis to be firmly on the Scottish leader and his message rather than the Deputy Prime Minister.

What Nick Clegg said was, like Scott's speech, utterly sensible. He did not indulge in a defence of coalition, although he did point out that no-one chose the moment for entering government and we have obviously done so at a difficult time. Clegg criticised Labour for its lack of ideas, played up Lib Dem achievement in government and suggested further banking reform is in the pipeline. But in a sense, his actual speech was irrelevant. Standing next to representatives of the media, it came to my attention that they were more interested in the response of the delegates in the hall. How would Scottish members respond to Mr Clegg? Clearly, a number were of the view that he would not be welcome here.

That view was very quickly dashed. Much to the surprise of some journalists, he was offered a standing ovation by Scottish members who may not be happy with all of the decisions the coalition is making but recognise that making tough decisions at the heart of government is preferable to opportunistic opposition. Mr Clegg then spent some time talking to delegates although I wasn't one of them - I was with Jo Swinson who was giving away copies of her favourite book, Kate Atkinson's Case Studies, to a small group of fellow members as part of World Book Day.

I wonder at the political motivations of The Herald. The accuracy of its reporting of the conference really is questionable. For example, it noted that "[Clegg's] defiant pitch to activists at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in Perth was undermined by a largely empty auditorium". Really? As a steward, trying to find empty seats into which to direct people, I wouldn't have said that. Only 300 people in the hall? Perhaps the Herald correspondent should have collected one of the calculators the EIS was handing out for free in the exhibition hall because that is a ridiculous estimation. It also tried to play up the significance of a protest outside, claiming that "The Deputy Prime Minister ducked around 200 jeering demonstrators amid unprecedented security for a LibDem gathering in Scotland. The protesters, including dozens in wheelchairs anxious about a 20% cut in Disability Living Allowance, suggest there is more disruption ahead at the LibDems’ UK conference in Sheffield next weekend. Loud booing and cries of 'Shame on you!' and 'Barnsley!' greeted any delegates who ventured outside".

What a load of tosh. To be honest, we were expecting thousands of protesters. As stewards, we had been briefed about this possibility in advance. Effectively, this was a small group of people from disparate groups, including the CWU (protesting about Post office privatisation), Argyll & Bute UNISON branch (protesting against various "cuts"), the Communist Party (nice to know there are still people who think like that), the SSP and some representing groups concerned at the reduction in Disability Living Allowance. I am pleased they were there (I've never been one to deny the democratic right to protest), but this was not a cohesive group with a well-considered agenda.

There were not 200 people there by any stretch of the imagination, unless you count the passers by who were having difficulty finding a route into the town due to the enhanced and largely unnecessary security. Neither were they particularly loud or threatening; I went outside and had a chat with one of them, and took some photos without being subjected to any abuse. They were for the most part good natured, although the intellectual quality of their arguments was not what it perhaps could have been. People whose only weapon is to label those they don't see eye to eye to as "Tories" are not only wrong but are woefully short on imagination.

Danny Alexander and Michael Moore also went out to speak to protesters, many who seemed quite happy to explain their frustrations and concerns to the ministers. While one protester I spoke to claimed the gathering was "not politically motivated", to me it simply looked like a motley crew of disgruntled people whose only thing in common was a shared dislike of the Liberal Democrats. I also had some concerns that the needs of people with disabilities were being cynically hijacked and exploited by others with overtly political agendas. In truth, the protest was poorly attended and quite insignificant aside from giving The Herald a "good story" when party activists wouldn't oblige. It would be quite wrong to conclude that this was some kind of expression of anger on the part of the wider public or that it was even a well co-ordinated political response to coalition policy.

Finally, I would like to come back to Alexandra White, who I mentioned spoke exceptionally well on the issue of sentencing for drug possession. I had an interesting chat with her after Liberal Youth Scotland's entertaining quiz on Friday night (at which I was the only person who knew that the Roman governor of Syria at the time of Christ's birth was Quirinius - I knew my church background would come in handy one day!), and was immensely (but pleasantly) surprised by both her obvious passion for politics and her knowledge. We talked about her last speech at a conference (in October, at Dunfermline) when she gave a performance that was quite exceptional, but Alexandra felt people were noticing her simply because of her age. I was therefore naturally delighted when she was awarded the Russell Johnston Prize for best speech at conference. Hopefully she now realises that age has nothing to do with it - she's just good. I'm sure she'll have a significant role to play in taking the Scottish Liberal Democrats forward in the coming years.

All in all, it was an encouraging and uplifting conference. Of course, it's now back to the reality of the tough fight ahead of us in the elections to the Scottish parliament. I know the next few months won't be easy but Tavish Scott has a vision for a fairer and more liberal Scotland that I will fight for because I know it is the right one. And of course, if I wanted an easy life I wouldn't be a Liberal Democrat.

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