Saturday, 11 October 2014

Personal Highlights of Lib Dem Conference 2014

Xanthe at Glee Club, reading what we think of Tony Blair
While present at conference this year my involvement was rather limited due to having my 2 year old daughter, Xanthe, with me. (I think she enjoyed her first conference of many...)

However, I was able to attend the key debates and speeches, even give a speech myself, and speak to old and new friends. Most importantly, I was able to gauge the mood of the party at what is a crucial moment in its history, and was surprised by the general positivity.

My reflections on conference itself, and what it says about our party, will be coming later. For now, here's a list of my personal highlights of an eventful conference.

Danny Alexander's speech. News arrived by text message that Danny was making a speech. Even more surprising was that the speech was said to be quite good. I arrived quickly and found that Danny was indeed giving the speech of his life, hitting all the right spots, exchanging his usual wordy, sensible but generally uninspiring oratory for something more energising and rousing. Gone was his usual defensiveness, replaced by criticism, anger and even some emotion. He even managed to come across as human rather than conform to the image of the Bevanite "dessicated calculating machine". No doubt the speech had been heavily managed and rehearsed, but it was far and away the best speech Danny has ever given.

Xanthe's first TV interview. Xanthe might be only 2 years old, but she's already in training for a media career. Xanthe and I were interviewed by Good Morning Britain, explaining the benefits of Lib Dem policy on childcare. This was shamefully cut to a few seconds when aired, but it was Xanthe's first TV appearance. (Asked what should be important issues going into next year's election, Xanthe shouted "Mummy and Daddy!")

Some positive dialogue on federalism. At last! The referendum we never wanted and indeed vociferously opposed has yielded the best opportunity in generations to pursue something at least resembling a federalist arrangement for the UK. Who'd have thought it? An emergency motion on the UK's constitutional future demonstrated the Lib Dems' commitment to further empowering Scotland and to dealing (at last) with the issue of English devolution.  It was exciting stuff - some Lib Dems even suggested that the SNP were not our enemy! Unfortunately there still seem many who don't quite grasp the difference between federalism and devolution, but we finally seem to have the "f-word" back on the political agenda.

Glee Club. OK, so we know the Daily Mail hates it and many people just don't get it. No problem. Some of us like to laugh at ourselves (and others). Paddy delivered his predictable annual joke, which is now funny because it is so unfunny. I don't really see what's not to like about Glee Club - the social aspect, the extraordinary vocals, Stephen Glenn in a kilt, the hilarious lyrics and the general's pure dead brilliant, sure it is! Xanthe thought so anyway, although I'm not sure she really understood "Losing Deposits".

The football motion. "Reclaiming the people's game" was probably the most poorly constructed motion I've ever seen at federal conference, but its aims were laudable. The problem with it was that it simply had not been written by anyone with experience of running a football club. Or indeed, of women's football. But it was daring to go where no other party has, it dared to criticise the FA in particular, and it made some very progressive and welcome recommendations in relation to facilitating diversity. I made my own intervention on this point, highlighting positive moves within the game while demonstrating the need for a change of culture which the measures within the motion could certainly contribute to achieving. Without doubt the direction of the policy is the right one, and it gave me a rare opportunity to combine my twin passions of football and politics.

Jo Swinson's speech. Another speech to hit all the right notes. Confident and not afraid to be critical of our coalition partners (a common theme this week). Focused largely on the achievement of facilitating more flexible working and shared parental leave in the face of Tory opposition.

The emphasis on tackling climate change. I felt the 2010 manifesto was not sufficiently green - at least this has been recognised and the new green strategy is much more effectively "joined up", with a renewed emphasis on protecting nature and longer-term planning. Actually, we've finally "embraced" climate change as a reality and are looking at effectively adapting to its impacts - Labour and Tories take note.

Nick Clegg's speech. In truth, not so much Nick's speech itself as the emphasis he placed on mental health. On a day when the BBC news was talking about UKIP, the Deputy Prime Minister was more concerned in taking action to ensure mental health's parity of esteem with physical well-being. As someone who has waited just over a year for supposedly urgent counselling, I have first-hand experience of how the system often fails those with mental health needs (who are also often society's most vulnerable members). The measures proposed obviously don't apply to Scotland, but Nick was right to place mental health firmly on the political agenda and sets down a marker for the Scottish government.

Kirsty Williams. Wow. Just wow. Sadly as a Welsh AM she will never be leader of the federal party.

The debate on expanding opportunity and unlocking potential. Focused on addressing inequalities in health and opportunity, it dealt with a number of legal arrangements that continue to work against diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, Evan Harris's amendment, proposing to end religious selection by faith schools, was not carried - although it would probably merit a motion in its own right.

And the lowlight...the presidential election. If you're not a Lib Dem, you probably don't know that there will soon be an election for the President of our party. In fact, even if you are a Lib Dem I'm not sure you'd know. I believe there were presidential hustings timetabled but they were at such times as to be irrelevant (i.e. 10am on the Saturday morning, before conference had actually started). There was no buzz about the presidential race as there had been in 2010, no real sense of excitement, and it all seemed rather underwhelming. On the plus side, I now know how I'm voting (largely by deciding who I'm not voting for) but, aside from people I've never met before asking me to sign nominations for other people without giving any explanation as to why I should, the fact that an election is pending was hardly evident.

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